Selling mp3s on an honors system

Juliana Hatfield is a super-swell indie musician who offers online downloads from her website on an honors system, another spin on getting fans to pay artists directly for their music. I love this because of its potential to resolve some of the thorniest ethical issues for the fans who download. Here’s the site’s description of how this works:

So here we are, at the intersection of greed and sloth; but on this little corner, in this little place, the honor system will hold sway. Here’s how it works:When a song is downloaded, you will have an option. You can decide that ownership of this song is your right and freely distribute the files to your friends and to the people who also think it’s their right, without payment.

Or, you can support the artist who wrote and recorded this song and click the PayPal button at the top of the page and send Juliana a contribution. The iTunes standard of $.99 per song may seem too high for you, in which case you can send $.50 – though there is virtually nothing else you can buy legally for $.50. Alternatively, you can think of the number of people with whom you might share these files and give a multiple of $.99 for each song you download.

If you don’t have a means by which you can use PayPal or if you’re opposed to the burgeoning online drain of your credit, feel free to send a dollar in the mail to Juliana at Ye Olde Records, P.O. Box 398110, Cambridge MA 02139.

There might come a day when the honor system is a strong enough code to let people like Juliana offer her songs on the web without the force of law or the sting of theft. In fact, today might be that day. Enjoy the songs. Support talent wherever you find it.

On behalf of Juliana, this site thanks you for your support.

I do buy CDs, lots of them, usually after having heard an mp3 on a blog or other website (I was shocked to read recently that the industry considers a ‘heavy’ record buyer to be someone who spends more than $100/year on CDs, which seems like very little to me). I also buy a lot of used CDs, and — setting the law aside — I have never been ethically clear on how to tease apart the morality of legally buying used vs. downloading illegally. In either case, the artists and record companies get no money and I get the tunes (though I do like knowing I’m supporting my local independent record store by buying used, sometimes I’d rather just download the songs and make a donation to the Love Garden). Generally, I’d rather send some money directly to the artist, and I’m the sort who probably would pay a lot more than 99 cents for a song that I love, both to show my gratitude to the people who created it and to subsidize the pleasure of those who won’t or can’t buy it. There are so many records I’ve bought new for less than $15 that have, for me, been worth so much more. If I could make a cash donation to some of those lesser-known bands that tend to catch my ear, I would. The royalty they get from my purchase seems so far out of whack with the pleasure I’ve received.

I don’t know if this system can really work, but the utopian in me hopes that today can be that day, if only in their little corner.

Does online fandom cause child pornography?

This is a weird and ugly case reported in the LA Times where an underaged extra recruited through MySpace is suing Warner Music Group, Atlantic Records, and others for allegedly getting her drunk and coercing her into performing pornographic acts for a music video:

The Internet has transformed how bands interact with their fans. But that can lead to troublesome consequences.A lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court alleges that Warner Music Group, Atlantic Records and other music industry organizations helped coerce a 16-year-old girl into making pornographic rock videos when a band advertised for extras on MySpace, News Corp.’s teen-oriented social networking site.

The companies and musicians’ representatives deny they did anything wrong. But they acknowledge that difficult situations may arise as they reach out to young fans.

But it is just such situations, the girl’s attorney said, that demand heightened caution by the music business.

“For years, the industry has been talking about how online sales and online promotion creates unique opportunities to reach out to fans,” said the attorney, Douglas Silverstein. “Well, that also creates a unique burden” to protect minors from online exploitation, he added.

The suit, filed Thursday, alleges that popular rock group Buckcherry, which is known for its sexually suggestive lyrics and members’ tattooed torsos, asked fans to show up at Hollywood’s Key Club in October.

The plaintiff, a minor identified as Jane Doe who was living in Southern California, was allegedly given alcohol to drink and filmed exposing her breasts, kissing another female and writhing against a pole while Buckcherry performed a song with an unprintable title.

According to the lawsuit, the music video was posted on the band’s website and distributed widely online, as was a “behind the scenes” program that referred to the girl’s first name, featured more nudity and had band members saying, “It’s like watching seven hours of porn.”

The behavior here is terrible, but blaming the internet or the music industry is quite a stretch. I say hold the people who gave her alcohol, filmed her, and posted the film responsible. They’re the bad guys, not the companies (unless the band’s website were run by the label, which Buckcherry’s does not seem to be). I don’t think the communicative potential of the internet creates a “unique burden” any more than in-store appearances, concert halls, backstages, tour buses, bars, and hotel rooms do.

I had a discussion with someone in the music business a few months ago where he argued that labels must be hypervigilant (i.e. limit fan involvement) with sites for bands that appeal to underage girls because they are used by predators. No question that’s a bad thing, and I don’t want to discourage anyone from taking reasonable precautions to prevent it. But I wanted to know whether the labels also felt it was their responsibility to go to these artists’ concerts or ensure there was adequate security present to protect the girls who saw them live.

It concerns me because the rhetoric of protecting children, especially girls, and especially girls who might (horror!) be sexual, has been used as an argument for shutting things down at least since the advent of the telephone. Just look at Deletion of Online Predator’s Act which seeks to ban the use of social networking sites in federally funded places like libraries and schools. The need to protect kids as best we can is real, but focussing on the technology allows us to ignore the really scary truth that almost all cases of bad sexual things that happen to kids have nothing to do with technology and everything to do with the home, the neighborhood, and the family. We have to be careful not to keep everyone, including those kids, from participating in culture more fully because we have fears about what might happen to a very few.

