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After getting a bunch of email over my micropatronage post the other day, I’ve been giving some more thought to Kottke’s micropatronage concept as it relates to music.

I think we can all agree that the Internet has blown music distribution wide open and that physical CDs are rapidly being replaced by digital downloading. It’s also unlikely that DRM or legal threats will do much to stop the flow of music on the net. If these things are true, musicians are going to need a system of making money that doesn’t rely on controlling the distribution of music.


Think about PBS. PBS is viewer funded television content. When you donate X amount of dollars, you get an over-priced tote bag, but it’s understood that the tote bag is a gift for your donation; you’re not actually purchasing it. Thanks to donations, PBS continues to exist and make programming that everyone can enjoy for free, regardless of whether they contributed or not.

What if music were to switch to the PBS model? What if we replace tote bags with actual CDs by the artist?


How it might work: the musician gives up on selling CDs via retail and gives his music away losslessly (FLAC/ISO) and for free on the Internet. Anyone can download it. Fans who donate, lets say a rough amount of $30, receive a “free” (as in tote bag) physical copy of the same CD, with real packaging, liner notes, etc.


Assuming this could work, here are some of the up sides:

  • It lets artists distribute their music freely. All artists I know would love to do this. They all want new fans, and charging for access to the art is counter-intuitive.
  • Internet trading of music (including net radio, podcasting, mp3 blogs) would directly benefit the artist as it would increase the possibility of getting more supporters.
  • Allows artists to be directly supported by their fans. No RIAA, no record labels, no corporate interests, no middle-men, just keep your fans happy.
  • Lower overhead. If you stop trying to sell CDs, you avoid retail chain gouges, record label fees. More money goes directly to the artist.
  • CDs are less and less useful as a music distribution method, but still have value as a permanent physical copy of the music and also for things like the artwork and the liner notes.
  • The system benefits artists that have good will from consumers, disposable pop music might not do so well.
  • You can still sell the music digitally via iTunes, etc, to casual music consumers.


There are also some potentially negative aspects:

  • May be a difficult mental shift. Will people think it’s a $30 CD and be outraged?
  • It means you cut out the possibility of retail sales or else you devalue your CD gift and anger the people who paid a premium to receive it.
  • I assume only a small percentage of people would opt into this, so a large fanbase would be required to make a living.


All in all, I think the pros far outweight the cons in this system.

If it could work, I’m pretty sure you’d wind up with a more logical and pure music system, where artists are supported by the goodwill of their fans, where Internet distribution benefits rather than harms artists and where CDs are still created but are used for what they’re becoming — a boutique item with more sentimental than practical value.

Posted on - February 24, 2005 [at] 1:12 pm by Brad
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18 Comments on this post

Jason on The PBS Model for Music
February 24, 2005 at 6:16 pm

My biggest gripe is that there are still alot of people without internet access or with crappy dialup connections who would be left out in the cold in a “free download/$30 CD ‘gift'” model.

scottandrew on The PBS Model for Music
February 24, 2005 at 6:29 pm

Yeah, it remains to be seen how quickly CDs die out, but everyone seems to agree it will happen. Physical CDs with artwork and liner notes will be merch, like t-shirts.

Not so sure about the $30 price point, especially if the music is already available for free in a lossless format. I think people would, as you suspect, see it as a $30 CD and not as a premium for a contribution. Better to offer them a t-shirt or something else along with it, so they can show support and get something they couldn’t otherwise get for free.

Also dunno if FLAC/ISO is worth it. I’ve never heard anyone complain about standard MP3 quality. Sounds like a good way to run up a bandwidth bill (unless it’s footed by Magnatune or similar).

All that said, it’s definitely worth trying out. It’s certainly not going to be any harder pimping CDs in the existing system.

Josh Woodward on The PBS Model for Music
February 24, 2005 at 6:51 pm

That’s basically what I’m doing. I don’t do lossless for several reasons, though. It takes more bandwidth, most people don’t know how or don’t care about it, and it gives some people an incentive to buy the physical CD. I think most people already think that giving away all the MP3s is going beyond the call of duty – I’ve never heard a complaint or request for lossless. *shrugs*

Brett Morgan on The PBS Model for Music
February 24, 2005 at 7:37 pm

Hmmm. I’m willing to pay for music. I want new interesting music delivered to me. In short, I want a middleman / system / something that figures out what I like, and keeps feeding me new music.

