Why Music Can’t Just Be Free: continuing on the debate


Over on my JupiterResearch weblog I wrote a post about why music can’t ‘just be free’.  It’s proven to be one of the most contentious posts I’ve written, stirring up some pretty fiery debate and comment.  As Jupiter’s blogs don’t enable comments I’m bringing the debate here.   Read my original post to see the source of the debate.


My opinions are just that, and Jupiter has always believed that good opinions are shaped through debate.  So please leave your comments here and I’ll respond as best I can.


Some ground rules:

  • I’m not going to get drawn into cat fights, so let’s keep the debate focused.  No insults, personal attacks etc
  • I’m not going to respond to every single criticism / critique of every aspect of my analysis.  People are entitled to their opinions, as I am to mine.  What I’d like to focus on is the bigger picture.  (I will though highlight when something is factually incorrect or has been misinterpreted e.g. I didn’t make any reference to car theft, rather to the concept of a car industry that gave cars away rather than selling them.  Sound like a silly concept?  Yes it does.  In my opinion though, it sounds no less ludicrous than the concept of the music industry giving away all of its product)
  • I’d like this debate to deliver some solid outcomes I can summarize in my blog.  So anywhere that there is some consensus, all the better, even if I don’t personally agree.
  • Finally, feel free to continue to take this debate onto your own blogs etc. if you so wish, just please link back.


Let the games commence

13 thoughts on “Why Music Can’t Just Be Free: continuing on the debate

  1. Hey Mark,

    While this is a neat trick to get inbound links, and a superb opportunity to be the central host of an important debate, I’m going to opt out.

    I’ve said my piece.

    Best of luck with the discussion though. I’ll be keeping an eye on it.

  2. Is this so contentious a point? Surely most people agree that music cannot simply be for free, existing with no economy around it whatsoever… However the issue here is more whether music can exist within an environment where it is free to the consumer but generates revenue for the artist via associated advertising income etc. Only a fool would argue that musicians whose music is being consumed should see no money for it, so the issue then moves to “is the free model enough?”. Its not one I can answer easily either. Certainly services like Spotify seem incredibly nice to me, almost too good to be true in fact. Hence I find myself thinking “this certainly works for me as a consumer, but will the business model hold up in terms of delivering revenue to artists and labels and profit to the company itself?”.

    So, before I stray off into other tangents, I’d simply say my response is “no, it can never be free in the sense that the musicians see no revenue for the consumption of their work… but it could very possibly be free or almost free under ad-supported or all-you-can-eat models”…

  3. As I’ve said on my blog, and on the other places this has been posted, we need to get away from thinking of musical content as a sole source of revenue for a musician.

    The physical cost of distributing, storing and selling a digital piece of music is next to nothing, so it becomes a promotional tool to build interest.

    The revenue has to come from other mechanisms – live performances, merchandise, commemorative physical releases etc, and probably others we’ve yet to quite figure out.

    There’s also the essential point that not every musician is created equal – some will never make enough to survive, some will become global superstars, and some will exist in the middle.

    But for those in the middle, they’ll be able to survive with what Kevin Kelly described as 1000 true fans, and by engaging them directly.

    And I don’t think the music industry will be in a position not to innovate – no matter how ‘ludicrous’ it may sound, simply because there’s no other option – and ideas which may have seemed ridiculous in the past are now incredibly popular.

  4. Merchandize and live revenue do not generate enough on their own for most artists. 360 deals take even more of these revenue streams away from artists. Commemorative physical releases are just another form of paid music.

    The concept of music as a promotional tool for something else only works if there the ‘something else’ is generating large enough revenues to replace the lost recorded music revenue. That is simply not the case now, and I still haven’t seen any robust case for something that will. All of the ancillary revenue streams that are widely cited are already being leveraged, and though they’ll become more important, they won’t be enough to completely replace premium sales.

    Also, most musicians are not fantastic. A few are geniuses that will always float up to the top, label or no label, but the majority need nurturing and support to help them go from good to great. Some sort of organization needs to play that role. Currently it is record labels and publishers. Without that support fewer artists would be as good as they are now. Also fewer would be able to spend as much time writing and performing because they’d still be having to hold down day jobs.

    So record labels and publishers, or some other body filling that role, are key to a vibrant creative pool of musical talent fulfiling its potential. And making money from that music is key to ensuring those companies have a business to allow them to play that role.

  5. I haven’t seen many examples of figures for the revenue generated by the live and merchandise revenue streams for bands, and it really would be good for this debate to be able to compare them with figures for those artists signed to a traditional label.

    Without those types of case studies, we’ll always be in an endless loop of opinion, as it’s hard to judge an entire music industry on the experiments by the likes of Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead, who have successfully leveraged freemium offerings.

    But I’d debate whether record labels have ever turned a good artist into a great one – a producer, maybe. Generally artists credit record labels with ‘second album syndrome’, where they have to replicate the creativity of years of writing and gigging within the time limits set by a record company.

