The PBS Model for Music

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.

business, musicBrad Turcotterant