Now if this middleman / system / something than fed a percentage, say 50%, to artists based on how much people like them, then I’d say this system would be able to live. Everyone gets something, everyone contributes.

My biggest gripe with music stores is that I wander in with cash, and wander out with bits of plastic that I might love, or I might hate. And I really have no idea. So the music store for me is just one big gamble. One that I lose at more than I gain.

And honestly, I like the CDs. But I want to download the music and try it on first.

Dave on The PBS Model for Music
February 24, 2005 at 9:25 pm

Your view of how PBS is funded is rather inaccurate.

Let’s begin with how much government funding provides the content. Then let’s look at how much corporate funding there is. Oh, and virtually ALL funding from non-government sources are tax deductable.

Again, this leaves you with the original thesis… that historically, patrons of the arts are either governments, corporations, or the affluent. Micro-patronage? Ultimately doomed.

JB on The PBS Model for Music
February 24, 2005 at 9:59 pm

I’ve been trying out RealRhapsody on their two-weeks-for-free deal. It’s really compelling for me. There are glaring holes in the library, but it seems like any band that’s not on Rhapsody is also not carried by iTunes or Napster– they’re just not available digitally anywhere.

If services like Rhapsody can be made to pay for the artists, and if the technology can be made portable enough to give people a sense of “owning” the music, I think that will be the way to go. I love being able to listen to anything I think of off the top of my head, any time I want. I love not having to pay $16 for a CD I may or may not feel was worth all that money. I love having access to stuff like Bjork’s live concert albums, and I love having access to those goofy “interview” CDs without having to pay the whole price for them. And omfg I love having access to 8 different recordings of Beethoven’s 9th symphony.

I think “patronage” won’t work, because people aren’t that generous. They’re generous in fits and spurts, but you have to twist their arms to part them from some cash. You’ve heard the PBS pledge drives. Man, I don’t want artists to have to go through that kind of torture just to make a living, begging their fans three times a year to give them money so they can eat. Ugh.

I think it is possible that for the little guys, the bands that never had a hope of recouping, the Internet may be able to play a part that the major labels have played up to now. Driving awareness in order to enable other avenues for generating revenue, such as publishing royalties, merchandise, home-brew CD sales, and live performance. Brad’s working on this sort of thing right now. Once he perfects it, I fully plan on ripping him off as much as possible.

Brad on The PBS Model for Music
February 25, 2005 at 12:09 am

Dave’s right about my simplistic view of PBS. But PBS is also a pretty huge enterprise when compared with a band and I left that out too.

The FLAC/ISO comment was just to state that the audio you can get is exactly the same audio that you’d get with the CD, not crippled in any way. And bandwidth’s cheap. Combine it with bittorrent, and you’re fine.

I like Scott’s point that CDs will become just another form of merchandise, which I think is essentially what I was getting at. But merchandise is often priced insanely and fans will pay it. Ever buy a $50 concert t-shirt?

JB: The distasteful funding drive aspect was why I thought tying the donation and the CD together might be a good idea. The funding drive would be continually ongoing (want the cd? donate), and would automatically gear up again whenever you put a new CD out.

And bands do plenty of sad begging for people to buy their albums in the current system.

johnsonic on The PBS Model for Music
February 25, 2005 at 2:52 am

Last count I had, Jason Kottke had 300 Micropatrons. $9k ain’t bad for a few days, I’m pretty confident he’ll hit the $50k mark needed to eek out a good living in NYC.

It’s because he’s 1st. Think of what would happen if 500 people with decent blogs were doing the same thing right now? It would completely fraction the donor field. It would be the same thing if there were 20 PBS’s in every region. They’d all have a hard time keeping afloat.

Some musicians will have a much harder time making a living by selling cd’s, but I believe more musicians will be able to get by playing shows. Isn’t a $10 cover a form of micropatronage? Isn’t a Budweiser sponsored concert series featuring local bands akin to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funding my weekly episode of Nova?

Cheers to Jason Kottke, good idea, but as a long-term economic model for creative content, not so sure it would work. Liscensing, placement, and performance I believe will represent the next shift (as opposed to taking advantage of the artificial bottleneck imposed by the cd supply chain.)

