The Professional Suicide of a Recording Musician

Bob Ostertag

Bob Ostertag is a musician and experimental audio artist based in San Francisco. He has been performing and recording since the 1970s. In this article, he describes the recording industry from the point of view of an experienced musician, and explains why most musicians today would be much better off sharing music via the Internet than signing standard industry recording contracts. He also discusses the larger issue of what happens to society as more and more of our culture gets locked down under centralized corporate control. Bob practices what he preaches: his music is available for download from his web site,

(This article is now also running over at AlterNet.)

In March 2006 I posted on the Web all of my recordings to which I have rights, making them available for free download. This included numerous LPs and CDs created over 28 years [1]. I explained my motivations in a statement on the Web site:

I have decided to make all my recordings to which I have the rights freely available as digital downloads from my web site. […] This will make my music far more accessible to people around the globe, but my principal interest is not in music distribution per se, but in the free exchange of information and ideas. “Free” exchange is of course a tricky concept; more precisely, I mean the exchange of ideas that is not regulated, taxed, and ultimately controlled by some of the world’s most powerful corporations… [2]

One year later, I continue to be amazed at how few other musicians have chosen this route, though the reasons to do so are more compelling than ever. Why do musicians remain so invested in a system of legal rights which clearly does not benefit them?

When record companies first appeared, their services were required in order for people to listen to recorded music. Making and selling records was a major undertaking. Recording studios and record manufacturing plants had to be built, recording technology and techniques developed. Records not only had to be manufactured but also distributed and advertised. Record executives may have been crooked in their business practices, callous about music, or racist in their treatment of artists, but the services the companies provided were at least useful in the sense that recorded music could not be heard without them. Making recorded music available to the general public required a significant outlay of capital, which in turn required a legal structure that would provide a return on the required investment.

The contrast with the World Wide Web today could not be more striking. Instant, world-wide distribution of text, image, and sound have become automatic, an artifact of production in the digital realm. I start a blog, I type a paragraph: instant, global “distribution” is a simple artifact of the process of typing. Putting 28 years of recordings up on my Web site for free download was a simple procedure involving a few hours of effort yet resulting in the same instant, free, world-wide distribution. It makes no difference if 10 people download a song or 10,000, or if they live on my block or in Kuala Lumpur: it all happens at no cost to either them or me other than access to a computer and an Internet connection.

So much for distribution. What about production? Almost none of my releases were recorded in a recording studio provided by a record company. They were either recorded on-stage, in schools or radio stations, or in living rooms, bedrooms, and garages with whatever technology I could cobble together. They are made either by myself alone or with a small handful of close collaborators. In one sense this is atypical, because I intentionally developed an approach to recording that was premised on never needing substantial resources, with the explicit goal of maintaining maximum artistic autonomy. Yet while this approach may have been unusual 20 years ago, it is less and less so today as digital technology has drastically reduced the cost of recording. There are very few recording projects today that actually require the resources of the sort of high-end recording studios record companies put their artists in (and for which the artists then pay exorbitantly – bills which must be paid off before the musicians see any royalties from their recordings). Just as the Web has changed the character of music distribution, laptops loaded with the hardware and software necessary for high-quality sound recording and editing have changed the character of music production.

Record companies are not necessary for any of this, yet the legal structure that developed during the time when their services were useful remains. Record companies used to charge a fee for making it possible for people to listen to recorded music. Now their main function is to prohibit people from listening to music unless they pay off these corporations.

Or to put it slightly differently, they used to provide you with the tools you needed to hear recorded music. Now they charge you for permission to use tools you already have, that they did not provide, that in fact you paid someone else for. Really what they are doing is imposing a “listening tax.”

Like all taxes, if you don’t pay you are breaking the law, you are a criminal! Armed agents of the state have shown up at private residences and taken teenagers away in handcuffs for failure to pay this corporate tax. It is worth noting how draconian state coercion has been in this field in comparison to many others. For example, almost everyone I know (including myself) has a unpaid copy of Microsoft Word on their computer. I am certain that some kids who have run into legal trouble for sharing music without paying the corporate tax also had unpaid copies of Microsoft Word on the very same hard disks that were taken as “evidence” of their musical crimes. Yet no state agents are knocking on the doors of our houses to see if we have pirated software. Music alone is singled out for this special treatment.

