Sophia Cacciola

Launch Over: Cacciola/Epstein Productions

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Sophia and Michael are Somerville, MA based filmmakers, musicians, and writers

Films: Blood of the Tribades, TEN, Magnetic

Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling [Music][Blog][Facebook][Twitter][Youtube] bass/drum duo based on The Prisoner
The Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library [Music][Blog][Facebook][Twitter][Youtube] Indie ensemble
Night Kisses, Darling Pet Munkee, Space Balloons, The Motion Sick

Michael J. Epstein

Opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

To free or not to free: I am begging you to listen to my music, but only because you want to...???

Courtesy of local music scene satirist Richard Douche-ard. Used without
his damn permission. Try and stop me!
To free or not to free?
I've been having a series of conversations on Facebook (1 - 2) about various components of the value of music and, much like other aspects of life (stupid Hollywoodized rules for dating for example), we're caught between...

1) a stereotypical "please please" listen to my music form of begging... 
...juxtaposed with...
2) "I'm being cool about it and I'll let you buy my music and check it out because it's what you want to do" aloofness designed to maintain value and mystique.

Truth: I want to just give away my music.*

I really do. It's nice to make back some money selling it as it costs a lot to keep a band going, but the most important thing to me is that the most people hear it and enjoy it. So, I should just give my music away to everyone who will take it? I say, at least mostly, no. (Lots of others do too or maybe they don't.) The reasons are complex and I am still trying to navigate them and come to a conclusive decision. I'd really love to figure out how. This post is my initial thought-dump on free distribution of music. I hope it opens up more conversations and more avenues of thought, and that it helps me find an optimal working method for my own work.

*That said, if you want any of it, just ask me and I'll gladly send you download links...but you have to ask. I won't offer it to you. Huh?

There are numerous articles about the difference between price and value. There is a famous (and probably ongoing) debate about whether people in high-risk areas for malaria are more likely to use mosquito nets that they are given for free or that they paid a small amount for (1 2 3). The situation for musicians is, however, is not much like mosquito nets. There are huge numbers of people creating music. If we look at one arbitrary metric, iTunes has more than 20 million songs available! When I write a song, I am pretty sure the world doesn't really need it. There isn't a supply shortage. I write my music for myself, but then at least some part of me yearns for justification by having it reach others.

I'm begging you to listen...

While I don't know the answer for everyone, I can speak about my experience for context. I can only assume an average person operates similarly, but I have no idea. I don't think people value music they are handed, and, even worse, they start with a baseline "this music is bad" mentality when they begin listening. Most music is bad. Tons of musicians are vying for my attention, begging for me to listen to their music, handing me CDs, e-mailing me tracks, spamming me on Facebook...and I don't even have any real power or clout to offer them. Even if I love their music, I can't really do much of anything to help them succeed. 

When people ask me to listen to their music, I almost never do. I don't have time and I don't have interest. If you hand me a CD, it will take me some 15 minutes to open it, put it into my computer, rip it (and probably type the stupid track names in because most people handing me a CD haven't bothered to put their disc into freedb), and then open the files. Chances are, it's just not going to happen. I don't mean that as a personal slight to anyone, I just won't do it. If you send me a download link to your music (on bandcamp or something similar) after I've had a conversation with you, the chances are greater. If you are on Spotify, the chances are actually very high. I've been storing a "music to listen to" playlist and the time/risk/cost of adding your music to that is extremely low and I won't forget about it. Sure, that playlist contains thousands of songs at the moment, but I do seem to be making pretty regular digs into it. I listen to tons of new music, particularly local music - almost 100% because I regularly hear about or read about bands. I trust when someone tells me they like a band that they have no stake in. I check it out. Still, I have far less time to do this than I have music I'd like to check out.

If you send me an unsolicited link via e-mail and we haven't met or talked and I have no context for you, there is less than zero chance that I will listen. In fact, I will probably actively avoid listening to your music forevermore. Why? I don't know. It sounds mean and awful, but there is some kind of social wall that I feel is being eroded when I get these messages. Unless I know you pretty well, I will probably unfriend you or block you on Facebook if you post a link on my wall to your music or event. Again, I hold some value in my private (public) space. I also cannot keep you as a friend on Facebook, but block you from posting on my wall. I don't care if you invite me to a million events because I can block you from inviting me to events (and I just pretty much block everyone from inviting me to events as matter of making the site usable - this way, I can use the events system to actually track events). I never look at messages on Facebook, so I also don't care if you spam me there. I will never see it. 

