“I present my music on the net because it’s the busiest street in the world. I’d like people to stop and have a listen. If they want a copy for their own, fine, throw me a coin,” says songwriter and performer Jeff Coleman.
“I present my music on the net because it’s the busiest street in the world. I’d like people to stop and have a listen. If they want a copy for their own, fine, throw me a coin.”
I’m a songwriter and performer with a studio in my basement where I do recordings. Making music is an important part of my life.
Like many of you, I have been following the debate about compensation for music distributed via the internet with great interest. I have made my songs available on music sites and have watched as these sites tried various kinds of incentives and rewards for contributors. None of these systems have been completely satisfying. In many cases, I believe that this is because the basis for the rewards have little to do with music. Listeners on these sites are tallied and measured as “eyes”. Once they’ve opened a page and the ad comes up, it’s “ka-ching!” time for the site provider, who often has no real interest in anything beyond demonstrating a number of page views. There is something that feels demeaning about this to me, both for the performer and the listener. Other reward systems, such as one based on placing audio ads in the songs themselves, are, in my opinion, just plain wrong.
Then there are sites that charge for downloads. To me it seems strange to ask that a listener pay for a song that they may have heard once over a lo-fi stream. Of course, I’m not speaking for performers who have the advantage of widespread exposure via broadcast or netcast, or who have built a demand for their music through live performance, but even these performers face the difficulty of setting a fair price on their product, and the danger that their music will find its way into the “free” market.
I think that there are issues concerning value, ownership, and distribution which will not be resolved by any system which relies on control of the access to music. As the saying goes, “Information wants to be free”, and it is difficult to make a case for the restrictive practices supported by the music industry in general. Although their reasoning may be justified by the investment they have in the music they own, they have consistently failed to respond both to the desires of the listener and to the realities of the internet.
I have found one potential form of compensation, however, that can ultimately benefit from the free and widespread distribution of music files, that promotes listener satisfaction by allowing them to determine the value of the music, and that enhances the connection between the fan and the performer. I call this “Net Busking”.
Busking is a common term for the act of performing in a public area for voluntary donations of change. Posting music for free on the internet is similar to busking, as both actions involve performers offering their music to strangers in public (and the attention span of the listener is about the same). Of course, net posters on free sites typically don’t ask for anything in return for their songs. This is due partly to the fact there is no system in place to allow them to do so, and partly to the lack of an etiquette surrounding the process. As it stands, the net listener feels perfectly at ease downloading a song without so much as a thanks to the musician who created it. What lies behind this attitude, and what can be done to change it?
Often what is missing is the idea that music represents a livelihood for the performer. Although the truth of the matter may be very different, it is easy to imagine that some colorful character making music on the street depends on your good will to get by. On the net, the comparison a listener is likely to draw is that anyone with recorded music must be doing pretty well. To quote Joni Mitchell, the general public’s frame of reference has been shaped by “the star-making machinery behind the popular song”.
Market Failure is Coming. Avoid the Rush
It is ironic that many of the tactics used to promote online music actually perpetuate the myths and marketing techniques created to serve that star-making machinery, which relied on the control of production, distribution, and promotion to survive. Now that control of the production and distribution of recorded music is within the reach of the musician, isn’t it time to reinvent the way music is promoted? I’m not referring now to the means used to expose music to the public — advertising, broadcast and netcast, public performance, street teams and the rest — I’m referring to the underlying idea of what music is. Is music to be promoted as a product, as a service, or something else completely?
This question has been discussed in a
I strongly believe that it is the market that has failed. In seeking to maintain control over income, providers try to arbitrarily place a value on the music, and they often miss the mark. I believe that the value of music is ultimately set by the listener. As discussed by
Does this rely too much on the publics’ sense of altruism, or, as Peter calls it, charity? Let’s look at this from the viewpoint of our street busker. In her opinion, she works very hard for her money. She must be responsive to the desires of the audience. She would scoff at the idea that she earns her bread by begging. She gives something valuable, if intangible, in exchange for her listeners’ coins.
