Give It Away Now: The Rise of Free Music

21 Sep

Well, it’s first thing Monday morning and already something is pissing me off. Raise your hand if you’re totally surprised by that revelation.

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

You’ll remember, my friends and co-conspirators, a few weeks ago I posted an article detailing my deep disappointment with our old pal Billy “it’s my band and I’ll be a douche if I want to” Corgan and his slow fall from heir to the alt-rock throne to laughable relic of yesteryear. Well, I don’t know if old Mister Zero read my post or not, but Brent at Two Assholes sent me a link to the Pumpkins’ official website detailing the upcoming album “Teargarden by Kaleidyscope” (whatever).

billy corgan

The Rat In A Cage sounds pretty plaintive these days. I guess it has to do with the fact that everyone he’s ever worked with can’t stand to be in the same room with him anymore, and the legions of fans he won during the “Siamese Dream” and “Mellon Collie” years decided his later projects sucked so much they moved on to wearing skinny jeans and listening to independent garage-band pabulum. Yes, that’s right – Billy Corgan’s music is so patently bad that Panic At The Disco has become the lesser of two evils. (And yeah, I’m aware there’s supposed to be an exclamation mark in that name, but this blog has to have some standards.)

panic at the disco

Like you, I was underwhelmed by this news. The Smashing Pumpkins haven’t performed in their original lineup in close to a decade, and frankly any “artist” who keeps monopolizing on the band name that first made them popular – even when the rest of the lineup has since moved on to greener pastures – is kind of pathetic. It’s like going to a Saturday night jam at your local watering hole to watch all the weekend warriors haul out their vintage Stratocasters and wank all over the pentatonic range, trying desperately to recapture whatever glory they had back in 1988 when they played guitar in their college speed-metal band that never made it anywhere. And yeah, Axl Rose, I’m looking at you.

axl rose

What piqued my interest, apart from Corgan’s sanctimonious prose (which I love tearing apart), was the way he’s marketing this inevitable failure. Here’s a direct quote from the man himself:

“Each song will be made available absolutely for free, to anyone anywhere. There will be no strings attached. Free will mean free, which means you won’t have to sign up for anything, give an email address, or jump through a hoop. You will be able to go and take the song or songs as you wish, as many times as you wish.”

First of all, just because something is free does not mean it’s worth taking: try offering me a flaming bag of ostrich poo for free and see if I take it off your hands. But leaving that aside, Corgan hammers the point home over and over again throughout the article that his new magnum opus will be available “to ALL” (caps included) for absolutely no charge whatsoever, and then – it seems – he sits back and waits for the congratulatory comments to roll in, as though he’s done us some sort of service by handing out his most recent masturbatory offal without making us pay for the privilege of stuffing our ears with the used tissue.

flaming bag of pooAm I supposed to stand up and applaud? As I mentioned before, I was once a die-hard Pumpkins fan: I bought everything from “Siamese Dream” all the way through to their best-of record (why I purchased an album featuring 99% songs I already had, I’ll never know) and though I never saw them live in concert, I would have happily paid just about any price to see the original lineup perform. I figure my total costs exceeded two hundred bucks, to say nothing of teeshirts, posters and whatever other crap I purchased. Doesn’t sound like much, but when you consider I was one of millions of devoted fans who bought into the hype, all of a sudden the dollar value on Corgan’s previous work starts to approach the same scale as his towering ego. Free for all, Billy? I’d be more impressed if you hadn’t already made millions off the backs of the fans you’ve been consistently disappointing since 1998.

But much as I love to castigate Billy Corgan, he’s far from the only big name (or has-been-name) to jump on the free music bandwagon. I’ve talked before about how the prevalence of the internet and specifically of peer-to-peer filesharing is changing the face of the music industry, and what we’re seeing now is, I think, an artist response to the rapidly-mutating industry landscape.

peer to peerThom Yorke and Radiohead have been doing something like it since 2007, when they released “In Rainbows” as a digital download on their website featuring a “pay-what-you-can” payment plan. This idea netted the band almost a million and a half downloads on the first day the album became available, though nobody would comment on how much they made from those purchases. I remember thinking at the time, “hey, what a neat idea”, not because I’m a particularly big fan of Radiohead (haven’t really been interested since “OK Computer”) but because it marked the beginning of a rather unique marketing initiative uncommon to major-label acts (or at least acts on popularity par with Radiohead).

