Thoughts on Selling Music

As readers of this blog may or may not be aware, I write music. I produce this music as best I am able and post it to sites like Bandcamp in order to distribute it. As one who writes and produces and makes available music, I find that articles often crop up on both sides of a particular coin. That coin: Whether or not music should be sold and paid for.

There are those who point out, rightly, that music has a long tradition of patronage and money being given to those who create music that people enjoy. Bards once wrote songs about history and embellished stories about heroes’ adventures and were given, in exchange for songs, food and shelter and sometimes some money to be able to get more food and shelter as they traveled to the next place. Musicians in periods like the Renaissance and classical periods (Baroque and such) were often patronized by either the church (reference J.S. Bach) or wealthy individuals.

In more modern times, record labels have become the “patrons” of music and have marketed the product to the masses. In lieu of individuals patronizing musicians, the masses paid money to labels who, in turn, paid musicians. This system seemed to work for a time.

Then came MP3 and services like Napster and its ilk. Suddenly, music could be traded on a large scale. Mix tapes had been a possibility for more than a decade, but MP3 changed the game. Digital distribution channels began to crop up and every mediocre garage band could distribute their recordings to the world. I ought to know, I was in one of those mediocre garage bands that did precisely that.

Now that the extremely condensed history lesson is over, I return to the question: Should music be sold and paid for?

The answer to the first part depends, I think, on the musician’s intent. If I write music so that people can hear it and have no concern whatsoever about whether or not anyone pays me for it, then there is no need — on my side — to sell the music.

There may be, however, the need on the part of someone who enjoys the music to express that. They could send an e-mail or post a positive review of the music and this does happen. However, there are people who want to express their appreciation in remunerative ways, i.e. they want to drop some cash in the metaphorical tip jar. It requires less of their time and seems, to some, a far more tangible expression of their appreciation.

Places like Bandcamp strike an excellent balance here and allow musicians to release their work in a “Name Your Price” format that allows folks to download for free or to drop something in the tip jar. I have seen both happen with the music I have made and I appreciate both. To know that someone is listening to and enjoying the music is humbling and encouraging. To receive remuneration for the work that went into making that music is immensely satisfying and encouraging.

The second part — should music be paid for — depends on whether or not payment is asked. If the music is being sold, then the answer is yes. Musicians may rely on revenue from music sales to support themselves. Some may be trying to get that sort of thing up and running and can ill afford to have their work redistributed without receiving payment. Even established artists may rely on sales to repair the tour “bus” or buy new strings for their guitars.

If the reader is a musician, I offer the following thoughts on whether or not to sell music. If you want to make music your job — Read: it is about grinding out your next record or arranging the next tour or designing the merch in order to keep the bills paid — then you should definitely sell your music. If you are trying to recoup the cost of producing and studio time, feel free to sell it. If you are like me and have a day job and produce most of your own tracks on your own equipment and do not really need the money, I suggest allowing the listener to determine whether or not they should pay for it. Offer it, by all means, but offer it through places that allow for free downloads as well as paid downloads.

If the reader is a music listener, I suggest the following. If you like the music, consider paying for it — payment encourages future production of similar things. If you can afford to pay for it, then pay for it. If you cannot afford to pay for it and the musician is like me, then take it with our blessing. If you cannot afford it and the musician’s livelihood is wrapped up in the sale of their music, then you probably should ask someone to give you the music as a gift so the musician gets paid and you get the music you want (and potentially get more, down the line, since the sale encourages the musician to make more).

And, my final note before closing out this entry. If you like industrial in the vein of VNV Nation and Assemblage 23, consider giving my stuff a listen and feel free to download if you are so inclined. I am stoked when I see either a download or a purchase. I just add being stoked that I can buy a coffee to fuel my next bit of writing to the normal stoking of a download when I see a sale.

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