When you do all these things (or when I do all these things), the message is: this music has no much so that I not only offer it for free, but essentially put time, money, and resources into begging you to listen to it.

Does that mean you should never "beg" people to listen to your music? Well, the line blurs between begging and promoting...

Possible successful "begging" techniques for giving away music for free: 

1. Get someone with a reputable name to give away your music for free

People perceive someone else talking about your music very differently than when you talk about it. The divide widens when it's someone with a reputation. Recently, we gave away a new The Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library track on MAGNET. When I post that you can download our song on MAGNET (vs. our site), everyone is far more likely to perceive the song as being good (just by virtue of someone else offering it) and everyone is far more likely to share in the vicarious excitement of the song (by someone they know or follow) being touted by someone else that they've heard of. I am not sure that a ton of people who follow MAGNET will download the file, but I am sure that way more of my friends and followers will download it than if I just sent them to my website. Sadly, "reputable" endorsement seems to be the most powerful of movers. I'd love to say quality is the prime mover, but I don't think it is.

Tangent: when The Motion Sick appeared in SPIN prior to ever playing a single show, we were immediately taken seriously and it became easy to book shows at venues that would never be attainable to a new band with no connections. As it turns out, being in SPIN sold fewer CDs (and downloads) than we sold on numerous good show nights throughout the years, BUT it made everyone we personally know take our band a lot more seriously. Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling's recent appearance over at TIME had a similar effect in justifying our existence to friends and family. The music doesn't change just because SPIN or TIME writes about it, but the way people perceive it absolutely does. Most of these things won't break you with huge new audiences, but they will strengthen your ties to your existing audience.

2. Offer it for a limited time

This week only, download our song. No one wants to miss out on a limited-time offer

Caveat: The problem is, our music is always available on Bandcamp in streaming form (we don't get paid for that) and Spotify (we do get paid for that). So, I am not sure I can ever offer a limited-time offer unless we remove that, which brings forth other problems and concerns.

For fan club members only!!!
3. Offer it to a select group of people who are engaged in a special way

Believe it or not, people are EXTREMELY reluctant to be on an e-mail mailing list. They are far more likely to "like" a page on Facebook or follow someone on Twitter than to sign up for their e-mail list. From my perspective, my e-mail list is the only way to reach people that is in my control and has at least moderate reliability. So, I've been rewarding my list subscribers by providing a free sampler of my music every month that usually includes unreleased tracks or other special items that ONLY people on the list receive. The key here is that most e-mail list subscribers view being on the list as a deeper connection than say, following a band on Facebook. 

Downloading a track for free in exchange for an e-mail address also works, but is a little bit tricky. Bandcamp presently offers this option (and I use it regularly), but I am afraid that the users feel kind of like they've been duped when they see "free" and then ultimately have to enter their e-mail address and get added to your list!

4. Pay-what-you-want?

This is the one I've been struggling with the most. It actually makes the most sense logically from my perspective, but I think it acts as a pretty serious deterrent when it's happening under scrutiny, which it is when we are collecting e-mails and other data. People don't want to feel cheap. They don't want the onus of deciding the value of the music placed on them.

In one case that I am aware of, The Lights Out, used an unobserved merch case (with cash box lockdown) allowing people to drop money into the box and collect merch at any price they felt fair. My understanding is that this has been a very successful approach and doesn't not make the buyer feel that they are under surveillance or being judged.

UPDATE: Here's a video tour of The Lights Out's merch case:

So where does that leave us?

Should we forget free?!?!?!?

I think we can't ignore free. That is, a consumer probably should not be expected to directly pay money in exchange for your music at the instance of consumption any longer (or much longer) - see rant below. Does that mean artists make no money? Not necessarily. We need to shift paradigms. More importantly, we need to present value to consumers without cost. Of course, we're all still trying to figure out how! We're in an in-between space at the moment and it's a very difficult one to crawl through...

My rant on the future of consumption below, but first...

PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE check out my music! I am begging!

My rant from Facebook: I think musicians have to stop pretending that music has much consumer value and stop expecting that people are going to pay historical prices for it. The giant corporate conglomerate market control and price fixing has ended. Now, music is so overwhelmingly available and has become virtually worthless as a commodity. We need to accept it. Does that suck for musicians? Yes, it does. Is it the reality? Yes, it is.

