The Cost of Free
Updated: Sep 23, 2020
A couple of thoughts on a kind message I got yesterday
We live in a strange time. As artists, and yes, that’s what we are, we seemingly are expected to just give away our work sometimes, and maybe it is because we love what we do (I certainly do!). It seems we all do it: whether it’s a sectional for a band director friend, adjudicating a recital for a college teaching job that pays only for lessons and by the hour, the occasional free lesson to a person who says they can’t afford it but both parties know that isn’t the case, or we play for free for a friend’s event, or whatever. It feels nice to do that. Some of my best students really couldn’t afford lessons and I cherish those experiences very much. I like working with band directors and students, and I really feel a true sense of duty to contribute to my field and the people around me.
I still remember the first time I didn’t feel that way. I was in college and doing sectionals at a wealthy school district. After marching season was over and my work was therefore no longer needed, I got a call from the band director asking me to prepare a handout for her trombone players on instrument care and maintenance. It didn’t take me long, just a couple of hours, but I still remember a sharp sting of betrayal when that band director didn’t even offer to pay for my time. Being in college, that little bit of cash would have made a difference for sure! But such is life I thought, and little did I know!
The old urban legend about being asked to play a wedding in return for “exposure” is now a fact of life. I regularly find myself being expected to provide content so that students who might not otherwise get access to my experience can still do so. I don’t mind that one bit! The odd thing is, that huge companies: Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, and of course everybody’s favorite Spotify, all publicly traded companies valued in the millions, regularly benefit from this. So, ok, this is a choice I make sometimes, and I stand by it.
It is in that environment that I got a very kind message yesterday asking me to re-upload videos I deleted from my YouTube channel.
Let me explain.
While working on my book, Trombone Exercise Library Project (aka T.E.L.P.), a collection of exercises with backup tracks, I occasionally uploaded videos to YouTube of the exercises I was working on. They were usually low-tech versions of my work, with hastily balanced tracks and a quick video edit. I was of course being selfish; it was a way for me to try out the exercises on a large sample of strangers who through their clicks told me what activities they valued, and in return they got free content. Win-win I think.
When I published the PDF version of T.E.L.P. I took down most of the videos but decided to leave about 30 minutes worth of material. I did this for a few reasons: it allows me to give access to people who might not otherwise be able to access T.E.L.P., it gives me a channel to workshop new materials, and of course selfishly serves as a promotional tool for my work. So I put a little note on the videos with a link to the paid version and I thought that was it. It wasn’t.
The message I got read: “Can you put all those other ones back up please?”. I was both flattered and at first maybe a bit bothered too. But who can blame this person? First of all, they were perfectly nice about the entire thing, and second, we’re all constantly giving away content, myself included! This person likely doesn’t know how much thought, work, effort, skills, and capital went into T.E.L.P., and they don’t know how many really fantastic colleagues I shamelessly bugged for feedback to make sure I get this first book right. My feelings certainly aren’t hurt.
I don’t have any good answers for these thoughts, and I don’t know where this all goes. Our legislators were convinced long ago that the platform’s rights were more important then those of the content producers. I can understand why this happened. At the time Napster was making online music sales impossible, and the very public police raids on college students sharing music they legally bought weren’t helping anybody’s cause. But this does bring the industry to a place where it’s difficult to argue for publication of new products. The market, between the sheer amount of free content, and the pay structure of online music retailers ($0.005 per click is a fair average, and not only from Spotify), make it so that it’s near impossible to make back the costs of a quality production, leaving the online front to those who can afford the losses, and those who must publish for their tenure packet. It's impossible to know how many great players we can't enjoy, and how many new works don't get properly recorded and experienced as a result of this environment, so the effects on the artistic health of the field are impossible to quantify, but I'll bet they are significant.
If I were a student looking to the future I don’t know what I would do. On the one hand being a student is expensive and challenging. On the other hand, if one doesn’t pay it forward, what’s to say somebody will buy their great product, pay for lesson, or buy their recordings once they become professionals?
For myself, I didn’t put my album It’s Alive!!, an all new music recording, on streaming because, while I didn’t expect it to be a big money maker, I also didn’t want to lose money on the project. With T.E.L.P I chose PDF as my favorite format because of how universal it is, the ability to continuously update and add to the book, and also some built in protections for my work. While I am publishing a hard copy (soon!), I very much enjoy the electronic version myself both for its usability and protections. Regarding the YouTube playlist I think I’ll keep it as is for now. I certainly don’t feel I need to give away more of my work for free on this project. But I can’t judge those who do, and I can’t help but be flattered for being asked, so thank you!
After this post I feel I should end this post on a positive note, and mention two albums I recently bought and am enjoying very much: Carol Jarvis' Smile and Max Seigel's Bluebird. Was also reminded of Ken Thompkins' Sonatas, Songs, and Spirituals during an interview I did with him for the SoftT vlog. Great stuff all around!!