Lots of musicians have given their work away for free, but De La Soul is different. On February 14th, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Three Feet High and Rising, they uploaded their back catalog and made it available to anyone who signed up for their mailing list. There are at least three really interesting things about De La's Valentine's Day gift, especially given the fact that the albums on offer have never been available digitally before.
Of course, they almost weren't available last week, either. The original links sent out that morning went to a Dropbox account, which (no surprise) was almost immediately shut down for excessive bandwidth use when everyone on the Internet went to download the free tracks. A new solution was soon found, but it just goes to show that even a band that you'd think would absolutely have a nerdy, Internet-savvy friend, didn't. I kind of like that, though. It gives the whole affair a charming, straight-from-their-garage feel to it.
The first interesting thing is the question of why the albums were released for free in the first place. Reports are vague, but the gist is that De La Soul's label, Warner Brothers, hasn't cleared the samples on the albums, so they can't be sold online. Due to the weirdness of music contracts, you can still buy a physical copy of Three Feet High — it's even been re-released with bonus material a couple of times — but you can't buy the MP3. While it's true that people still buy CDs, I'm guessing that number doesn't include most of De La's fanbase.
But that leads us to the second twist in the story, which is that what De La Soul did is probably illegal. Like a lot of musicians, they own the songs, but they don't own the music: the master recordings of those albums are owned by the label instead. The fact that De La Soul could be sued for pirating their own albums explains a lot about both the weird, exploitative world of music contracts, as well as the ambivalence a lot of musicians feel for labels.
Let's say that nobody sues, however, and Warner Bros. decides to tacitly endorse the giveaway. De La Soul still doesn't have access to the masters, so how did they get the songs to distribute? Interesting fact number three: when people examined the metadata for the tracks, they turned out to be from a Russian file-sharing site of dubious legality. Basically, the band really did pirate their own work. I'm a little disappointed they didn't rip their own CDs, but considering that they didn't have anyone around to tell them not to use Dropbox as a CDN, we probably shouldn't be surprised. It was probably easier this way, anyway — which says a lot about the music industry, as well.
If what De La did was legal, does that make the pirated copies also legal? Would it have been legal for me to download the exact same files from Russian servers while the "official" songs were available? And now that the campaign is over and you still can't buy Stakes Is High from Amazon MP3, are the pirate sites back to being illegal? Nothing I can remember from the Napster days answers these questions for me — although to be fair, all I really remember from Napster is a number of novelty punk covers and making fun of Lars Ulrich.
Assuming they're not sued, and so far they've gotten away from it, the download promotion should be good for De La Soul. Or to put it more bluntly, they probably figured it couldn't hurt, and they're likely right: if these songs were never going to end up for sale online, most of their remaining value is promotional (for shows and other albums) anyway. So it's a savvy move, but it's one unlike the other artists (Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead) that have offered their music for free online. Those bands were issuing new material, unencumbered by sample clearance, and in support of an entirely different genre. I suspect a lot of classic hip-hop artists in similar situations may be watching this new promotion with a lot of interest. Chances are, that's just the way De La likes it.
Steve Lawson, solo bass player extraordinaire, on the relationships between musicians, fans, the Internet, and the industry:
I'd like to call attention to two great points that Lawson makes here. First, he talks extensively about the house concerts that he does, where he literally goes to play in someone's living room, then has dinner with the audience. What takes people by surprise, he says, is that he's a perfectly normal person who is nice to them--by breaking down the barrier between audience and artist (instead of maintaining the fiction that the musician is an untouchable figure), he's able to make a much more rewarding connection.
Second, Lawson makes a strong argument against doing what he calls "thinking aspirationally." Musicians evaluate business models from the perspective of million-dollar superstars, he notes, when most people will never reach that kind of income level (and probably shouldn't want to). The goal isn't to close out a month with a profit, he says, but to not end it with negative numbers on the balance sheet--aim to break even, in other words. From that point of view, the definition of "professional" musician gets both wider (no wedding-band gigs!) and more comfortable (no uncomfortable, money-losing tours!).
You may remember that I mentioned Steve Lawson when talking about Free, and this speech demonstrates why he's such a great example when talking about the levelling aspects of the Internet. To be sure, he's leveraging free social media to build his community--MySpace, Twitter, ReverbNation, Youtube, etc.--but while Anderson's book seemed to concentrate on how free distribution could make your business marketable, Lawson's mainly interested in using new media to do more satisfying work, and to eliminate the parts that he doesn't enjoy. In a world spawning a million Twitter PR drones every minute, I think it's refreshing to see someone using these tools to rethink the basic assumptions of their vocation.
Previously, both here and in real-life, I've recommended the current Zune Pass highly--it's a subscription service that also lets you keep 10 free songs per month, many of which are in MP3 format. That's a pretty good deal, probably the best digital music plan out there at the moment.
