I have an amateurish and sporadically updated blog, Catching The Waves, in which I enthuse about netlabel releases that have tickled my fancy. I became interested in netlabel music because it allowed me to hear styles of music that I was curious about but couldn't afford to buy. It allowed me to explore genres that were new to me: chiptune, ambient, minimal, IDM, dub, electronica, breakbeat, experimental and so on. Now that I've heard some of those genres I am far more likely to buy songs/albums in those genres. The other day I bought a song from Jonathan Coulton, an artist I would not have heard of but for his online presence and habit of giving away free music. Similarly, I downloaded an album by Brad Sucks (Brad Turcotte) and liked it so much that I intend to buy his new album. Those are two artists who are going to get my money who would not have done so otherwise.
I don't make any money from my blog. In fact, it costs me money, but it's my way of saying thank you to people who have given away their music: the more publicity they receive, the better. I always link to the netlabel and the artist's own website, and I encourage visitors to my blog to make a donation or pay for some of the artists' other fare, whether that be albums, merchandise or concert tickets. Many netlabel musicians give away their music for no other reason than because they want to, though many use it as a marketing tool, building up a fan base that hopefully will “tip” them for their current music and/or pay for future releases. It's up to them. Either way, these people have made albums that might not otherwise have seen the light of day. The quality may vary greatly but no one is forced to listen.
It's not just one-way traffic. Netlabels spread the music; a website like Eventful allows music fans to “demand” that their favourite bands visit them. If a nascent band learn that 100 people in Nowheresville want to see them then they can stage a concert there, with a very good chance of a great reception and merchandise and record sales.
I'm not proposing an either/or music world. All I'm saying is that the netlabel/own-website scene can complement the existing music industry paradigm, allowing people to hear music without hindrance from financial constraints or perceived wisdom. Perhaps a site like Magnatune is a good compromise, allowing people to stream artists' music as much as they want to and, if they like it enough, to pay for a DRM-free mp3? There's also Jamendo, which offers over 8,000 albums of Creative Commons music, and allows listeners to donate to artists who might otherwise struggle to see any payment for their music.
Piracy is a bad thing. I am fully in favour of paying for music. If I want U2's latest record then I'll hand over the cash for it: I don't want to rip off musicians or companies. But the internet, whether in the form of netlabels or artists' own websites, allied with cheap software, now allows anyone to attempt to make a living as a musician. Most music, like most art, isn't very good. But the “long tail” theory of the internet allows people to find the music that chimes with their taste. Compose an opera for xylophone and noseflute and no record company will give you the time of day – but the internet allows the xylophone and noseflute lovers of the world to search for their favourite genre and discover your opera, which you've recorded and released under your own steam. Who on earth is to say what's good music and what isn't? The record companies?
Admittedly, everything is up in the air; it's difficult to predict what will happen to the music industry in the next few years. If I thought that netlabels were harming music and musicians then I would close my blog. But I don't think that netlabels and “free” music will hurt the Madonnas of this world. The large record companies will continue to dominate the charts and make money from sales, merchandising and tours. But those artists who sell “only” 1,000 albums, and can't continue because their record company has dropped them, might now be able to carry on because, thanks to the methods I've mentioned, they too can make money from sales, merchandising and tours. It depends what you want from your music-making. There might be fewer multi-millionaire musicians in the future but there may be more people who are able to make a living as full-time musicians. And there will be more choice for the listener. That's a good thing, surely?
The lovely photo was provided by Will Simpson under a Creative Commons licence. He's happy to see his images used so long as he receives attribution. I'm happy to oblige.