You would think that musicians would be leading the rebellion against this insanity, but most musicians remain firmly committed to the idea of charging fees for the right to listen to their recorded music. For rock stars at the top of the food chain, this makes sense economically (if not politically). The entire structure of the record industry is built around their interests, which for all their protesting to the contrary dovetails fairly well with those of the giant record companies [3].

But the very same factors that make the structure of the record business favor the interests of the sharks at the top of the food chain work against the interests of the minnows at the bottom, who constitute the vast majority of people actually making and recording music. Most records, in fact, produce good money for corporations and little or none for the musicians. This is because the recording studios and engineers, art departments, advertising departments, A&R departments, legal departments, limo services, tour agencies, caterers, and distribution networks that swallow up the sales revenue for all but the big hits are owned by these very same corporations. Records that sell tens of thousands don’t “break even” not because no money comes in, but because all the money goes to keeping the corporation in the black. Revenue for the corporation starts coming in with the first CD sold, royalties for artists don’t kick in until every part of the bloated corporate beast is adequately fed.

What exactly are these corporations? To begin with, we should note that the major “record companies” are not actually record companies at all but huge media conglomerates. Most “independent” labels are owned by a corporate label. Each “major” is in turn owned by an even bigger corporation, and so on up the food chain. At the top of the chain sit a tiny handful of media giants: Time Warner, Disney, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany, Viacom (formerly CBS) and General Electric. These corporations are among the world’s largest. All are listed in Fortune Magazine’s “Global 500” largest corporations in the world. They have integrated both horizontally (owning lots of record labels, lots of newspapers, and radio stations) and vertically (controlling newspapers, magazines, book publishing houses, and movie and TV production studios, as well as print distribution systems, cable and broadcast TV networks, radio stations, telephone lines, satellite systems, web portals, billboards, and more).

This incredible concentration of power over news, entertainment, advertising, music, and media of all kinds is a recent phenomena, and is fueled by the very same digital technology that has made the Web and the recording-studio-in-the-bedroom possible. In 1983, 50 corporations dominated US mass media, and the biggest media merger in history was a $340 million deal. By 1997 the 50 had shrunk to 10, one of which was created in the $19 billion merger of Disney and ABC. Just three years later, the end of the century saw the 10 shrink to just five amidst the $350 billion merger of AOL and Time Warner, a deal more than 1,000 times larger than “the biggest deal in history” just 17 years before. As Ben Bagdikian, author of the classic study The New Media Monopoly noted, “In 1983, the men and women who headed the first mass media corporations that dominated American audiences could have fit comfortably in a modest hotel ballroom… By 2003, [they] could fit in a generous phone booth.” [4]

These companies own the most powerful ideology-manufacturing apparatus in the history of the world. It is no wonder they have convinced most musicians, and most everyone else, that the entire endeavor of human music-making would come to a screeching halt if people were allowed to listen to recorded music without first paying a fee – to these corporations. I know many musicians for whom making records in an environment dominated by corporate giants has been an exhausting and thankless task from which they have derived little or no gain, yet they remain convinced that taking advantage of the free global distribution offered by the Internet would constitute some sort of professional suicide.

