Musicians cashing in…finally

Posted: March 7, 2008 in Uncategorized
About nine years ago, a friend of mine from high school…who was once revered as one of the best rock guitarists in Seattle…came to me about his music. He had been in a lot of bands, wrote and recorded several albums worth of material, and wanted to sell his music over the Interweb so he could finally get something back out of 15 years of unpaid work. But he didn’t know anything about computers. However, he DID know that I ran a somewhat successful website for musicians, so he wanted my advice and help. He knew about MP3, but didn’t exactly understand what it was.

Mind you, iTunes and crap like that didn’t exist back then. Instead, there were a few independent services out there that set up a "shop" for you on their website, where people could listen to a few short snippets of songs and order an album online, and while the service would take a large chunk of the sale, it was still a better deal moneywise per album than a record label would give you…that is, if you could even get a record label’s attention. And the big news at the time was the recent lawsuit the RIAA brought against Napster, so my friend knew that music on the ‘net was getting pretty huge.

The idea I told my friend about was a little unusual for the time. I suggested digitizing and making available for download ALL of his material. And not just snippets or soundbytes like those independent services offered, but entire songs. Free. The catch is that most of the songs would be encoded at 64 bitrate so the audio quality would be crap…if people like the songs, they’ll want quality audio and buy the albums. A few songs would be encoded at 192 or 224 bitrate just to demonstrate recording quality, and hopefully get traded on Napster, Kazaa, etc to drum up interest, but otherwise all songs would be tagged with artist info, website address and purchasing options. Broadband had less than 10% penetration in the U.S. at the time, but another idea I floated was that we could set up a check-out cart system whereas people could get a password to access and download an entire album of high-quality MP3 files: the password would expire automatically after a week or whatever (benefiting those on analog modems) and he wouldn’t have to deal with CD duplication, packaging and shipping costs.

He thought I was crazy. He couldn’t get past the part that all the songs would be available for free download, regardless of quality. Not coincidentally, that was the last time I ever heard from or saw my old high school pal. Or maybe it’s just simply because he’s in jail, I dunno…a Google search on him brings up a couple of bands he was in back in the ’80s, but that’s it.

Well, Radiohead kinda figured this out, and their latest album was available for free download for a while…if you liked it, slip ’em a few quid, or go buy the CD version. After all, the band has never gotten much radio airplay and doesn’t do video, so how else will you hear their music for free before you buy? And now Trent Reznor has also figured it out, but his approach is much closer to my original idea from nine years ago: NiN’s got a couple of albums worth of material, nine songs of which are available for free download in highest-quality 320 bitrate MP3 format. Want to download all 36 tracks? Pony up $5. Prefer the two-CD set? Send him $10. Prefer vinyl with all the great artwork instead? It’s $40. Are you a sick NiN fan who has to have one of the deluxe packages? $75 will get you a book and Blu-ray disc, and $300 will add vinyl discs to the CDs, and a Reznor autograph to your collection. The only difference between what NiN is doing and my original idea is that the rest of the material also be available for download, but in very low-quality audio…just so everyone knows what it is that they’re shelling out the big bucks.

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