Music for nothing, and the records are free: why Milwaukee bands are giving it away
It took three years and a battalion of collaborators—including members of Dirty Projectors, Shearwater, American Football, and Maritime—for Ryan Weber and Eric Osterman of Eric & Magill to complete their stunning new album, All Those I Know. But when it came time to release the record, Weber and Osterman went with a simpler approach, putting out All Those I Know as a free download on its Bandcamp page.
They aren’t alone. In recent months, scores of Milwaukee musicians—ranging from psych-folkies like Jay Flash to metal bands like Northless to rap groups like KingHellBastard and The Cranberry Show—have sidestepped the traditional route of finding a label to press copies of their albums in favor of giving the music away for free online. For Weber, the upside of wider exposure outweighed the loss of potential income. “The benefit is that word is getting out and it’s happening pretty fast,” Weber says. “It’s all pretty new. We’ll see where it leads, but I know that awareness of Eric & Magill is much greater thanks to the free download option.”
Weber is right: Buzz around All Those I Know has been growing on blogs for several weeks at a rate that likely would’ve been impossible had Eric & Magill relied on a label to ship the record out, one tastemaker at a time. Besides, as many local musicians will freely admit with wry resignation, nobody is making money off of recorded music these days anyway. “It’s not so much that I see a benefit from offering my music for free; I don’t see a reason not to,” says Jonathan Burks, a local singer-songwriter who has handed out several albums’ worth of music free of charge, including this year’s Loudmouth Soup and Red Pulpy Mess.
“I still sell the same amount of discs on CD Baby—hardly any—and at shows—less than hardly any—as I did before, so why not?” he says. “It’s not like iTunes is sending me a huge check every month. Once an album is recorded, mixed, and mastered, the money is already spent. I’m not loosing anything by giving away tracks online. If people are going to spend money, they will.”
Like Weber, Burks is just happy that his music has found an audience online. “There are people in Argentina, Greece, Japan, South Africa, Oklahoma, and Brooklyn who have copies of my albums,” he says. “That’s not a bad spread for a dude nobody has heard off.”
There’s no doubt that simply giving music away is the best way to ensure the largest audience possible. But in an already overstuffed music marketplace where more artists than ever are competing for the ears of attention-deficient music fans, does “free” end up amounting to “worthless”? Does requiring nothing of the audience in exchange for music ultimately makes that music a passing fancy, something that just takes up space on a hard drive until it’s pushed aside by the next free download? How does that jibe with artists that are trying to create lasting music that will have resonance beyond this week?
These are issues that are still in the process of being resolved in the brave new world of the 21st century music industry. For now, the attitude among Milwaukee musicians seems to be, “Get an audience now, and ask questions later.” Nicolas Sanborn has implemented a “pay what you want” model for downloads from his Milwaukee-based label Listening Party, but when it came to At Long Last, the debut release from his electro-pop group, Cedar AV, he opted to go the free route.
“I’ve always been a fan of the listen first, buy later philosophy,” Sanborn says. “I’m plagiarizing here, but someone once waxed nostalgic about how music has, for better or worse, become one of the art forms, along with visual art, that people usually need to fall in love with before they purchase it.”