American Culture

Why don't we give it away: Big Head Todd, free music, DRM and de-suckifying our culture

Finding and buying music used to be a lot simpler process. You could sample new stuff by turning on this thing called a “radio,” and when you heard something you liked you could go purchase it at this other thing called a “record store.” It wasn’t a perfect system, of course. Sometimes the great song on the radio was the only thing worth listening to on the whole “album.” Product was often over-priced. And the radio industry had its own special problems, especially once it became infested with a species of parasite known as the “consultant.”

But all that amazing music you love from the 1960s and 1970s (and even the ’80s and early ’90s in some cases) was the result of this system. Now radio mainly gives us four things:

  • A narrow list of the old stuff.
  • New stuff that mainly serves as a reminder about how great the old stuff was.
  • Rush Limbaugh.
  • Jim Rome.

More music than ever is being produced and released, but industry reports lament that CD sales are down (although industry watcher Bob Lefsetz argues that the real issue is the decline of sales of top artists). Overall music sales are up, with digital sales booming, leading the RIAA to scream that the sky is falling. Best we can tell, their sense of copyright law says that you have the right to buy music, but opening the CD and listening to it is probably a crime.

Meanwhile, the artists (you know, the people who dedicate their lives to making the music) are looking for ways of earning enough to live on. The old system allowed talented musicians (well, some of them, anyway) to make a living, but these days it seems the whole process seems mainly designed to keep bands from making a penny. Illegal downloading is certainly a problem. Labels have this cool scam where you can sign with them, sell brazilians of copies of a record and still owe them thousands of dollars. Then the goddamned copyright board tries to kill Internet radio, rogering everybody except its buddies at Clear Channel and the big labels.

In other words, aspiring bands are left with one path: touring. Which is great, except for the fact that – and pardon my overgeneralization – club owners rank just below jackals in heat where ethics are concerned.

So, to sum up, if you’re an artist you have more avenues than ever before (the Internets are a big place, after all), high-tech production tools are more ubiquitous and accessible than ever before, but it’s also a world where the signal:noise ratio is worse than ever before. The industry is rigged to see you as toilet paper (that is, highly disposable, one-use commodity), and the more talent and integrity you have the less anybody wants to know you.


The old model is broke beyond all imagining, in other words, and we’re still scrambling for a new one that works reliably and productively. Eventually we’ll find a new equilibrium, but if it’s not one where brilliant musical artists can earn a living the whole culture is going to suffer profoundly. We’re always going to have pop-star-of-the-moment distractions, but if American Idol has made your world a better place and your name isn’t Kelly Clarkson, you’re living a sad little life, aren’t you?

All these possibilities are generating any number of attempts at innovation, though. Recently Radiohead let people download their new CD and pay whatever they felt like – an interesting idea, to be sure. Of course, Radiohead is hardly struggling, so the fact that people aren’t likely to pay when they don’t have to doesn’t much affect them.

Now Big Head Todd & the Monsters are trying the free route, too (as Jets Overhead did a couple years back with their brilliant Bridges). They have released their latest, All the Love You Need, as a free download on their Web site. You can buy the disc for $5 and can also get it free if you spend $15 in their merch shop.

Why free? The BHTM family believes that the music industry is changing. We are a touring-based band, and we want to get our new music out to as many people as possible. We decided to mail the new album to the first 25,000 people who signed up on our website. Then we sent it out to almost half a million people through radio station mailing lists. Now we are offering as a free download on the website and giving the CD to anyone who purchases $15 or more of merchandise from our store.

From a business standpoint, this model represents an intriguing way of thinking. Once upon a time the CD – the recorded music package – was the product. However, it’s now shifting – the CD is part product, part promotions tool in a new structure that sees merch and the live show as the ultimate product.

We’re in the middle of a fascinating, if often disheartening moment of economic and cultural evolution. When you read about significant shifts of this sort in the history books it all sounds so immediate – it was this way, then X happened, and then it was that way, and it sounds clean-cut even if it took 50 years. You don’t really get the flavor of being in the middle of the vortex, but we’re now in the middle of just that kind of era. In a hundred years history texts, in whatever format (assuming we still study history in a hundred years) will probably fail to capture the uncertainty we feel right now, the pain that any number of artists and fans are enduring.

