Should Music Be Free? - October 27, 2011

" has become so ubiquitous that most people feel it is a part of everyday life and should be as free as air"

The immediate reaction to this question is mostly determined by whether or not one has an interest in the creation of the music. For the most part, people who are involved in the making of music feel that they should be paid for their efforts, while those whose interaction with music involves primarily listening to it are of the opinion that music should not cost anything.

We all know that good music is a commodity that takes effort to produce. So why should it be any different than any other product that people create? The real answer to this lies in the bombardment of the general public with music at most every turn. Actually, music has become so ubiquitous that most people feel it is a part of everyday life and should be as free as air. Yet those same people don’t hesitate to complain if the air is polluted, or their “free” music is poorly reproduced or punctuated my annoying blather designed to extract some revenue for an entity that makes it available.

To find the root of this issue, we can take a look at the development of commercial radio. As mass broadcast became available to the general populace via radio waves, an un-holy alliance developed between the music and broadcast industries. This culminated in the payola scandals of the mid-20th century, where the artist management teams that could pony up the most money to the radio stations were able to get their music placed more frequently and at more desirable times for public exposure and consumption (to enhance record sales). And to the public, this music was perceptually without cost, except for the initial purchase of a radio receiver in the home or automobile. Of course the listener had little choice as to which song was going to play next and had to put up with a lot of other input, but as the industries grew and subdivided into genres, there was always the option of changing the station.

Another issue contributing to the public perception of music being free is its availability in publicsituations. Music in the background has become part of the fabric of our lives, whether in a restaurant, elevator, building lobby or blaring out of a storefront as we walk down the sidewalk.Again, in these examples, the listener has little control over what they are hearing. But there is money changing hands in most of these situations, as the performing rights organizations collect fees from businesses that play music for public consumption. Still, for the most part, the public is unaware of or unconcerned about this unseen transaction.

So as we fast forward past decades of format changes, listening methods and devices for music reproduction, we find ourselves feeling we have a right to listen to the music we want to hear without paying anybody to do so. We will happily spend loads of money on an electronic device to playback music, yet reject the idea of paying for the music itself. The newest business models even offer methods where a non-paying listener can influence the music selection being heard, to the point of requesting a specific song and artist.

Most music services have figured out that providing free music is not a viable long term business plan, so they are busy devising ways to sell advertising or offer premium, paid for ad-free options. These methods have yet to include a practical revenue stream for the creator of the music, though most people and certainly most businesses could not care less about whether or not a musician can make a living with recorded music.

From the musicians' perspective, they have for the most part realized that the only way they can make money is with live performances, and have adjusted their business models to accommodate that reality. They have come into the awareness that they can offer a live experience that recordings can’t duplicate. The problem with this is that in order to build a fan base large enough to support a live performance schedule that makes money, musicians have to make their music available at no charge to the gatekeepers that have the channels to expose the public to music. It is only logical that they would resent technology companies making money off of the artists’ creations, but at this stage there is not much in the way of an alternative.

The old music business is alive and well, though it has changed its costume and has lost some weight. The days when a musician could make a living off of mass-available recorded music are most likely fading into history. This leaves the music creator with the option of creating a boutique business with direct access to a target market that is willing to pay for the privilege of hearing the music, or buying aT-shirt, a download or even a disk before they become entirely obsolete.