Deserter’s Songs Free Music: A Price Worth Paying?

Should music be free? Should anyone have a right to listen to any music they like? Is giving away music for free a guarantor of cultural stagnation and death both for artists and listeners? David Bell takes a look at the arguments.

Deserter's Songs, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Saturday, November 13, 2010 20:43 - 4 Comments

By David Bell

During the Ceasefire sessions last week, Michael Albert- the man behind Paraecon and a co-founder of the radical website Z-net- expressed his frustration with the idea that information should be free: an attitude he felt was increasingly common amongst those on the left.

Z-net, he noted, is paid for by a relatively small percentage of its readership- ‘sustainers’, who pay a monthly fee ($2 is the minimum) to help fund the site’s reporting (the sustainers also get some additional content, but the vast majority of the site is available to all for free). He argued that the quality of Z-net’s reporting would suffer if the sustainers did not exist, and lambasted those who believe it is a right to access information for free.

It is counter-productive, he says, to the left’s cause, not to financially support people and organisations who continue to agitate for social reform- because the more money they have, the more they can speak to power and help bring about the change they so desperately seek.

It’s a debate that’s been well rehearsed in music circles, with the claim that musicians should be financially rewarded for their work. As a co-founder of Records on Ribs– a record label that releases its music as MP3/FLAC for free (but also accepts donations and sells physical releases).

I naturally have a number of points of contention with this argument, but it is a powerful argument nonetheless, and I aim to address it in this week’s column. Ultimately, however, I wish to argue that releasing music for free can be seen as an act of prefigurative utopianism that seeks to go beyond the social relationships of the present day. I do not, however, think it is the model for releasing music, and argue that we should continue to support ethically run labels which do charge for their music.

My primary argument in favour of free music runs a little like the following:

I have an insatiable appetite for music. It is, quite simply, one of the most important things in my life. I do not, however, have a large disposable income and can rarely afford to buy new music. Yet I do not accept that this means I should not listen to new music. Just because I choose not to (or am unable to) earn more money does not mean I should not be able to listen to as much music as I like. Why should the person who earns more money than me (which may be through luck or by sacrificing ethical principles) be in a position to listen to more music than me?

The counter-argument which I wish to engage with runs a little like this:

Oh, you beautiful soul! It is all well and good saying that your music should be free. I too would like free music! But what about those who produce it? Why should they not be paid for their investment and labour? Why should your ‘demand’ for free music mean they cannot afford to eat, live and buy music themselves?

I think there are powerful pragmatic responses to this argument (which my Records on Ribs co-founder Alex wrote about here– although there are significant disagreements between us), but it is with ethics I am concerning myself here. And I think the first thing to do is to acknowledge that the anti-free argument I’ve just outlined is a powerful one.

Just as I care passionately about music, I care passionately about musicians. I am a musician myself, and many of my best friends play and make music (though I do not claim that this gives me any special insight of privilege on the rights and wrongs of releasing music for free). I want them to be able to carry on making the best music they can, and I want them to live healthy, happy lifestyles free from money worries.

It is these last few words which, I think, get to the crux of the matter. I want everyone to be free from money worries- whether they are a musician, a music fan, a single parent or an elderly couple. But there is a problem here: the best way to achieve this in the short term is not the best way to achieve this in the long term, a tension which, as David Harvey has pointed out, is often a problem for those on the left (for example, the defence of crap jobs may have to take strategic preference over lobbying for better conditions for those in these jobs).

In the short term, the best answer to this issue in relation to music is to support musicians by buying their work. To this end, I advocate that everyone reading this column should spend as much as they can on music from small, independent labels who do as much as they can to trade ethically and pass on as much as they possibly can to the artists themselves.

These labels- which are invariably run by people who could spend their time far more profitably- fulfill a vital function in our cultural landscape and are responsible for some of the finest music currently being made. At the larger end of the scale, I would offer Montreal’s Constellation as an exemplar in this regard, and at the smaller end of the scale I would offer Nottingham’s Low Point. Both are ethically smart, release great music and support their artists as much as they possibly can. And both have stated in interviews and on twitter just how much free downloading is hurting their business.

Buying music from them will enable them to continue releasing excellent music and allow their artists (most of whom will have to have ‘normal’ jobs to make ends meet) the time and space to continue making excellent music. It will also help a number of related small ‘producers’: recording studios, music producers, designers, vinyl pressing plants- all of which I absolutely want to survive.

In the long term, however, I don’t think that this is an answer. I believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with the capitalist economy in which money is the be all and end all of exchange, and the notion of the common has been almost completely eroded. Not only do I think that free healthcare is a good thing, I believe that free food, free medicine, free access to sport and- yes- free art and music, are good things.

