In Defense of the Free Music Model

The future of the music industry is a hotly debated subject, as just about anyone knows. Fingertips weighs in with a critical commentary of some of the more popular alternatives regularly lauded in the blogosphere, taking the time to skewer the “free music” model (not having to pay for recorded music), the “access” model (free or paid access to music in the cloud; Spotify or perhaps exemplify this approach), and the “music like water” model (which, in its simplest form, involves paying something like a flat rate utility bill for unlimited access to music). I won’t comment at length on the critiques of the latter two since neither interest me all that much.

Fingertips has this to say about free music:

Just because it’s become trickier to figure out how to charge for music doesn’t mean that worthy musicians are somehow fated not to be able to sell it. The ideas that have been discussed as ways to offset the disappearance of revenue generated directly by songs and albums—bands will earn money via merchandise and touring, basically—are flimsy and awkward at best, and collapse under realistic examination. Where, for instance, does this leave artists who are not by and large touring artists, either by choice or necessity? What about the fact that consumers can far less afford regular concert tickets than regular album or song purchases?

This is a common criticism of free music: what about the artists that don’t want to play out? I see it come up time and again when discussing the viability of free music as a distribution strategy. My answer is simple: the free music model is not going to work for everyone. None of these revolutionary new music distribution strategies will necessarily fit with the wildly different outlooks and objectives of every musician on the planet. What works for big names does not necessarily work for small ones (and vice versa). And, I might add, there are different forces at work in different sub-segments of the music industry. Pop, rock, and hip-hop are consumed in remarkably different ways than underground dance music. To presume that any single model will address the needs of all stakeholders in the music industry crisis would be absurd; there is no “one size fits all” solution.

This realization takes the bite out of critiques such as the one found in the Fingertips commentary. While the masters of hype project absolutisms into the blogosphere (“music is going to be free no matter what; get used to it”), it is hard to argue with a more balanced approach: fit the model to the musician. This is not to say that every new music model is going to work—some won’t—but free music is obviously a viable option for many musicians, not just those making stuff that no one would actually pay for. For new artists looking to build an audience there is no better strategy than giving music away for free. Veterans have been drawn to free music as well; no longer does an artist need to submit to the creative limitations imposed by risk-averse labels operating in the commercial realm.

Beyond these clear-cut cases there are many possibilities to explore. It would be incredibly premature to say we’ve discovered the limits of the free music model just yet. Shifting revenue from music sales to touring and merchandising is a big challenge but it certainly isn’t impossible—it just requires a level of commitment and sustained effort that exceeds what some artists are willing to invest. In any case, no one is forced to choose. If the free music model works for you, great! If it doesn’t, try something else—there are many alternatives. The future of music is wide open. Let’s get to it.