For a while I gave away MP3s on my blog, too. Caught up in the excitement of learning about techno/house, I was willfully oblivious to the impact my generosity had on those who labored to create that music. It's my feeling that other bloggers are given to the same sorts of temptations, backed up by varying rationales depending on the kind of site they run and their reasons for existing. For one, the demand for free music has grown to a fever pitch within the last decade. With an audience just waiting for a blogger to swoop in and start a feeding frenzy, the allure of doing so can be difficult to resist.
With each new MP3-filled post I saw my blog's readership—and I use that term lightly—rise, and I felt like I was doing something right instead of something wrong. This muddled sensation is one reason why Rekids label manager, James Masters, feels comfortable describing the typical MP3 blogger as "normally a fan who wants the artist to be able to continue to make music and the label to survive. Sometimes inadvertently to gain a bit of kudos, he is actually potentially harming them."
Other bloggers have felt a similar tug at their egos when deciding whether or not to give away. Kiran Sande of the long-running blog Tape no longer gives out MP3s at the rate he used to, but remembers the early days: "To begin with we gave away lots of MP3s in order to hook people, to get them reading our blog. Once we had a readership, the bait was no longer necessary. That sounds terribly mercenary, I know, but at the time that's how I thought about it."
My hit count was hardly the only appealing reason to blog with MP3s in tow. As a listener, I knew what it was like to be lost in a seemingly endless flood of alluring new releases and to pine for a bit of guidance. I hoped my advocacy in the form of short reviews would benefit both the artists who stood out from the pack and other fans looking for some direction. Providing full length MP3s seemed logical as well, offering a DIY, try-before-you-buy mechanism which trumped the abbreviated samples on Juno or Beatport. "I found it fun that the blog got the attention it did and that I actually contributed to the electronic music scene," Noah Gibson of the MP3-heavy blog Oh My Gosh recalls. "Even though a large amount of people might disagree with that statement."
But over time, what I viewed as a sort of community service slowly started to draw ire from labels and artists. The DFA, Planet E and Samim were three voices who firmly asked me to cut it out. While I was happy to oblige them specifically, it didn't stop me from sharing the rest of my wealth, like Robin Hood armed with an external hard drive.
I finally decided to stop offering MP3s after chancing upon a growing number of blogs—more accurately described as virtual illegal clearinghouses—whose only content was a free-for-all of links to uploaded singles, albums, and even discographies. I felt my stomach sink as I scrolled through page after page of labels' releases up for grabs, and I thought of my own blog. There were notable differences, sure, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that we all were helping devalue music by reducing it to a file that apparently wasn't worth anything more than a click. The only help I provided artists and labels was name recognition, which hardly pays for the next 12-inch, let alone rent.
The effects of blogs giving away releases is difficult to quantify in monetary terms, as it's nearly impossible to discern how much is downloaded and how little downloaders would actually buy otherwise. James Masters, though, has come across some discouraging numbers: "One of our vinyl-only releases that was put up on the blogs had file download counts in mid four figures." Using a rough, conservative estimate of US$8.50 per record, some 4,000 downloads means potentially $34,000 down the drain, money the distributor, label, artists and shops will never see. And that's just one record. Consider what such a dip in sales might do to a label's ability or desire to put out new records from old favorites or to take a chance on fresh-faced and largely unheard of producers.
It was imperative that I stopped offering uncleared downloads, but I still wanted to offer readers the chance to wrap their ears around the tunes about which I was so passionate. My solution was to replace my download links with low bit-rate streams, keeping in place the try-before-you-buy appeal while actually giving readers a real reason to follow through by buying what they enjoyed. Admittedly, there were grumbles from some visitors, even a few pledges not to return if there was nothing to download. But I felt at peace with my decision and even more certain streaming could be one feasible solution to the problem of blog-aided illegal downloading.
While current streaming technology has its limits, it's one of the few options that allows bloggers to share music without giving it away. "The best way to discover music is to listen to it," asserts Clement Meyer of the blog Get the Curse, "We are DJs before being journalists so we'd rather express ourselves with music than with words." And if passion and music awareness is what drives a blogger, streaming should be enough. Unfortunately, free streaming technology lags far behind file-sharing technology, especially for bloggers who do not host files on their own webspace. Imeem.com is one of the more popular sites with a streaming focus, but the process for uploading and streaming is convoluted at best and often requires logging in each time you want to stream a tune. Recent developments suggest these requirements may soon be dropped. Divshare.com also allows users to post tracks as streams, though its interface is nearly as complicated.
It could be extremely beneficial for distributors, record labels and bloggers to aid in the creation and implementation of a similar web service without restrictions on who can stream content. If an easy to use, ad-fueled site like Zshare existed with streaming as its only option, bloggers could share music and users could screen tracks, and those who wanted to own a song would still have to pay for it. All of the bloggers, artists and labels with whom I discussed this subject offered their support for some cooperative solution. The potential is there, but it still needs to be built.
Somewhere along the way we as bloggers and music lovers have forgotten how our actions impact the artists whose hard work makes us shout, smile, dance, relax, headbang, shed a tear, write, analyze, share and come together. Now is the time to remember. It's time to do our part to ensure the artists and labels we love have a reason and the means to keep doing what they've done so well. That may mean finding a way to offer a stream of that hot new single rather than giving it away, or perhaps passing up that tempting, full album download and checking your favorite store instead. The few comforts we give up, the few easy routes we avoid, may well mean a future filled with quality records. Doesn't that seem worth it?