Bob Osterdag on Why it is Better for Musicians to Share their Music

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Bob Ostertag, an experienced musician explains why most musicians today would be much better off sharing music via the Internet than signing standard industry recording contracts.

Text 1

Bob Ostertag:

"In March 2006 I posted on the Web all of my recordings to which I have rights, making them available for free download. This included numerous LPs and CDs created over 28 years. I explained my motivations in a statement on the Web site:

I have decided to make all my recordings to which I have the rights freely available as digital downloads from my web site. [...] This will make my music far more accessible to people around the globe, but my principal interest is not in music distribution per se, but in the free exchange of information and ideas. "Free" exchange is of course a tricky concept; more precisely, I mean the exchange of ideas that is not regulated, taxed, and ultimately controlled by some of the world's most powerful corporations ...

One year later, I continue to be amazed at how few other musicians have chosen this route, though the reasons to do so are more compelling than ever. Why do musicians remain so invested in a system of legal rights which clearly does not benefit them?

When record companies first appeared, their services were required in order for people to listen to recorded music. Making and selling records was a major undertaking. Recording studios and record manufacturing plants had to be built, recording technology and techniques developed. Records not only had to be manufactured but also distributed and advertised. Record executives may have been crooked in their business practices, callous about music, or racist in their treatment of artists, but the services the companies provided were at least useful in the sense that recorded music could not be heard without them. Making recorded music available to the general public required a significant outlay of capital, which in turn required a legal structure that would provide a return on the required investment.

The contrast with the World Wide Web today could not be more striking. Instant, world-wide distribution of text, image, and sound have become automatic, an artifact of production in the digital realm. I start a blog, I type a paragraph: instant, global "distribution" is a simple artifact of the process of typing. Putting 28 years of recordings up on my Web site for free download was a simple procedure involving a few hours of effort yet resulting in the same instant, free, world-wide distribution. It makes no difference if 10 people download a song or 10,000, or if they live on my block or in Kuala Lumpur: it all happens at no cost to either them or me other than access to a computer and an Internet connection.

So much for distribution. What about production? Almost none of my releases were recorded in a recording studio provided by a record company. They were either recorded on-stage, in schools or radio stations, or in living rooms, bedrooms, and garages with whatever technology I could cobble together. They are made either by myself alone or with a small handful of close collaborators. In one sense this is atypical, because I intentionally developed an approach to recording that was premised on never needing substantial resources, with the explicit goal of maintaining maximum artistic autonomy. Yet while this approach may have been unusual 20 years ago, it is less and less so today as digital technology has drastically reduced the cost of recording. There are very few recording projects today that actually require the resources of the sort of high-end recording studios record companies put their artists in (and for which the artists then pay exorbitantly -- bills which must be paid off before the musicians see any royalties from their recordings). Just as the Web has changed the character of music distribution, laptops loaded with the hardware and software necessary for high-quality sound recording and editing have changed the character of music production.

Record companies are not necessary for any of this, 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."

Like all taxes, if you don't pay you are breaking the law; you are a criminal! Armed agents of the state have shown up at private residences and taken teenagers away in handcuffs for failure to pay this corporate tax. It is worth noting how draconian state coercion has been in this field in comparison to many others. For example, almost everyone I know (including myself) has a unpaid copy of Microsoft Word on their computer. I am certain that some kids who have run into legal trouble for sharing music without paying the corporate tax also had unpaid copies of Microsoft Word on the very same hard disks that were taken as "evidence" of their musical crimes. Yet no state agents are knocking on the doors of our houses to see if we have pirated software. Music alone is singled out for this special treatment." (

Text 2

Response to comments:

"1. I am not opposed to musicians making money from music! Never have been, never will be. I do not perform for free unless it is a benefit for a cause I support. I am not sure how anyone could conclude from my essay that I am opposed to musicians making money. I am not.

2. The question is how. Sharing recordings via the internet is now so easy that the only way to prevent it from happening is to have the RIAA and the FBI snooping on the computer use habits of teenagers across the country, and teenagers and their parents being faced with huge lawsuits, and college campuses being forced to police how their students use their computers (which should be an open educational tool. All of this for doing something that is so obvious and so available that it is, in fact, done all the time by any teenager with even a modicum a instinct for questioning authority. I am not sure which is worse: a world in which the state snoops on personal computer use on behalf of the recording industry, or a world in which teenagers are so bullied by draconian legal threats that they don't dare to use their computers for obvious purposes. So no, I am not opposed to musicians making money. But if the way of making money you have in mind entails all of the above, then it is time to find a new way.

3. Those who have commented that I must have a good day job in order to afford to give away my recordings missed another central point of the essay: I never made much money from selling my recordings, and very few musicians do. Like almost all musicians in the world, the large majority of income I make from music I make from concerts. That was true before I gave the recordings away, and it is true now. As I tried to point out, it is a myth that musicians make their living from selling recordings.

4. Of course, there are all kinds of musics that still require recording studios and significant resources to make a decent recording of. In pointing out that there is a bigger and bigger range of musics that do not require that, I do not mean to denigrate the musics that do." (