I view music purchasers as "supporters of the arts," if you will. They are not doing it to get the commodity; they are doing it to encourage the artist to keep doing what they are doing. It's turning more toward patronage, it's not consumerism anymore (or it won't be for very much longer I believe). We have a culture that does not value art very much financially. Thus, art has little monetary value. You can throw a tantrum about that, but it's not going to change the facts. While I don't support piracy in a general sense, I think we need to acknowledge that the value of music was faked for so long and that the modern consumers demand music for free (or pennies). Again, sucks for musicians, but it's how it goes. No one has a right to make a living being an artist. Artists need to stop demanding that right if the market doesn't support it. We can come up with a million reasons why our music should sell for as much (or more) than it does now, but those reasons are simply not relevant to market value. I realized that the fastest and best way I could lose less money making music was not to sell more or sell it at a higher price, but rather to stop spending money. Do my recordings sound as good as they would if I spent a lot of money on them? No. Would I sell more if I had spent more? Also no.

I think artists will ultimately benefit the most from subscription model payouts once statutory rates for streaming are set (and hopefully are somewhat reasonable). It also rewards people that make good music that gets listened to a lot and removes rewards for overmarketing terrible music. I think that the end of music selling in favor of paying per stream will ultimately save the art. Write bad songs, get no plays. Write great songs, get plays. First thing we need to do is abandon the idea that people are going to be willing to pay $10 for an album. That concept doesn't have much life left in it. I say kill the pirates by meeting consumer demands, not passing imbecilic laws. Spotify is a piracy killer. Sure, the payouts need to be worked out still, but that is where the focus of legislation should be - how can we shift to a streaming, on-demand model that can work for everyone? Artists are, of course, going to lose out in this shift, but it's inevitable.

A lot of this applies to movies, television, and other media as well. We need to figure out how to shift models instead of just trying to stop a cultural tidal wave with useless laws. These models will require a rethink of how content is produced and how much money is put into it. I think this is ultimately a winning proposition. It's actually the real stage at which there is market equality.


  1. I respect a lot of what you're saying here, and I use a lot of it. I say all the time that a cd should be no more than $5. I think mp3s should be about .25 each. I Los think that people need to shut the fuck up about the fucking economy. Everyone bitches about it, and how thy cant pay for a show or a cd by a local act, then they pay $90/mo for their cell phone and they go to see shitty Hollywood movies three times a month. Things aren't as bad as they seem. People just like to use it as an excuse. Yes, much of it sucks, yes, there is less money out there; but it's still there, if people choose to spend it such a fashion.

    I think you need to let up on the consumer a little bit, though. You need to remember that there ARE people willing to pay for music. I see them everyday. The issue is that people associate "local" with "kinda shitty". We have to show them that's not the case. Just because we don't have Madonna sized budgets doesn't mean we can't put n shows with as much energy.

    You make it sound like there's no hope at all because of the market. You also make it sound like there ever was a market for selling music. There wasn't. There was only a different model of delivering it, and the bloated business mode of labels ffrom the mid 60s to the 90s fucked everyone into thinking there was a business model; there is not. There are only patrons of the arts, and people who market well no make money off their music by selling it in ways that are outside the box; what you say about spotify is a good point here. Unfortunately, it's not a piracy killer; you're wrong about that. It's merely another way to build a revenue stream.

    Also, artists DO have the right to insist in being paid for their work, thanks. Your saying they do not belittles the work we all do. Does a doctor not have the right to be paid for their work? One is not more important than the other, no matter how you point at it in society and it's relevance. Stop saying artists don't deserve to ask to make a living off their work. THAT devalues it more than giving it away free.

    Again, I like what you're saying here, but you're taking a defeatist attitude when you say a lot of what you say. You need to insist that your work is worth money. The people who agree will agree and support you. The ones that don't can fuck right off.

  2. Thank you for your comments! One important distinction I should make is that I think no one has a right to demand that they should be paid to do what they want to do. If there were 20 million doctors begging to treat people, then no, doctors also don't really have a ground to stand on for getting paid. I don't consider it defeatist. I consider it realist. Someone suggested that musicians need to unionize and refuse to give away music. Could sort of work with mass acceptance.

  3. Sure, I can understand that. But, that's not going to happen. Money runs things, whether we like it or not. So insisting that "no one" should be able to ask for money for what they do will get you no where if you want to make money doing what you do. I'm not saying you have to make money; I'm saying that if you can, there is nothing wrong with pursuing that (and I'll be damned if someone thinks they can tell me that I don't have the right to ask for some monetary support of my music so I can keep making more). There are some things in life that you'll spend too long fighting for no good reason when you could have been doing some good - telling yourself that you'll fight the system of currency is one of them.