I do not believe it is possible to blueprint a utopia in which the problems raised by this belief have been solved, but gift economies and the rise of commonly owned property (both intellectual and physical) must, I feel, play a central part in moving towards such a world. By giving away music for free, musicians can help to precipitate a move towards such a society in the here-and-now, hence my term ‘prefigurative utopianism’ (and by the way I fully acknowledge that I am being utopian in the sense of being unrealistic here as well).

If, by giving away an album for free, a band helps the recipient to think about what they could offer for free- and inspires them to do offer something for free- then this prefigurative utopianism has grown and a space outside capitalist relations has been constructed (though, of course if the music is only free when it’s online then the provision of internet, and a phoneline, and the advertising the downloader will see when online mean that this space cannot be considered completely separate from capitalism, and we must also be wary of ‘freeconomics’, which is a way of manipulating the idea of ‘free’ to make money).

We are, of course, a long way from a realised utopia of the kind I am talking about. Indeed, it will probably never fully emerge. But this does not mean we should give up, and there are shoots emerging: shoots where people are prepared to put aside the question of their own financial gain to enrich the world by offering something for free. Free record labels are ten a penny, and open source software has an even longer history (though it is sometimes linked to an unpleasant right-wing libertarianism).

This week, meanwhile, I’ve stumbled across something I’m feeling particularly excited by: The Free University of Liverpool. These are exciting developments, and I’d encourage everyone who reads this to think about what they can offer ‘for free’. Because free can be an ethical principle; free can help us change the world. Until that world is fully changed, however, we should be mindful of the needs of ethical producers and- where music is concerned- continue to financially support small scale musical production as well.

David Bell is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. His work seeks to rethink utopianism through the work of Gilles Deleuze and anarchist thought. He is currently writing a book on the politics of improvising music for Zer0 Books. Deserter’s Song, his column on music, is published every Saturday.


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Nov 14, 2010 1:59

Great article, interesting consideration of the issues. It is difficult to convince anyone that it is immoral to download music released by major record labels and your argument about supporting the smaller labels makes a lot of sense. But once you get used to downloading music for free, how easy is it to start paying in specific instances? For me, it’s always – well, I’ll download it, and if I like it, and it’s released by a small independent label, I’ll buy it. And of course, never do.

Nov 14, 2010 4:11

I completely agree with this article. And this is also what I’d do, i.e. I do buy albums/DVDs/books etc from small producers and self-publishers when I can afford it, even though I also believe in free access. But perhaps I’m unusual (residues of Catholic guilt?).

I think, though, that the counter-argument you’re rebutting is quite a recent invention. You’re right that it’s the strongest argument the other side can offer. But the idea behind intellectual property in legal history was never ‘desert’. It was the idea that providing an economic profit (technically a monopoly) would stimulate production by rewarding talent.

A few other relevant bits and bobs:

Very little of what is made from music sales comes back to artists. (Something like 3p per full-price CD if I remember rightly). I got a payment for book sales recently, my share is something like a twenty-fifth of the cover price. Which was nice actually, because I wasn’t expecting to be paid at all. I’d guess the artist’s share would be greater for small labels and self-publishing, so someone who buys one small-label CD and downloads twenty mass-market CDs for free, might actually be paying more to artists than someone who buys twenty mass-market CDs (I’m not sure if this is actually true, but it seems plausible). If I’m right about the 3p then buying single a self-published CD (all proceeds to the artist) would give more money to artists than buying 300 commercial CD’s.

Very little of what musicians make, comes from music sales to the public. Most of what musicians make comes from concert tickets. Some of it comes from sources such as sponsorship, and payments from TV and radio stations. Some, as you mention, comes from commercial add-ons to ‘free’ provision, such as ad-supported websites. But, live music is the big earner.

Very few musicians manage to make enough money to live on from the current arrangement of music. Of the money that goes to musicians, most of it goes to already successful musicians (including manufactured bands). In other words, the distribution of income among musicians is both drastically inegalitarian and fails to encourage the emergence of talent.

Actually, the current arrangement doesn’t either encourage talent or finance musicians. Record companies don’t give five-year grants to youths with a bit of musical talent on the off-chance that they’ll be international stars at the end of it. They sign up people who have already undergone the most important period of musical development and are already talented, and often successful at a grassroots level.

So copyright is not at all helping develop talent, it’s capturing the value of talent once it’s been produced. The problem being that the conditions in which it’s produced, almost by definition since capitalism isn’t funding the emergence of talent directly, are decommodified or autonomous spaces to one degree or another. There is actually a straight line from the attack on music-sharing to the corrosion of the real conditions in which musicians emerge.