Here is how the structure of this industry ruins the aspirations of independent-minded musicians and labels. Mainstream CDs sell in really large numbers only for a short window of time, usually while songs from the CD are on the radio. Unless those CDs are on the shelves of stores while the songs are on the air, potential sales are lost. In order to get stores to order large numbers of CDs in advance, the industry evolved with the norm that stores can return unsold CDs at any time. If your company sells pants, or toasters, or bicycles, retailers cannot do this, but record shops can. As a result, record labels must have more money in the bank per unit sales – be more capitalized – than other kinds of companies. Unfortunately, with almost all independent labels this is far from the case. Most are started by music fans driven in to the business by their passion for the music they love. They operate on a shoestring. They send out a bunch of records and hope for the best. Sales might look good at first, but at some later point they get swamped with returns and they have a cash flow crisis. To survive the crisis they engage in creative bookkeeping, telling themselves it is OK because they are really doing this in the interest of the artists, and when things improve everything will get sorted out. But things only get worse, until they collapse or they get bought by a bigger company with more capital. If they collapse, artists don’t get paid and there is a storm of mutual recrimination. If they get bought, the company that buys them is generally only interested in the top selling artists in the catalog, and may well take all the other titles out of print. I know one artist who had ten years of his recordings vanish into the vault of a big label that bought the little label he recorded for. He approached his new corporate master and asked to buy back the rights of his own work and was refused. In the company’s view, his work did not have sufficient market potential to justify releasing it and putting corporate market muscle behind promoting it, but neither did they want his work released by anyone else to compete with the products they did release. From their perspective it was a better bet to just lock it up.

I could relate many more anecdotes here, or delve deeper into the structure of the industry, but I think what has been said so far should suffice. Among people in my immediate social circle of musicians, John Zorn, Mike Patton, and Fred Frith have, over the years, sold CDs in sufficient quantity to actually make money. For all the rest of us, selling recordings in whatever format has been a break-even proposition at best. Not only have we not made any money, for most people in the world our music is unavailable. My works provide an excellent example.

  • My first LP, with the Fall Mountain ensemble, was released on Parachute, a small label run by Eugene Chadbourne which folded long ago and the music has been unavailable ever since.

  • My Getting A Head and Voice of America were released on Rift, a small label run by Fred Frith which suffered the same fate. It remained unavailable until I put it on line for free.

  • My Attention Span, Sooner or Later, Burns Like Fire, and Say No More were released on RecRec in Switzerland, a label launched by a music fan that went through exactly the trajectory typical of small labels I described above. By the time that I, and other artists recording for the label, discovered that we were being cheated out of our royalties the label was already collapsing. Here again, all this music remained unavailable until I put it on line for free. Since then, several thousand people have heard it.

I could continue this list but there are a lot of CDs and the stories would become dully repetitive. Of course, my music is pretty far off the beaten path. But if I had instead spent the last decades playing in rock bands that had released a series of recordings that each sold in the tens of thousands, the details would be different but the result would be the same. This is the structure of music distribution it is allegedly in the interests of musicians to defend.

There is now a very simple alternative, which is to simply post your music on the web. No, you won’t make any money from it, but the odds are overwhelming that you would never make any money from it anyway if you charged for it. And by posting it on the Web a remarkable thing happens. People all over the world can actually hear it. When I was making my music available for sale on CD, I would often hear from people who had spent years unsuccessfully trying to find a copy of a particular CD, and these were dedicated hard core listeners, who put a lot of their free time into music. Now anyone with even a passing interest can find my music easily and hear it.

People have actually been convinced that if it were not possible to charge fees for listening to recorded music, there would be no “incentive” to play music. It’s time to take a step back and see the big picture. As recently as 60 years ago, most people who made their livelihood from music viewed the recording industry as a threat to their livelihood, not the basis of it. Given the mountains of money that big stars have made during the intervening decades, this fear has generally been viewed in retrospect as hopelessly naïve. But consider the following: A few years ago I performed in the cultural festival organized by the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, and witnessed the parade and dance party which is this festival’s culminating event. The parade brought roughly half a million people into the streets, including participants and observers. It took hours for the parade to slowly move through its course. Every contingent in the parade had its own choreography and music. The participants danced through the street, and many spectators danced alongside. So that’s half a million people dancing in the street for several hours. The parade ended in a 12-hour dance party attended by over 20,000, featuring seven different pavilions with non-stop music in each. Before the era of recording, the number of musicians required to keep half a million people dancing in the street for six hours, and then 20,000 dancing for 12 hours more, would have easily run in to the thousands. At the event I attended, the musicians involved numbered exactly one. No contingent in the parade included a live musician – all were dancing to recordings. All the music at the dance party was recorded as well. In the largest pavilion, at the climax of the party, an actual live singer, Chaka Kahn, emerged in a blaze of fireworks and lights to sing a short medley of her hits – to recorded accompaniment.