Rock on, the times they are a changin’… Those who are among the visible first at any plausible solution will clean up, and hopefully in the long run after adjustments and trials, we’ll all be better off. Not megasuperstars, but able to live comfortably doing what we’re designed to do. In the end, it represents a gained efficiency of human capital and every human will have a more abundant experience.

victor on The PBS Model for Music
February 25, 2005 at 3:29 am

what you’re proposing isn’t pbs, it’s a tip-jar with a pepermint candy give-back.

a pbs/npr model would be to give $30 to an institution that then doles out production funds and salaries to a *group* of artists and podcasters. set this up like a 501c3 and all donations would be tax-deductible. Pay $50 and get 4 CDs and a t-shirt.

Jason on The PBS Model for Music
February 25, 2005 at 9:50 am

I like victor’s idea the best. Instead of individual artists doing the “pbs model” it would work better if it were an artist collective. Sort of like a self run self funded record label for a small group of like minded or otherwise similar musicians. Choice would go up and the benefit of donating would be higher.

JB on The PBS Model for Music
February 25, 2005 at 10:12 am

Johnsonic: For many live performances, the band is either paid a flat fee or given a percentage of the door. Rarely will you play for everybody you pack into a joint. Especially if you’re playing an under-21 show, because the house doesn’t have revenue from liquor coming in.

Brad: I see what you’re saying about using the CD as the fund drive, but if you’re going to model it after PBS, what’s the “interim” product that the donators are going to get? With PBS you get the tote bag, but you’re also paying for Marketplace and All Things Considered and Fresh Air etc. etc. etc. Would a musician need to put out a CD *and* a stream of other content? Not saying it’s impossible, just that people usually expect to get more than their money’s worth. These days, if you donate $30 to PBS (in my town), you get a free subscription to their lame magazine. You gotta spend $120 to get the special CD or whatever.


CP on The PBS Model for Music
February 25, 2005 at 6:27 pm

I think the idea has a lot of potential for a number of reasons. I think most people will agree that one major problem the industry has is the fact that it’s impossible to assign a fixed value to a non-physical piece of art or entertainment. You might say “So what?” to that, but really – how much is Britney Spear’s latest album worth to me? Hardly a dime. But of course to a fan it might be worth a lot, possibly more than what they spend for a CD. The price of a piece of music used to be firmly attached to the medium it was distributed on. That is no longer the case, or won’t be the case in the not-so-distant future. Now, of course noone forces me to listen to music I don’t like, but how on earth can I determine what it’s worth to me before I listen to it? There is simply no satisfactory answer to that question.

The micropatronage is interesting because it provides an alternative to the old concept that music is a product with a fixed value that you pay for as you do for a pound of apples. If you become a patron you not only actively support the artist, but you’re also a contributer to the artist’s creative process – because of you he/she is able to come up with a new piece of music, a new poem, a novel etc. Call me naive, but I think quite a few people would be proud to support an artist they like and more than willing to show their support financially…

mr fantastical on The PBS Model for Music
February 26, 2005 at 12:06 am

PBS is funded by the goverment. In the future people will pay less and less.Concert cash may be the last hope.Just watch the labels gobble up venues and artists concert revinue.

scottandrew on The PBS Model for Music
March 1, 2005 at 1:37 am

If by “micropatronage” we actually mean “a group of hardcore supporters willing to pony some dough to support an artist,” let it be known that micropatronage is already alive and well *today* and has been for a long time. In fact, micropatronage is sometimes the only thing an artist has. There are many, many examples of bands making a rather comfortable living on nothing but fan support. Yes, one might occassionally get a leg up from a wealthy sponsor, but the real support comes the grassroots. In fact, there are now stories of artists who’ve left the major label system to release their own albums — they end up selling less, but making more money, sometimes for the first time in their career.

Jason’s doing exactly what a rock band would do: appealing to his fans for support. Does he have enough fans to make a go of it? Who knows. It depends on his relationship to his fans.

If micropatronage were “ultimately doomed,” it would have fizzled out years ago and no one would bother starting bands anymore.

glad on The PBS Model for Music
April 28, 2005 at 5:44 pm

mmm I cant agree with your model as it seems to me it does nothing except lessen the quality of an artist work if they give it away and $30 for a CD, come on not many would pay that. The simple answer to it is that bands artists have to remember that basically they are a business that sells it’s creative output. If you look at it like that then the whole world looks very different indeed. Distribution CD is still king people want the physical CD in their hands. What you offer is the CD and many extras, replacement cover, t-shirt ltd ed, DVD live show etc, posters. Set up a supporters Club with special access areas and special releases etc. Sure you can do the digital downloads but you don’t give away your crown jewels for cents. The didgital downloads get a different cover and possibly differing tracks from the CD release.

