Truth and Free Stuff

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I couldn’t tell you the first time I actually encountered an artist I truly liked just giving their music away.  Oh wait, I guess it would have been Degarmo and Key’s 1986 release “D&K,” but that was more of a buy-one-get-one-free-to-give-to-a-friend kind of deal.  Still, two cassettes for the price of one.  Not bad.  Not bad at all.

Now all of the sudden, what with the advent of cyberspace and this tool you’re using to read these words, artists aren’t just giving people a second copy free.  They’re giving the first copy away free too!

And I, for one, am loving it.  Noisetrade, Andrew Osenga, even the streaming jukeboxes folks like Centricity host on their sites have made it easy for music lovers to get their hands on the latest projects of their favorite artists, sometimes within days, even hours of finishing the mix.

This has been going on long enough now that I’m moving from simple, pure elation to a more philosophical appreciation for what this means for the music awaiting us all.

I think what I’m realizing is that while the download may not require money, it is not free.  So this is one man’s observations about the genius of “pay what you want” downloads, and the responsibility of the downloader (feel free to use that term at will) to engage with the process.  There’s a lot at stake for music lovers and even more for those who’ve dared to chase after the silly dream of trying to make a living at making music.

The “pay what you want” download had landed a serious blow upon the jawbone of the PR machine that is constantly telling you you can’t live without So-and-so’s latest record.  Before, we were left to take their word for it and buy it or become a pirate and steal it.

But the Rabbit Room is not really a confessional, is it?

When an artist makes a record and offers it to me for what I think it’s worth, a few things converge.

First, there’s the integrity of the artist.  There is a lot of truth built into this approach.  If the artist is creating high quality work, I’ll know before I part with my cash.  If they aren’t, I’ll know that too.  So it puts a certain responsibility on the artist to strive for quality and not just “mail it in,” as they say.

Second, there’s the relational interplay between the artists and his or her “fans.”  An artist has to want people to connect with their art.  They can’t wander too far off the deep end of weird self-indulgence. (Have you ever got a hold of a record by someone you really liked, only to find that they’ve gradually become less and less accessible?  It can feel like losing a friend.)  When the download is free, the artist must create with the audience in mind, and I think this yields better art precisely because there is a built in accountability to tell the truth in a comprehensible way.

Third, there’s the responsibility of the listener to actually pay up in the end.  If it’s crap, it’s crap. So if you download a real stinker, no harm no foul, you got it for free.  All it cost was some space on your hard drive.  But if you download for free and it’s not crap, what is it worth to you?

And what if its great?

Have you ever known anyone who bought the Beatles’ White Album on vinyl, 8 track, cassette, CD and MP3?  Why would someone do that?  Because the record is valuable enough to them that they want it as a part of their permanent collection.  In effect, it is worth five times what, say, Abba Gold is to them.

I’m not advocating that we pay $50 for records we really like, $25 for ones we think are decent, and so on.  What I’m suggesting is that when we download before we pay, we enter into a “gentleman’s (or gentlewoman’s?) agreement” to determine the value of the product and pay up.  I think we’re on the hook to pay something.

Artists who put their work up for free are taking a huge risk.  They depend on the honesty of their own fan base to support them in making the art those same fans so look forward to and appreciate and listen to over and over again.

The making of a record is expensive, and many of the free ones are independent releases, meaning there are no record label dollars behind them, covering the cost of the musicians and engineers and use of studio space.

The independent artist is in a bit of a spot with this, since they know that they can’t skimp on quality– either when it comes to the players or the production– if they hope to gain and retain fans in a way that is competitive with the rest of their industry.  So they have to pony up for high quality if they want to make a living at this.  What they offer at no initial charge has already cost them dearly, of that you can be sure.

Yes, it is a life they choose.  Yes, they should count the cost.  But I for one am so much richer for the risks many artists have taken to devote themselves to their craft.  They have invested in me.  When I hear my children sing “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away our sin” in the back of the minivan, there’s a dozen or so artists that come to mind as people who have invested in showing my kids the truth about Jesus.

So what is that worth to me?

See what I’m getting at?  “Free” downloads are not really free.  They are contracts to pursue truth and respond accordingly.  Sometimes that involves withholding payment if you are convinced the artist has stopped caring about their craft along the way.  But most of the time it means we support them in what they have created and what they hope to create next.

