Should music be free? – Part I (cross-post from MySetlist.co)
[Originally posted at MySetlist.co - August 2nd, 2012]
I spent a good deal of Sunday participating in one of those Facebook discussions that left me with more frustration than resolution. Emotionally charged, essentially folk circling around the question: “Should music be free?”
And, of course, the real answer is – at the level of sonic vibrations hitting an ear-drum to be interpreted by the brain as having harmonic meaning – music is free. It costs nothing for me to open my mouth and sing a note. My 7 year-old daughter walks around singing all the time, riffing whatever’s on her mind into snippets of song, often warping melodies from elsewhere.
Music itself is free.
But the making of music is generally far from free. Whether our hippy ancestors like it or not, music is a commodity like any other. And I’m not talking about the artificially inflated global music model – where multi-millionaires threaten legal action against fans for illegal downloading – a business model that is clearly dying. Instead, I’m focusing on local live music – music being made by people you know, in places you go.
As I witnessed on Sunday, this local milieux doesn’t think of itself in the frame of supply-and-demand; and actually has something of a viral reaction to describing things in terms of business transactions.
So, I thought I’d spend some time here approaching the making of local live music as if it were a business.
In this post, I’ll cover cost of production:
- Capital – from the shittiest of pawn-shop guitars to custom-shop elite six-strings, that small, crappy amplifier in the corner to a top-flite PA system, the humble bongo to a Peart-esque multi-kit, there are capital expenditures – the majority of which are borne by the musician. Like all capital expenditures, equipment experiences depreciation (wear and tear, planned obsolescence, spilled beer, etc.), so replacement costs must be included – whether covered by an insurance policy or reinvestment plan. For most musicians, capital investment is hundreds, if not thousands of dollars (or equivalent currency; rates may vary)
- Human capital – the production of music has employees. From solo artists, through bands and sit-ins, to rotating performers at an open mic, those musicians have to survive and get to the gig. These costs are completely borne by the musician.
- Intellectual property – as I described above, music is free. In my experience, high quality music is not. It is the result of days, months and years of craft and experience. Those countless hours provide, in the best of circumstances, output/product that cannot easily be copied. Of course, there are a lot of me-too products out there, but show me an industry where that is not the case. These costs are completely borne by the musician.
- Cost of production – this is a separate category from capital. These are services of which the musician partakes in order to share their music. This would include venues, recording studios, live support (sound techs, lighting techs, guitar techs, etc.), marketing/promotion, etc. Delivery of these services largely borne by the service provider, and contracted by the musician (often non-voluntarily).
By categorizing the cost of production, we’ve taken the first step in answering the question: “Should music be free?”
As the above suggests, the answer is likely to be ‘no’ – musicians are, after all, deep in the hole before they even sing a note.
Which is why so many of them are frustrated and angry. And why some are resigned to acceptance that they’re paying for the pleasure of hearing themselves make music – regardless of audience.
But, as I build out this series of posts, I’ll also argue that it’s not as clear cut, that musicians need to step out of the blame game – and away from an expectation of reward – positioning themselves as both artist AND business.