Everything is Free Now

That’s what they say. I’m inclined to agree, although I think the fundamental ways we acquire, exchange, and utilize energy are changing rapidly. Transitions are seldom without friction, however. Rent still must be paid at the end of this month. Somehow.

The astounding response in protest of PIPA/SOPA and internet censorship has awakened me early with thoughts about copyrights and the viability of my line of work. I write songs and sing them in public. I record them and sell the recordings. These are the two main ways I have made money. The cover charge at the venue is dependent on what the region is used to paying; in some places folks are willing to pay $10 or more to see a show, sometimes I’ve seen people balk at $5. If thirty people pay five bucks that’s $150, give 30% ($45) to the venue and you have $105 to split between two people, and you drove 4 hours to get there and bought two sandwiches and an oil change along the way. You can see why we slept in the van for so long. Coyote Grace makes the bulk of its income by – you guessed it – CD sales.

Now, in the early days we highly encouraged CD sharing, burning copies, and even gave a ridiculous amount away assuming that spreading the music around would eventually generate more revenue than the $15 for a CD sold in the moment, and I believe we were right. Ingrid and I also are not numbers people and tend to make decisions on emotional intuition rather than financial pragmatism. To this day we still have an open policy of music sharing with our fans on an unspoken honor system, feeling that dividends will come back to us somehow and knowing that people are broke and will do it anyway. I do it. My personal policy is that I try only to “steal” music from folks whom I deem well established and not needing the money as much as my kind, the self-produced unsigned artists who do everything and pay for everything themselves, who live on food stamps and sleep in the car. “Try” is the operative word however, sometimes the money just isn’t there. The other side of the coin is that after touring with folks I assumed to be well established, I have learned that the era of the sweet ride from the record label is over and many artists really do need the money, now more than ever.

The music industry now mirrors our current economic divide – all the resources are concentrated at the top, and there is an ever widening gap between the corporate world and the independent world. Technological advances have a lot to do with it as well. Back in the 20’s and 30’s, dancers could make a hell of a living and achieve rock star status. With the advent of television, it was no longer novel to see someone dance on a stage from the nosebleed seats, and now almost every dancer I know in the states has a day job. I have often wondered if this is my fate as a folk singer. Home recording and the internet has enabled Coyote Grace’s very existence, though I do wonder if the file sharing and CD burning that make copyright laws porous will require me to at some point to get a real day job. People don’t often seem to be that aware either, stating flat out at the merch table that they are going to burn the CD for everyone they know, or friends who state flat out that they don’t pay for music. I think there is a general assumption that there is some line of success that an artist crosses (like opening for the Indigo Girls) that people think brings them good money, or at least the money they think the artist deserves. That’s what I thought before I jumped into the business. Sadly though, this is not so. Things like massive exposure, fancy videos and photos, bookings at huge venues and mainstream radio play are reserved for the folks at the top who are employed by the folks who own all the venues and radio/TV stations and magazines, not the most talented. That is the way it is, but – necessity is the mother of invention, and I believe that folks naturally tire of the whitewashed formulaic media they see everywhere and go searching for something more human.

So CD sales and performance fees it is, supplemented by teaching and odd jobs. And, as true callings go, we’re going to do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay. Rent, schment. All the hubbub about PIPA/SOPA is really between the big corporate music and movie industries who lose money on pirated copies of “Twilight” and websites like Wikipedia and Google who make accessible a lot of information that would be ridiculous to try and police. I agree that copyright laws should be protected and enforcement should be updated to reflect current technology, but I feel that any law that gives the government the power to blacklist sites on the internet is veering into extremely dangerous waters. And this law won’t help the independent artist much; there certainly isn’t a surge of international companies racking in millions of dollars by hawking Coyote Grace albums tariff free. We must be extremely careful with laws like these, especially now in our counter-intuitive and volatile political climate. And screw it, things ebb and flow, and there is nothing we are stuck with permanently. If I can write and make music and learn stuff for the rest of my life, I will be content. In any event, I don’t have any desire to live in a house that is bigger than I can clean by myself. Throw in your chips, and hope for the best.

Often times I wonder if I am being too personal and sharing too much. Sometimes I think that the ones who hold their cards close to their chests might have a greater advantage and at least more mystique and intrigue. Evidently though, this is not how I am programmed. I’m all for transparency in many ways, I suppose personal transparency is no exception. Here’s to We, The People for preserving the right to acquire knowledge and keeping the internet sovereign over itself, and for supporting independent artists 🙂 Let’s keep it that way.


