Friday, May 22, 2009

Who's gonna buy your cow if you give the moo away for free?

(Fair warning: I guess I'm in a phase of IJG stock-taking and re-strategizing these days. Making plans for the fall, and for the next record. You may see more music business-related posts here in the weeks ahead.)

Seeing Lars Ulrich on the Rachel Maddow Show a few weeks ago really brought me back.

Not back to my Metallica-loving high school days -- I never really had a Metallica period, though I would eventually "enjoy" this when it came out many years later -- but to the pre-21st century brouhaha these fellas stirred up over the issue of copyright. Apparently, that particular struggle will never end, but in any case, it has been a while, I think, since Metallica has been the public face of the anti-music-trading backlash. Whatever you think of the band, it was nice to see an articulate musician make an appearance on a national news show to talk (mostly) politics.

Though I have always wanted to monetize the IJG (that sounds so corporate, but all it means is that I want to make a living at this), I have also always been a big fan of free. So I never understood the outrage Metallica collectively expressed over the copyright issue (well, "never," at least until I saw the movie and realized how truly outsized are the egos involved). To me, the cost of losing potential fans (many of whom, for various reasons, would (especially in light of increasingly narrow radio formats) never have even heard the band without some sort of music-trading "counter-economy" -- and many of whom, once they had heard the band through said counter-economy, could easily be converted into true fans, who would be willing to spend money on each new release) that cost seemed to greatly outweigh the cost of a few missed sales among those listeners who would never be turned on to the band anyway.

Of course, it is possible to take this idea too far. In my own career, I may have erred a little too much on the side of free -- to the extent that, once upon a time, it didn't take much prodding for me to give away many more freebie IJG discs than I should have. Especially with the first few albums, I handed them out by the dozens to media folks, or to friends, or, basically, to almost anyone. And at every opportunity, I facilitated free downloads of high-quality mp3s. I was genuinely taken aback when I read Derek Sivers' remark (on some listserv somewhere) that, back when he was making records, he wouldn't even give his Mom a freebie. At the time that seemed a tad harsh.

But now I think he was partly right -- or at least that there is a savvier approach than giving away as many discs as you can and hoping somebody buys the rest. Alas (of course): the situation is more complex. And while "free" has been a pretty hip mantra for the last decade (at least), it seems that some folks are now striving for that greater complexity. Consider this:

The biggest idea I came out of SxSW with this year was that free is dead. Over. Overdone. We killed it. Because so much is free online, we expect it; where’s the value in that? [...] Sure, giving stuff away for free is nice. People like it. And these days, you have to do it just to keep up with the Joneses. But keeping up doesn’t get you ahead. And obviously free doesn’t exactly pay the bills unless you’re Trent Reznor or Radiohead, i.e. established.

As I think about the next IJG record (for which many of the basic tracks already completed), and potential new approaches to releasing it, I'm wondering: are actual, physical CDs luxury items now?

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