AMN Opinion: Should Out-of-Print Music Be Free?

Every couple of weeks or so a new podcast or blog emerges that offers free downloads of out-of-print or rare recordings. Most of these sites also display a disclaimer, stating something to the point of: “We’re only posting these digitized high-quality recordings because they are otherwise unavailable. We’re not distributing pirated copies, no-sir-ee!”

Let’s analyze.

A great deal of music is out-of-print, including many recordings that have a viable, but small, audience. The recordings remain out-of-print in most cases because the cost of re-printing, re-pressing, and/or re-mastering is several times the amount of money that can be made by offering legitimate copies for sale. However, should this potential audience of perhaps several hundred individuals lose the opportunity to enjoy what in their minds might be a classic? Should art be not seen, not heard and not experienced because of its lack of commercial viability?

While the recordings may only exist in LP format or both LP and CD formats, the market for certain rare recordings on eBay and other forums can be in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars. One can debate the intricacies and justifications of free-market economics, but is it fair, or is it just for savvy collectors to profit off of the second-hand selling of art while the artist doesn’t get a cut?

Enter the free download sites. They offer the entire album, either digitized from the original LP format, or ripped form a CD. Usually, the sound quality is quite good. The world, including the core audience of several hundred, can now experience the art. Life is good for everyone…or is it?

It is debatable whether or not the original artist benefits from or would even condone this practice. And it will vary from artist to artist. Some openly encourage sharing of their out-of-print works while others prefer to maintain a stranglehold on the dissemination of their music (though the online market for free high-quality bootleg recordings is so enormous that this point is practically moot). But will the artist benefit or be harmed? Here too, there is no clear answer. A freely available high-quality digital copy of a recording might kill the market for a legitimate release of that recording, or it might seed the market for such a release and drive sales of the artist’s in-print efforts. To date, no one has provided reliable data indicating that either of these speculative outcomes is more common than the other. Like artist’s attitudes towards free downloads, the truth probably varies.

So is it considered “piracy” to offer high-quality full-length downloads of otherwise unavailable music? The ethics seem questionable. But is it right or wrong? Again, no clear answer emerges.

This may be one of those situations where you cannot change what happened in the past, so you can only plan to address the problem in the future. Independent artists should either launch their own websites or sign on to download services that, for all intents and purposes, will result in their music never going out-of-print, while allowing the artist to get paid per download. Artists that prefer to sign to a label should negotiate a contract that allows the rights of their music to revert to themselves after the label lets the recording go out-of-print.

And what about the devious collector who makes enormous profits on the resale of legit copies of rare recordings? Digital downloads won’t make the market for physical media evaporate, but downloads will push the market down the demand curve. However, the amount of time that collectors put into collecting is significant and there are relatively few sales of rare recordings that exceed $500. If you boil collector profits down to an hourly rate, it is likely to no more than minimum wage. So maybe the collectors have more in common with the artists than meets the eye.


4 thoughts on “AMN Opinion: Should Out-of-Print Music Be Free?

  1. Hey Mike, nice, thoughtful article. A lot of these issues often seem to be forgotten on forums where it seems preferable to interpret the issue legalistically in order to have the moral high ground.

  2. What an important question — to my mind definitely more so than the much hipper one regarding the sharing of music files which could be purchased at almost any (used/indie) record store for $10 or less. (Buzz from the Melvins commented on that issue at one point in an interview, saying that he didn’t feel to strongly one way or the other about file sharing, but that he couldn’t understand why people thought records/cds were so expensive, and of course he’s right: anyone willing to put in a bit of legwork or internet research can find most in-print stuff legally for very little cash.) I talked this over with my wife, who has an undergraduate Econ degree and can always be counted upon for the cold-hard-facts version, which is as we all know that the market will always (in the long run) establish the appropriate price for the product, and barring this kind of hands-off approach, there will be no incentive for musicians to produce music.

    For me, and I suspect for most people who regularly follow AMN, the issue is a bit less pragmatic and a lot more ethical. (For these reasons, and at this stage of the discussion, I’m sure most contribution to this discussion will be anecdotal, although eventually some kind of conceptual pattern will emerge.) I follow a couple of music blogs, and I have regularly downloaded complete albums which I would otherwise have no ability to obtain or even play. Sure, cold-blooded ECON says: if you really want to hear the record, invest in a record player, scrounge around on ebay, and pay several hundred dollars for the thing. Most of us I’m sure have neither the time nor the financial resources to follow this approach, and yet we would still like to have the ability to operate as listeners to the music; that is, we are straining (if implicitly) against a division of labor (sorry, not getting too Frankfurt here I promise) that would proscribe our listening abilities to that made available by Clear Channel etc. We are (relatively) poor, therefore we get what is most easily produced and therefore standardized; those 60s/70s free-improv fans living on trust funds (and don’t get me wrong, god bless them!) comprise a separate listening public.

    This is old song declaring itself, no doubt. What makes the case interesting for me is that I suspect most of the listening public downloading these rare albums would gladly purchase them if they were available in reasonably-priced common digital formats. (Witness for example the [albeit limited] success of John Corbett’s Unheard Music Series on Atavistic.) We are not looking to get away with anything, nor (I think) are any of us making some kind of claim about the ethereality of music (i.e. that it of its nature is free and available to anyone with ears, “free art,” whatever). Most or all of us actually listen to these records as non-alienated commodities: we are drawn to the music due to the idiosynrasies of the artists who produce it, and we like to think of the time we spend listening as well as the money we spend on the product as going to the musical laborer for his time, effort, and genius. I mean, I go to free improv. shows in Chicago all the time and the audience is so small it’s impossible to avoid having a near-intimate relationship with the performer you’re paying to hear. The problem here is not addressed by the ECON solution, because in that case the only one you’re paying (in that case by purchasing some old vinyl off of ebay) is a collector solely interested in the album’s exchange value. It would be great if control of these records could be returned to the musicians to put out on their own in contemporary formats, but I suspect the contracts negotiated in the 60s and 70s preclude that option.

    I don’t have any solutions here other than the utopic (?) one above, but as I said I think this issue is a unique one amongst the debate surrounding online music-sharing, and deserves to be contextualized as such.

  3. Perhaps I can summarize in just a few words: It is a damn shame to have good music become unavailable especially given that the marginal cost of making OOP recordings available on line is virtually nothing. However I would not want to use that argument to justify “stealing”.

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