Regarding "Offending Maggie"

By Piers Hollott
August 4, 2008 | Comments: 2

Musical groups like Vampire Weekend may just have the right idea: release the songs before you release the album. After tracks from their self-released "blue cdr", distributed by hand at live shows, leaked to the music 'blog community, a feeding frenzy ensued, so that the band had no difficulty securing a recording contract, and a year later re-released the debut EP as a full length LP with the addition of a few new tracks. But what if you could release the songs before you had even recorded them?

Well, the band Deerhoof has demonstrated that this is possible. On June 3rd, 2008, "Fresh Born", the first single from the San Francisco band's upcoming album, Offend Maggie, was posted on Cash Music as sheet music, under a Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike-NonCommercial license. The actual track, recorded by the band, will not be released until October 6th, when the full album comes out. In the mean time, in a few months, a full twenty versions of "Fresh Born", recorded by all and sundry, have been submitted to the Cash Music website.

One of these contributers, Lucas Gonze, makes a very important observation on his website regarding the economics of this unique approach to releasing music:

Most net-native music is electronic, I think because of how easy and cheap it is to use computers to make music. As soon as you touch a mic the amount of trouble goes way up, and if you need a whole band recorded then it's not even feasible for most people to find the players, much less do a studio session. So electronic music is becoming dominant in the current generation because of the favorable economics.

As Gonze points out, many of these recordings are played on live instruments. By releasing their song in sheet music, in a standardized and easily accessible format, Deerhoof is able to open-source their product to a multitude of studio musicians. And in true open-source fashion, changes to the original piece of music are being sent back to its originator.

Cash Music is worth noting in its own right. The organization was co-founded by Kristin Hersh of the Throwing Muses and Donita Sparks of L7 as a way of distributing music without involving a record label. Whereas the recent experiments in monetizing musical product by Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails may only be plausible in the context of recording artists already established in the halls of superstardom, the creative efforts of Hersh, Sparks, Deerhoof and the people who contributed recordings of "Fresh Born" demonstrate a brilliant strategy for independant promotion, release and monetization that requires neither superstardom nor a major label.

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The break-down of traditional 'walled-garden' industries like the music industry is explored in Don Tapscott's and Anthony D. Williams' WIKINOMICS.

It is a lot about the economics of giving away what traditionally has been guarded as your trade secrets. The idea is that, with enough 'buzz' generated by your trade-secret, it is better for you to give it away in exchange for the large following it gains you. MySpace, Linux, and, of course, Wikipedia are all examples they site in their book.

They believe it to be a sound set of business principles and they are critical of the music industry's decision to fight this that they call an inevitable paradigm shift that will cost companies their business if they fight it and will open new possibilities for those that don't....

CASH Music is an interesting beast at the moment, as it is still limited to a small number of artists by invitation. It operates through a pay structure of "download what you want, join for a subscription at a variety of different levels, or become a life member for $5000" - much like other PBS-like structures, you are motivated to join by a bunch of cool premium items and the knowledge that you are doing a good thing. CASH Music is definitely one to watch.

At various times I have supported my local PBS, but I feel no guilt watching their programming if I haven't this year. I appreciate that. It's a friendly business model. That said, PBS isn't only made possible by the support of viewers like me - they also receive money from other sources. And whether a business model like CASH Music can become profitable is not really the point.

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