Everything is free now

About ten years ago, when mp3 sharing was just taking off and folks in the music industry saw it as a threat to their business model, Gillian Welch wrote a song that starts out clever and ends up deep:

Everything is free now, that’s what they say
Everything I ever done, gonna give it away
Someone hit the big score, they figured it out
That we’re gonna do it anyway, even if doesn’t pay.

I can get a tip jar, gas up the car
Try to make a little change down at the bar
Or I can get a straight job, I’ve done it before
Never minded working hard, it’s who I’m working for

Everything is free now, that’s what they say
Everything I ever done, gotta give it away
Someone hit the big score, they figured it out
That we’re gonna do it anyway even if doesn’t pay

Every day I wake up humming a song
But I don’t need to run around, I just stay home
Sing a little love song, my love and myself
If there’s something that you want to hear, you can sing it yourself

‘Cause everything is free now, that’s what I said
No one’s gotta listen to the words in my head
Someone hit the big score and I figured it out
And I’m gonna do it anyway even if doesn’t pay

Here’s a delightfully clueless essay about how to love the song without hearing the words. But the words are clearly about mp3 sharing. At the time musicians didn’t know what to think about the fact that people were passing their music around without paying for it. The record labels certainly did—it was theft pure and simple, to the extent that they went around suing people for $150,000 per song shared. They knew that whatever mp3 sharing did to musicians, it was definitely going to make them irrelevant, and thus it needed to be stopped.

In her song Gillian Welch sees the problem from a lot of different angles. She’s made things that she expected to sell, and people are passing around copies for free, and she doesn’t like it, since that expected source of income no longer pays. All that’s left is the tip jar, or a day job. In that case, why bother singing those songs for people? She is also free now, to keep them to herself. But she won’t; she’ll keep on doing it, even if it doesn’t pay.

There’s major irony not just in the landscape that the song observes, but in the ten years that followed. MP3 sharing is bigger than ever. The record labels have been destroyed. And yet … Gillian Welch is doing just fine, much better than fine, not exactly working a day job or hustling for tips down at the bar. Did MP3 sharing hurt her?

Recently we’ve become converts to the idea that musicians need to make their recordings freely available (since in practice they are anyway!) and find other ways to make money from their music. So we’ve decided to give our recordings and performances away until we’ve gathered five thousand True Fans; if that ever happens, we’ll figure out how then to go forward from there.

When I get time I’ll be revamping our website to align it with this new reality. You’ll be able to hear and download our music there (or here) without even telling us who you are. Folks who like us will have the opportunity to create an account on our website, which will get them a bit more free stuff (newsletter, podcast, things along those lines).

Folks who ​really​ like us will have the opportunity to declare themselves True Fans using this simple procedure: send us a cool postcard with a note saying you like us. We’ll put a picture of your postcard on your account page on our website, post it to the front page with a thank you, and give you access to stuff that is even more obscure and of interest to True Fans Only (not sure what this will be–rehearsal tapes? songs in progress? Suggestions welcome).

As I said, until 5000 folks have declared themselves our True Fans, the music will stay free. Streaming is free. Downloads are free. We will probably have homemade CDs in plain packaging available for free at shows. To the extent that we control things, the shows will be free (though we’ll always take tips!). We feel pretty strongly that until 5000 folks have said they really, really like us, there’s no point in acting like our music is a product you should pay for in advance. We’re just happy to give folks a chance to hear it, and we’ll do whatever we can afford to make that happen.

If we ever reach 5000 True Fans, I’m guessing the music will remain free for the most part, and we’ll find agreeable ways for True Fans to compensate us. What’s that you say, 50 of you live near Lexington and you’d like us to come and put on a house concert for a $20 per head donation? That works for us!

Meanwhile, 5000 is a pretty big number and a long way away, so we’ll be making the music for free, just hoping that you enjoy it. And if you enjoy ita lot, we’d appreciate hearing that.

(Note: for about six years we’ve called ourselves The Ridgewood Boys, but we’ve decided to reserve that name for the gospel programs we do in local churches. In general we’ll now be calling ourselves Rick and Chris Saenz, and you’re welcome to call us that too.)

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One thought on “Everything is free now

  1. You know what’s interesting is that musicians (and other artists, and authors for that matter) didn’t used to get paid for their art.

    Bach’s paying jobs were court musician, church organist, concert master, and music teacher. He composed music sometimes as part of his other work, but often just for the sheer love of it.

    Seems like it wasn’t until the 1800s that artists (including authors) began to expect to earn a living off of their art.

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