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Truth and Free Stuff

I couldn’t tell you the first time I actually encountered an artist I truly liked just giving their music away.  Oh wait, I guess it would have been Degarmo and Key’s 1986 release “D&K,” but that was more of a buy-one-get-one-free-to-give-to-a-friend kind of deal.  Still, two cassettes for the price of one.  Not bad.  Not bad at all.

Now all of the sudden, what with the advent of cyberspace and this tool you’re using to read these words, artists aren’t just giving people a second copy free.  They’re giving the first copy away free too!

And I, for one, am loving it.  Noisetrade, Andrew Osenga, even the streaming jukeboxes folks like Centricity host on their sites have made it easy for music lovers to get their hands on the latest projects of their favorite artists, sometimes within days, even hours of finishing the mix.

This has been going on long enough now that I’m moving from simple, pure elation to a more philosophical appreciation for what this means for the music awaiting us all.

I think what I’m realizing is that while the download may not require money, it is not free.  So this is one man’s observations about the genius of “pay what you want” downloads, and the responsibility of the downloader (feel free to use that term at will) to engage with the process.  There’s a lot at stake for music lovers and even more for those who’ve dared to chase after the silly dream of trying to make a living at making music.

The “pay what you want” download had landed a serious blow upon the jawbone of the PR machine that is constantly telling you you can’t live without So-and-so’s latest record.  Before, we were left to take their word for it and buy it or become a pirate and steal it.

But the Rabbit Room is not really a confessional, is it?

When an artist makes a record and offers it to me for what I think it’s worth, a few things converge.

First, there’s the integrity of the artist.  There is a lot of truth built into this approach.  If the artist is creating high quality work, I’ll know before I part with my cash.  If they aren’t, I’ll know that too.  So it puts a certain responsibility on the artist to strive for quality and not just “mail it in,” as they say.

Second, there’s the relational interplay between the artists and his or her “fans.”  An artist has to want people to connect with their art.  They can’t wander too far off the deep end of weird self-indulgence. (Have you ever got a hold of a record by someone you really liked, only to find that they’ve gradually become less and less accessible?  It can feel like losing a friend.)  When the download is free, the artist must create with the audience in mind, and I think this yields better art precisely because there is a built in accountability to tell the truth in a comprehensible way.

Third, there’s the responsibility of the listener to actually pay up in the end.  If it’s crap, it’s crap. So if you download a real stinker, no harm no foul, you got it for free.  All it cost was some space on your hard drive.  But if you download for free and it’s not crap, what is it worth to you?

And what if its great?

Have you ever known anyone who bought the Beatles’ White Album on vinyl, 8 track, cassette, CD and MP3?  Why would someone do that?  Because the record is valuable enough to them that they want it as a part of their permanent collection.  In effect, it is worth five times what, say, Abba Gold is to them.

I’m not advocating that we pay $50 for records we really like, $25 for ones we think are decent, and so on.  What I’m suggesting is that when we download before we pay, we enter into a “gentleman’s (or gentlewoman’s?) agreement” to determine the value of the product and pay up.  I think we’re on the hook to pay something.

Artists who put their work up for free are taking a huge risk.  They depend on the honesty of their own fan base to support them in making the art those same fans so look forward to and appreciate and listen to over and over again.

The making of a record is expensive, and many of the free ones are independent releases, meaning there are no record label dollars behind them, covering the cost of the musicians and engineers and use of studio space.

The independent artist is in a bit of a spot with this, since they know that they can’t skimp on quality– either when it comes to the players or the production– if they hope to gain and retain fans in a way that is competitive with the rest of their industry.  So they have to pony up for high quality if they want to make a living at this.  What they offer at no initial charge has already cost them dearly, of that you can be sure.

Yes, it is a life they choose.  Yes, they should count the cost.  But I for one am so much richer for the risks many artists have taken to devote themselves to their craft.  They have invested in me.  When I hear my children sing “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away our sin” in the back of the minivan, there’s a dozen or so artists that come to mind as people who have invested in showing my kids the truth about Jesus.

So what is that worth to me?

See what I’m getting at?  “Free” downloads are not really free.  They are contracts to pursue truth and respond accordingly.  Sometimes that involves withholding payment if you are convinced the artist has stopped caring about their craft along the way.  But most of the time it means we support them in what they have created and what they hope to create next.

I love this system because it keeps us all honest.  The fan base becomes the PR department.  We tell our friends.  We go to concerts.  We buy CD’s and t-shirts.  And what we get in return, ideally, is a product from the artist that they believe in, without having to tell lies in order to sell it.  What is that worth to you?


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