Does Free Content Hinder or Promote Artistic Prosperity?

Brothers and Sisters,

I have had reservations regarding taking the “Biblical Counseling Through Song” concept online due to legal considerations.  I still have those reservations, but we need to begin the following conversation.  It is a conversation which is long overdue in the music community (noticed I didn’t use the term “music industry”).

It is a conversation that needs to start in the Church, where its moral implications may be pondered, evaluated, and debated.  This is a call for the Christian artist community to either reject or, whole heartedly, embrace this argument.  Eternal life for the unbelieving and depth of the Body of Christ hang in the balance.  Will we follow Christ or not?

Primary Question: Does offering audiences free musical content hinder artist growth/prosperity or promote artist growth/prosperity?

Another question, posited in the documentary “Before the Music Dies”, is:

Secondary Question: Has the music industry abandoned artists and fans?

I highly recommend that you check out “Before the Music Dies”on Hulu.  It chronicles the rise of the independent recording labels, the demise of the majors, and the future of the profitable music industry, however be aware that several artists use some foul language.

If you were unaware, we are in the middle of a musical distributive revolution.  In the early days of the recording industry, it used to be that artists did not make much from their recording contracts, but would gain the majority of their income from hitting the road – connecting with their audiences and reaping the harvest from their labor in the recording studio with sold concert seating.

At an attempt of total transparency, I am completely convinced that serving limited free content to loyal audiences of devoted fans is the primary way for artists to serve those they wish to influence.  In no small measure, this same approach is an indirect means of engendering free advertising and promotion by unleashing the hidden power of social networks to exploit their powerful market forces.  Let me start with a brief account of recent recording history and then progress into strategy.  Free content is the primer which begins the pump of a musician’s influence and success.

Brief History of the Recording Industry

As the power of the recording industry rose in the late 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, the record companies and artists became accustomed to making studio recordings without the necessity of connecting in the flesh and blood with their audience.  The sharp degradation of musical quality in the late 70’s and 80’s was a clear embrace of the “studio artist”.  I am a child of the 80’s myself and consider the 80’s as a musically lost decade.  You may disagree and that is fine by me.  I won’t hold it against you 🙂

Beginning in the early 90’s, the emerging generation in the music community began a rebellion in the form of the “Alternative” genre.  At the same time, a growing group of artists returned to the “jam band” culture of the 60’s – Birkenstocks and all.

The most famous of these bands are Phish and The Dave Matthews Band.  If you are one of the unfortunate souls unfamiliar with their work, you are sure to recognize the images of The Dave Matthews Band Studio Dancer and Phish’s “The Fish with the Bubbles out of its Mouth” Logos.  If you have any idea what I’m referring to, those images were placed on bumpers by devoted fans.  When was the last time you saw a picture of Brittany, Madonna, or any other primary “studio” artist on the highways and byways.

Music as a Community Cultivator

Music is at its best as a live corporate experience, communicating truth from one person to another by its life changing power.  In Colossians 3:16, we read, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”  Pandora [1, 2], iTunes, and iPhone are returning us to the music industry climate that favored a talented, hard working, traveling artist community.  The days of easy cash from inferior music is over.  The rise of social media and personal file sharing will continue to put to shame all those resting in their studio laurels.

The future of a musician’s prosperity will not be from their recorded material, but from their live content as they take to the highways and byways to connect with the communities of music lovers that have embraced them.  This can be a boon for the artists in the Church, if we are obedient.  I call it the “Grateful Dead Effect”.  Phish, The Dave Matthews Band, and a handful of others learned the lessons of the Dead and applied them in the 90’s and to this day.  I will quote David Meerman Scott extensively (link to full blog entry) to explain.  He goes on to say:

“The Dead are a big case study in contrarian marketing. Each of the band’s many marketing innovations seems to be based on doing the opposite of what other bands (and record labels) are doing at the time. I really like how the band has cultivated their fan base and I think all organizations can learn from what they do.

Starting in the 1960s, the Grateful Dead encouraged concertgoers to record their live shows, establishing “taper sections” where fans’ equipment could be set up for the best sound quality. When nearly every other band said “no” the Grateful Dead created a huge network of people who traded tapes in pre-Internet days. More than 4,000 shows from the band’s 44-year history have been taped.

The band was happy to have Deadheads trade tapes and make copies for friends. The cult of the Grateful Dead concert became a pre-Internet World Wide Rave, driving millions of fans to the band’s live shows for over thirty years and generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

In late March, I was in New York City when I got an email from the Dead ticketing office asking if I wanted to go to a free Dead show at the Roseland Ballroom in New York that night. Yes, please! The band handed out free tickets to the club gig (and two others the same day) for fans as a way to build buzz for the tour. And of course, I tweeted it. Free stuff sells product…

What I learned from the Grateful Dead

1. I learned that even though most of the content in my last several books is available for free on this blog or as one of my free ebooks, people will still pay for premium packaging in the form of my print books.

2. I learned that the more people who know about me, the more live gigs I am asked to do.

3. I learned that it is critical to rehearse for live performances.

4. I learned that an audience wants to feel special and customization of each live performance is essential.

5. And I learned that your most passionate fans are also the best people to tell your stories and spread your ideas. Treat them with care and respect.

