We’re Not Alone?

Concrete re-enforced Clubhouse

Like a lot of good things in life free music exists in it’s own little room, packed to capacity with enthusiastic, occasionally smart and usually quite obsessive people all looking towards the great pile of music in the center and mumbling amongst themselves about how great it all is. A bit like model train enthusiasts or Anarchists we’re absolutely certain that what we’re into is incredibly worthwhile and enriching but seemingly oblivious to what the rest of the world thinks of us, which usually isn’t very much. It’s the sort of narcissistic fascination which, from time to time, morphs almost overnight into grand, reality altering mass enthusiasm, as has happened with the internet itself which has evolved from the self-referential and slightly awkward domain of those with enough of an obsession to enter the sealed circle into something which most people in this part of the world take as just another (versatile) tool in the day to day task of drifting by.

And it’d be nice to think that the same revelatory change will hit the free music movement somehow, with the world one day waking up suddenly mysteriously aware of what a Creative Commons license is. As well as a profound appreciation of how great it is to freely share our collective culture without having to accept the tastes of self-appointed guides who mumble obliquely about ‘the market’ and ‘what people want’ as they churn out yet another carbon copy of the latest commercial success. And who knows, perhaps it will happen, perhaps somehow our obsession will ‘cross-over’ to the rest of the world without us even noticing until it’s happened. Seems unlikely though.

Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy an audience

It’s been said that these great quantum shifts in people’s perceptions happen because of money and, in a lot of cases, that’s undoubtedly true. Throw enough cash at anything and it’s got a fair chance of sticking in the public mind, even if the form it takes is nothing like the one it started with. It’s also been said that those folks who aren’t happy living in the hobbyist hinterland should see some dollar signs of their own and start turning a buck from free music, in whatever manner fits, which in turn will break ‘us’ into the world of the general public – proving at the same time that money makes the world go round. As a point it does make some sense – money in music demands an audience and anyone who invests is bound to divert their gaze from the little room full of enthusiasts and out to the big wide world. Of course it’s another fairly solid observation on the world of free music to say that none of us actually have much money. Nor, for that matter, are we exactly brimming over with business savvy expertise with an eye for fund-raising and a nose for a viable commercial model. The idea of giving away music for free seems to largely appeal to the sort of people who think that’s a good idea, not the sort of people who immediately start imagining ways to rinse cash out of the idea. Plus, last time I looked, we were running on empty when it came to eccentric billionaires with a penchant for throwing money at things which may never offer a return.

Sporadically, or even singularly in the free music world, business does step in and set about milking the as yet unborn cash cow. Jamendo, for example, seems to have worked its way through vast amounts of money in its search for a real audience, preferably of the sort which pays for licensing rights, but how often do you hear their name mentioned beyond the walls of the orange behemoth itself? Whether it’s the money or the production line nature of the beast Jamendo is hardly a shining totem for most of the scene, it’s just a distant portion of our little world which seemingly works on an entirely different path from the rest of us.

So, there’re more than a few problems to face before the calls to monetize become valid ones and even if, like me, you’re fairly open to them within strictly defined guidelines they can’t be pointed to as any kind of final answer to things. In fact it’s not even the solution we should really be looking to first, that one’s far easier to grasp and includes the efforts of a lot more people at the moment. It’s the community.

Stylishly ineffectual

We aren’t in business (for the most part), we’re not in advertising either, nor are we in PR and I doubt any of us really want to be (except those who already are and they have my sincere sympathies). People get involved in all this because they like the music; they like listening to it, making it, writing about it, releasing it – we’re mostly fairly seriously into our music and, by the looks of things, we’re rarely into shameless promotion or ‘trend-setting’. We’ve collectively got all the required qualifications to make, share, understand and generally enjoy music but none of the skills necessarily for getting other people to do the same. Even the most successful of our communal projects are currently measured internally within the scene because external standards almost always make for a depressing read. All of which hardly strikes the idea of voluntary, community led promotion in the most positive of lights and for a fair few people that’s just fine, seeing as ‘we’ don’t need to, or shouldn’t want to, promote in the first place. Again though that’s an argument with the hobbyists which opens out into an MC Escher level of confusion, so I’ll ignore it for now.

Vanguard Party – bring a bottle

Anyway, for all these apparent weaknesses in our ability to garner an audience beyond our own borders – hope remains, at least in my opinion. All of our faults can be compensated for by a bulk of people. Where individual labels or ‘zines struggle to garner attention beyond the self-acknowledged community a group, collaborating on even one project, stands a far better chance. Not necessarily because the expertise to deal with the media beyond our boundaries or to introduce the concept of free music to the rest of the world will suddenly appear through strength of numbers but because collaboration can make the task seem that little bit less daunting and overwhelming. Even in our microcosm of the big wide world beyond success still goes to those projects which involve a team of even moderately motivated individuals – a lesson which can be applied just as easily to every operation around here which follows its own ideas but lacks the framework and support to bring them to fruition. And anyone who’s come across an album, or a label, or a site which is worth reading only to realise that you’re in an infinitesimally small minority who’ve actually come across it can, I hope, see that there is a reason to do something beyond wait hopefully for the rest of the world to catch up.

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