You sell the CD via your own website, and other indie sites. You gig, you use your support base, you hook into it, send out invites to suuporters, after party jams after your gigs let them listen in.

Hook up with some audio bloggers, who you can drop a line to send them a sample see their reaction, set up your own blog site and possibly put some audio on it access via the supporters club.

It’s gonna be a long hard slog and the artist/band need to be in for the long haul and have plenty of energy. The internet is no magic bullet but it does give you the opprotunity to widen your audience.

Henry Emrich on The PBS Model for Music
July 1, 2006 at 5:42 pm

Just a few comments here, to give everybody a different perspective:

No, CD’s are NOT going to “die out”. Actually, nothing changes. Release of CD’s in audio-CD format with cover-art and stuff will continue. However, what will happen is that newere distribution methods will (to some degree) alter the demographics of the purchase-distribution.
We must all remember that the ‘digital revolution’ is completely different from ANY previous “format change” that has occured so far, in that — unlike any of the previous ones — it actually makes a substantive change.

Let me explain what I mean:
Ever since music recording began (and CREATED the “music industry” and “prefessional” musicians as we understand the concept), the musicians — those who actualy CREATE the material — have been considered, more or less, as ’employees’ of the PRODUCTION companies (the “major-labels”). The only thing the ‘labels’ have ever done, was provide the financial backing and infrastructure to make good sounding recordings, and distribute them widely.
Now here’s what I mean when I say that no previous ‘format-change’ has had any substantive impact on the methodology of distribution:

1. Vinyl records and all forms of analog tape had, as neccesary aspects of the techology, very expensive duplication tech, and really complex distribution requirements (trucking anyting less than several hundred copies of a record was costr-prohibitive, to say the least.)
That’s why “bricks and mortar” record stores made sense — they were essentially “retailers” who bought block allotments of the product, and sold it at “retail” prices to the end-listener.

Additionally, up until the “digital revolution” of a few years ago, to produce any significant amount of copies would have been extremely prohibitive. (Additionally, analog formats are susceptible to that “copy of a copy” sound-degredation problem, etc.)

Now, why do I mention this?
Well, basically, we all know that “labels” inthe traditional sense have been completely extraneous in their role as “distributors” for some time now. The technology exists (both in terms of easy and inexpensive CD copying, and Internet communication) to make your material available to damn near anybody — even those without internet connectivity (through “creative commons” ability to copy and redistribute for promo purposes, etc.)

So, where does this leave my contention that CD’s of the “traditional” type will not die out any time soon?
Well, let’s look at this:
1. There’s a hell of a lot of “audio-CD” compliant tech. out there which will continue to be used and re-sold, LONG after the (hypothetical) “last audio CD” is made.
Additionally, unlike with every previous format-change, the specifications for creating “audio CD’s” will still be available LONG after the format becomes extremely unpopular and “retro”. There’s nothing to suggest that production/distribution of music will EVER become a “single format” deal — that everything will ONLY be available in OGG or MP3, or etc.
Anybody who DOES think in terms of a “single standard format” is missing the whole point of the extensive transformation the digital revolution is creating.

Now, on the creative side, let’s be honest: The line between “consumer” and “professional” level equipment is rapidly dissapearing. Time was that even a decent quality recording microphone cost 1000 dollars or more, and mixers and stuff were only available to “professional” recording studios. Nowadays, the “shoestring-budget” thing is becoming the norm.

So, what I am trying to say here is: the “cost of distribution” has dropped to almost nil in comparison to what it once was. The “cost of production” is rapidly heading in that direction.

Henry Emrich on The PBS Model for Music
July 1, 2006 at 6:04 pm

Hmm, your blog kicked me into another message, sorry:

Really, the “donations model” is futile and not a big enough mental shift either, Brad.
Let’s examine this:

1. Can anybody explain what the hell is so great about “liner notes”/”cover art” that could not be achieved just as easily — if not more so — by some other form of distribution? Come on. I mean, most “cover art” isn’t even done by the actual musicians, but by “professional graphic designers” or photographers or etc. (there’s even a weird little subculture of peopel who collect album art just BECAUSE it’s by a particular graphic designer/photographer/etc.)

