I’ve been thinking a lot lately about free music.

Free music is a concept that has been around for a while. The ideas of “throwing a show,” jamming, and the like are the ones that have kept the creative aspect of humanity alive and kicking since the beginning. Sharing music with friends and family fosters a sense of community, strengthens bonds, and keeps the art alive. Sharing your music freely can also boost creativity (via listener feedback), and keep an artist from having their work stay anonymous. Its also extremely fulfilling on an emotional level to play for people other than yourself, and to have those people appreciate your craft. There are lots of advantages to the ‘free’ model.

But there are also a few distinct issues with this idea. One, I have to make enough to cover my fuel, my mileage, and my time spent preparing (this is doubly true if the distance is far, or if the hire-er requests I learn special material that I have to purchase). I also have to charge for physical CD copies, as the materials cost money. Not to mention instrument maintenance: guitars need new strings. Sometimes when they’ve been played hard for an extended period of time, they need some repair work that only a tech (a music mechanic, if you will) can do. These things require money, which is not found when you give your craft away for free…

But the game is changing.

The traditional idea of an audience is vanishing — fewer and fewer people understand what it means to be part of an audience, let alone to be a good audience member. Live entertainment is falling by the wayside because the places that host it are feeling the pinch of the bad economy. Likewise, fans are feeling the pinch, and are less likely to spend cold, hard cash on something they don’t need. Also, in this digital age, everything is (basically) right at your fingertips — is there truly a demand for another singer-songwriter when there’s at least 80 of them currently featured on the front of iTunes’ Singer/Songwriter genre page?

Point being, it’s getting harder and harder for the musician thing to be a viable career alternative, at least in the traditional sense. So how does a musician keep from losing their job in an environment where the value of an art is changing?

To play or not to play, that is the question:
Whether tis better to play for free
And receive much adulation and exposure,
Or hoard thy skills against a cheapened art
And by opposing, silence it: to quit, to pluck the strings
No more; and by a silence, to say we end
The joyous noise and the thousand lovely songs
That man might have wished to hear?

(a little Shakespearean frivolity, for a serious subject.)

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