What can you learn from the Dead? ” [4]

The old marketing adage, “Word of mouth is the most effective form of advertising” holds true.  We are living in the age of Facebook, Linked In, and Twitter.  There is no turning back, nor dare we.

As we can see from the now 50 year long run of the Grateful Dead that has now crossed three generations of concert goers, giving free content allows artists to flourish.  Although it takes more cultivation of an artist’s or group’s fan base, the personal connection is not only beneficial for the fans, but is emotionally fulfilling for the artists as well.

Anyone that has been on the road with the Dead, Phish, or Dave Matthews, all know that they cultivate the sense that you are traveling the country with a second family, sometimes one that is closer than one’s biological families.  Music has the power to build community from shared experiences.

Two questions that Christian artists must grapple with, “Will our music, and the resulting community, honor Christ in mutual affection for each other, or will we fall into the consumerism trap of a recording label driven profit margin?”  Every Christian artist will need to answer, “Why do I make art?”  Clearly, art for personal profit alone falls short of our commission to make disciples of all nations (Mat 28:16-20).

Has the music industry abandoned artists and fans?

I think this above question is fairly easy to answer.  Is anyone really satisfied today with conventional radio?  The market share of print media and conventional radio are declining rapidly.  Their days are numbered due to market monopolization and not allowing niche markets to form.  The long tail of niche groups is currently underdeveloped by today’s conventional music industry major labels.  Where the majors have failed, the social networking media have taken control and are dominating the market.  How much more influential would today’s major recording artists be if they opened up the market to the Grateful Dead Effect?  The Church can lead the way in this aspect.  Will we be bold and courageous pouring out our lives for those we serve (Isa 57:10-14) or will we be self consumed?

In Summary

As a Church, we have two options:

1)      We can retain our artist rights and plush recording contracts with a smaller impact with only those that can afford to purchase recorded material.

2)      We can freely give as we have freely received from Christ, hit the road, and make disciples.

The choice is ours to make.

In the final analysis, we must consider that all of our abilities are given by a Sovereign, Holy, and Loving God.  He gives us all that we need for faith and holiness.  He simply asks us to give those same gifts back into His hands so that He may increase the crop, 30, 60, or even 100 times what was sown (Mark 4:20).

Two Saints Leading the Charge:

1)      Christ Our Life – Free worship for download online
2)      Curt Vernon – His motto, “Freely I have received, freely I will give.”

Music has the distinct power to break us from our addiction to the temporal, transforming our desire for fleeting pleasure into an eternal mindset set on Christ alone.  Will we be so daring to place our provision into the hands of a mighty God?

The consequences of our servitude, or our selfishness, will be immense, lasting, and eternal.  I will end with a plea.

I need help to figure out how to post the playlists that I’ve created legally.  My initial thought was to stream for free as a means of advertising and promotion for the recording artists used, with the option to purchase and download, from either iTunes or directly from the musician’s site.  Too many people that I’ve counseled directly through this material have had life changing encounters with the Word of God.  I feel as if I am hiding the lamp beneath the bowl.  I feel compelled to share with the rest of the Church and the world.  Will you stand with me?

In the famous ending words of Martin Luther before the Diet of Worms, “I stand here and can say no more. God help me. Amen.”

Please leave your comments and your thoughts…I appreciate the feedback, admonishment, and encouragement!

May Grace and Peace Rest Upon You,

Additional Resources and References:
1) Tim Westergren, Pandora Radio and Music Genome Founder, InterviewTeaser

2) Tim Westergren InterviewFull Interview (Fast forward to 16:00)

3) Cross, Robert L., “The Hidden Power of Social Networks”, Harvard Business School Press, 2004. ISBN – 1-59139-270-5

4) Scott, David M., “Marketing Lessons From the Grateful Dead”,, 04-2009.

WARNING! – Before the Music Dies – WARNING! – Vulgar language alert…
5) Shapter, Andrew and Rasmussen, Joel.Before the Music Dies”,, 2006.

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2 Responses to Does Free Content Hinder or Promote Artistic Prosperity?

  1. TomMurphy28 TomMurphy28 says:

    A few great posts by Derek Webb in November 2011…

    Giving It Away – How Free Music Makes More Sense – Part 1

    Giving It Away – How Free Music Makes More Sense – Part 2

  2. Justin says:

    Interesting. I think a lot of what you are suggesting in the blog about free content was compelling. Are you directing this towards the The Church or towards the musicians themselves? It seems like the artists are the ones that need to be convinced. They are the one’s that get to make the choice as to how their gifts (and the results of their gifts) are used and therefore could affect those changes faster if convinced it would be more effective.

    Another thought I had was that most of the (albiet limited number of) bands I know have done alot of the “Grateful Dead methods” early on when they are establishing themselves. They ALL have cult like followings by the time they get signed. Otherwise, the record companies won’t sign them. Based on your blog, I think what makes the Dead unique is that they continued well after they didn’t “have to” anymore.

    Thanks for writing it. It really made me think.

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