I suggest that it is possible to develop a similar relationship with our net listeners. First of all, we need to ask for something from the listener. We may have a more difficult time of it than the street performer, because we aren’t physically there in front of them. We can’t intimidate or shame them into paying us, staring them down from a dark corner in the subway, but we can always present our best performance, and give them something a bit more tangible than a passing sound. The most difficult thing is to create the situation on the net where an exchange of value is supported, which is why I like the image that we are out here busking. I am neither promoting a CD nor fishing for a record deal. I present my music on the net because it’s the busiest street in the world. I’d like people to stop and have a listen. If they want a copy for their own, fine, throw me a coin.
TipJar: the Virtual “Hat”
On the street, that sort of exchange is understood by the listener and easy to carry through. On the net, however, it’s not so simple. Like busking in the real world, I would expect to receive mostly small change from net busking. Unfortunately, until recently it seems that any net transaction under a dollar has not been worth the trouble. Providing the account number of your credit card or bank account, even to a well-known and trustworthy organization, is dangerous, and certainly not worth the risk for a small transaction. But now there is a service which I believe can overcome these obstacles and enable net busking to become a reality.
I read an article on the site for The Coalition for the Future of Music that described something called a
If you want to see how this works, here’s a TipJar link thanking me for this article! (Don’t worry, you’ll be under no obligation to actually send me anything.)
Some time later, an e-mail is sent to the listener asking for confirmation of the transaction. Once the transaction has been verified by the listener, the money is transferred to the performer’s account. The performer is notified of the tip, and any message from the listener is forwarded to them.
Listeners can pay for their transactions by mailing
What I find appealing about this system is that the listener is directly involved in an exchange with the performer. The listener determines the value of the music and can change their mind later, when they receive the confirmation request, if their opinion of the music has changed. This degree of control will help promote good feelings toward the performer. The listeners’ privacy can also be assured, because no more information than an e-mail address is required from them.
Can putting a virtual “hat” on your music site work as a source of compensation? I think it depends on who you are and who your listeners are, but it also depends on the expectations of listeners in general. Given the current climate, in which those who own the copyrights to songs are desperately trying to develop systems of control, it might be refreshing to offer the public a payment option which they control. While practiced in restaurants and bars the world over, the concept of voluntary, user-determined payment for goods or service is new to the net. The popular writer Stephen King offered his
I would like to include the option of direct, voluntary payment from the listener in the debate over compensation for the delivery of music via the internet. Having a tipjar on your page is only a first step toward a more complete system. Ultimately, I would like to see the necessary links included in the music files and players themselves, so that tips could be sent while the music is playing. This would change the listener’s perspective from feeling that they are paying for a download to one more like actually tipping a performer. Options on players might include automatic tips to favorite artists and tip-management software that would let the listener set tip budgets for themselves. With tip links in song files, any copy of a song anywhere would become a virtual “busker” working for the performer, and the more widely the file is copied and distributed the better. Song files would continue to generate income for the performer over time. The links in song files could also serve as a means of assessing royalty income from public broadcasts, which would be a big improvement over the current system of determining airplay. Because every sound file would include a link to its copyright owner, their rights could be more easily protected.
In the mean time, I have included TipJar on my own music site at
How to install your own Tip Jar
Installing a TipJar on your own site is a snap. TipJar.com includes a code generator which will create the custom html you need. Go
You can copy this custom html code directly from the tipjar site, but a copy will also be mailed to the address you have entered, in case you mess up or want to finish this later. You then simply paste this code into your music download page in some appropriate spot. On MP3.com, there is a field for adding html in the “administer your page” section, and the tipjar will appear above your first song. I haven’t tried any other music servers yet, but if they allow adding html to your page, this should work.
Be sure to let your listeners know what you are up to. Got a fan list? Tell them about this. Add a link to this article on your page, or some text explaining what you are doing in your own words.
Thanks, and happy busking!