    I know there are examples, such as Aretha Franklin being sent to record in Muscle Shoals – but it was the musicians of that area that provided the actual creative boost, not Jerry Wexler and Atlantic Records.

    Meanwhile the likes of Robert Johnson achieved genius despite only encountering a record studio for a couple of days.

    I find it hard to believe that record labels and publishers are essential to creative talent reaching it’s potential – it tends to be constant devotion to honing one’s art (Hendrix taking his guitar into the toilet for example).

    Meanwhile, I’ve yet to see the same nurturing applied to writers, journalists, nurses or binmen for that matter.

    Music existed before the invention of copyright or recording companies, and the business side of music is an addition, not the substance for creativity.

    If it were true, recording studios like Stax wouldn’t have been successful, as they didn’t have the funds or time to nurture artists for years.

    One of the flaw in protecting paid music and copyright to nurture artists (two separate issues), is that there are many artists who were sadly never able to get the revenue they created, and never will.

    And it’s hard to justify continuing to charge payment for the works of those artists sadly no longer with us, unless it’s to benefit business.

  6. I actually think we’re agreeing here. I’m not claiming that senior record label management somehow nurtures the creativity of an artist. Rather the investment of the label enables that nurturing. The record labels pay the bills of the producers and engineers. They pay the bills of the songwriters and the creative directors. They provide the A&R managers who, onoce they have discovered the artist, then help hone their sound and direct them. When I was a recording artist, the process from my original demo to final release was lengthy with everyone from the label manager, head of A&R through to studio engineer providing constant feedback and direction. So that the end product was massively different from the original raw demo, and so much better for the process.

    Sure it doesn’t have too be record labels that play that role or provide the investment. But it needs to be somebody. A kid on an estate playing around on Qbase is unlikely to ever be able to afford to take his tracks into a commercial studio and get the quality of mix down and sound sources that would make his track sell. It’s record labels that normally provide that first step on the ladder. And yes there will be geniuses who can make it sound good enough in their bedrooms, but most of the music making world is not compose of geniuses.

    If music could be predominately free but the arists and labels get paid, then great. But I don’t see the systems or business models that would sustain that model. Free is an increasingly important element, but part of a broader mix.

  7. The UK hosted 12 music festivals in 1990, and 664 in 2008. Wondering what the long term implications will be of this shift towards live music? Malcolm Gladwell argues in his new book that The Beatles were successful because of the 1200 live gigs they did before they released a single, and that it’s no coincidence they reached their artistic high point (Sgt Pepper) 10 years after John and Paul started their partnership.

    If Gladwell is right, then this renaissance in live music should produce a flowering of musical creativity in the next decade, which could be key in saving the industry as we know it. That’s taking the rather old-fashioned view that people will still pay for what’s good rather than what’s merely well marketed or well-produced or well-distributed (though those things do help).

  8. My hypothesis is that producers, sound engineers etc will all still exist, but employed more directly from an artist, using whatever funding they’ve managed to build up from their core fanbase, perhaps with an intermediary similar to a marketing agency, or a slicethepie or sellaband type idea.

    What they won’t be able to sustain is the profits needs for a huge traditional record company.

  9. This is all eminently reasonable and workable but could simply be applied to either large record labels that work more efficiently or smaller record labels with lower cost bases. A marketing agency can be just as bloated and excessive as a record label.

    The essence of what you’re advocating is greater efficiency and effectiveness. I agree whole-heartedly with that, but I wouldn’t rule record labels out from being the core compenents of such a leaner value chain.

    Sellaband etc. are great but what 95% of the artists on there will want is a record deal that’s big enough to get them to as big an audience as possible. It’s usually not greed that drives, rather the creative ego wanting as many people as possible to hear one’s music.

  10. I think what I struggle to do is picture the most efficient mechanism – in which a band raises funds and hires the people it needs – which then requires any additional elements of a record label umbrella organisation…

    If we’re agree on a lean value chain, but we’re keeping record companies, how do we make the current model leaner?

    Incidentally, if we all agree about the creative ego wanting as many people as possible to hear one’s music, surely that’s a great argument for making it free?

  11. I can’t help thinking that both sides in this argument post such extreme views that a proper solution is hard to find. All music cannto be free because of the points made in the article. Established artists can easily create revenue from multiple sources but the large majority of unestablished artists will make much less from local & internet word of mouth and so will struggle to support the cost of their work.
    The model I have read about that makes the most sense to me is to charge for music but also treat it as a free promotional device – in other words, charge those that wish to pay but don’t sweat on those that take it for free.
    The best overall discussion I have seen on this is at
    It dredges up the two fast-becoming-cliche examples of NIN and Radiohead but puts them in context and adds a few other examples.
    Worth reading as a counterpoint to this article.


  12. Pingback: Die Musikwärter » Debattier-Blog von Mark Mulligan

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