2. Most “liner-notes” are worthless, as well. The lyrics are wrong, they’re usually not that informative, and I really don’t see anybody wetting themselves when the buy an album because they get ’em. It ain’t that much of a draw, really.

Here’s the perfect methodology, and it’s something that you completely missed:

1. The artist doesn’t have to “give up” on anything, including audio-CD production/duplication. That’s becoming rediculously easy through places like Kunaki/Mizonic/Magnatune, etc. — and there’s no reason to believe that the equipment will suddenly jump in price radically. The days of “really expensive recording/duplication equipment” restricting the field to a few “major labels” are gone.

Almost nobody realizes that the whole dynamics of music production/distribution has shifted — LEAST OF ALL us musicians ourselves (both “signed” and “unsigned”).

Here’s a technique nobody’s tried (but it would be cool):

1. Release a certain amount of your work under creative commons. If people dig it, that will generate flowback to your website or email requests or etc.
2. Have ALL of your material available in multiple formats (that’s really easy to do) — conventional CD “albums” at, say, two bucks over what the per-unit price to produce ’em is (so, let’s say you use Mixonic: If you get ’em at 4 bucks per unit, you sell ’em at 6 bucks. Or if you use Kunaki, you can sell ’em at 3.)
The thing nobody realizes is this: EVERYTHING above cost of production is PURE PROFIT. No distribution hassles, no having to whore out to some big conglomerate whose only real advantage is they own the equipment and distribution methods you need. The “cost of production” has dropped — and continues to do so — just as quickly as the “cost of distribution”.

3. Host up a certain amount of your stuff for free download/usage/whatever, but have a deal whereby people can pay you — let’s say 20 bucks — for a DVD-ROM containing all kinds of stuff: alternate versions, source-tracks for remixing, documents of stuff you wrote, photos or digital video or whatever you want.
See, the good part about this is, it will REALLY demonstrate whether anybody who downloads your stuff for free will be willing to pay for it.
Regular audio CD-format is going to continue to be available for many years to come, and should ALWAYS be considered as an alternate distribution-method even after newer, more compact formats come along. The “digital revolution” is completely unlike any other technological breakthrough.
It’s caused the “cost of production” to drop drastically, to where “professional” sound is easily obtained with the correct know-how, from a “home studio”. “Distribution” isn’t the problem, either — The real trick is getting stuff noticed, and getting so-called fans not to be complete hypocrtical cheapskates who don’t give a damn about the CREATORS of the music they want, they just want it for “free”.
Offer ’em up an inexpensive, value-packed product, and they’ll lap it up. WAY better than some cheesy “50 bucks for a CD” stupidity. (That sort of thing is why a lot of people — including me — are somewhat pissed off about PBS.)

The COST of being a musician is dropping rapidly. We just have to figure out new ways to be paid for what we do.

Henry Emrich on The PBS Model for Music
July 1, 2006 at 6:12 pm

Another problem with your “PBS model” is the “lossless” thing.

Let’s be honest, Brad: most end-listeners don’t give a crap whether what they get is “lossy” or not. The only time FLAC distribution would (possibly) be worth it is in terms of, say, source tracks that other musicians were going to remix or something like that. Remember that specific formats have advantages and disadvantages, and that using the wrong one is complete overkill. Why distribute your freebies in anything more than 44.1 128 MP3, or maybe 160 at the highest? End-users aren’t going to DO anything with it other than listen to it, or maybe redistribute it.

Another interesting thing that nobody has though of is: why does it have to be “either/or”? I mean, why is it “either somebody buys my music” OR “I give it away for free?”
Why is it “either” I give my music away for free and sell 30 dollar ‘premium’ CDs as a gimmick” OR “I beg my fans obsessively for coins like an organ-grinder monkey?”
Talk about “insufficient mental shift”!
Why not have multiple approaches available simultaneously? Free distribution of parts of it, DVD-ROMS or some other sort of thing you charge for, AND a simple “if you like my stuff, donate to the cause” thing, such as a Paypal link or something?
I cannot believe how mentally straight-jacketed we’ve all become.

Oh well, enough ranting/rambling/spazzification.

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