I love this system because it keeps us all honest.  The fan base becomes the PR department.  We tell our friends.  We go to concerts.  We buy CD’s and t-shirts.  And what we get in return, ideally, is a product from the artist that they believe in, without having to tell lies in order to sell it.  What is that worth to you?

Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003). Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.


15 Comments

  1. Laura Irick

    It’s a good thing Andrew Peterson records don’t come with a “pay what they’re worth” price tag or none of us could afford one.

    Jesus knew that about his own worth and perhaps that is why He was willing to pay for us.

    Andrew Peterson’s commitment to perform free at churches the entire month of October and to offer his music and stories free through the Centricity jukebox clearly redefines the term “free” and reminds us that freedom in Christ is truly a priceless gift.

  2. Tony Heringer

    Russ,

    I sympathize with the plight voiced here. I work in the software business, like the music business, it is a crowded space for selling/promoting product. So, I think, as unscrupulous as this sounds and at times is, both industries have learned a bit from the drug business (legal and illegal) when it comes to distribution of product.

    Giveaways are gateways to addiction and addiction always costs us something. Note the word business in each of the trades listed. Like it or not, all three are thriving industries in America. Americans are hooked on drugs, music and software not necessarily in that order, but given the amount of ads for prescribed drugs that order may not be too far off.

    So, I go to the doctor today and he gives me “free” samples. I don’t pay him for it–at least not specifically for that drug sample. Once I’ve tried this drug I will decide if there is benefit and then I will have to buy more. I download Andy Osenga’s music for “free” because I really dig his Caedmon’s Call work (which I purchased). I get spam software for free, the application works pretty well and the licensed package has something else I need, I buy it – otherwise, I stick with the “free” version.

    Getting back to the music, with regards to Andy, I will see him with CC on Saturday. At that time I will make a point of picking up one or two of his CDs because I’m hooked. I think that is the way this process works. I was brought into the pipeline with the freebies, but now I’m paying. Others may feel the need to ride a nobler steed in this journey, but in the end I’m not only a purchaser of the product, I’m a product champion because I’d recommend Andy’s music to anyone and have here and elsewhere (e.g. Facebook, conversations with friends, etc, etc, etc).

    So, have I paid for Andy’s “free” music? You make the call my fellow Rabbit Roomers. I’ll sit back and enjoy the banter.

  3. Russ Ramsey

    Tony is spot on here with a key to this whole thing. Artists don’t give away free stuff solely in the hope that you’ll support the investment they made in that one record. Their hope is that you’ll invest in supporting them as a vocational, professional artist. This includes tours, other projects and compilations, books if they write (which some do, I hear.)

    Tony, I don’t know if you paid anything for Andy Osenga’s Letters To The Editor, but if you haven’t and you want to be able to look him in the eye after the show, you might want to slip him a five spot. 🙂

  4. Dusty

    I totally agree with the idea that we pay for the music not only by the money we give the artist for that particular download, but also through other means of support. For example, I’ve downloaded some of Derek Webb’s stuff through freederekwebb.com, but with “the ringing bell” and “ampersand” I pre-ordered both. Not only that, but anytime he’s doing a show nearby you can bet I’ll be there. The same goes for any of the Square Pegs or Rabbit Room artist, they have built a reputation through their work, and anytime they are in the area I’ll be at their show, and will probably buy some merchandise.
    P.S. Arthur, I downloaded your album a few months back after reading about it on Andy O’s blog, and love it.

  5. Amy

    I always pay when it’s this sort of agreement and I pay at least what I would consider standard (10-15 dollars) If I love the artist, I might give more. If I love the music, I will do everything I can to spread the word.

  6. elijah

    Here’s how I understand the free music thing, and I’d love to be corrected if I’m wrong:

    When signed to a label, artists don’t really make much money off album sales anyway. They make money by performing and having people come to their concerts. The labels bank on album sales because, after all, the label paid to have the album made. I believe this is also the reason we don’t see signed artists giving away free music. (You could make an argument that DW is signed to INO, but I understand he owns his masters and shares expenses and profits with INO, which essentially makes him independent. INO is kind of an advertising machine.)

    Free music serves as advertisement. People are much more likely to come to your shows if they know and like your music, and doing shows is the way an artist pays the bills, and it always has been. Derek Webb’s concert attendance tripled after giving away Mockingbird.