thom yorke radiohead

The trend continued with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, a personal favourite of mine. In early 2007, the band became embroiled in a battle with the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) regarding leaked material from Reznor’s upcoming album “Year Zero”. Turns out Trent deliberately leaked the tracks himself – get this – by leaving hard drives and USB keys scattered around in venues the band played while on tour. When fans discovered the data and uploaded it, the superheroes at the RIAA leaped into action to ensure the hammer was brought down on these hardened criminals. The thing is, Interscope had already signed off on the press stunt, so the RIAA was left with considerable egg on its face, and Trent continued his campaign of free “extras” for his devoted fans.

In 2008, his four-volume album “Ghosts” was released, including a free download of the first volume available on the band’s website. Since then, he’s done some pretty amazing stuff with free content, most notably his DVD project in which he encouraged fans to videotape his recent tour and then send in their footage to a main database, where it could be shared, downloaded, and re-cut by fans to make their own unique concert DVDs, to say nothing of the content the band provided themselves. According to Brent, the full download of all the band content hit something like 400GB.  “All for free.”  Again, I remember thinking – wow. That is pretty cool.

Then came “The Slip”, which was a full-length album delivered by Trent and the band to their fans 100% free. They called it a thank-you gift for the years of support fans had given them. They even made the files accessible so fans could remix songs. Talk about handing over the keys to the castle – this isn’t just about file sharing anymore; this is about granting creative license to the people who got you where you are. Even cooler!

trent reznor nine inch nails

But you know what isn’t cool?

Metallica.

Yeah, you thought Billy was the only one in the firing line, but even his monstrous arrogance can’t compare to this fucking guy.

lars ulrich metallica

Anybody remember a little website called Napster? For those of you who’ve been living under a rock – with their fingers in their ears – on the moon – since the mid-90s, Napster was arguably the forerunner to all modern P2P file sharing networks, who made the mistake of illegally distributing Metallica’s sad attempt at hard-rock “music”. Drummer Lars Ulrich led a witch hunt against every man, woman and child suspected of sharing the band’s boring single “I Disappear”, resulting in Napster’s liquidation and Ulrich’s solidification as Rich Overprivileged Prick of 2002.

napster

Now, I don’t necessarily agree with the idea of not paying for music. I’m a musician myself and I know I would be pissed if I found out people were running around behind my back, spreading my work around, with me none the wiser and not seeing a dime. However, as you may have guessed given I actually have to work to pay my bills, I’m not a rock star worth millions upon millions of dollars. There’s a big bright line, in my estimation, between bands like Radiohead or NIN or Metallica who have spent the last decade and a half (or more) savouring the fruits of their labour and literally rolling in money, and bands like mine that haven’t made it anywhere yet. Thom Yorke, Trent Reznor and Lars Ulrich’s grandchildren will never have to work a day in their lives thanks to the kind of support their fans have lent their respective bands over the years – I, on the other hand, have to make fun of Billy Corgan just to be afforded the privilege of eating. And that hurts. It really does. But I might be able to be persuaded to give old Lars a pass for getting up in arms that somebody didn’t actually pay to have a copy of “Enter Sandman” on their iPod.

stealing musicExcept.

Metallica’s record contract with Warner Brothers ended last year. They’re looking to get working on their next shit-festival of a record, but they don’t want to go with another major label. So they started making some phone calls, and guess who they’re talking to about their next move?

trent reznor nine inch nails

Do I even need to make a joke here? How about the last horse finally crossing the finish line?  Can you imagine what kind of shit they’re going to take if they start trying to win back fans by handing out music for free after the Napster debacle? This brings me right back ’round to my original point.

