because cool kids are boring

To Download or not to Download

with 6 comments

Wrock artist, Roonil Wazlib posted an interesting entry on her blog questioning the proliferation of Wrock songs on myspace that are not set up to be downloaded. The resulting discussion has proven to be pretty interesting.

I’ve already talked about my feelings on the issue near the end of this post. There was a comment in the discussion from DJ Luna Lovegood that caused me a certain degree of thought.

last summer i was hashing thru the idea that it’s funny how people expect musicians, particularly, to almost volunteer their work as if it’s their duty. ie.’you have talent-perform now!’ i came up with the comparison of being a secretary, ‘you type, type now-no pay’ that wouldn’t fly. or you work on cars, fix my car, for nothing!

This is of course, a completely valid and important comment. I’d never heard it put that way, and it is going to be a long time before I fully digest her comment.

This actually plays off something that I was contemplating sometime back about emusic. For those not familiar with emusic, it is a service similar to iTunes, but with out the DRM and much more indie centric. The main difference between emusic and iTunes is that instead of paying for each track individually, you pay a monthly fee and are able to download a certain number of songs with in that month. When the service first started they had a deal where you could pay a fee and get unlimited downloads. A year or two ago, they stopped this practice and now the biggest package is 75 downloads a month (which takes me about 15 minutes to go through). When emusic first got rid of the unlimited downloads, I remember that Cory over at boingboing decried the move and I agreed with him at the time. Several months ago a discussion about emusic over at the indiepop list garnered the comment from someone that there were a fair number of labels who are still waiting for emusic to pay them for some of the purchases made under this unlimited plan.

Now, I love the idea of being able to download an unlimited amount of music for a regular monthly fee. Hell, I’d pay a pretty hefty amount of money for that ability. That said, you couldn’t give me an unlimited amount of music if it meant that the bands and labels putting out that music were going to get screwed.

That said, and understanding that I’m not done chewing on Tina’s (aka DJ Luna Lovegood) comment, here’s my initial response to her comment.

It isn’t that I’m asking for artists to give me something for free, it is that I’m asking the artist to trust me.

Looking over my life and how I interact with various bands, I find that the bands who put the most faith and trust in their fans, were the bands that I supported with the most enthusiasm. They were the bands who’s merch I bought as much on principle, as want or need. They were the bands that I forced on friends and strangers. They were the bands that I talked about the most on mailing lists and newsgroups. The band put their faith and trust in their fans and I felt obligated to earn that faith and trust.

This year, since I’ve relaunched this blog, I’ve picked up a number of CDs that I really want to review for the site. Of all of those CDs though, the only one that I’m honestly annoyed with myself that I haven’t reviewed yet is Ultraklystron’s Romance Language. This is because it is an amazing album on a number of levels (forget chris or Front or Lars, as far as I’m concerned, Karl is so far ahead of all of them it only looks like he’s second string. He’s just getting ready to lap them and RL is all the proof you need). Though, I can’t help but notice that the entire album is freely available (as well as everything else Karl has ever done) for download. Is this a coincidence? Probably not.

In my previous post where I talked about downloading I mentioned tape trading and taper’s tax. Since it’s buried in that other post, I’ll quote it here.

A little story to illustrate. Back in the early days of what would become the jamband scene most of the big name acts were signed to major labels (Phish, Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors, even Aquarium Rescue Unit). One of the marvels that the labels could never wrap their heads around was that all of these bands allowed their fans to record their shows (which were universally seen as superior to their studio albums) and yet they still posted strong album sales. The labels could never figure out how they did this. Well, the secret was known as taper’s tax. We, the fans, knew that the bands had gone to bat for us over the whole recording shows thing. Labels did not like this practice and constantly tried to stop it. The bands had our back though, and we knew it. And so, the community created the process of taper’s tax. Taper’s tax was a unwritten agreement between the bands and the fans. If you collected shows from a band, then you bought their studio albums. You may never listen to those albums, but you bought them just the same. It was our way of helping to support the bands and to say thank you for them going to bat for us. On the other hand, bands that gave into label demands and limited or cut off recording of their shows, suffered swift retribution, as all but the hardcore moved on to other groups.

At the core of taper’s tax is the trust that the bands had in their fans. That unspoken agreement of ‘we’ll keep playing and letting you tape, you help us pay our rent and keep gas in the van’ was sacred to the fans.

One part of the whole taping thing I didn’t talk about was what happened when the scene started to grow.

It stands to reason that more people in a scene where something cool like taping is going on, means a greater chance that someone is going to try and make a buck off the practice. We knew this and understood it. As the scene got bigger the enforcement of that unspoken agreement got stricter. Where in the early days there was a gray area where people would sometimes stretch the agreement a little. Or do things like let newbies, who didn’t have anything to trade and were just sending blank tapes, send cash to cover return postage. As the scene started to grow these greys disappeared. Eventually, any sign of money or profit was not only frowned upon by the community, but attacked. There were huge flame wars on various lists as the grey areas were destroyed and the rules clearly set. All in an attempt to ensure that the unspoken agreement wasn’t violated. (interestingly, bands rarely got involved in these disputes. It was an internal matter).

It wasn’t just with in the scene though. In the mid 90s there was the rise of ‘beat the boots’ trees (a tape tree is a method of distribution for tapes). Someone would find out that a particular show was being being sold as a boot. They’d put a call out to the community to track down the best possible quality tape of the show (which was usually just as good, if not better, sounding then an official release of the show). The show would then be distributed as widely as possible in an attempt to limit the desire for the boot. Some would take it even a step further, printing up stickers that they would stick to the offending bootleg. These stickers would alert potential buyers that they could get quality recordings of the band, for free, by visiting a certain mailing list or usenet group or website. Some would even put an email address or some other contact information on the sticker.

The community did not mince words when it came to why they were doing this. The bands put their faith in their fans and the bootleggers were ripping the bands off, which meant the bootleggers had to be run out of business and the fans took the lead in doing so. It is important to note that this was purely an internal thing. Beyond that unspoken agreement, the bands were not involved. The fans did this purely of their own volition

At the end of the day, this is, in many ways, probably the hardest time to be a musician who has any hopes of making any kind of money from your art (even if it is just to recoup the money that you spent). The entire business model for musicians has been turned upside down and no one knows for sure how to make it work. It is hard to blame a musician for playing it conservatively when the money were talking about is going to be used for things like rent and groceries. Sure I’d love it if artists took Karl’s lead and put their albums up on their websites for free download. I can’t blame them for not doing so and I can’t honestly say that Karl is right in what he’s doing. I’m sure he’s missed out on album sales because he does this. I hope that he’s made a few in return, but I don’t know.

Perhaps the above is just me trying to justify my selfishness in wanting free music to feed my habit. May be I’m just a freak and most people wouldn’t care as much as I do about an artist putting their trust in their fans. I can’t help feeling though that as the once mighty corporate labels stumble down from their pillars and the music industry goes through its upheavals, that it is going to be the artists who have developed a relationship with their fans and who have learned to trust their fans, how ever that trust manifests, that will come out ahead in the end.

Then again, may be I’m just an idealist.

Written by Matt

March 22nd, 2007 at 9:16 pm

Posted in Thoughts