Rebellion of the Minnows

Blogger Allan MacInnis alerted me to a “Bob Ostertag article you have to read,” and I didn’t need to be told twice. Ostertag is not only an interesting San Francisco composer whose music deals with electronics and political issues, but an extremely insightful and articulate writer on issues of musical politics whose articles I’ve linked to before. I wish I knew enough to have written his The Professional Suicide of a Recording Musician (also up at AlterNet), in which he eloquently explains why he has chosen to put all of his recordings up for free on the internet. You should read the whole thing, but I’ll give you some tease quotes. Starting out by showing how, in the mid-20th century, record companies were necessary structures for getting music from the artist to the public, he then says,

Record companies are [no longer] necessary for any of this [recording and production assistance], yet the legal structure that developed during the time when their services were useful remains. Record companies used to charge a fee for making it possible for people to listen to recorded music. Now their main function is to prohibit people from listening to music unless they pay off these corporations.

Or to put it slightly differently, they used to provide you with the tools you needed to hear recorded music. Now they charge you for permission to use tools you already have, that they did not provide, that in fact you paid someone else for. Really what they are doing is imposing a “listening tax.”

He goes on:

You would think that musicians would be leading the rebellion against this [corporate copyright-protecting] insanity, but most musicians remain firmly committed to the idea of charging fees for the right to listen to their recorded music. For rock stars at the top of the food chain, this makes sense economically (if not politically). The entire structure of the record industry is built around their interests, which for all their protesting to the contrary dovetails fairly well with those of the giant record companies.

But the very same factors that make the structure of the record business favor the interests of the sharks at the top of the food chain work against the interests of the minnows at the bottom, who constitute the vast majority of people actually making and recording music….

I know one artist who had ten years of his recordings vanish into the vault of a big label that bought the little label he recorded for. He approached his new corporate master and asked to buy back the rights of his own work and was refused. In the company’s view, his work did not have sufficient market potential to justify releasing it and putting corporate market muscle behind promoting it, but neither did they want his work released by anyone else to compete with the products they did release. From their perspective it was a better bet to just lock it up.

The idea that selling permission to listen to recorded music is the foundation of the possibility of earning one’s livelihood from music is at most 50 years old, and it is a myth. The fact that most musicians today believe in this myth is an ideological triumph for corporate power of breathtaking proportions.

I could quote more, but you should go read it. Let me just add that years ago I decided that putting as many of my scores and recordings on my web site for free as I legally could was going to bring me far more benefit than waiting around for some corporation or another to come try to make money off me – only I couldn’t have explained the economic logic behind the decision nearly as cogently as Ostertag does.


  1. jmac says

    I completely agree with Bob, most of my recordings are available for free download. Coincidentally, I just ordered his “All the Rage” CD which is not available for free download (I assume because of issues with the particular label or Kronos Quartet or something).
    My problem with offering music for download is the file format/compression. mp3 really stinks, music should be presented in pristine formats such as flac or wav (thank you avant garde project!). The kicker is that wav or flac formats are superior to CDs, which are also compressed, though not as greatly as mp3. Anyway, the problem is that server space costs money and broadband speeds still leave a little to be desired. C’est la vie.

  2. says

    I think this article speaks to an even bigger issue: that music is valued only when someone is willing to pay for the hearing of it. Free market capitalism has no way to assign value to something given out for free, so our society has been conditioned to disregard it.
    In a perfect world, all of us would share in the benefits of computer-driven productivity increases: we should have a 20 hour work week and 10 weeks of vacation. The socialist countries of Europe, being more enlightened about the public good, are actually moving towards this, and it is no coincidence that art is more valued in a society with a lot of free time.
    But for those of us in the US, CEOs get the benefit and the mega-million stock options while the rest of us are too harried working our average 50 hour weeks to stop and listen to Bach in the subway.

  3. Joe says

    I think you should put your 1st 3 tracks from Custer’s Ghost up. They’re some of my favorite examples of JI. Or put them on your ‘myspace’.
    I’d hate to insist that musicians work for free, but it does seem hard these days to make a living.
    KG replies: They’re all available at, thanks.

  4. says

    The socialist countries of Europe, being more enlightened about the public good, are actually moving towards this
    Actually, we’re moving away from this, it sometimes seems.

  5. mclaren says

    Esther Dyson explained the dynamics of the new marketplace for music in an era of free downloading back in July of 1995:

    Cory Doctorow has offered the best explanation for why DRM doesn’t work, can’t work, and shouldn’t be tried:

    Composers can make money by giving away some of their music for free, then charging money for added value. Such as: light show DVDs of their music; audio files explaining how their music is put together; scores in digital form; “membership only” download areas with interview with the composer and performers; additional material, such as “introduction to [fill in style] audio files or video files (particularly useful if you’re working in, say, minimalism — whip together an “introduction to minimalism” audio or video file and make it available for free if people buy your downloads); access to behind-the-scene performance or rehearsal video or audio files for paying customers; downloadable books available for free for paying customers. And so on.
    At the 2001 Micro Fest, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. Joe Monzo sold out of his books on microtonality. “But they’re available for free on the net,” he remarked to me. “People can just download them. But they’re still buying the books.”
    Cory Doctorow sells gobs ‘n gobs of his books even though they’re all available as free downloads. Some people will opt for the convenience of not having to read a book on a computer screen, or listen to it through crummy computer speakers; other people will be enticed by the prospect of added value extras; some people will altruistically prefer to support the composer; and some people will be beguiled by a “members-only” area of a website where special content is available. See Jerry Pournelle’s membership website for examples of this from a fiction writer.
    It’s entirely true that American c(r)apitalism has no way to value anything that doesn’t come with a pricetag attached. So attach a variable pricetag. Some download websites leave it to the audience to decide what a download is worth.

    We’re in a whole new world of economics and the old rules are falling away fast. My Introduction to Microtonality CD has been available under copyleft since 1998 — alas, not online (yet). With luck, soon.

  6. Paul Beaudoin says

    For those of you who have posted your materials online for free – do you notice an increase in the visibility and desirability of your music? In other words – are you getting more listeners or performers for your pieces than you would have using “other” routes? I think you have mentioned here that you have gotten a few performances from your web-based visibility.