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Free Music Works for Wilco

November 16, 2004

Xeni Jardin writes in Wired about Wilco’s “suprising” success.

It’s becoming a fairly common story — artist gets shat upon by label, artist says “screw it” and puts out a solid representative sample of their music online, artist finds later commercial releases gobbled up by fans. In this case, they even raised $15K for charity from people who still wanted to pay for the material they released for free.

What a concept — let people hear some of the band’s good stuff (not just some not-ready-for-album samples) for free, and they’re more willing to buy stuff. Nothing new here, mind you — it just used to be called “radio play”.

Except of course that several whole species of moneygrubbers evolved to carefully control who got radio play and who didn’t, and who got in stores and who didn’t, and grew fat on the money most of us always figured the artists were getting.

And now that mass communication threatens to disintermediate this particular breed of parasites, they’re going out of their way to try to drill into people’s heads that music online is a bad thing. And they’re right, of course; it’s terrible — if you’re a member of that species of bloodsucking leech.

On the other hand, if you’re an artist or a fan, it’s a whole new world. Artists can get heard by fans and potential fans without having to swim with the leeches. Fans can hear music that isn’t the tasteless whitebread of mass marketing. Once they find each other, fans can put money in the actual hands of the artists in exchange for more good music.

What’s not clear to me is why Wilco apparently signed up with another label for the follow-up album that sold well. Many artists are now handling their own commerce and collecting some of that label money. Of course, I’m not familiar with their new label — maybe it’s one with a clue?

We will, of course, eventually see labels that do have a clue — labels that embrace the new technology and run with it, encourage and help artists to take advantage of the massive free promotional opportunities available online, and function mostly as a fulfillment house — take the orders (maybe from record stores, more likely from online music sales sites and the band’s own online presence), and produce and send the music (cds, online fulfillment, burned-to-order at gigs, etc.). They’ll actually split a reasonable share of the revenue with the band, and cut costs by not spending a ton of cash on litigation, political action committees and media manipulation trying to convince us all that WE’RE the pirates, when they’ve been flying their jolly roger over the music industry for decades.

It’ll be easy to figure out who these clueful labels are in a few years — they’ll be the ones who are still in the music business, after all of the dust has settled and the public has spoken with their wallets.

(via Dateline:Bristol)

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