Should musicians give away their music for free?

Posted on 21 December, 2016 by Team Wishberry


There is a 2013 article in the Guardian which talks about Napster and how it ‘set music free’. Remember Napster? That is when this digital revolution of file sharing began and thus, a doom of sorts for musicians world over. A doom, because for the audience the music was available for free and buying it did not make sense at all. Gone were the days when kids had to save up pocket money to buy their favourite albums or their favourite artist’s latest record. It was all there, a few clicks and an internet connection away. Metallica’s Lars Ulrich waged a legal war asking Napster to be shut down; the fans retaliated, burning Metallica CDs and Ulrich effigies saying he wanted to reap profits off fans and all he ever wanted was the money.

Eventually, Napster had to shut down. And though, there is an argument that Napster did well to reach out to more people than CDs ever could, what it did to a much greater level was that it taught an entire generation across the world to share on the internet. It showed the world that it was okay to get music for free, and even went ahead and indirectly, unwittingly created a large section of people who felt entitled to free music. As the fans felt increasingly entitled to get free music, the musicians felt obligated to give away music for free by themselves. The fans assumed artists made a lot of money and their ‘one illegal download’ won’t make a difference in the bigger picture. As more and more musicians started giving away music for free, it disrupted the music economy, be it for a few years. The big guns were never truly hit by all of this as they earned enough out of performances. The smaller ones, the independent artists without a record label to take care of them or without a sustainable performance income, got screwed royally.

Indian Independent Music and the Internet

It was also because of the internet and social sites in the early 2000s that the Indian independent music scene got a minor boost, which has now grown into a huge sector in itself. The problem? The scene grew when the sense of entitlement was at its peak in the fans. Leading to most artists giving away their product for free. The intentions were good - ‘my music should reach as many people as it can, and giving it away seems to be the way to start that’. What did not follow was the fans, in return, buying the eventual releases. Somewhere, what caused the boom also harmed the growing scene. Many bands had to eventually stop making music and concentrate on a day job for their livelihood. Many stuck around, hoping it will all get better, still rooting for selling music as opposed to giving it away for free.

But hope is only great for dreaming. In reality, there needs to be a positive push towards streamlining the independent music scenario even on the economics front. This is where one would logically think record labels can better this space. But, does being on a record label really help financially?

Record Labels vs Digital Distribution Platforms

Hindi rock bigwigs Euphoria are a prime example. The Delhi-based outfit has been around for over two decades, selling lakhs of copies of their albums independently as well as through various record labels. Dr. Palash Sen, the frontman and founding member of the band, says, “Let truth be told.. We have always given our music away for free to the labels and publishers. They might have charged our listeners and fans, but we have never made any money out of it. Unfortunately, this is true for every artist in this country.” The royalty from the record labels is barely a decent amount and it rarely makes it to the artist owing to the procedural mixups and the embarrassment of the meagre amount, as mentioned in this article by TechDirt. The same model is used by record labels in India, as well.

But with the flurry of music streaming and selling sites like iTunes, Saavn, and the likes, the relevance of record labels has gone down drastically, unless distribution and marketing become important to an artist on a global scale.

The revenue distribution as part of a record label VS as an independent artist on a music selling platforms like OkListen

A case in point as to the utilisation of such platforms comes from OK Listen, a platform for independent artists to sell their music. Mumbai-based alternative rock band Anand Bhaskar Collective’s Mera Safar, a single from their 2014 album Samsara, is still at number 7 on top selling singles on OK Listen. “When the album was released digitally, I sat down in front of my computer and sent a personal email to everybody I knew, informing them of the availability of the album. However, since I was just starting out, I gave them an option. I gave them a link from which they could buy the album and another link from which they could download it for free. Fortunately for me, most guys bought the album,” said Anand Bhaskar, the lead vocalist of the band. And it proved successful.

Similarly, Shubhangi Joshi, a singer-songwriter from Mumbai, also made use of the platform. She says, “When I'd come out with my debut EP (Talking Away The Night), I put it up on OK Listen for sale, which then put the tracks for purchase on iTunes and other digital platforms as well. Once some time had lapsed, I uploaded the tracks on SoundCloud from where listeners could stream the tracks, but not download. As that was my debut EP, I wanted the audience to get an idea of the music, hence the streaming option on SoundCloud. However, I hadn't made my tracks available for download for free.”

Anand Bhaskar and Shubhangi Joshi, with their respective approaches, managed to have people buy their music. And that is definitely a positive. Yet, there are a hundreds of artists, including electronic music giant Dualist Inquiry, giving away their new releases for free.

What about musician’s freedom of choice?

This is an issue of a musician’s personal freedom to choose what he/she likes and the greater good of the community. “Music is shared through personal connections, feelings and emotions. If we love a song, we'd want our close ones to hear it. And I guess that's how artists feel as well, that they would be happy that people would listen to and appreciate their art. I believe a balance must be maintained, and the listeners and fans should take more responsibility, rather than musicians enforcing any rules,” concurs Adil Rashid, guitar player of Underground Authority. He continues, “It shouldn't be a binding rule, because that's not how, I believe, artists would want things to be, but we would expect our followers and listeners to take that extra step and help us out.”

That view is fair. But many artists give away music for free out of the fear that no one will buy their music, and that is simply sad. This fear is only generated due to the fact that the audience is so used to free music, as much as it stems from the artist not feeling completely confident about his/her own audience and their hold on that section.


But, can music really be quantified?

There is also a simultaneous opinion about how music is art and cannot be quantified. That might be arguable, but what can definitely be quantified is the entire process which goes into making a song. It is a product which has taken shape out of the time, energy, money, knowledge, intelligence, et al of the artist. If a gadget, a cloth, a fashion accessory, and anything else that is manufactured deserves money, so does a song. Because in the end, all of these things go through a similar process when it comes to the production of it.

  • Ideation and creation (writing the song)

  • Logistics for the production (booking recording studios, deciding on equipment, a producer)

  • Production (actual recording)

  • Packaging (artwork, music videos)

  • Marketing and distribution (through the internet or otherwise)

There is years of acquiring knowledge, hardwork and accumulation of funds which finally result in a recording. So for any artists confused about whether selling a song is something he/she deserves, this analogy should suffice for the same.

Music composer Joi Barua sums it up perfectly, “It (music) cannot be given away free. So much goes into making a song. And I am sure the audience will wisen up to good music and pay for it, whenever it feels right. The music has to be at that quality though. If you give it away for free, how will you ever learn to value your work?”

As much as there should be freedom for an artists to choose what he/she wants to do with their music, there should also be a lookout for the complete progress of the independent music scene. It needs to be a fully flourished music industry. Only then will it become a sustainable mode of living for everyone involved.

What Dr. Palash Sen said summarises a musician’s mindset completely, “The idealist in me believes that music should be free. The purist in me believes that it should be available for a cost because musicians need to run their lives too, and shouldn’t be forced to do day jobs. The dreamer in me believes that there should be a full fledged music industry at par with the film industry. The rocker in me knows that the music lovers of this country will take the power back one day.”

But, we also believe that the musicians themselves will need to initiate the shift of power, the people will then do what they do best - mobilise, unionise, and make independent music the biggest music in the country.

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