Why am I shitting on Billy Corgan and Lars Ulrich, but not Thom Yorke or Trent Reznor? It’s a question of motivation. I know a lot of NIN fans and a lot of Radiohead fans, and frankly those bands have never really done anything to piss off their fan base. The way they’ve gone about their marketing of free or PWYC music has been, if anything, humble. Like I said before, Thom went on record saying “it’s up to you if you want to pay for this album or not”, and Trent said “hey, thanks for all the years of support – here’s a bunch of free shit” (incidentall, he also wrote a fantastic article on how to market your music in today’s industry culture.  Run, do not walk, and read it.)  Billy Corgan’s article reads like he’s saying “aren’t I great/groundbreaking/magnanimous for giving this to you, totally free of charge? How original and philanthropic of me!” and when Lars and the boys inevitably follow suit, they’re basically going to be slapping every burned Napster user in the face with their big corporate boners.

My point is this: when you’re a multi-million dollar business (and don’t kid yourself; that’s exactly what a hugely successful band is, a business), and you decide to start giving your product away for free after years of third-party distributors overcharging your customers, you should not be expecting commendations from the masses. You can argue with me all you want about quality of music, but in my opinion neither Billy Corgan nor Metallica have given us anything resembling good content in years. For Billy to turn around now and start delivering sermons from the mount about how greathearted he is for allowing us free access what amounts to bad poetry and a voice deriving from a terminal sinus infection – well, to me it’s the height of arrogance.

billy corgan smashing pumpkinsMaybe, just maybe, if we turn down the offer for a free bag of ostrich poo, Billy Corgan will stop shitting all over his palette and go back to Illinois. It’s what I said before – it comes down to motivation. Everybody’s motivated by a desire to either a) sell their records, b) spread their art, or likely c) both. But there comes a time to stop trying to cram mediocre crap down our throats – and giving it away isn’t any better. You want to give me a gift? Fine. Just make sure you include a gift receipt, don’t ask me to appreciate it, and for the love of what’s left of integrity in music, don’t expect me to sing your praises if you’re singing me garbage.

As usual, hate mail is expected, welcome and prepared for.

12 Responses to “Give It Away Now: The Rise of Free Music”

  1. Brent Chittenden September 21, 2009 at 4:35 PM #

    I think it’s also a matter of the fan/artist respect relationship.
    For instance, if U2 or Peter Gabriel came out giving away free albums even non fans would be interested in it or at least give it a pass on the credibility scale.
    Billy is a bit of a dick. He’s been a dick to his fans as Alex has chronicled, even Sharon Osbourn (yes that Sharon) had this to say about Billy during her short stint as the Smashing Pumpkins manager:

    “I had to resign due to illness. Billy Corgan makes me sick.”

    Lars we know to have been a bit of a douche too due to the Napster thing. Even U2 who in all reality, like them or not, had more to lose from Napster then Metallica did said essentially that it’s great and we’ll learn how to make money off of it later.

    Because Lars was so up and arms we now see it as a joke of them accepting the new reality of the music business.

  2. Shayla September 22, 2009 at 9:21 AM #

    I don’t give half a damn about Billy Corgan, but I did enjoy the discussion in this article about the reinventing of distribution in the music industry. It’s particularly relevant since Canada’s planning to reform its copyright laws in the next year. I went to out of the “town hall meetings” they set up — I put “town hall meetings” in quotation marks because it was flooded with representatives from Warner Music and Sony, and intellectual property lawyers.

    There’s got to be a good way to give deserving artists fair compensation for their work that offers the artist the exposure they need without having to cough up 90% of their proceeds to the labels. Any thoughts on this, as a musician?

  3. Alex James September 22, 2009 at 9:32 AM #

    I think the answer is relatively simple Shayla. First and foremost, don’t go with a label. Ever. In this day and age, it’s entirely reasonable for an artist to be able to do a passable-to-good recording of their own work from their own home (on the computer), proliferate it through online channels, and honestly just do the leg work required to play small shows and grow their fan base that way. That’s what I do, and it seems to work for me.

    The other side of the equation is that musicians in general need to get over this idea they’re going to be rock stars. Growing up with guys like my dad and your dad, among many others, I got over the rock ‘n’ roll dream pretty damn quick, because I was taught from the time I picked up a guitar that I do it for the music, not because I ever think I’m going to make any money at it.

    The Canadian government has a long way to go towards supporting musical talent — they offer a great deal in the way of financial support, but a) there are a lot of hoops to jump through to get at that support and b) not too many people know about it.

