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Donations Welcome: The Album in 2008

DRM code is crackable, CD sales dropped 9.5 percent in 2007, and you can score an album for free just by knowing the correct words to punch into Google. The age of the traditionally distributed album is officially over. Well, perhaps not quite over, but more and more, artists and labels are turning to alternative ways of getting their music out to fans, and whether it’s zipping up the tracks and throwing them on a website for free download or just sending a mountain of MySpace bulletins, the indie side of music is taking back control of where albums go and how they get there.

Gaining recent fame in the press is the pay-what-you-want model of distribution. For the uninformed, the concept consists of an artist releasing their album in digital format, then letting consumers decide the price they'd like to pay for it. Radiohead might have pushed this practice into the spotlight with the release of In Rainbows last year, but the Oxford, U.K.-based superstar band isn't the only outfit to champion it. Saul Williams released The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust! in November of 2007 and gave users the option of giving a $5 donation in place of purchase, and more recently, Girl Talk unleashed Feed for Animals, offering different packages for different price ranges.

Could this be the way forward? XLR8R polled a handful of artists, labels, bloggers, and consumers to find out their take on the concept and what it could possibly spell for the future of indie music.

Calvin Johnson
K Records

The pay-what-you-can scheme has usually been applied in the underground music world to performances. It is an excellent system that allows folks to attend shows, even when their budgets are limited. In my experience, it works well. Most folks will pay the "suggested donation" amount; others will pay more, subsidizing those that are a little short that week. [The concept] helps build a sense of community. People feel more involved with [what is] happening and the other attendees, and it makes each person more than a spectator, as they have become a participant in the event. Pay-what-you-can broadens the accessibility of the event; accessibility has always been an important issue for me in the world of art, music, culture, and politics.

Anthony Volodkin
The Hype Machine

Pay-what-you-want is a great idea that fits certain bands with very particular audiences. So far, most of the artists trying it are inventive, daring leaders and have a following to suit the idea. That said, it's unlikely to scale, as few acts resonate the way Radiohead, NIN, or Girl Talk do with their numerous fans, and there is still some inherent novelty in the idea that it helps these releases along as well.

Girl Talk (a.k.a. Gregg Gillis)

It feels like buying any sort of music is donation-based these days, whether you are using the model we used or not. Anyone can download or hear any song for free on file-sharing networks, blogs, and YouTube. It's not like 15 years ago, when hearing a song had value in and of itself. Back then, you would hear a song on the radio, love it, and you couldn't hear it again unless the radio played it or you bought the CD. You'd wait by the radio to hear that song again. That's over. You can hear whatever you want right now, and if are you really down with it, then you can choose to buy it. Doing the pay-what-you-want model is just acknowledging reality. We know you can get this for free or pay for it. It's up to you, so why would we play dumb? I don't know how it will play out in the future, but it's novel enough now, and people respect that you are being upfront with them. Like, "Hey, they are being reasonable for a change, I guess we should throw them some money!"

Jesse Tittsworth

I remember giving $0 for the Radiohead album just to be able to listen to it. After listening to each track for a few seconds, I gladly created a second account and donated five pounds. In my case it was worthwhile. The problem is that I feel it's temperamental at best. I think the number of people that will happily pay for music will decrease in time. I'm guessing music will eventually become free altogether in the near future. It might get to the point where money is made on services (gigs, producer fees, etc.) and licensing. I mean, it's pretty much that way already.

Because I am in a position to make money on services, I give a lot of my music away for free. In fact, I gave away most of my back catalog via blogs last December and called it the "12 Days of Titts'mas." After running it for about a month, I archived the tunes on tittsworth.com with a PayPal donation button. Maybe a dozen folks contributed, though it was never my goal or expectation to make money in this way. It was more of a thank-you to those who support me, and also a boost to help make my music and also club music more accessible. I totaled a quarter of a million hits, and that's just from one of the websites (discobelle.net)... not bad for a bunch of older songs. So to me, I value the exposure more than the mechanicals royalties. With my forthcoming album on Plant Music, we are giving away selected MP3s (128 kbps) and remixes to promote the album, which will be for sale physically and digitally. I don't think the label would be comfortable enough with a pay-what-you-want model at this point. I think the move right now is:

1. Give away just enough to generate interest.
2. Sell the vinyl first.
3. Then, quickly follow up with digital sales.
4. Finally, once sales have started to taper, move it to pay-what-you-want or give it away altogether.

Pete Johnson
Photographer/Nostalgia-Addled Futurist/Gentleman/Scholar

I really like the concept of the pay-what-you-want album. If a buyer knows that the money they spend on an album is going mostly into the pocket of those who created the music, well, I think nearly everyone I know would pony up least $5 to put into the pot. If that holds true, the band is going to come out ahead. But stepping in and cutting out the middleman is really difficult to pull off (and risky). Most bands don't have the resources–time and technology–to pull it off. Ultimately, though, if you really believe in the music you're making, why not? Some bands are in it for the scene and the quick cash, and some are in it to make something dynamic. The “take the power back” approach is for the latter group. It's the most resourceful mainstream reinterpretation of DIY ethos to come along in quite awhile. For lack of a better phrase, it's totally punk rock. I tip my hat to Radiohead for taking a stand, and Girl Talk for getting in line behind 'em.

Nate Nelson
Stones Throw

The internet broadens the accessibility of music. The pay-what-you-want [scheme] is just another outlet in an ever-evolving business model. There are numerous ways to get music out there: eMusic, Last.FM, imeem, iTunes, YouTube, Amazon, rcrdlbl.com, stonesthrow.com, etc. Pay-what-you-want works for a certain type of artist, but it won’t work for all of them. Artists must find their niche and fanbase and cater to that group.

There’s something to be said for the power-in-numbers theory. Whether it be a good publicist, a great manager, an exceptional record label (and staff), even a really top-notch music publisher, an artist must have smart, talented people behind them to be successful. The Radiohead experiment didn’t happen because five dudes in the band woke up one day and, on a fluke, said, “Hey, let’s let people pay what they want for our next record.” It was an experiment pulled off by a very exceptional pool of people who had a business plan in place before any steps were taken.

The term “record sales” has lately been confused. Too often people point to the traditional definition of record sales, which was a very lucrative business model for labels back in the latter part of the 20th century. It was a model where labels pressed up physical units of recorded music and tried to drive as many units into the retail market that consumers demanded. The monetization of music today is changing. Physical units are on decline and dedicated retail outlets are on their way out, but that doesn’t mean that the business will dry up. There still is demand for recorded music and smart business people will find ways to monetize that demand.

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