A caveat, though, that I've just discovered: MP3-format songs bought with the free credits, once downloaded, cannot be downloaded or purchased again. Last night, I shut down my laptop without thinking in the middle of an album download and only got half of the songs. When I opened it back up, the rest were unavailable, and I couldn't re-download them. Instead, it just spits back error code C00D12EA (for people who may find this post by Google, that's what's gone wrong). Zune support is no help--there are no refunds on MP3 songs or free credits.
It could be worse: first, the Zune client doesn't delete the subscription versions until the batch download is complete, so I've still got the music (albeit in the subscription WMA format). Second, I was grabbing part of a deluxe edition album, so next month I can get the MP3s off the regular version for free. It's frustrating, but in this case, not a disaster. Worst case scenario, I've just wasted my credits this month. And if there weren't an album variant, I might have to go to Amazon to buy the MP3s.
So be aware, if you have or are considering the Zune Pass: when you click "Buy" in the marketplace, leave that laptop lid open until it's done! Trust me on this.
About three months ago, I bought a Zune. I wanted a way to find new music without buying a ton of CDs--and lately I've started to feel less comfortable with the ecological footprint from physical distribution, anyway. Of all the subscription services, Zune seemed to have the best deal. And while it's annoying that song burning is disabled, so far it's been a pretty good value for the money. I've been trying out all kinds of bands, new and old, and enabled my work computer as well for a kind of suped-up Internet radio. The hardware's not bad, either.
Today Microsoft turned on a feature that gives subscribers 10 free tracks each month from the big labels, including the large portions of the store in DRM-free MP3 format. As far as I'm aware, that basically makes it the best deal available for digital music on Windows, even if you don't own a Zune (the subscription tracks can still be played through WMA-capable apps, like Windows Media Player, if you don't care for the Zune application). It's got the advantages of an unlimited subscription, plus an album or so to keep each month. I'd still probably recommend Amazon's MP3 store for straight purchases, but if you're trying to branch out in your listening habits, you could do worse with $15 every month.
Wired reports that Pandora will be partnering with Clear Channel to stream music on CC websites, although founder Tim Westergren insists that Clear Channel will not be altering the feed in any way.
The last time that I got a chance to speak with Westergren, for an Ars interview that didn't work out (I wasn't happy with my questions, and my recorder malfunctioned), he said that Pandora actually saw Clear Channel (and the rest of terrestrial radio, to be fair) as their competition. I wonder if this is a step forward for them, or a step backward?
Does everyone feel sorry for the major labels yet? I know I do. Must be a hard life, finding time to count their money after a full day of exploiting guileless musicians and overcharging for CDs. Somehow, they manage, bless their little souls.
But noted music advice-donor Moses Avalon wants you to know that he is concerned. It's the evil tech-companies, he shrieks! They're trying to get rid of DRM--and if they do, your music will be worthless!
If the Tech world loses this campaign, they will simply have to pay a bit more for their loss leader item. Since they tend to bundle music with other products this expense will not be felt in any significant way by the consumer. It will just shave the tech industry's gross a tiny bit to about $87 billion.
But if art loses this war, that is to say, if record companies/artists lose their ability to control who gets to license their work and at what price, the music business, as we know it, ends. Music itself will suffer as an art form and the Tech-Masters will absorb the labels, bundle their catalogs, and in a few years you'll buy a lap-top and it will come pre-loaded with an entire Juke Box of Classic Rock, Rap, Jazz, whatever.
This may sound great if you're a consumer, but if you're a music company you will make only a small licensing fee and your artists and songwriters will see a paltry fraction of this sum. The trickle down effect for studio owners, producers, lawyers, managers, etc, will naturally be devastation.
Major Labels are the 'banks' of our industry. They loan money to 1000's of artists, who then spend it in 1000's of studios and with 1000's of producers, who hire 1000's of engineers, who buy gear and invest in new artists, who sign with labels, and so on.
Even if you're an independent or emerging artist, you are in the wake of this economy. Big artists draw people into music outlets/venues and thus expose them to new music. Also, the big spending by Majors pushes down the off-peak rates on studio time, materials, and CD replication. It also creates the upside potential to justify investment in emerging artists.
The fantasy that 'if Majors die a Phoenix will rise from the ashes' is very unlikely. The higher probability is that in order for there to be a viable music industry at all Majors need to stay in business.
So called experts and analysts who applaud EMI's 'wisdom' and curse the RIAA's defense of copyrights are just sucking up to the Tech-Masters who give them a media platform. Then disgruntled music executives grant interviews and ignorantly agree just to relieve their angst. This bandwagon effect is helping Tech-Masters load the gun they have pointed to our heads.
