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January 2008
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March 2008

The Selling of the Free

There’s a problem, a paradox if you will… The internet is free. It needs to be free. Almost anything that can be transferred digitally can be had for free. Why is this a problem you say? You may like the idea of getting movies, music, software, etc. for free, you and millions of others perhaps. But then the dilemma becomes, how does the artist/creator of these things get paid? So many are saying we don’t need record companies, artists can make music on their own and we can get it for free on the net. Maybe you think they can make enough money touring or selling shirts. Here’s the problem with that…if there are no labels, and no one is paying for the recorded music, how do you hear about a band? Will we ever hear another album recorded in a professional studio with input from a producer? I sure hope so, but that costs a lot of money that most bands don’t have. I browse through MySpace looking for great bands and rarely do I hear anything I would want to listen to ever again, even at a cost of nothing. I think most people would be shocked at how much money most indie bands lose on the road, trying to tour, so put that little ‘they can tour to make money’ dream to rest. Then there’s Radiohead. The common mantra there is, “See, they offered it for free and made money! They don’t need a label! The old system is dead!” I laugh at that, not that some of what they say isn’t true. At this point in Radiohead’s career it seems it is possible for them to make more and they may be better off doing it on their own. No, the problem is the implication in this analysis…that it’s the future and all bands and artists should operate this way. How do you suppose Radiohead developed a fan base large enough to allow them to do that? How do you think they had the money or the knowledge? From tours and album sales that cost EMI millions and millions of dollars in marketing, advertising and recording budgets, as well as years and years of development. So if Prince and Radiohead want to do it on their own, I say go for it. Could they have done it with out years and years and millions of dollars from the major record companies and without the old model of retail, radio and distribution in place? The answer is a resounding no. How do you think the next U2, Radiohead or Pink Floyd is going to be developed and create a career that can sustain them for that long without a label? Because of the diverse and splintered marketing opportunities these days, it’s hard enough for a record company with major backing and funds to do it. Music industry pundits are desperately trying to point out that the old model is dead. It is true that the times they are a changin’, but what’s the answer? Is there something better? No. Not yet at least. The old system worked well and I may be the only one, but I will be sorry to see it go. I love music. But I also love the artists and a well thought out, well-recorded album with great packaging and a lyric book. Those things appear to be getting the shaft. Many have already declared the CD dead and I believe this is a huge and premature mistake. Are these the same wizards that declared the cassette would replace the LP? Or that vinyl was dead? Vinyl LP sales are growing and saw a significant increase this past year. I believe there will always be (at least for a long, long time to come) a market for CD’s and LP’s or at least some type of product with physical packaging. In the next 5 years it may become more of a boutique market, Target, WalMart and Best Buy are going to drastically reduce their music sections even more than they already have, to next to nothing eventually. Maybe even within the year. That just means more sales at your local indie store, which is where the selection is at anyway.

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So artists need to get paid, great albums still need to be made and the consumer wants more for less. CD sales are dropping like a rock and radio hasn’t been the same since that stupid Telecommunications Act was signed in ’96. Oh, the kids are downloading for free, but there are also kids who are getting into vinyl! Paying a premium for sound and packaging. So there’s some good news out there. Some people still care about the artist getting paid for their work and about the physical packaging (lyrics, liner notes, fold outs, printed artwork and pictures). I don’t want to live in the past, but I’m hoping someone comes up with some better ideas for the future. Going all digital with subscription based services or ad supported music hasn’t worked yet and I don’t see how that addresses the problem of physical packaging. This is why the labels that get it are realizing that they have to give the consumer something they can’t download. Make the packaging so cool, so unique that it can’t be easily copied or printed out on an ink jet. One of the best examples of this is the forthcoming Hawk Nelson CD (Hawk Nelson Is My Friend, due out in April); it’s an actual board game, with punch out game pieces, a foldout game board and the CD works as a spinner. Let’s see you try to download that! Kudos to Tooth and Nail Records for getting it. For realizing the fan wants cool packaging.

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Which brings us back to the main question, “If you can get everything on the net for free, how do you sell it? How is it supported?" That is addressed not only by the creative kids at Tooth and Nail, but in an incredible article, this is a MUST read:

http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2008/01/better_than_fre.php