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As an artist, you may be scratching your head, wondering what the heck is going on with all of this babble about music on the Internet. Some people are talking about piracy and security and RealAudio and Windows Media and MP3 and AAC and the possiblity of the RIAA introducing a new standard that maybe people might adopt but possibly not and…AUGH!
You don’t care about technical jargon. You want people to hear you and to sell a few CDs. Maybe you get your giggles off of the notion of getting fan mail from India. And if the Internet can help you do that, you might just jump on the boat.
First thing I should tell you, and maybe the most shocking thing: don’t worry about protecting your music. This is hard to swallow, I realize. But the software industry had to go through this 15 years ago, and they learned the same thing the hard way. They spent millions upon millions of dollars and years of work trying to make sure that nobody could copy their software. Most software was cracked days after its release, to the tears and cries of those whose job it had been solely to make sure that it would be impossible to do such a thing. Eventually, the software companies gave up. The vast majority of software on the market today has effectively zero copyright protection. And the surprise? These companies haven’t gone out of business! Microsoft isn’t turning belly-up any time
soon, despite the fact that all of their products can be (and are!) easily copied around the Net.
Why? Because software companies are making reasonably good products and are making them easily available at generally reasonable prices to the public. Only a small percentage of people are cruel enough to steal all of the software they use. Most people use a little copied software, but that, contrary to the reports of the software companies, isn’t hurting anyone. You get exposed to the software, hooked on it, and then you will be likely to buy a copy when the next version comes out. McAfee Associates, who makes various anti-virus products, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal last year as saying “Pirates are our best distribution channel in this business.”
Your business is not software, obviously, but the lesson should be clear: even with all of your assets in the open, the vast majority of people will still buy your product and support you, providing you make “being legal” convenient.
A very large number of college students (I should know, I am one!) would be willing to buy music from our favorite artists online if it was readily available on a cool website, we could hear previews of what it was going to sound like before we bought it, and we could share it with our friends. Since only a limited number of artists have actually moved forward on this (the exceptions being notable: Public Enemy, Alanis Morisette, Beastie Boys, Frank Black…), pirated music abounds. Again, this is not because college students and the like are inherently thieves, but because there is no legal way to obtain singles of our favorite music over the Web.
Another thing to realize is that your music will spread: people will ineviatably copy it to their friends. How else do you think the Grateful Dead became so popular? The bootlegged copies of their tapes spread around the country and people got hooked on the sound. The key here is what I call “Push Out, Suck In.” If you release a song on the Internet that people like, people will copy it around. Even if you sell a song to someone, it’s unreasonable to expect them not to want to share it with their friends if they like it. This you must embrace as a Good Thing. Remember the original South Park Christmas episode? It was spread around the Net hundreds of thousands of times. Its creators quickly became rich after they got media recognition and their own TV show — all as a result of “pushing out” their content.
But pushing out is not that difficult. The part that you need to pay attention to is sucking your pirate listeners to your website. If you manage this, you can turn people who liked listening to your music into people who buy your music, into fans who you can connect with. There are a few options you have for sucking people back to your website. One good way is to include your band’s URL in all of the music you give out or sell. This way, every copy of that piece of music that gets distributed makes it easy for the listener to connect with your website.
Ultimately, this is a win for the consumer, who can now better connect with her or his favorite artists and buy more music they like; and it is a win for the artists, who can get exposed to larger audiences on a global scale. (When’s the last time you shipped your promo CD to Sri Lanka?) Managed properly, giving away part of your music may give you increased revenues and added exposure.
And you can make money on this. You can work with an Internet music distributor (there are many out there!) to sell your music either in downloadable format or on a CD. These places will give you percentages far greater than in the record industry: whereas an excellent and well-respected artist might earn up to 15% of sales on her CD, it’s possible to earn 50-90% of sales on these sites.
Of course, there’s the tempting (and easy!) route to just do it yourself. All you need to do is slap up a web page with your address and have people send you a check if they want a copy of your CD. You can get a CD-R for ~$150-$200 these days and blank media for under $1/disk. When someone sends you mail requesting a disk, just burn a fresh copy and ship it out to them. Hell, offer T-shirts, too. They’re pretty cheap to make and you can sell them at your concerts, too. Play this game right and you’ll earn *all* of the sales,
minus your expenses. You can even start up your own underground Internet radio station and/or submit music (for no charge) to be played on other such stations. It’s not too hard to do and can be a really fun way to connect with your listeners. More on this later.
One quick caveat: if you do decide to let someone handle your music sales for you, like an independant label or an online music site, it is important to read the fine print. One company tried to get signing artists to write away nearly all of their promotional rights. (Later this clause was removed when artists protested.) Never sign exclusively and be careful what rights you’re giving away regarding your music.
So go for it. This will make you “cool” with your listeners, “hip” to the Internet crowd and offer a great way to be heard and maybe get some more people to buy that song you wrote last week. Sell some T-shirts online. Be heard in Djibouti. Have fun and welcome to the music-filled land of the future!