The Free Music Archive is a library of legal audio downloads from WFMU - a rather quirky, but highly acclaimed free-form radio station in New Jersey. From their about us -
Every MP3 you discover on The Free Music Archive is pre-cleared for certain types of uses that would otherwise be prohibited by copyright laws that were not designed for the digital era. These uses vary and are determined by the rights-holders themselves (please see our FAQ) who feel that allowing a degree of free cultural access is beneficial not only to their own pursuits, but to our society as a whole. The Free Music Archive is a resource for audiophiles of all stripes, and unlike other websites, all of the audio has been hand-picked by one of our established audio curators.
The Free Music Archive is a platform for collaboration between curators and artists, including radio stations, netlabels, venues, artist collectives, museums, music festivals and more. The site combines the curatorial approach that these organizations have played for the last few decades, with the community generated approach of many current online music sites.
Inspired by Creative Commons and the open source software movement, the FMA provides a legal and technological framework for curators, artists, and listeners to harness the potential of music sharing. Every artist page will have a bio and links to the artists’ home page for users to learn more about the music they discover via the Free Music Archive. We also seek to compensate artists directly where possible. Artist, album and song profiles may contain links to buy the full album from the artist and/or label’s preferred vendor(s). Users can also “tip” an artist if they like what they hear, sending a donation directly to the artists’ PayPal account. Artist profiles can include tour dates, encouraging users to step away from the glowing computer screen and see some real live music.
From the bird’s-eye perspective, it may not look as though all that much has changed in terms of the livelihoods of the creative class. On the whole, creators seem to be making slightly more money, while growing in number at a steady but not fast pace. I suspect the profound change lies at the boundaries of professionalism. It has never been easier to start making money from creative work, for your passion to undertake that critical leap from pure hobby to part-time income source. Write a novel or record an album, and you can get it online and available for purchase right away, without persuading an editor or an A&R executive that your work is commercially viable. From the consumer’s perspective, blurring the boundaries has an obvious benefit: It widens the pool of potential talent. But it also has an important social merit. Widening the pool means that more people are earning income by doing what they love.
These new careers — collaborating on an indie-movie soundtrack with a musician across the Atlantic, uploading a music video to YouTube that you shot yourself on a smartphone — require a kind of entrepreneurial energy that some creators may lack. The new environment may well select for artists who are particularly adept at inventing new career paths rather than single-mindedly focusing on their craft. There are certainly pockets of the creative world, like those critically acclaimed books dropping off the mainstream best-seller lists, where the story is discouraging. And even the positive trends shouldn’t be interpreted as a mindless defense of the status quo. Most full-time artists barely make enough money to pay the bills, and so if we have levers to pull that will send more income their way — whether these take the form of government grants, Kickstarter campaigns or higher fees for the music we stream — by all means we should pull those levers.
But just because creative workers deserve to make more money, it doesn’t mean that the economic or technological trends are undermining their livelihoods. If anything, the trends are making creative livelihoods more achievable. Contrary to Lars Ulrich’s fear in 2000, the ‘‘diverse voices of the artists’’ are still with us, and they seem to be multiplying. The song remains the same, and there are more of us singing it for a living.
Steven Johnson’s article “The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t” frames itself as a data-driven response to concerns about the plight of creative workers in the digital age. But Johnson’s grasp of the limitations of the data he cites seems tenuous, and he ends up relying on some very dubious and all-too-familiar assumptions. In its sweeping dismissal of artists’ various concerns, the article reads as an exercise in gaslighting.
This is extra disheartening, because in our previous experiences with the NYT’s journalists and fact-checkers, we’ve found them to be rigorous and fair. Likewise, we’ve found Johnson’s books and TV work to be entertaining and often insightful.
We’ll focus our criticisms on Johnson’s thoughts about musicians in this piece, but it’s worth noting that friends in other creative industries—film and publishing—have also reached out to us noting similar objections about Johnson’s coverage of their fields.
Before musicians and their advocates can move to enact a fairer system of pay, we need to know exactly what’s going on. We need information from both labels and streaming services on how they share the wealth generated by music. Taylor Swift, when she forced Apple to back off a plan not to pay royalties during the three-month free trial period for its new streaming service, Apple Music, made some small progress on this count — but we still don’t know how much Apple agreed to pay, or how they will determine the rate.
Putting together a picture of where listeners’ money goes when we pay for a streaming service subscription is notoriously complicated. Here is some of what we do know: About 70 percent of the money a listener pays to Spotify (which, to its credit, has tried to illuminate the opaque payment system) goes to the rights holders, usually the labels, which play the largest role in determining how much artists are paid. (A recently leaked 2011 contract between Sony and Spotify showed that the service had agreed to pay the label more than $40 million in advances over three years. But it doesn’t say what Sony was to do with the money.)
The labels then pay artists a percentage (often 15 percent or so) of their share. This might make sense if streaming music included manufacturing, breakage and other physical costs for the label to recoup, but it does not. When compared with vinyl and CD production, streaming gives the labels incredibly high margins, but the labels act as though nothing has changed.
That said, this was just an early PR skirmish... there are still major challenges for musicians and the streaming music model to work out. And it won't to anything to help the fact that most musicians, even the most talented, will find it hard to make a living or than some of the wealthiest aren't very good musicians.
But many of Lead Belly's original recordings no longer exist. The tapes that held his last sessions were beyond saving after the oxide on the top of the record fell off rendering it unplayable. Because conservators couldn't get to them earlier, those songs are lost forever. Let's repeat that — some of these songs, among the most significant in music history, are less than 100 years old but still lost to us for all time.
All sound recordings are equally at risk of disintegrating. Before digital technology, record companies created reels for albums by recording different sections of songs, then splicing those sections together using tape. Some of those original tapes are stored in several collections at the Smithsonian Museum.
"You can only imagine what has happened to these pieces of tapes," Jeff Place, an archivist for the Smithsonian Center for Folklike and Cultural Heritage told me. "Over time, every one of those tape breaks is going to break, and it's going to take an hour to transfer three minutes of a recording into a digital format where we can store it. So there are albums that take a whole day to save."
Place's job is to save sounds by whatever means necessary, so that recordings from 50 years ago sound as clear as they did when they were made — and sometimes even better. This means preserving the original recordings in the best possible condition, and for many albums, it means transferring the sound of the original recording to a digital format that will be easily accessible in the future.
Without sound archivists, we would not only lose access to early recordings of Elvis and R&B, as albums decayed and technology changed, but we'd also lose radio broadcasts from 50 years ago and oral histories of lost neighborhoods of New York City. Without archivists, we would be losing sound rapidly; instead, we're gaining it.
There has been a lot of speculation on the Apple/Beats deal. In the end it is almost pocket change for Apple and I suspect much of the commentary misses the point of how crazy, relative to normal business, music is.