Humans have walked this earth for about 195,000 years. We don’t know exactly when music emerged, but it was certainly a very long time ago, long before recorded history. There is evidence that music may have been integral to the evolution of the human brain, that music and language developed in tandem. The first recording device was invented just 129 years ago. The first mass-produced record appeared just 110 years ago. The idea that selling permission to listen to recorded music is the foundation of the possibility of earning one’s livelihood from music is at most 50 years old, and it is a myth. The fact that most musicians today believe in this myth is an ideological triumph for corporate power of breathtaking proportions.

I should note that I do have serious reservations about the emerging culture of on-line music, but they have nothing to do with money. My music is made for sustained, concentrated listening. This kind of listening is increasingly rare in our busy, caffeine-driven, media-drenched, networked world. I suspect it is even rarer for music that was downloaded for free, broken up and shuffled through fleeting “playlists”, and not objectified in an object that one can hold in one’s hand, file on the shelf, or give to a friend. But this concern has nothing to do whether we charge money to hear recorded music, and everything to do with how we live in a culture in which there is a surplus of information and a scarcity of time to pay attention.

The issues involved here are hardly limited to music, but extend outward to a legal and corporate structure that shapes our culture so profoundly its importance can hardly be exaggerated. Music is no longer just music but a small subset of a corporation’s properties. Property rights have become so absurdly swollen that they now constitute a smokescreen hiding a corporate power grab on a scale rivaling that of the great robber barons of the nineteenth century. Instead of grabbing land or oil, today’s corporate barons are seizing control of culture. They are using the legal construct of property to extend the reach of corporate power into parts of our lives that were previously beyond their grasp.

There are so many shocking anecdotes one could relate in this regard; here is one from my own recent experience. If it seems trivial at first glance, it is because it is. That is precisely my point, as you will see if you bear with me.

It has been my privilege to have John Cooney as a student. John is young, bright, enthusiastic, hard-working, politically engaged, and artistically gifted. During his freshman year at UC Davis, he made a short animation about global warming that won the Flash Contest prize from Citizens for Global Solutions, and the Environmental Award of the Media That Matters Film Festival. He also made a computer game that he put on-line for free, and that was listed as a “Top Free Online Games” by, a “Game of the Week” by, and a “Featured Game,” by Addicting Games. John’s game also made the “Flash Player Top Games List,” and was even the subject of a story on BBC World News.

Not bad for an 18-year old college freshman. But both his projects resulted in cease-and-desist letters from corporate lawyers, including one from Tolkien Enterprises demanding that he not refer to an animated character in a game he was offering on-line for no charge as a “hobbit.” None of this involved high stakes or dire consequences. John’s game no longer features a “hobbit.” This case is trivial compared to parents getting sued for vast sums because their kids are downloading pop songs, or the unhappy plight of Eyes on the Prize, a film which beautifully documents the civil rights movement in the US, yet was withdrawn from circulation because its makers could not afford to renew all the necessary permissions on the incidental music that “leaked” into the film via documentary footage (which included a substantial payment to the copyright holders of the “happy birthday” song as the film shows Martin Luther King Jr.’s family at home celebrating the civil rights leader’s birthday).

But John’s experience is important precisely because it did not involve important people or high-profile issues. Even though there was no realistic possibility that anyone would think Tolkien Enterprises had somehow endorsed or been involved in John’s project, the mere fact that someone, somewhere was making new, independent culture using Tolkien Enterprises’ copyrighted character was enough to set the corporate reflexes in motion. The key thing here is the convergence of corporate power with the growth of the World Wide Web. If John had just shown his game in class and not put it on the Web, Tolkien Enterprises would have never known or cared. If his animation had not won an award, there would likely have been no legal threats. Together, the episodes offer an elegant demonstration of how copyright law punishes success and deters creative use of the World Wide Web.

