Making a case for free streaming music
First of all, once you have instruments (and you can make them with stuff you find if you absolutely have to/want to/need to), making music is free. Music is an intangible art. You don’t put anything on a canvas or print anything. You can give it to people without leaving a paper trail. Had I the time, I would hunt down the quote from Pete Seeger where he talks about this being the reason it’s such an inherently subversive and liberating art form/expression. Basically he said you can take away a painter’s materials and a writer’s pen, a photographer’s camera, etc., but you can’t take music away from people. Once you have a song, it’s yours.
Maybe it was Woody Guthrie who talked about that. (Or maybe it’s an idea they gave each other.)
At any rate, it’s precisely this point that makes me almost kind of whole-heartedly sort of support the idea of giving music away for free. I’m talking about music the product, not music the form of expression – people should, by all means, expect to pay for live music (unless they’re going to something like Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, which is a free-to-the-public festival, where the performers are paid by other means).
Once you record music, however, it’s imprinted onto a disc or chip, or however that works, and it becomes some semblance of a tangible possession (even though it’s not, really). This has given the recording industry a reason to exist for decades, of course. But music (and musicians making a living being musicians) pre-dated the recording industry by the entirety of human history. I have to believe once the recording industry shifts or fails or becomes whatever it will become, musicians will continue to do their thing, find there’s a demand for it, and find ways to make their living doing it.
Despite my open-ended question a couple of weeks ago about whether or not The Album is dead, I have to reject the notion that the next generation will scoff at The Album altogether because my 12-year-old niece still wants whole albums. She hasn’t grown up in a vinyl-loving, music-obsessed household, either. Her mother (my sister), granted, comes from the same music-obsessed family from whence I came, but she’s the family member on whom the obsession took the least hold. She loves finding good songs, but she’s perfectly happy to find them however they’re available – whether free download, in the middle of a CD, or via some iTunes recommendation. So, the fact that my niece has any inkling what an album is leads me to believe either there’s some innate human animal desire to own albums (maybe, unlikely) or that kids at school regularly discuss them. These are kids with iPods and total access to the world of free streams and downloads, but have a parallel desire – perhaps passed to them by their parents who, possibly, are more interested in the delivery method than my sister – to keep The Album alive.
Personally, I don’t care how I find music; I just care whether the musician can actually play. When they come to my town, when I go to theirs, when we meet in the middle at some festival, can they configure an ordering of notes and words and rhythms that will make me want to not get up and walk away? Furthermore, can they change my mind even when they’re not singing mind-changing lyrics? Let’s face it, the only true delivery mechanism for music is the live performance.
Recordings are there because we can’t keep the artist with us all the time to perform at our beck and call. Recordings are inherently imperfect and disappointing. So many of the greatest musicians will never make a great record. Those who do should be discussed and marveled over, critiqued and studied. But I’m of the mind that, the more people can hear the music, the better. So few artists have ever made their living off of selling records, anyway. There has to be another way for record companies to make their living supporting artists and helping to get the music out there. Maybe that means they shift from being recording-focused to tour-and-marketing focused. I don’t know, I don’t own a label.
I do, however, own an iPod and a computer…and a guitar. I do still make music for money and, while I don’t anymore, I have at turns relied on my music for a good part of my income. So I feel like I can imagine well how it would feel to have my work given away for free. (I don’t have to imagine too hard. Lord knows how many printed words I’ve given away for free over the years.) As I’ve said in this same space already, I’m an optimist. I don’t think the way things are changing spells disaster. I think it’s an opportunity. People want to stream music for free? Give them free streams on the artist or label website and then tell them you’ll work with them to facilitate a live performance in their town. Tell them if they want the full record, they should help fund the printing of it. Just because you’ve been walking on a road for years doesn’t mean you can’t walk on the grass.