Think people! Have you ever heard a technology spokesperson agree with labels or argue in favor of copy protection? NEVER! They argue for DRM-free music to make a more 'consumer friendly experience.' They are arguing that the consumers' rights are senior to the artists'. Let me repeat that: they are arguing that the way consumers buy music is MORE IMPORTANT than the rights of the people who create it.
All sarcasm aside, it takes a lot of chutzpah to write a sentence directly equating "art" and "record companies." To some degree, I respect that. It's completely idiotic, but respectably so.
The most telling part of the essay, however, is Avalon's belief that the major labels are banks that pay out lots of money to keep the art alive. Avalon is most well-known for a book about not getting screwed by the music business, so I'm a little astounded by his misconception of the word "bank." But it's easy for him to make that mistake, because he's a producer: he actually does profit from the industry spending. Actual musicians, however, do not. Don't just take my word for it. Two fine essays on the ways that recording contracts exist to exploit artists are Courtney Love Does the Math and Steve Albini's The Problem with Music.
If the music industry wants to be taken seriously as a business, it needs to realize that it is not automatically entitled to customers. It's only the vast vertical ownership and integration of the industry that let them get away with it for as long as they have. That vertical integration--the fact that labels are owned by enormous media companies controlling every part of the signal chain from work-for-hire contracts to final distribution--is part of what makes Avalon's plea so comical. The same thing happens in next-gen video, of course. It says a lot about how the debate is being framed when we're supposed to be worried about media piracy, and not about the fact that the same three or four companies own the entire media production process from top to bottom.
I had to stop reading Boing Boing at some point. The air of wide-eyed technofetishism just got to be too much for me--one more adoring post about some hipster-kitsch art piece or ridiculous Web 7.0 application, and I might have been forced to hunt the whole bunch of them down with a meticulously-crafted clockpunk chainsaw somebody made at Burning Man.
That said, sometimes I still peek in, because if you can sort out the nonsense they do tend to be a clearing house for a certain kind of web zeitgeist, and a couple of days ago I followed a link to Good Copy, Bad Copy, a Danish documentary about copyright--particularly as it applies to music. You could be forgiven for thinking that not much new could be said on the topic, because most of the dialog about copyright and music in this country centers around the music industry's complaints of lost revenue, copyleftists scorning the industry's antiquated business model, and everyone else trying not to get caught. Good Copy does spend a slight (and tedious) segment on this, including everyone's favorite ex-IP lawyer, Lawrence Lessig. But the intriguing part of the movie, and the thread to which it devotes most of its narrative, is following the path of a piece of music around the world as it is digitally reinterpreted by a series of artists.
It starts with Danger Mouse, who created the "Grey Album" out of Jay-Z's Black Album and the Beatles' White Album. That was an Internet hit, and then it was basically cease-and-desisted out of existence by the labels, but Danger Mouse goes on to form half of Gnarls Barkley, and release a hit single named "Crazy." Halfway around the world, that song is then sampled and remixed by a Brazilian producer into a genre called techno brega, which is basically "cheesy techno" based on '80s electronica. The producer gives the new .mp3 to a pirate vendor for free, instead making money when the music attracts dancers to their gigs. Finally, the Brazilian version of "Crazy" finds its way (in a scene that may have been prearranged, but is no less clever for it) to Girl Talk, a.k.a. Greg Gillis, a goofy-looking Philadelphian known for producing illegally sample-dense remixes. So that's three or four layers of continuity taking place, and it's fascinating to watch.
Having read Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music lately, I was struck by not just the chain of events, but also what it said about the musical climate. Faking It (which I highly recommend) spends some time talking about the "authentic" music of Leadbelly and other primitive blues musicians, while noting that those musicians were actually carefully selected by White record companies as a way to present the most primitive, savage portrait of Black music possible. Fast-forward to only a few years ago, of course, and we find Kurt Cobain playing Leadbelly songs live to tap into that same mood. Yet many of those early recordings were of folk songs or traditional songs--stuff like "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," for example, or "Stagger Lee." No-one knows the exact provenance of those pieces. Hundreds of different versions were recorded, by artists both White and Black, in the genres that we now would consider blues, jazz, country, and rock. They have no copyrights. I find that fascinating.
As a rock musician, I don't normally sympathize with the copyright-fighting proponents of sampling. I'm not vehemently against them, understand, but I don't have a deep appreciation for the traditions of hip-hop, so I prefer to make my own noises most of the time. My common ground is the realization that there is no rock "Stagger Lee." If someone had written it now, that song would be owned by a major label and no-one else could have played it. We have no music that is community property, that anyone can reinterpret and claim as part of their personal culture. I think that's unfortunate. It would be an interesting project to hunt down those songs, reinterpret them, and reintroduce them into the musical community, to see if they could act as raw material again. And I would hope, with the spread of Creative Commons and other licenses, that we might be more likely to see music isolated from its creators, twisted, and changed along an almost oral tradition. That way, music becomes something people do, and not something that they own. It stops being a noun, a piece of property, and becomes a verb, which is all the more thrilling in its transitory action.
