Musicians: Want Money? Release For Free.
Caesars don’t fear the pirate.
For 24 years, the song (Don’t Fear) The Reaper by the band, Blue Öyster Cult, was nothing more than a rock n’ roll smash hit with countless hours of radio play. It put the band on the map and made them rich. The album that featured the song initially, Agents of Fortune, went platinum in the US, meaning it sold at least 1,000,000 copies. A very impressive feat.
But its overall lifetime value was easily quadrupled in the year 2000, when Will Farrel came up with a bone-headed SNL skit called “More Cowbell”.
The skit is considered one of the most successful and popular in all of SNL history. That season of SNL had an average viewership of around 8 million, nearly 8 times the amount of record purchases back in 1976. The amount of advertising revenue generated that year alone by this one SNL skit has most certainly surpassed the entirety of the band’s earnings on selling their 24-year-old LP. And now that it’s been viewed on YouTube more than 13 million times, the skit has taken on a life of its own and has become a part of television history. All this - from a five minute audio recording made in the 1970s.
Something remarkable about this feat is that this outcome could have occurred without Will Farrel having ever purchased one of Blue Öyster Cult’s records. Farrel could have heard this tune on the radio for his entire life, as it gets regular classic rock radio airplay. He could have heard the track at a friend’s house, who owned the record while he did not. And yes, he most certainly could have owned the record in question that hosts the tune.
But how someone hears a song is usually irrelvenat to the second- and third-order effects it can have on that person. Most often, music is conceived of by its composer as a means to its own ends, and does not lead to cross-over effects that generate value for people years after its conception. But when that does occur, no purchase had to be made to make the occurrence possible.
So, shouldn’t musicians be doing everything they can to generate that second- and third-order effect from their music? Shouldn’t they be willing to put it into the hands of as many people as possible, without concern for immediate profits? Perhaps we can look to the first inventors of music for some answers.
Music: The Unstoppable Force
We don’t know what was going through the minds of the Baka Pygmies of Central Africa, when they (very likely) invented music as we know it today. However, what we can be sure of is that nobody was worrying about how much to charge individuals for enjoying or taking part in the world’s very first musical events.
The certainty behind that statement comes not from any assumptions made about the existence of commercialism in the Baka culture, but rather from the nature of the musical performances themselves. For the Baka - and other sub-Saharan foragers - music was a frequent and important part of everyday life, due to its use as a ritualistic tool. Because musical performance is regular and ritualistic in Baka culture, the first musical traditions were solidified, yet within this tradition is a wealth of freedom to engage in individual expression. It has the essence of the blues, classical music, and even jazz all rolled into one incredible lineage.
Give the music of the Baka people a listen - from one music-lover to another, you deserve to know about this special, beautiful, mysterious musical lineage.
The first reed instruments, the first improvisations, and the first polyphony all appear to have occurred at the beginning of the Baka’s formation, many thousands of years ago. And yet nobody sought to individually profit within this framework - the Baka appear to have been knowledgeable about music’s immense powers to a degree that Western culture has all but forgotten.
You cannot put music back in the bag once it has been uncovered. Its ability to generate second- and third-order value is so well-understood that many cultures throughout the globe continue to see music as a holy presence. And though we were able to forgo giving this claim serious throught for many decades, music’s descent from profits to pain has once again forced the West to consider it.
Music & Mythology
Consider some of the more popular forms of ancient and early music:
It’s easy to spot their shared trait: they each utilize music to induce the audience into a state of consciousness more befitting of their society’s broad religious and ritualistic needs.
Until the Renaissance, most musics were studied, practiced, and performed pragmatically. In many cultures, music was seen as a kind of technology, due to its ability to be used to control the progression of each day. Music was used to inform people when to pray, when to rise in the morning, and when to celebrate holidays.
However, today’s musical environment is one where we clearly took musical pragmatism too far. As a result, we are going through an aesthetic backlash unlike anything seen before, resulting in the rather experimental and unsettling sounds we hear in pop music today, from artists such as Billie Eilish and 100 gecs. Not since the beginnings of Jimi Hendrix have we seen such a radical departure from the musical norm becoming so popular. These new artists acknowledge the grime, conflict, and dissonance the global village has wrought, and packages this realization up into a product consumable by today’s audiences.
On their own, Billie Eilish and 100 gecs each have made music that could also be technology - if only they would release it for free. Without widespread adoption, understanding, and utilization, no musical innovation will live on beyond its inventor, leaving it to a low-value and unproductive fate. This forces musical promotion and marketing to exist at the expense of other items also in the music publisher’s catalog, in order to compete for the listener’s dollar. Since this makes the music less accessible, one’s musical preferences become a choice made not by a human being, but by a consumer, who is now forced to vote with their dollars.
We humans will do anything for music. So, let’s set it free, and allow all people to become richer in the process.