    The internet made this possible, or you could say the internet caused this. People were and are getting music for free anyway; the artists (at least those artists with the freedom to do so) have just decided to make the system work for them instead of against them.

    I think it’s a very exciting time for the independent artist.

  7. whipple

    Here’s another interesting and slightly esoteric question.

    What if you are an artist?

    I’ve worked on the barter system with other artists for so long that I would have long ago lost track of who owed whom if I even wanted to know. The fact is that I’ve traded my material for the material of others, or my musicianship for the artwork of others, or something else entirely. I know that it doesn’t pay much, and I’d spend most of my time in the red if this wasn’t a moonlight gig. I’d love to make it a full time thing, but that’s not possible right now.

    On the whole though, I can’t count the people who have given of their talent to me for free, and I can’t count the times that I’ve played for the sheer enjoyment of it. I used to lean towards simply giving everything away, and I’d still like to, but a syrupy spoonful of “reality” brought me to feel that I should charge money. I’d like to know how the Square Peg folks on here keep abreast of the checkbook register without selling their souls or the soul of their work to it.

    Most of the time, when I traded somebody, I felt that I came out with the better end of the deal. That’s a difficult transaction to quantify when standing in one’s own shoes though, because each one of us is his own worst critic, and we will usually see the worth in another’s talent before we see the worth in our own.

  8. Michael Anthony Curan

    Free Music is the only way i can get quality music from quality artists outside the philippines. of course i buy local and indie music that i love but its hard to buy indie and quality music abroad cause its too espensive. so a 22 year old college student like me, no matter how i love to pay those downloads at noisetrade, is force to download it for free cause i have no credit card, and im just a college student…
    .
    however i buy a lot of Cd’s mostly batgain imports from U.S. and U.K. they;re mostly secondhand and no longer expensive. that’s how i got Andrew Peterson’s The Far Country, Cherryholms II-Black and White, Slayer- Christ Illusion, and Jason Gray

  9. Tony Heringer

    Russ,

    Just to close the loop, my family and I saw Andy this week-end with Caedmon’s Call. During Andy’s brief set he made it clear that the free downloads on his site were just that free – out there for marketing purposes. Me thinks Andy may have read this post.

    Anyway, I yelled out “Canada” when he asked for requests and in this case my loud voice paid off. Andy also performed a blistering guitar solo at the end of “Hold The Light” –probably my favorite song on “Overdressed” (for sale here in the Room: https://store.rabbitroom.com/index.aspx#/details/19320093-771a-449b-9a5c-70be66fbb499 — the special Limited Edition no less)
    It was an awesome show.

    Per my promise above, I picked up the two Osenga CDs on sale at the show. I’m listening to them today and loving it!

    They are both also sold here in the Room: https://store.rabbitroom.com/index.aspx#/browse/19320093-771a-449b-9a5c-70be66fbb499.

    Cheers!

  10. The Rabbit Room

    […] making a career at it—is something I am very much interested in seeing.  Recently I wrote a speculative piece here about the responsibility one assumes when they download a “pay what you want” record from […]

  11. Dusty

    So, even though this post is getting old now, it brought a question to mind about a week after it originated, that I’d really like answered. That is which way do you, the artist, make the most off an album? In Andy’s case, how can I supply him with more diapers, by buying his album from his site, or from a show, or the RR, or itunes, etc.? I got to meet Charlie Hall after a concert a few years ago, it was a few days before the release of his Flying into Daybreak album and he was selling the album early for like 5 bucks a cd or something cheap like that, after the show I asked him how he was selling it so cheap and he said he was actually making as much or maybe more than if you bought it from a Christian book store or some other venue of that nature. Anyway, with things like this being the case, I would love to know which way of purchasing music either from an independent artist or from an artist on a label puts more money in their wallet, so that I can give them the most support possible.

  12. Tony Heringer

    Dusty,

    I think Andy gets at this question in the follow up post: http://www.rabbitroom.com/?p=1085

    Based on what he said, the less hands a product travels through the more profit for the artist. The cost of goods sold is also going to be a factor — which makes Eric Peters recent post quite transparent on the ways and means of an artist. Knowing these things, as you assert here, is helpful to us as fans as we want to help them out becuase of the help they’ve been to us.

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