    The other part is community. I’ve recently become involved with several other musicians in a supportive, cooperative…almost like a theater company, I guess, in which we help one another get shows through our own contacts and proliferate one another’s work. The bigger that community gets, the more attention it attracts. If, say, Alex attracts more attention than I do, it benefits all of us, because she turns around and says “if you like me, check out Alex James” or whatever. That will do more, in my opinion, than any current label can do, and the best part is, it’s DIY (which I much, much prefer).

    Thank you for your continued comments; you always bring interesting and valuable commentary to the forum. And for the record, I don’t give a good god-damn about Billy Corgan either; he’s just so much fun to tear down ;)

  4. Brent Chittenden September 22, 2009 at 10:43 AM #

    Ah copyright reform. Wonder if Disney is going to muscle in here like they did the states.

  5. Ryan September 22, 2009 at 10:53 AM #

    Great post, Alex. I think the bottom line is that the musical and cultural terrain is so unsteady these days that the major players who were once in control (labels, MTV, radio) are grasping at straws to regain it. Instead of adapting and working with the current forces that drive the business, (you, me and the indie kid down the street), they still insist on living in their glories of yesteryear; telling us what to like and what listen to. Before the internet, TV and radio were the only “cool” filter we had. As a result of all this, the big artists who were selling millions via those outlets are currently in a tailspin and take one of two routes; the smart ones adopt Trent’s method and the dumb ones, well, Billy and Lars’. My opinion is that the way an artist treats their fans in this day and age says a lot about the reasons why they got into the industry in the first place, either for the love or for the money.

    The common ground between everyone however is that no one knows what to do or is able to predict what will happen. Now is the time for experimentation. Those who follow the old guard will be dead in the water. The best business models don’t follow a formula or trend, they set them. Seth Godin nailed it when he said “the best deals have never been done before. There’s no template, no cookie cutter grind it out approach to making it work.”

    In terms of money, Trent brought up a good point about how asking your audience to pay what they want only devalues your art (and your confidence) UNLESS YOU’RE RADIOHEAD. Giving away your music for free disarms your customer and potential fan of being able to put a price on the blood, sweat and tears you put into your art. Until there’s demand for your product, you’re in no position to negotiate.

    As an artist, there’s never been a more exciting yet scary time. The transparency between artist and fan has never been greater and people’s bullshit detectors have never been more in tune. People just know when you’re in it with the intention of making it big, due to the ubiquity of readily available information on the net. In the old days, the band you heard on the radio was the ‘wizard behind the curtain.’ No longer. I consider that a blessing. The ones who are honest and true and have nothing to hide will attract like minded fans who will happily do all your marketing for you and not waste their time with the fakers. If you’re lucky enough to be in this category, the money (which will undoubtedly come as a result of your believers WANTING to give it to you) is just a bonus.

  6. antiqcoolpodcast January 31, 2010 at 11:24 PM #

    Trent Reznor has been a pioneer and I respect his philosophy but I’m
    Keeping my opinions about the possible motives behind some major label acts giving their music away to myself for now.

    Most of our tracks have been released under a creative commons license.

    We are an independent record label not a big bad corporation out to sue you for file sharing, we WANT you to spread our music around.

    With such an overcrowded market place giving away your music is essential in my opinion. The biggest problem for emerging indie artists today is obscurity, not piracy. To find out more listen to The Antiqcool Podcast

    http://antiqcool.podbean.com/2010/01/22/the-antiqcool-podcast-episode-1-how-can-you-be-a-part-of-our-success/

  7. Pete Smith April 19, 2010 at 2:13 AM #

    Give it away I say

    Songs from our catalog have been played by hundreds of radio stations and podcasters worldwide and it didn’t cost them a penny, in return we got exposure and promotion…..sounds like a good deal to me, that’s why many of our tracks have been released under a creative commons license and are free to download. So what if you lose out on lost sales, you gain more in the long term by increasing your fan base (If you can survive that long)

    With such an overcrowded market place giving away your music is essential in my opinion. The biggest problem for emerging indie artists today is obscurity, not piracy. To find out more listen to The Antiqcool Podcast
    http://antiqcool.podbean.com/2010/01/22/the-antiqcool-podcast-episode-1-how-can-you-be-a-part-of-our-success/

  8. max September 7, 2010 at 2:57 AM #

    Hi, you sucks, billy corgan rules.

