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Selling Music Recordings · Wednesday November 05, 2008 by Crosbie Fitch

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when I suggest to a musician that they should sell their music rather than copies of it, they probably think I may as well be suggesting they crack the pointed end of their eggs rather than the blunt end, as if either suggestion might just as effectively improve their life.

It is not obvious to me how to succinctly explain the difference between selling music and selling copies. This is related to the psychological disorder of copy-blindness. If you have it, you’ll find it very difficult grokking the difference. If you don’t have it, you’ll find it difficult understanding how anyone can’t grok the difference.

Following on from this, is the difference in value between music and copies of it, and how the value of copies (unlike music) has changed relatively recently. Therefore, because the value of copies has diminished, it seems nearly everyone concludes that the value of music has diminished. It hasn’t.

There is actually a colossal difference between music and copies. And it’s not sophistry.

Every man and his dog can make copies of great music for next to nothing – irrespective of the publisher’s traditional monopoly we call copyright. So of course, copies aren’t worth much at all these days.

Nevertheless, very few people can make great music, regardless of whether it costs them much to produce and record. Consequently, music remains just as valuable as ever, although it’s still very much in the ear of the beholder as to which of it is great and which of it isn’t. Thus few people want to pay 99p a time to audition a hundred songs before they find something they like. However, they’ll be very happy to persuade the musicians they do like to produce more great music, perhaps at a tenner a time.

So music remains valuable, whereas copies do not – especially digital copies. This is unfortunate for manufacturers of copies (publishers), but not for musicians (except those still indentured to publishers or record labels). Fortunately, musicians have never had to sell copies, and they don’t need to start.

There are two ways musicians have traditionally made money from their music: performing it before an audience, and recording it for a publisher of copies (aka a record label).

Unfortunately, publishers have organised their business on the large mark-ups they can obtain given a monopoly on the production and distribution of copies. A monopoly that was over-generously provided by not particularly scrupulous governments a couple of centuries or so ago.

As the tide of nature comes racing back to restore the public’s cultural liberty, we see the publishers’ privilege of copyright become less respected, its monopoly almost completely ineffective. Nature never did imbue individuals with the power to control what other people do with the material and intellectual works they give or sell to them. To be in receipt of a grant of such power, a legislated suspension of the public’s liberty, is neither an entitlement to respect, nor a way of earning it. When we erect sandcastles on nature’s beach, we cannot be too despondent when nature washes them away.

Anyway, now that the record labels are disappearing, musicians can no longer sell their music to them, and so are wondering who to sell their recordings to and how. Their audience is the obvious answer. However, whilst they’re quite used to selling their live performances to their audiences, selling recordings to them is not something they’ve ever done before. So, the question of ‘How?’ remains unanswered.

What we have today is the sorry sight of musicians who don’t know the answer, going through the motions of being their own record label and attempting to sell copies where their labels cannot.

The thing is, if labels needed a monopoly to sell copies, and considerable wealth to enforce it, then it’s inescapable to conclude that a self-publishing artist is going to have even more difficulty relying upon a monopoly – despite having far less overhead than a label. Moreover, given that a musician’s audience can make their own copies, one must deduce that if they do appear to be purchasing copies from musicians, that this is either convenience, indoctrination or patronage at work.

So, if a musician is to sell recordings of their music to their audience, instead of copies, then how do they do it?

We have the artist and their recording on one side of the table, and the audience and their money on the other.

All we need is an exchange. Art for money, money for art.

Well, if the artist can sell a live performance to an audience of ten thousand fans, why can’t they sell a studio recording to the same audience?

Admittedly, ten thousand fans don’t really want to turn up at a large stadium, hand their tickets in, and then file back out again despite knowing they’ve just paid for a studio recording – even if they are handed a free copy of it on their way out. It would seem there’s a far more efficient way of doing it online…

Why not sell tickets to your audience online, but tell them that this is for a recording rather than a performance? What’s more, you can tell them that they don’t need to come to the stadium. Instead they can stay at home, and a free copy of the recording (copyleft and in FLAC format) will be e-mailed to them (or at least a link to where it can be downloaded via BitTorrent).

Just as with a concert, you’ll refund everyone’s money if the recording doesn’t go ahead, perhaps because not enough tickets were sold.

In fact, this approach also works for live online performances. You can sell tickets, and then (if there’s a big enough audience) use RawFlow to broadcast yourself live.

You can’t sell people what they already have, or can make themselves.

So, don’t try to sell copies of your music to your audience, sell your music to them instead.

If your audience wants to see and hear you play live they’ll buy tickets to your concerts (at stadiums or online). If your audience wants to have your new music recordings, they’ll buy tickets to your studio sessions (even if they’ve already happened).

As the market for copies ends, the market for music evolves.

drew Roberts said 5636 days ago :

Indeed, and the swarm of angels folks have a similar idea for a movie with added fan / supporter involvement.

They do not choose the Free and copyleft model which I think is a shame and I look forward to someone else trying that.

all the best,




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