Actually, a lot of previous artists never had ‘normal’ jobs – people with ‘normal’ jobs don’t have the time or energy for the sustained development of talent. In the recent past, most individual musicians, including very successful ones (e.g. the Rolling Stones), actually funded their musical development on some kind of benefit or grant (usually student grants or the dole). A lot of musicians also emerge from settings of collective cultural production (the urban music house party scene, pirate radio, Jamaican dancehall culture, the Hacienda and its scene, raves, free parties, etc). In particular, these kinds of collective spaces are common in precisely those social strata which don’t have ‘normal’ jobs (marginalised ethnic minorities and urban poor, ‘drop-out’ subcultures, etc).

Now these spaces are under attack. Manchester loves its creative city image, but has destroyed most of the ‘Madchester’ scene and demolished the Hacienda, undermining the basis for this image. Student grants and benefits are being or have already been cut, and people are under pressure not to spend time on grants or benefits on things like musical development. It’s no coincidence that the extreme pro-copyright agenda is being pushed at precisely the time that grassroots music production is being squeezed (attacks on free festivals, restrictions on live music in pubs, the moral panic against groups such as So Solid Crew, etc). It’s part of a single process of commodification of social life. Of course, it’s counterproductive, because it destroys the decommodified basis (one might say with Deleuze or Vaneigem, the basis in immanent flows, in desiring-production, or in ‘life’ and ‘play’) which is actually necessary for the process of extraction. The logical effect would be the loss of musical talent and a corresponding decline in CD sales, since all that would exist are manufactured bands. This isn’t actually going to happen, because there’s a lot of decommodified spaces still around, and the precariat is actually growing. Hence we still keep getting new artists and new genres of music, especially from the ghettos. But capitalism is actually destroying the conditions for this.

Something else I’d introduce here is the distinction between ‘capitalism’ strictly speaking (concentrated production, mass markets, gap between producer and owner, wage-labour) and petty commodity production (a market with buying/selling between small producers who are also owners). Petty commodity production exists in tributary and indigenous societies and is not identical to capitalism, though obviously it’s not gift-economy either (though there are even cases where it’s used as an expression of gift-economy, if the exchange values are symbolic). I’d argue that, if someone buys a CD from a band who publish their own work, and arguably from small labels as well depending how they’re organised, then they’re actually engaged in petty commodity economics and not in capitalism strictly speaking. Normally this wouldn’t seem to be putting oneself outside capitalism, because in a capitalist-dominated society, petty commodity production is plugged into and heavily inflected by capitalism. But if someone is making an ethical choice to prefer petty commodity products over capitalist products (e.g. to buy from small labels but download free if it’s owned by a big company, to buy from a farmers’ market instead of a supermarket), this introduces a kind of ‘moral economy’ which tends to make petty commodity production into something non-capitalist again.

Gary Anderson
Nov 15, 2010 13:48

Hi David

I was seeing if a search on ‘The Free University of Liverpool’ would throw up any surprises – I found this. I think your work (both what I’ve just read and your PhD) is really, really interesting and I’m inviting you to join The Free University of Liverpool as an visiting scholar/artist.

I can send you all the info about what it would mean to be a visiting scholar/artist. Get back to us and we’ll send it out.

Thanks for the mention David, let’s hope it leads somewhere – in fact let’s go on the journey together! There’s immanence for you!

Very Best Wishes

Dr Gary Anderson
Co-founder of The Free University of Liverpool

Nov 15, 2010 15:01

James’ point is supremely relevant, and it’s something I’m immensely guilty of. I certainly don’t buy enough from small labels (irrespective of how much I download from them), and it’s something I’ve resolved to change.

Andy’s points are all, I think, spot on. From my experiences of DIY labels I can say that most plough as much as they possibly can back into artists themselves (though some are, of course run by charlatans- and some artists themselves are, of course, charlatans!). It varies enormously from label to label, but for small scale releases it can be up to 50%. His point about petty commodity production being outside capitalism is interesting. I think it’s perhaps useful to speak not in terms of an inside/outside binary, but of degrees. Even free production is, to an extent, supporting capitalism (you need the internet, for example); and petty commodity production of CD-Rs requires, well, CD-Rs! But they’re both further from the ‘centre’ of capital (if one can speak of such a thing) than buying a CD from a major label.

One thing I didn’t consider in this article is Spotify. Which is most certainly not an answer, because it benefits artists not an iota (you get next to nothing for plays) and (far more directly than the internet) uses music as a platform for advertising. Sigue Sigue Sputnik might have got away with selling adverts on their debut album (which is about the most interesting thing about it), but I don’t want to hear George Lamb advertising Starbucks in the middle of some free improv (I don’t want to hear George Lamb advertising Starbucks full stop, of course).
Gary- wow! Thanks so much for the offer. I would absolutely *love* to be involved. Indeed, I’d resolved to send an email before this comment. I’ll certainly do so soon.



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