Jon Whitney posted a nice rant on this week's Brainwashed Brain about people blaming each other for the financial demise of the music industry. As an insignificant, tiny little gnat-sized member of that swarm called 'the industry', here are my two cents:
There's a weird scale at work in the music business, but there are analogues in other businesses. Take for instance someone who bakes cookies. You may even know someone with a knock-out cookie recipie, the kind of person who brings cookies to parties that elicit responses like 'you should sell these' and 'can I get your recipie?' Now, if YOU are that baker, depending on your inclination, there are a couple ways you can run at this point:
- You can give out the recipie to anyone who wants it and help them bake your cookies on their own because you just think everyone should be able to have those cookies whenever they want.
- You can sell small batches of cookies to people out of your home, making essentially enough money to buy the cookie-making supplies, but not enough to cover the time and love you put into the cookies in any substatial way.
- You can try to start a mailorder business, advertise your cookies online and hope that your domestic partner can support the family while you try and turn your recipie into a profitable mailorder business.
- You can aim for the top, hire staff, buy a facility/storefront and sell cookies and other items, risking bankruptcy and working 80 hour weeks with the hope that one day big investors will try your product and buy the recipie and name from you so that you can have your face on 100,000,000 bags of cookies and never have to lift another finger.
The home-baking industry is really a lot more like making music than I thought, in fact. The point is, as an artist, you have to know where in that pantheon you sit; what are your goals and how do you fit into the greater scheme. Personally, I'm probably somewhere between example 2 and example 3 most of the time-- I'd be happy for people to hear music that I create and I never expect anyone to like it enough to pay for it or support it, but I'm sure happy that they do. I think I've graduated past the stage of doing this just for fun, but not quite to the point where I'm ready to give up a day job and just make cookies 60-70 hours per week! Part of the drive to do all of this is the knowledge that I can walk away from it for a day, a week, or several months if I want to. Part of what makes it possible is the knowledge that I can do whatever I want because I'm not relying on music to make a living--there are no radio promoters to please, no target audiences to cater to, and no corporate image guidelines. I admire people who can jump into it that fully, but for me the lower-pressure environment of baking small batches of cookies works.
So how does filesharing affect this process? Well, getting back to the cookies, if I was just trying to spread around some cheer and get people fat on my cookies, people could share that recipie, post it on websites, spam it in emails, and write it on the moon for all I care. However, since I'm dealing with a label now (Ad Noiseam) and since the hardware and software required to make music is considerably more costly and complicated than an oven that already comes with your apartment and some baking sheets, it would be nice to make some money from the venture if I'm going to keep it going. So, giving out the recipie so to speak, letting people have copies of Fashion Victim for free is probably going to hurt the bottom line a little bit. The problem is that people who use filesharing A LOT tend to be dismissive about buying music, and when music is a little off-the-beaten path as ours is, it's understandable that people who can download it for free would never make an effort to seek it out. It's not that filesharing can't be a useful tool to get the music out there, and it's not that I disapprove of people checking it out for free: it's just that I don't see enough people making the necessary connection between the value the music has for them and the value is has for me or the label.
At some point, it boils down to personal responsibility and whether or not a person wants to support or reward those who have provided them with a product of service or experience. There will always be people trying to get on the guestlist because they don't want to pay, and there will always be people who download music without ever buying it, but I'd like to think there are enough people who will understand that paying a $5 cover to get into an underground show or spending $12 on an independent cd release that they like goes a long, long way. This goes back to the notion of scale... Mrs. Fields isn't really too affected by whether or not I buy a bag of her cookies, or if you do, or if everyone I know does... she's passed beyond all of that to a place where she makes more money from the use of her hame and likeness and recipies than she ever did actually selling cookies. For her, passing around a recipie for her cookies isn't really going to hit the bottom line because her cookies are priced so that it makes more sense to just buy them than it does to buy the ingredients and spend the time making, and possibly screwing them up. With music, major labels have dug their own graves by marking cds up to the point that it's NOT in a consumer's best interest to fork over $17 for a CD with a handful of worthy singles and a bunch of filler. But still, there is a confluence of factors that are leading to the poor economic showing of major labels, and filesharing is just a small part of that.
For an indie label though, dealing on the order of hundreds or thousands of copies (versus tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of copies) of a release, filesharing can have a huge impact on the bottom line. The question then becomes: "what is the bottom line?" For me, and other artists working at this scale, I'd say the fairest way to state the bottom line would be that "I would like for the people enjoying the music to support its creation". By signing with a label and spending money in a studio and all of that, I've made the conscious choice to commodify my art, but I'd be very content to sell it "at cost". It's a bit like doing a lot of favors for a lot of 'friends' in a way; I will bake you the cookies if you'll pay for the dough and butter and a little bit of my time. It's a fair proposal, I think, and one that doesn't suggest that just because I have created something, that I am entitled to compensation. (That's the easiest mistake to make--to carry that false sense of entitlement where you feel like your art or work should be worth a certain amount.) I don't know how much Larvae music is worth, but I know how much it costs to make, and for the time being, that's all I'd like to see from it. Eventually, like most cookie businesses, if the music is good enough and enough people like it and want it so that demand increases significantly, then maybe Larvae will take that next step towards being careerists in music. For now, it's out there, we hope you will enjoy it, we are happy if you can get a taste of it for free, and we'd be thrilled if you liked it enough to buy a dozen! :)