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Sunday 25 March 2007


The Gift Economy and Sustainable Music

Daniel Wolf of Renewable Music reported that I was the first person trying to market commissions as e-commerce. There may be some disagreement on that, but I'm pretty sure that I'm the first person who has tried to market a commission on ebay. (Auction 1, Auction 2)

There are a few reasons you should care about this. One is that you might be the first person (or in the first group of 30, since that's how many I'm putting up in this project) to commission a piece of music via ebay. The other is that this is a proof of concept for the viability of music in the internet age.

What is music but data? Data wants to be free. People love to share. On the one hand, we have the RIAA fighting the future (and the present) by suing all their customers. That business model is not sustainable and has numerous other problems. On the other hand, we have the sharers - people who love music and post their favorite pieces on the internet, via a website or p2p or whatever. And in the middle we have artists - me and others like me. The RIAA hasn't done much for me lately, but neither has p2p, really. When musicians ask me how they're supposed to cover the costs of recording if their music gets traded for free online, all I can say is what the blogosphere has been saying. Fans will buy merch. Fans will paypal you donations, like a tip jar. The fans will come through, somehow. But how, really? Merch is a logo on a piece of material. A logo is data. The logos, like the tunes they stand for, want to be free. So all we really have is the virtual tip jar.

Some of us do give virtual tips, but most don't. Freeing mp3s to your fans isn't like busking. There's no eye contact. There's no presence. This model is not sustainable, either. How many of us actually go and paypal every artist who we've downloaded and like? And what do the fans get in return? A moral satisfaction, sure, but not enough to make the model work. In practice, the fans get very little for their efforts.

Artists are left with the problem of how to distribute their music such that it makes it to their fans and they cover their costs and can live. Moreover, the manner of distribution and monetary compensation should capture the zeitgeist of sharing and direct involvement. The fans must get something tangible in return, in a time when tangibility itself is becoming slippery.

I think commissioning is the answer to this dilemma. The commission amount covers costs. The fans get something real in return - their name attached to the work - a credit as an integral part of the creation. Because as the RIAA knows and fears, the fans have been integral all along. This is one answer to the question of how smaller artists can thrive in a direct-to-consumer, sharing sort of environment. The gift economy! The commissioner gives money to the artist who gives music to hir fans. Like other gift economies, the value of the gifts grow as it spreads to more and more people. Instead of fighting the internet economies of data, this model requires it.

I think Ebay is a natural fit for this project. The auction aspect means that minimal costs are covered and the value of the fan's gift is in proportion to the value in which other fans hold it. In any case, some sort of discrete transaction method is required. A popular artist could get more commissions than s/he could hope to fill otherwise.

If somebody gets this concept to work in practice, then we have the new model. So here's my trial seeking a proof of concept. Music can be free and artists and fans can cooperate and thrive without leech-like corporations persecuting both.


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