  9. paul pierce February 17, 2013 at 5:02 PM #

    Blah blah blah. What a load this article is.
    Billy is dumb for giving away free music, simply because you don’t like the music itself. Trent is awesome for giving away free music, simply because you like the music itself.

    I’m not a part of the pumpkins’ street team. I don’t own stock in the band. I have no vested interest, other than the fact that I enjoy listening to music. Which is exactly what I do when Billy releases new material. Just listen to it, at least.

    This article stands as an indictment against your attention span, and not the music.
    I wonder what will “grind your gears” tomorrow.
    Forgettable writing.

  10. Jim Fairthorne February 18, 2013 at 10:10 PM #

    Oh, the point – how you’ve missed it! Corgan isn’t dumb for releasing free music; Corgan is a megalomaniac who was (at the time this post was written) trying to come off like he came up with the idea, and further, tried to make out like he was doing everyone a huge favor by releasing Teargarden By Kaleidyscope for free. And I did listen to it – the whole damn thing – and it was dreadful. Did you miss the part where I said I was a huge Pumpkins fan from years before? And the part where I said I don’t begrudge a band for trying new things? I was the biggest Billy Corgan apologist walking for *years* before I realized that he’s just like every other two-bit performer in music who had his day in the sun and didn’t know when to hang it the fuck up and go home. There’s such a thing as wearing out your welcome.

    And as far as forgettable writing goes, sir, here’s a two-parter for you: first, you took the time to respond, so it couldn’t be that “forgettable”. Second, why no link to the 200+ articles you’ve written? I certainly believe you when you say you aren’t attached to the Pumpkins in a public relations capacity because not even Billy Corgan would have the poor sense to hire you based on these arguments.

  11. TAP March 16, 2013 at 6:39 AM #

    If you were such a big fan at one point then maybe you heard of “Machina II” being released free on September 5, 2000 just before their break up? It was their first and last album with Constantinople Label after leaving Virgin …..soooo Tear Garden wasn’t his “first free download”. In fact he stated back in the Napster days, that he would liked to have released a few free songs all the while Lars was ranting and raving about getting his ass reamed by little kids who couldn’t afford to buy Metallica CD’s. Billy has stated that the real money is in the “concert sales, adverts & merchandise”, as well as all the loyal fans who still buy the albums in physical form just to collect them (as I do). Last year though, he put on a free tour… so I guess he does it for the love of music and the fans. I remember in 1998 he came to Portland, OR and played for free for anyone who knew Pumpkins trivia, that was pretty special. He rolled up in his big bus with his guitar and rocked the joint.
    It’s also noteworthy that at the time that The Smashing Pumpkins were under contract with Virgin Records he would’ve been sued for distributing free music on Napster, why Virgin even tried to sue him for not releasing “enough” albums as stated in their contract. So there you have it, look it up and do some more research before you write a “rant and rave” column on something.
    Yes Billy is both a prick & tolerant of stupid fans (like myself), I’ve met him in person, I think he thinks it’s funny to make obsessed fans feel awkward. He has to deal with fans that say things like ‘Hey Billy, can you sign my ass?’ ‘Hey Bald Dude, why do you shave your head?’. I think it would get rather old after a while (almost 30 years) and I don’t blame him. Yeah He’s not making masterpieces anymore where you could learn to love every song on an album, yet even if he made 100 songs and 99 of them sucked ass, and you hear that 1 song that was so good that it changes your life…. well I think it’s worth it. Tear Garden is supposed to be a continual thing and maybe one day a good one will emerge?! …I’ll Be Listening… Waiting… Patiently……… Thanks for what it’s worth.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Link Me When September Ends: SOA Monthly Recap « State of Affairs - September 30, 2009

    […] without pay for wasting taxpayer time and money, or most of all – maybe hearing back from Billy Corgan about my scathing castigation of his “look at me, aren’t I great” music-for-free scam, but alas, there’s no […]

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