10 thoughts on “Everything is Free Now

  1. Thanks Joe. Overall, I think your comments about all things you mentioned, (external of you personally), are right on the button. The industry is becoming very polarized. The group of “haves” at the top is getting smaller and more powerful. Powerful, as in having the ability to control what we see and hear musically. The “have nots”, such as CG and all the indies, are growing. They deserve to be heard. So many are so very good.

    I seriously think at some point, there will be a revolution about this. What form that will take, I do not know. Unless the “haves” find a way to completely censor all communication, (doubt that will happen), it is inevitable.

    In the meantime, while awaiting the guru who will lead us to a more even playing field, I believe the “true” musical artist, the one or one’s who do not necessarily seek fame & fortune, but write and perform for the sake of artistry, or because they cannot help themselves when it comes to trying to
    re-create what is in their soul, will go forward. That is their fate. And we who listen, are thankful.

  2. So well spoken/written, Joe! Unfortunately, the pace of digital technology has far outpaced copyright laws written long before many of today’s copyrightable formats even existed, and distribution channels are different, as well. ReverbNation, YouTube, Facebook, cdbaby – each is unique in its way of getting the word out.

    I concur that allowing government blacklisting of websites is veering into very dangerous waters, indeed. McCarthyism lives on if we go there! Read Lillian Hellman’s book “Pentimento” for a personal account of the hell she and Dashiell Hammett went through in that period.

    I don’t know the answers to this political firestorm, but I do know that you should keep making music, no matter what!

  3. and who doesn’t LOVE this guy named joe !?!?!

    if i bought a case of “now take flight” could you pay your Rent, schment this month?

    hang in there joe. you are loved.

  4. I hear your struggle to decide whether to pay for music or not or whether to give it away or not. I have musicians in my family. My godfather, who can make a comfortable (but not at all extravagant by ant means) living off of his music and a sister who plays and records at night and teaches during the day. With all that I still believe that silencing those sites that help those who are talented but not able to get to the big labels would hurt the industry drastically.

    On that note, I have bought all of CG’s albums and have been to a few shows, as well as introduced the group to a few people and will continue to do so. 🙂

  5. I totally get what you’re saying, Joe. Anyone in an artistic industry (I write books for young people) faces the dilemma of how much do we give away, at what point do we stop, and when -if ever- do we ask for government intervention. As to the former, your approach as a fledgling musician/group has been spot on – protecting your intellectual property is irrelevant if no one has heard of you. Which is why it’s so important that you’re being as honest and open about all this as you are. Because government regulation is so dangerous, piracy is something that needs to be regulated by the artists and consumers themselves. You sharing the very personal experience of being a traveling band is crucial to people understanding the reality of what it takes to make a living as an artist – and quite possibly will enable people to make different choices about copying and sharing all forms of art. Thank you, Joe. Pretty eye-opening stuff.

  6. Joe, I have the same policy as you, I have a full time job, so also a small amount of spare cash, I do live pay cheque to pay cheque, but as I have the money sometimes I never download free versions or burn copies of albums by artists I know to need the money, who it appears make up the bulk of my listening pleasure. I have often ended up buying 3 or 4 copies of an album (2 of your last) just to give to some friends I want to share it with. From some of the artists I know, when you order a disk it comes with a handwritten thank you note, a personally addressed label and the feeling that buy buying that recording, you made someone smile. Helped pay for that tank of petrol, or a few groceries. i’ll keep on doing that forever, its what spreads the music.

  7. I can’t speak to the technical details of this conversation but agree that hard working, talented artists should be able to earn a living from their intellectual property and should not be ripped off. We’ve purchased everything you’ve recorded and sold at your events, purchased additional copies for friends in order to turn them on to our favorite band since 2009, and discouraged others who (for whatever reason) don’t see the harm in copying what’s not theirs to copy. Looking forward to your next Oregon trip and hearing the new material live – you all just keep getting better and better!

  8. I agree with you and appreciate your well spoken manner in which you write your blogs. I truly love your music and look forward to hearing it everyday. Thanks for sharing your talents with so many who look forward to hearing your soulful voices. Hope you’re doing okay, keep up the good work!

  9. What you have to say is truth and I think there is nothing wrong with saying it for all to see. I also think we should be transparent, because as we are transparent to others they will start to see it’s not that scary to do so. Cause really…..it isn’t. We are all human and the longer we keep arms distance from others the further away from human we get. love you

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