Anything on the Web is available to anyone, which is of course both its promise and its peril. Corporate legal departments can write automated programs that crawl through the Web 24/7 searching for copyrighted works. The “hits” then generate threatening letters that intimidate anyone who doesn’t have deep pockets and a lot of time on their hands. The cost to the sender is almost nil; the cost to society is, in a literal sense, immeasurable.

Getting a threatening letter for a corporate legal department is not a pleasant experience for anyone, least of all an 18-year old kid. Keep in mind that more and more students turn in homework assignments via the Web, and not just in college but in high school too. All of that work is now exposed to the corporate vultures.

“Property rights” have bloated to the point where they can dictate the content of freshman art projects. But that is not all. Altogether more and more of what we do in our lives passes through the Web. People invite friends to parties, view art, listen to music, play games, have political discussions, date and fall in love, post their family photo albums, share their dreams, and play out sexual fantasies – all on line. Since corporate legal departments claim their copyright privileges extend to anything on the Web, the result is a huge extension of corporate power into private lives and social networks.

But that is just the beginning of the story, for the accelerating rate of technological change continues to push digital technology further and further into our lives in just about any direction you might look. To pick just one example, boundaries between our bodies and minds and our technology are blurring. Cochlear implants, for example, now allow deaf people to hear via computer chips loaded with copyrighted software which are implanted in their skulls and in response to which their brains reconfigure, growing new synapses while unused synapses fade. Cochlear implants are wirelessly networked to hardware worn outside the body which usually connects to a mic, thus allowing the deaf to hear the sound environment around them. But the external hardware can just as easily be plugged into a laptop’s audio output for a direct audio tap into the Web.

When the Web extends into chips in our skulls, where is the boundary between language that is carved up into words that are corporately owned and language that is free for the thinking?

I don’t wish to be sensationalist. We are not all about to turn into corporately-owned cyborgs. But I do wish to point out that the issues around turning culture into property are urgent, and far-reaching. Society is not well-served if we treat specific matters like downloading music on the Web as isolated problems instead of one manifestation of a vastly bigger struggle in which much more is at stake.

1 The original recording titles includes Early Fall, Getting A Head, Voice of America, Sooner or Later, Burns Like Fire, Fear No Love, Pantychrist, Like A Melody, No Bitterness, DJ of the Month, Say No More, Say No More in Person, Verbatim, and Verbatim Flesh and Blood.

3 Prince is the one notable exception here – a megastar who has used the Internet to build a music distribution infrastructure controlled by him and not a Fortune 500 company.

4 Ben H. Bagdikian, The New Media Monopoly, Boston: Beacon, 2004.

31 Comments on "The Professional Suicide of a Recording Musician"

  1. Bob,

    Your full article: The Professional Suicide of a Recording Musician at is a much more revealing piece. I read that first.

    I respect your decision but, as an artist who has been on Major labels and Indies (I own many of my masters), I would not want to have such a bleak picture of the “music biz” affect the willingness of general consumers/non-creators to continue to support artists by paying for music CD’s and downloads.

    Many of your points are reactions against the label biz of the past; and considering that most people don’t go to record stores anymore, off topic.

    I have a few comments.

    The only real question is: “Should art/music be free or not”?. But my concern is: does this debate create the perception that the government should all of a sudden declare that artists cannot or should not make money off of their recorded art? Your title is very ominous. Does this signal the slow death of all the professional recording musicians? I hope not.

    It is WE artists (anyone who creates) who CHOOSE how to expose our art. If we have a fan base of 10 or 10,000, we should all hope to exploit that support to be a business and not just a hobby. That is how we continue making music from one project to the next. If you don’t care to make money off of your art, that is fine; you are a hobbyist, not a professional.

    For normal people who love music, you should support it. Support you favorite artists. If you just cast a wide net and download all the music you can for free, IMO, that, in effect, “devalues” the music. UNLESS you pay something to the artists you like by buying their product. So far, the best way to do that is to pay for each piece of music offered by the artist. Go to their website and pay for SOMETHING!!

