There’s only one powerful, workable response to free music sharing

Frédérick Deligne cartoon.

No matter how painful it may be for artists to hear, free music sharing is unstoppable. There is a ready hacker for every encryption formula, and there will never be sufficient means to enforce royalty schemes.

So how is a musician supposed to make a living?

By engaging in the one activity that is always in plain sight: live performance.

Instead of seeing sharing as a liability, it needs to become a calling card. If listeners fall in love with a work or an artist in Spotify, they may very well seek out a related concert. If they really like the concert, they may turn around and buy a CD or  DVD as a means to mark the happy occasion with something tangible.

I realise that this represents wishful thinking on many different levels, but I can’t think of any alternatives that produce a smiling outcome for performer as well as audience.

What crystallised my thinking was discovering that one of the dedicated concertgoers I know — someone I see enjoying live performances every week — has a penchant for ripping entire symphonies for free online. I began keeping a mental tally and realised that just about every classical music fan I know under the age of 40 has a substantial collection of free listening on their mobile device.

This is theft, like tapping into a neighbour’s power supply, or quietly stealing their ripe tomatoes in the middle of the night. The trouble is, it now has a decade-long history of resilience in the face of all sorts of opposition and threats.

So why not turn the theft into a form of audience building, like a crack dealer offering free samples?

The thing is, live concerts are (or should be) far more interesting and engaging than a recording, anyway.

That doesn’t address the need to cover the cost of the recording, which is why pop musicians have embraced the wonders of Kickstarter and other forms of crowd- or micro-funding in a big way, ensuring that the recording project is paid for by people who are truly committed the the cause.

By coincidence, Kickstarter’s “album of the day” is a project by a bassoon quartet from New Haven, the home of Yale University. With 32 days still to go on their crowdfunding drive, they have already exceeded their $5,000 goal by a couple of hundred dollars (check the foursome and their project and Kickstarter out here).

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra uses an Old School version of this model, using its wide network of patrons in the same way Brooklyn Rider used social media to fund its last album, Seven Steps. The orchestra won’t release a new album until someone has paid for it — which is why it took nearly four years for us to get their latest tsoLive offering, the Shostakovich Symphony No. 11.

Some people will buy the album. Many will share it for free. But the hope is that some of those free sharers will turn around and buy a ticket to a Roy Thomson Hall concert.

It’s very easy to say that live concerts are the future of classical music. But how does a small ensemble with no hall make this happen?

By starting small and keeping at it. There’s a lot more exploring and experimentation possible regarding venues and formats that fall outside the traditional concert hall.

The software geeks who have brought us file sharing software had to be creative. Musicians need to be equally creative in return.

UPDATE: Through a tweet, I’ve just seen that Salon published a story by former Los Angeles Times arts and culture reporter, and current blogger Scott Timberg on this issue yesterday. It raises the same issues. Check it out here.

John Terauds


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