To the surprise of even myself, I'm going to say nice things about Myspace.
In a recent conversation over in the bass forum, I got into a kind of genial alteraction about the nature of music production. Some poor, helpless guitar player wandered over and wanted to know how to buy a bass for recording "professional results." After a few of the usual answers, a forum member who works as a session bassist in LA stepped in with a more complicated--and much more expensive--answer.
For real professional results, he said, you should be running through a good DI and preamp, proceeding to name preamps that run in excess of $3000 each. At the very least, the recommendation was a Universal Audio unit that starts at $700. In further posts, much was made of the barely-audible differences between analog, tape-and-tube recording versus digital recording, even at very high sampling rates and resolutions.
Now, this rubbed me the wrong way. Part of it was just the invalidity of the argument--clearly, a great album can be made without spending money on ridiculously expensive components. But another part was the elitism of it all: your music isn't "professional" unless it's gone through one of these preamps, or been recorded in a certain prescribed way, or distributed on vinyl (last refuge of music snobs, despite its limited dynamic range and high noise floor).
I know that I never shut up about how bad .mp3 and other compression sounds to me, or how ugly and misformed Myspace is. But at the same time, let me praise these two technologies for how they have immeasurably improved the state of the small-time musician, and how they have democratized music. While Myspace in particular hasn't lived up to the hype--with one or two widely-publicized exceptions, nobody has been able to use it to bypass the studio distribution system--for "local bands" and other unsigned musicians, it has opened new doorways for the hobby. You might be able to get 500 people to buy a homemade CD, but it's easy enough to get 1500 friends on Myspace to listen to at least one song, and it beats putting up fliers on lampposts to announce gigs.
Privileging "professional" production and distribution methods is a way of locking out the poor or the unprepared from being "real" musicians. Digital production and distribution, which make it possible to write and record music cheaper and faster while still maintaining a basic benchmark of quality, threatens that heirarchy. It won't necessarily produce superstars, but it forces us to ask: what does "professional" even mean? What do we value in music? And how successful do we really want to be?
The administrators of Pandora Internet radio have started a web campaign to petition against the retroactive increase in broadcasting fees for web-based radio, located at SaveNetRadio.org. I have always been critical of the online letter-writing campaign, but I think the past has shown that they actually work for putting pressure on representatives who are not necessarily well-informed about these issues.
Why save net radio? For myself, this is the primary way nowadays that I discover new artists. If it weren't for places like Pandora and Last.fm, I wouldn't know about Actionslacks, Mon Frere, or Viva Voce, just to name a few. You're certainly not going to hear them on terrestrial radio, assuming that I had time to listen to that anyway these days.
I thought it was interesting, in an interview with the AV Club, when Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) made the point that his was the first generation that could "own" a copy of a movie. Before the VCR, you could see a movie while it was in the theater or on TV, but you couldn't have a version to watch and pore over on your own schedule. Music went through that transition long before, and in a way the next step was the formation of net radio stations, where people could not just take ownership of the music, but could also program it into playlists and share it. If independent record shops hadn't already been fatally wounded, this would have killed them. I think it's important that we not let this channel of discovery die.
Wired's music writer asks the obvious question: if we've got increasing amounts of storage nowadays on our music devices (even the flash drives are multi-gig now, whatistheworldcomingto...), why are we still buying compressed music? Why aren't we listening to the 24-bit, high sample-rate masters that came out of the studio?
Because honestly: an 80-gig iPod full of .mp3 files will still be playing when the sun explodes and flash-fries the Earth into a crispy, carbon-based donut-hole. And yet you hear about people who are proud of this. "I've got 70,000 hours of music on my MP3 player," they'll say, and any relatively-sane listener should be asking, "Why? When will you listen to it? How much of it have you actually heard?"
And perhaps more importantly, given the length of those playlists, how much time do you spend fiddling with the scroll wheel instead of doing something productive, like digging your own grave?
My steady complaint about production trends has been the constant prioritization of "more music" over "quality of sound." It certainly started with the use of brick-wall limiting to create "loud" albums for CD and radio play, but it only got worse when digital compression started stripping frequencies out of the material, just because flash memory was small and expensive. Now that we have all of this disk space available, why can't we use it to listen to better-than-CD quality, instead of jamming it full of inferior noise?
And then people can ruin that high-quality music through a set of $3 Apple earbuds. But at least then I'll have something else to yell about.