    You need to understand that "free" means something finite; it simply means currency isn't exchanged; sometimes what is, is gratitude. A doctor can work for free; plenty do. But you can't survive on happiness and rainbows, alone. Money buys food. It buys shelter. That's how things are. If you want to start a commune and do away with the usage of currency, go for it - but the majority of the world isn't going to change its views anytime soon.

    So, what do you do? You play the game and bend the rules to make it match your life. You turn people into patrons of your work, rather than simply consumers. The issue in today's society is consumerism - simply consuming to consume. It does no one any good. We have to show people that to be a patron of something - to support it because without some support it goes away - is the way to go.

    Let me ask you; what exactly are you proving with your views, here? Is snubbing your nose at putting your music out there without asking for money with it leading new fans your way? Are you getting an influx of people who are now willing to pay you for your work because you have stated that you won't charge money for it? Have you seen any real change? Or do you just have other musicians telling you that "that's the way to go, man!"? Because if it's the latter, sorry to say; you're on the wrong path. I'm not trying to be derisive, here, I'm just curious.

    Unionize against free music? Won't work. Why? Because big names have fucked that up. Radiohead and Trent Reznor have stood on stages and told people that they should download their music for free. Therefore, people have been convinced as such. You need to fight against that, and show people how being a patron of your work will actually cause for more of it to get made. Conversely, however, acts like Die Antwoord have stated that they do not charge for their music, and they've landed huge record contracts as a result, then turned down a million dollars to go make their own records and continue putting their music out there as they see fit. It's all mindset. If you don't believe that, you need to re-evaluate how powerful you think the human mind can be.

    You know what musicians need to unionize against? Being treated like shit by promoters, radio stations, and streaming services that steal from them. The fact is that, there is plenty of money out there that artists don't get because of shitty deals made by the big three record labels and their partners. Bands need to be educated about what is done to them on an average day with respect to their music being sold and used in ways they have no control over.

    Anyway, I could go on. You have your views, I have mine, hopefully somewhere between we can continue to be successful. Good luck to you.

  4. I'm coming back here to post one more thing, and that is, you should know that I don't necessarily want to piss you off - you seem to do a lot of good work, and that's great. I respect people who do that. But your stance on things is flawed. Don't offer your music up on bandcamp with a no minimum, pay with your email if you're going to state that we're devaluing music by offering it up for free. It's not solving anything (not that we can solve this so easily, of course).

    If you truly believe that we don't get to ask for money for our work, then don't ask for money, at all, in any way. Choose a stance, stick to it (unless it ends up sucking, in which case, change it). Without that, it sounds like you're whining, and calling out musicians who are just trying to get their work out there, which is, to use a 90s term, "mad wack, yo".

    LIke I say, don't wanna piss you off, so sorry if I came off as such - I'm kind of an asshole, It's just how I am. Thing is, I know shit, and I do know that you'd be better off expending your energy telling people why they should support your work, rather than calling out everyone you can and not offering up any ideas on how to make it better.

    Take care!

  5. You're missing the entire point, which is dealing with the contradiction that I don't think people can get money for music, but if you give it away without somehow demonstrating it has value, people don't value it. That is the point of this post...asking what it is that we can do. We happen to disagree about the value of music commercially, but I also think we just haven't come to clear points in the discussion.

    As for the rest, you didn't piss me off. I am just having fun. I just like to make sure that when people call me names in public, they are aware that I know. I really don't care. In fact, I appreciate your comments. I don't mind disagreeing at all. I didn't think the name calling was really great, but whatever...I can assure you that you didn't hurt my feelings. As for "I'm kind of an asshole, it's just how I am" - your choice, not nature.

  6. Well hey, good. Sorry for calling you a whiner. I'm glad you're savvy enough to follow these things - many musicians aren't.

    I understand what you're saying. I even agree with much of it. In the long run, we're all just looking for A. some recognition, and B. perhaps a little coin to live off of, because rainbows and sunshine don't buy ramen.

    Anyway, I appreciate your stance on things, I certainly hope it all works out. I'd rather in the end come to an agreement well enough that we know that we're probably both in the same boat, just with different oars.

  7. I am pretty sure we never disagreed in the first place really.