Hold Steady seeking fan input

Pitchfork says the band The Hold Steady, who specialize in sardonic rants filled with witty and self conscious pop culture references, are starting a new social networking site, but it looks more to me like they’re working on their own personal YouTube, asking fans to upload a homemade video to support their new album Boys And Girls In America and even giving them pointers on how to make home videos. Here’s what they say:

This whole album is about guys, girls, love, and growing up in america. We want to you know about what you think about the opposite sex, relationships, love, the whole shebang.

We want to see you!

We want you to make a video testimonial. Post about your life, your loves, your high’s, and your lows. Your first date to your worst date. Your party fouls and your massive nights. Show us what you got!

Well, that’s really fun, and I commend them, and I go along completely with their three rules:

  • Your video may not contain:
    • Copyrighted material
    • Pornography or obscene material
    • The first and last name of someone other than yourself

However, the enthusiastic welcoming of fan creativity breaks down at the final moment:

All uploaded videos become the property of Vagrant Records. We reserve the right to edit and/or amend uploaded videos.

Why does the record company need to own the videos? If I were a Hold Steady fan, I’d be tempted right up to the point where I saw that they want to own my autobiography.

Retailers: The new rock stars.

The objects around which fandom happens are broadening as the internet enables more and more taste-based social organizing. No longer restricted to pop bands, movie stars, television shows, sports teams, and science fiction novels, fans can now unite around retailers! One great example of this is the online fan phenomena regarding Trader Joes, a socially-conscious grocery store. I have a friend who moved recently — one of the things she was most excited about was the presence of a Trader Joes in her new town (though IKEA moving in soon ranked a close second). Another friend has described herself as “in love” with Trader Joes, and a third insisted on taking me there when I visited her town. Trader Joe fans spread their gospel online too: Among the Trader Joe fan sites are Are You A Trader Joe’s Fan? which specializes in recipes that can be made with Trader Joe purchases, Tracking Trader Joes, where fans gather to track store openings and events, and the all-purpose Calling All Trader Joe’s Fans. There are also sites like Nancy Dowling’s Trader Joes: A Love Fest, with links to dozens of articles about the stores but no fan interaction. Media have caught on to the phenomenon, with articles about Trader Joe’s online fans showing up in The York Dispatch, the Twin Cities Pioneer Press (“Trader Joe’s Fans Prove Retailers Are The New Rock Stars”), and elsewhere.

Fandom has jumped the shark from media products to companies. Trader Joes is one example, but there is much more of this going on. Media companies are used to thinking of customers as fans, and even they are facing more challenges than they can count figuring out how to make the most of what fans do online while protecting their intellectual property and creative control. Companies that have never thought of customers as “fans” before will have even greater challenges ahead. But if retail customers can become engaged enthusiastic proponents in the same way media fans have, there’s a gold mine waiting for the companies that figure out how best to work it. Trader Joes couldn’t buy better online advertising.

The dangers of buying fan activity

As more and more marketers get savvy to the potential of online fan buzz to at least raise interest in a product, fans online seem to be getting increasingly wary. It can be seen in the controversy swirling around whether YouTube star, lonelygirl15, is real or a viral marketing blitz leading up to something not yet announced. Even the New York Times’s Screens blogger is obsessing on this one. Trying to figure it out seems to have become part of the fun. (Update 2 days later: indeed, she’s fiction, as danah boyd covers nicely here. But some are insisting it’s the revelation that’s fake and that lonelygirl15 is real…)

Less fun is this editorial arguing that Paramount Pictures has taken over fansites for the upcoming Transformers movie, banning critics and replacing them with people singing the film’s praises:

A few weeks ago, no a few days ago, the buzz on Michael Bay’s upcoming Transformers movie was pretty bad. Fans were in an uproar over recently released pics of what it is that Bay is doing to their beloved robots. [...]

But over the past few weekends there’s been a shift. Paramount’s goons have taken control of the situation by pouring a wad of cash into it, and suddenly everything’s coming up roses. For instance, go to the once fan populated message board of Transformers producer Don Murphy… and you’ll find nothing but popcorn and bubblegum for the film where outrage, disappointment, and calls for boycott once stood.

There’s a reason for that. The dissenting voices have been banned and beaten down with threats.

Surf around the internet to those movie sites that were once critical of the film, and in place of their hard hitting reports about how Paramount might be screwing up, you’ll find set reports praising the film for being “faithful” and lauding the very things about the film they’d trashed only a few weeks before. It’s easy to be positive when you get an all expenses paid vacation to a movie set I guess. I’m not sure I wouldn’t have been lured in by it myself. But let’s not blame this all on set visits. For some of these offenders the ass-kissing began when they got their first call from Paramount weeks ago. It’s only culimated in this.

Yes, Paramount is turning the buzz around for their Transformers project, and they’re doing it with a big silencer. Those not already bought and paid for are probably afraid to open their mouths. After all, this is the movie studio that had a website shut down for daring to run an unapproved photo.

Whether this is true or not is almost beside the point. As soon as fan activity on the internet is seen as filled with people who’ve been bought off by producers or marketing campaigns disguised as authentic self-made materials, all buzz becomes suspect, to say nothing of the consequences for honest relationships amongst fans and one another and between fans and artists/producers.