Giving it All Away

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By Steve Oppenheimer

(September 2000)

We musicians spend much of our lives honing our talent, knowing that the saying “Many are called, few are chosen” applies big-time to us. Few bands ever get out of the small club gigs they start in, and even fewer get signed to a reputable record label that can launch them into higher orbit. And even those who do get a label deal rarely make much money in the long term.

Of course, if money were our primary motivating factor, most of us would work in other businesses – such as editing magazines. We make music because we want to. On the other hand, if we give everything away, we are practically declaring that our music has no financial value.

Today, some people would indeed have us give all recorded music away for free. Some even outright steal music and offer it to the public using Napster, Gnutella, and other forms of technology. Of course, technology cuts both ways: the MP3 format and Napster, properly used, are great for marketing your music or even delivering an end product, if you don’t mind making sonic compromises. Still, the fast-spreading, if specious, argument that “music should be free” has the big labels very concerned. Maybe independent musicians should be concerned, too, but not because of the majors’ travails.

One could argue that the major labels have legally “stolen” the music they distribute, making it hard for most of us to sympathize with them. The system has often been compared to sharecropping: the big labels own the land, we grow the crops, we pay for most of the expenses, and they rake off the profits. There are always a few notable exceptions, but most musicians who get signed end up struggling, without even the rights to their work. The latest blow against freedom is the recent “work for hire” amendment to the Copyright Act, which effectively allows record companies to claim ownership of sound-recording rights forever.

So the idea of ripping off the big labels using the Internet has a certain Robin Hood appeal for many musicians as well as fans. And when Metallica, one of the few who have gotten wealthy from their records, objects to the piracy, it’s easy to dismiss them as corporate counterrevolutionaries.

Whoa, not so fast there! What about the small, independent labels? Many indies do business on a shoestring. Now, thanks to the Internet, independent labels (including yours) have a fighting chance to reach a large audience without being beholden to the majors. You might even make more money than some “successful” acts make with the majors, after expenses. But technology cuts both ways again: piracy can screw the indies, too. Pirates aren’t likely to discriminate between large and small labels. That’s why the big labels are not the only ones who should be concerned.

Posting select songs or excerpts as downloadable MP3 files can be a very smart marketing move. Go for it. If you are just doing your music for fun and choose to give it away free, fine, that’s your call. But the decision to donate our talents should be ours alone. If we musicians won’t fight for the right to determine what we charge for and what we voluntarily give away – and that includes giving away our rights to the big labels – we might as well resign ourselves to sharecropping.

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