I don’t know what’s going to emerge as The Model That Works, but I hope we get there soon. We’re better off when bands like Big Head Todd, Jets Overhead, Marah and Doco can make music their careers instead of their hobbies.

But hey, at least there’s one tidbit of good news to ponder this morning. SONY BMG just becamse the last major to abandon digital rights management, an ill-fated theory that will probably get a couple sentences in your great-great grandkids’ history book. It deserves more, simply for its sheer dumbness.

See, DRM is about cutting “theft” (and we’ll leave that argument for another day). Now, The Gap has anti-shoplifting measures, as do all serious retailers. But the difference between The Gap and the music industry is that Big Music has somehow decided that anti-shoplifting measures are their business model. Imagine senior execs at The Gap deciding that they didn’t have to worry about selling jeans anymore – “after all, we’ve got a great new anti-shoplifting technology! And if somebody steals a pair of jeans we’ll sue them for a million dollars!”

We’ll see if the labels jump on the watermarking bandwagon next. Or if they’ll get serious about exploring more competitive pricing and subscription models. Fingers crossed. I can live in a world without big labels, but I don’t even want to think about a world without music…

14 replies »

  1. Just realized I haven’t listened to a radio station other than NPR in more than ten years… yes, some de-suckifying is definitely in order.

  2. Amazingly, there are a few radio stations who are actually starting to listen to their listeners and play what the listeners want to hear. About the only station I’ve really listened to outside of NPR is KBCO, and while they’re hardly saints (they’re owned by ClearChannel, after all), they do have a music advisory panel, a group of listeners who suggest and rate their music. For the first time I heard Amy Winehouse on the radio this morning, and I’ve found that they’re playing the Killers and Green Day and KT Tunstall and other good stuff.

    Do they still play stuff over and over and over and over until I can barely stand to listen to even the good music? Yep – as I said, they are still a ClearChannel station. But they’ve seen the writing on this particular wall and are trying to adapt.

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  4. Truth #1: KBCO is one of the best stations out there.

    Truth #2: They suck. Especially compared to what they were a decade ago.

    The good news is that if you ever want to hear “Walking in Memphis” but can’t find the CD, there’s a good chance they’re playing it at that very moment. Then they’ll follow it up by playing one of the only eight songs Bob Marley ever recorded.

  5. I actually agree on both counts. It’s interesting though – remember that KBCO Studio C CD I made for you a few years ago, when you bitched about how it was an example of how bad KBCO was once they’d been bought by ClearChannel, and that they didn’t play local artists any more?

    Every track was from before they were bought, and only 2 of the 13+ tracks were from non-local artists.

    KBCO is doing their annual A-Z run of their music library, and while it’s still nice to hear stuff they haven’t played in forever, I’d actually prefer it if they, you know, actually played it outside of the two weeks in January when they’re doing the A-Z run….

    (Pining for the days when KBCO introduced me to Suzanne Vega by playing Marlene on the Wall from her eponymous album or Blood Makes Noise instead of just Luka.)

  6. One of the things that has sold me on relocating to Austin is that they actually have a real, live COLLEGE RADIO STATION!!! It’s such a revelation to hear everything from the Birthday Massacre to Emmylou Harris to some good roots reggae in the span of a couple of hours.

    Apparently, they are also expert forensic musicologists. They played some music that was purportedly by Bob Marley, but it was not one of his 8 known recordings. I have to admit that it did sound strangely authentic, though I find it a tad implausible that Bob had time to record more than 8 songs in his 20+ year career.

    I would bet that if XM or Sirius were to pay a few college radio stations for the right to broadcast their feeds, XM/Sirius subscriptions would go up.

  7. Fikshun,

    KOOP/KVRX? I know the precise point on I35 between San Antonio and Austin where the signal gives out…

  8. KYSM 90.1, the San Antonio College radio station isn’t half bad. They’re not the station WVUA in Tuscaloosa “was” but they have good, varied programming.

  9. Yep, 90.1 is the one. I didn’t realize it was based in San Antonio. I was able to pick it up near Leander.

  10. fikshun: While Sirius would benefit from buying a feed from a great college station, XM actually plays lots of great new stuff on their XMU channel. They also have a great channel for “unsIgned” acts.

    Of course once the merger goes through and Sirius (a victim of Clear Channel executive thinking for the last 2 years) gets control of XM, all that will be over.

    But I’ll be able to hear “Stairway” and “Radar Love” as much as I want….