    We may write a new song in an hour, but we spend most of our time ( weeks) working on the recordings. Getting the Great Performance of our personal SOUND to bring the song idea to life. That is worth a lot. Simply giving away all your recorded product is risky unless you have a bustling touring or merchandising business that does make money. The model of a free download here or there is fine too, in order to stimulate interest and sales. This type of idea is well known in all forms of businesses.

    You rant against the label biz; fine, but that ship has sailed and the internet now is wide open to so many alternative forms of distribution ( CD Baby, My Space, Broadjam, etc.). It is a more level playing field- not completely- but for those who have the net-marketing skills, the potential is unlimited.

    Don’t forget that anyone can post their own music in streaming format on myspace, for instance, and expose the whole song for free listening. Those that like it are usually happy to support the artist by buying a CD or download. As long as artists make it clear that the money goes directly to support the continuation of the artist’s career and not some major label’s bloated infrastructure, most mature fans are more than happy to pay.

    I’m not a lawyer, but I know intellectual property rights are for all creators. Not just corporations. If you wrote a song and it had any monetary potential ( film, tv, library- now, or 30 years in the future when you are trying to retire) you’d have the same protections and you would be glad the law is there. You are also be able to DECIDE who can use your song, in what context, for free or for what $$ fee.

    Your open-source concept is only for non-commercial use and by its nature is too limiting and has much potential for disputes. You wouldn’t want anyone to copy your idea and make and commercially release a new song (derivative) without your approval either. Two parties can not produce a derivative piece of music that is easily exploited unless the original creator is contacted for permission. That is already the case in the copyright law, so why do you align yourself with those wanting to eliminate ( or at least, complicate) those laws and protections?

    The website claims’” Copyright subsidizes distribution, not creation;…” and states many generalities that are slanted against the major label biz, as if they take all rights away from any artist who deals with them.

    Please give me a break……We are at the dawn of artists controlling their own distribution, in spite of the majors ( Prince); so why not realize that copyright protects the creator and direct your energies to find creative ways to encourage independent artists and nourish that business model.

    Please think about all the young creators that should have their dreams include getting paid for their talents in the future. Whatever business model evolves, it should always respect the actual song and recording. Let’s not add to the perception that music should be “free for all – screw the major labels” just because new technologies make it easier to find and share music. All artists, now and in the future, will suffer.

    Gregg Karukas

  2. Im a cafe owner who has been hounded and harassed by corporations like BMI, Inc in Nashville Tn to take a license to play music. They us extortionary, intimidating, and threats to force you to sign a license. They use the power of the corporation over the individual under the guise of protecting intellectual rights. These are blatant violations of wholesome business practices. They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with this; but the industry has been successful in putting everyone on a guilt trip if they sing someone elses song. I think intellectual property is vastly overstated. We’re all drawing from the same chords, the same history of music, the same harmonies and the same theory. We all influence each other and yet there are those who insist on being the sole creator. Intellectual property rights are changing fast and legalities are becoming a blur. Tom

  3. A very stimulating read, thanks. I’ve directed people to it on my blog:

    Two questions for you, Mr. Ostertag, which will address some of Mr. Karukas’ concerns, as well: on the topic of money, would it be rude or inappropriate to ask for a smidgen of personal disclosure? Are you currently trying to make a living off your music? If no, you obviously have some other source of income, which allows you a certain luxury to finance your own art; that’s great, if so – but do you think this informs your feelings about the internet and copyright, and that you might feel differently were you trying to make a living off music? (I actually don’t know anything about your sources of income – apologies if these questions are offensive or intrusive!).

    The second question is related: whatever your circumstances – what HAS the effect on your income been of posting your music online? Have you actually increased your public visibility, gotten concert performances, speaking engagements, or even increased CD sales by making your work available for download? If we see your posting your music online as an experiment – is it working? You don’t really address this point above, unless I missed something… If it ISN’T working – if you’re still basically as marginal a musical figure as you were ten years ago – then it’s a generous action indeed – altruistic and humbling – but it’s not a model that a lot of other musicians are going to be very inspired to follow!

