Musical Shareware

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Radiohead announced earlier this week that they would be selling their new album on October 10 for whatever price their listeners would like to pay. The mainstream media covered this so extensively that excessive traffic caused the band’s web site to crash.

But the idea isn’t so new. In December of 1999, Jon Brion was asked, “As a musician, are you afraid of the internet?” His response was prophetic (emphasis mine):

No, I’ve been looking forward to this. Twelve years ago, I programmed Fairlights at a studio in Connecticut and realized - because of the way information was stored - that there was a big change coming. Right now, everyone is trying to figure out ways to protect material and how to procure money from the Internet. I think it’s much more socialistic than that. For most artists, the question is general subsidy. We sign record deals because it’s the only subsidy that is offered. We no longer live in the Age of Kings, where the artist might live for free at the castle and write some minuets.I have always been interested in the notion that if you wanted to release what you have done - to the entire world - just to do it, and now we have the technology to do so. The artist can say, “I am going to offer this for free. I don’t care.” I am interested in seeing people move away from the plan to put a grid on the Internet, to do massive accounting.

Here is my concept, which is an unlikely scenario because it requires human cooperation. It would run like shareware. You assume that most people are going to pirate the material, but if you look at the truth of the music, you see it has the potential to genuinely touch people and perhaps change the course of their lives, or at least that given day. There are enough of us in the population who are happy to support those who affect us. The amount of money I have paid out over my lifetime to “give” to the artist is considerable. The music has enriched my life and I give back, but they don’t see any of it.

By releasing records independently over the Internet, there is a fair chance that the artist might see some return. I think it should go one step further. Fuck it. Obliterate the new smaller, kinder companies because they will just become evil in nanoseconds anyway. Anybody who doesn’t think so is an idiot. Let’s do shareware, and in this Internet honor system, maybe 10 percent will honor it. If you fall in love with a record, it is something you live with for months. Why wouldn’t you send back five or ten dollars directly to the artist?

As a band that has already seen profound success, it’s much easier for Radiohead to pull off this move than it would be for an unheard-of artist. However, that’s not to say that the RIAA shouldn’t feel threatened. If people download Radiohead’s new album in as big numbers as they have previously purchased Radiohead’s CDs, and if the average downloaded pays so much as a dollar, Radiohead will stand to make more money than they have on any previous album.

In an internet world where the most widely-used sites are free of charge to end-users, they’re able to gain traction quickly. One has to wonder how soon we’ll see a new service that allows artists to sell tracks for whatever their fans would like to pay.

Such a service could give the RIAA a run for its money while leaving even more in the hands of those who have most earned it: the artists.

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