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.