    I’d be very interested in your replies. Hope to see you perform again in Vancouver some day. Cheers –

    Allan MacInnis

  4. Responding briefly to some of the comments here:

    Bob’s point is that artists don’t make significant money from record royalties anyway. So asking how artists can make a living if they don’t sell their recordings is like asking how trees can keep growing if sharks stop swimming: there’s no connection (at any rate, very little). It isn’t how artists make a living now, so what does this question have to do with the issues Bob raises?

    Note that there will always be many, many more people who want to make a living as artists, writers, or musicians than actually can. This is because those occupations are so much more attractive than most of the jobs available in the world. Thus, no matter what funding policy we set up as a society, most people trying to be artists will be complaining that it’s hard. This has more to do with the world of 9-5 work than with art or copyright. But it does imply that we shouldn’t use the existence of struggling artists as evidence that a better funding system is needed. There will always be struggling artists: increase the amount of funding, and you’ll simply increase the number of people who want to have a go at making a living in their artistic endeavour of choice. Most of them won’t succeed, though they may nonetheless make some wonderful art. I don’t mean to sound callous, I just think that’s how the economics and motivations play out here.

    Gregg Karukas slips too easily into some assumptions that need to be questioned. He asks “does this debate create the perception that the government should all of a sudden declare that artists cannot or should not make money off of their recorded art?” Of course, Bob wasn’t proposing any such decree, this question is a straw man. But the government has already decreed that people cannot share art freely with each other! That’s what copyright is, a monopoly that obstructs sharing and creative re-use. Gregg may be upset that I use those words (which have their negative connotations for a reason), but I don’t think he could deny their accuracy.

    So why is the current government decree automatically acceptable, while a policy of freedom is not?

    A factual correction: open source does not imply non-commercial (I’ve made my living from open source for years).

    Gregg Karukas also wrote: “You wouldn’t want anyone to copy your idea and make and commercially release a new song (derivative) without your approval either. Two parties can not produce a derivative piece of music that is easily exploited unless the original creator is contacted for permission.” Interestingly, in private conversation, Bob expressed comfort with the idea of other people making derivative works from his works, even for commercial use. But it’s true, his website uses a Creative Commons non-commercial license. It may be that he’s on the fence about that one, or that his thinking has changed since he put up the songs. I’ll ask him more about this.

    Many people do allow commercial re-use, though. I do, for example: two books that I wrote, both published commercially and available in bookstores, are under open licenses that allow commercial redistribution and commercial derivative works.

  5. I get Bob’s point, I do, about how, for an artist like Ostertag, making an income through selling recordings isn’t really an issue.

    I know of musicians who, however, would probably take issue with much Bob has to say – creatures from a previous paradigm, perhaps, but how to appease them? In particular, I’m thinking of David Thomas of Pere Ubu, who decries people posting Ubu material on Youtube and doesn’t seem very friendly to the idea of sampling, seeing it as a threat to working musicians; and of Gerry Hannah of the (Vancouver) Subhumans, who, in conversation, has expressed great skepticism about file-sharing and its effect on musicians – he sees it as artists getting ripped off, time and again (I’m sure he’d be amused to see himself being described as being too under the sway of corporations). It perhaps makes a difference that to bands in these more “popular” genres, they DO have a chance of making money off music – at least more than avant gardists; since bands of this type probably DO value their royalty checks – and I think we can assume they do, since they feel threatened by their loss – I don’t see that they’d have any incentive at all for just giving up the game and putting all their music online for free – at least not yet; things may change.

    So the question, I guess, is one of applicability. For artists in the furthest reaches of the Long Tail, maybe it makes perfect sense to just put all their music online – but just how marginal a group is it for whom the argument applies? Will that group grow over time…? If Ostertag’s model is one only a very limited number of people can follow (those with steady dayjobs and music not many people want to pay for, anyhow) that needs to be noted…

    Allan MacInnis

  6. Gregg

    You response was so eloquent and well thought out that I felt it deserved an attempt at a worthwhile reply. Here goes even though I’m not a flawless expert by any means….

