Hey Trent, What About Me?

A couple of weeks ago there was a mini snit that fermented over an interview with Nine Inch Nails lead man Trent Reznor.  CNET reported Trent was upset that less than 20% of the people who downloaded a free Saul Williams record he produced were willing to pay the $5 price for a higher quality version.  Later, blog posts were exchanged in anger over whether Trent was actually disappointed or simply expressing a general viewpoint that few people these days willingly pay for music.  This, of course, is part of an even bigger story that started with Radiohead’s release of their album on a pay-what-you-will model.

In a similar vein, there was a pretty good article in Wired last month featuring an interview with David Byrne.  In it, David lays out 6 business models for today’s artists trying to survive in the digital age.  They range from the proverbial 360 deal where an up-and-coming artist gives a piece of their soul, er, I mean, of all their earnings in exchange for a full slice of the label’s promotional might, to the true indie model where the artist does everything.  To his credit, David has clearly given a lot of thought to this issue and explains there’s no one right model for various reasons, not the least of which many musicians simply aren’t, or don’t have the desire to be, businessmen.

What all of these discussions have in common is they’re debating the best way to distribute music.  They all assume a black and white world divided between people who want their music and those who don’t.  Therefore, if you’re not buying music, you’re stealing it.

Now, I suppose if you’re David Byrne, music probably just finds you.  I suspect he gets more music samplers, demos, and just plain free copies than he can listen to.  Good for him.  I can’t seem to get life to work that way for me, though.  I have to nag friends, surf MySpace, read reviews, and just generally dig to find new music that appeals to me.  Even then, with all the resources available on the web, I still have to use either a low-fi 30 second sample or “steal” a song to actually hear it before I buy it.  Either that or just take the plunge, buy it, and hope I’m not disappointed later.

This is where the whole music industry has failed me.  I don’t just buy a song, I usually buy the whole record.  If the artist has a reputation as a good performer, I’ll go see them live.  And I don’t go alone to a show, I take my wife or go with friends.  And then I tell other people about a good show or a good record.  So if the artist produces something I like, I’m going to drop or directly influence purchase of well over $100 worth of their product.  For all but the hugest bands, that means in a country of 300 million people the artist only need a few thousand of me to make a living.  And yet, I have to “steal” music if I want to hear it before I buy it.

I know I’m not the only one with this problem.  What we need is for the music industry to realize that back in the day record stores didn’t just sell music, they enabled customers to buy something after they heard it.  Sure, we all bought stuff on reputations and recommendations of friends, but we had a choice.  It’s time the creative geniuses in the music business emerge from their narcissistic cocoons and figure out how we can listen to music again before we buy without the RIAA labeling us digital terrorists.

But that’s just one man’s opinion.