Unable to Strike, Musicians Revolt in Their Own Way

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This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

While the film and TV writers strike in Hollywood for more financial compensation from their work in new media, recording artists look on with envy. If only they could organize and strike for greater compensation of their work. But the record industry doesn't work that way. The best they can hope for is to develop new business models outside the traditional system.

Radiohead's experiment to let fans decide how much to pay for an album download, has yielded interesting results. The majority of the 1.2 million people who participated, downloaded their new album for free. Over 60% of Radiohead's fan base found no difficulty in taking music from the band without paying for it. Optimists would say almost 40% did pay, but the real news is in those who didn't.

And two weeks ago, Paste, the Americana music magazine, made a similar offer. Pay whatever you want for an annual subscription. Regular subscriptions run $20 ordinarily, with a cover-price value of over $60.

I took Paste up on their offer, for the price of one dollar for subscription. At first, I felt like I was cheating the system, getting something for nothing. But hours after I made my online purchase, I began to wonder if Paste was actually worth the cover price offered? In other words, if I get something for free, do I value it less? This question is at the heart of the record industry's current dilemma. And it's the reason major labels will not abandon the pay-for-download model, whether for albums, tracks or in a subscription service. That's in spite of the overwhelming evidence that most consumers are comfortable taking for free what they used to pay for.

In related news, Prince made headlines this year revolutionizing the way fans got his music in the UK. Rather than releasing his latest album in record stores, he made a deal with a tabloid newspaper to give away his CD to their 3 million readers. This one act boosted distribution of his music 4,000% in that market.

But is more better? Fans, emboldened by his move to create greater access to his music, seem to have taken his revolution to heart. Some of his biggest fan sites offer photos, lyrics and other related images of the formally known symbol. Prince is not pleased. Now three of his biggest fan sites have received legal demands to remove all images that bear his likeness. The three fan sites have joined together to create a super-fan site, called PrinceFansUnited.com to protest his actions. On their website, you'll find their press release, along with their own PrinceFansUnited logo. The logo is a handprint with the letters PFU in the middle. I don't think those letters were chosen haphazardly.

There's something ironic in the fact that a man who built his own fan-based revolution might actually be taken down by it himself .

The writers are fortunate to have a union that protects their interests in negotiating how their creative works are handled. If only musicians could organize themselves accordingly.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.