Social cooperation & music distribution


In the Commons Research wiki, I stumbled upon this Free Culture paper (PDF abstract). In the paper, Yochai Benkler (Harvard Law School, author of The Wealth of Networks and also seen in the video below), Leah Belsky and Byron Kahr (both of Yale Law School) analyze “social cooperation and the production and distribution of creative works” (which is also the title of the paper). In short: How can artists make a living off working with their fans, and without major labels?

Video: Yochai Benkler’s TED Talk on open source economics

How can artists make a living?

Benkler, Belsky and Kahr looked into cooperative models, i.e. models that allow (and depend on) active participation by fans:

Cooperative models—approaches to the sale and distribution of media that rely on voluntary contributions and other pro-social fan behavior—are beginning to appear in many different forms among a diverse range of artists. (…) Generally, cooperative approaches explicitly authorize fans to download their music without paying for it (or after paying an unusually low price), but appeal to fans’ sense of obligation in asking for discretionary contributions. Beyond seeking monetary compensation for digital downloads, some artists have appealed directly to fans accomplish a variety of goals, including: raising funds necessary for recording and distributing new material, planning and promoting of live concerts, developing videos and other promotional tools, and remixing previously released material. (…) Indeed, the basic logic of the tip jar is emerging in myriad iterations, with models evincing a wide range of sophistication and ambition.

Now except for donations, what models are there? I could imagine all kinds of ways to get your fans involved. One point raised in the quote above that resonated particularly with me is the part about involving your fans in planning and promoting live concerts. Promotion, sure, that’s fairly straightforward.

But what about the planning of concerts? It seems to me like this could be tricky, but also really compelling for both fans and artists. Just imagine a small, relatively unknown band. (Obviously they need to have played some concerts before to have at least a small fan base outside their own circle of friends.) They decide to go on tour, no matter if it’s through Europe or the United States. They announce their plans on their blog and plan just the first two or three stops of their tour, which they also feed into event planning websites like Upcoming. Of course, they blog and twitter the whole planning process. Then they just take it from there – no further planning beyond, say, the first three concerts. It’s all played by ear from that point on, by word of mouth, recommendations, invitations.

Could that work? Would the band get an email or phone call after their second concert and be invited to come to Austin, Texas in two weeks time, find fans to house them and maybe get some catering sponsoring? Through their blog and PayPal, could they ask their fans for the travel budget they need, or maybe a ride? Every step could be coordinated, planned, organized, and of course documented, online.

This seems chaotic and insecure at first, but I would imagine this kind of trip would create a very deep relationship with the fan base, it’s very unmediated and direct. It sure isn’t easy. But who says being a musician needs to be easier than other jobs?

Do you know any artists that have tried something similar?