Get Up for the Download

By now, everyone and their computer knows that Radiohead released their seventh full-length record over the internet, offering fans a slid-ing-scale pay system that included the enticing option of… not paying! While (ever reliable) Internet polling suggests that only a third of those who downloaded In Rainbows opted not to pony up, the very idea of one of modern rock’s biggest names releasing an entire record over the Internet without a set price sent the expected shock-wave through the music industry. In Rainbows’ paltry 160kbps bitrate and the subsequent announcement of an upcoming full-quality CD release may colour some fans’ reception of the download, but even this tentative step from such a massively popular band into the commercially unproven waters of Internet distribution marks a substantial shift in the way bands both big and small release their music. Telling Lies, a 1996 single by David Bowie, was the first online-only release by a major artist. Available for free from Mr. Stardust’s website, the three-song download was accessed by more than 300,000 users before a hardcopy was made available by BMG in early 1997. Since then, free single-song releases have become de rigueur for major label artists making the all-important publicity-push for new full-length recordings. Even Bruce Springsteen recently embraced the technology to hype his E-Street return-to-form Magic. But give-away downloads are equally important to independent artists. Targeting cash-strapped hipsters, many bands now freely distribute their music as a way of announcing their arrival to the white-belt world. Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right B A Start is a pioneer of free online distribution. With five full EPs of disarmingly sweet indie pop available gratis from their website (www.upupdowndown.org), the band cemented their place in the hearts of MySpace users everywhere by allowing for unrestricted access to their music. When they actually got around to producing a second full-length record in 2007, the fan base they had built up through online word-of-mouth and the continued availability of early recordings (that, in the world of physical releases, would have been long out-of-print) meant far more successful sales than many bands of their stature could have otherwise expected. Similar small-scale success stories can be found in the careers of bands like the Artist Life, a pop-punk combo whose free EP was downloaded more than 1,000 times in the first three weeks it was made available. While the band boasts former members of Jersey and Jude the Obscure, there is still little chance of a (relatively) brand-new band racking up that many sales with a traditional record release in such a short time. By embracing the freedom afforded by cheap web hosting and high-quality audio compression, bands can now bank on more kids sharing their music with friends, coming out to shows and buying their merch. The benefit is equal parts artistic and commercial: a greater chance of exposure for the current creation and the potential for reaping financial rewards with subsequent creations. The Craft Economy is a band from Toronto who took the idea of a free release to the next level. This past September, they stapled a hundred copies of their debut EP All On C to various surfaces in the city’s trendy Queen West and Kensington Market neighbourhoods. The release was also available free from the band’s website (thecrafteconomy.com) and for cash from the band members themselves. This creative take on distribution follows hundreds of Internet-only releases from bands with similar ideas about promoting themselves in an appealingly cheap (both for the consumer and the creator) manner. Oddly enough, some of the real art in free music comes from the legalities associated with it, particularly the advances made by the Creative Commons movement. A band such as the Craft Economy protect their pole-stapled music through the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence. This category of licence encourages the sharing and remixing of the source material, but demands that the original music always be attributed to the creator and any subsequent work derived from the original be shared in the same manner. Founded in 2001, Creative Commons is an organization dedicated to “balance, compromise and cooperation,” essentially creating a middle ground between a full copyright and the public domain. The range of licences they have created are used for podcasts, instructional texts, pornography and, most importantly, music. Quote Unquote Records was founded on the ideals of the Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 licence that adds the requirement of never using the licensed material for commercial purposes. Releasing records primarily by DIY punk acts like Bomb The Music Industry! (whose lead singer Jeff Rosenstock runs Quote Unquote), O Pioneers!!! and Chotto Ghetto, the label’s discography (if we can still use such a word) is online-only, available for free with only a suggested donation. Such a radical ideological stance is not solely the domain of punk rock. Many other labels, from the avant-classical of OnClassical to the electronic post-rock of LOCA, also rely on the Creative Commons model when releasing music. The Creative Commons organization itself has developed a unique project called ccMixter (ccmixter.org) to encourage artists to take advantage of the freedom afforded by many of its licences. Compiling CC-licensed instrumentals and a cappella tracks, the project aims to foster creative remixing through its simple interface and a partnership with Magnatune (yet another record label with online distribution and CC licensing). Featuring music by such high-profile artists as the Beastie Boys and David Byrne–as well as countless independent acts–the project exemplifies the type of freedom afforded by limited copyrights, digital technology and their creative application. The financial benefits of free online distribution, especially for independent artists, shouldn’t be ignored either. If you can maximize the number of people who will have a chance to hear your music, your local gig/national tour will be that much easier to promote and, potentially, profitable. By taking advantage of Creative Commons licenses, source content can still be legally protected while fostering an open artistic community all across Canada’s million of miles of fibre optic cable.

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