    You seem worried that without copyright, music makers won’t be able to make a living. Remember that one of Ostertag’s points is that few musicians genuinely are making a living from copyright revenues. You mentioned that you have been on “Major labels and Indies”. I congratulate you on your apparent talent and success. It is interesting that you didn’t say you have been able to make a living from copyright. Perhaps you and your musical community support Ostertag’s point that few musicians are getting much from copyright? Perhaps copyright revenue really is like the lottery in the sense that it is a nice dream that few ever realize? Copyright is not the only, and perhaps not even the biggest, source of revenue for the majority of musicians .

    Remember also that copyright is not purely positive for you and your tribe. Many musicians have been sued and had their works censored for various reasons. Visit for a few egregious examples of musicians being harmed by copyright laws.

    You also seemed to make the point that wide free distribution of music “devalues” it. Is Bach’s music less valued because it is given away for free? I would think that more people recognizing and appreciating your music would make it more valuable to more people.

    1. Hi all,

      Great discussion. Allan does seem to get it. Café owner doesn’t. Kfogel: Monopoly is not a bad word when it comes to your and my rights to earn money from our ART.

      Seberino: You had many questions, here is an answer that I hope focuses on the issue.

      Speaking as a creator, composer, songwriter, not a side musician, income can come from many different ancillary rights, all tied to the COPYRIGHT/OWNERSHIP of the song/recording. ( for that matter, successful Union SIDE musicians do get a special payment from labels according to how many sessions they play in a year. Kind of like a royalty to the craftsmen of the sounds you hear)

      I do make good income from the SONGS– my compositions – in the following ways:

      PUBLISHING!!!! Have you ever heard the phrase, “ Don’t give up your publishing (rights)!!”?

      That is the first thing anyone higher up on the “music biz foodchain” will try to get you to sign away, so that should tell you something. Sharing a portion of the PUBLISHING rights can be good in some cases, but that is for songwriter forums to discuss.

      It is not a LOTTERY. Talent deserves to be supported and will rise to the top. Publishing income is the most important form of income; that can sustain a career for decades, if you have some early success and then your style falls out of favor commercially, or you don’t even put out any more new music , or whatever.

      Radio play –ASCAP- I am fortunate that my songs are popular on Smooth Jazz Radio. I don’t ever write music to fit a mold just to make money, but when market tastes are in sync with my style, it is wonderful. It still takes a promotional machine from a label to get and track the airplay.

      Background music- Restaurants, cafes, shopping centers, offices, (yes, MUZAK uses many types of modern instrumental music) and that quarterly income stream can be one of the longest, since, once a song is in their library, it stays for years and is logged and paid to ASCAP (or BMI), who then pay me.

      Foreign rights: I get song income from many different countries from my songs being used as background on TV and radio. Also, each country collects royalties from sales and has their own formula for distribution of income to the PUBLISHER. ME.

      Here is a little capsule of the label biz, from my experience:

      I do not make so much money from actual CD sales on my Cd’s that are owned or distributed by labels because the recording advance that I used to pay my musicians and electric bill has to be recouped back from sales – at my royalty rate. Note that I have licensed my masters to labels, (except 3 larger label deals) which means I retain ownership in the future and after 5-7 yrs. Or so, I get all rights back to distribute the music however I want……( internet – direct to fans).

      This advance rarely is enough to count as income. More of a token payment to justify the lablels’ initial “risk”. From my first CD ( LP, before CD’s) label deal, I have always had to weigh the advantage of signing away certain rights in return for wider exposure and promotion on radio, press and retail. This is true in all businesses relating to intellectual property, or patents on inventions, the lifeblood of a modern economy. ……..“build a better mousetrap…=$$$$$$..”

      I do share in income from TV, film , background use of the “RECORDED MUSIC” (sync fee), but it is only from the artist controlling his own distribution that he can get a bigger slice of the sale of CD’s and downloads, and that is the future of the grass roots music biz that I mentioned in my post.

      So, I may not make a living from a record label, but by keeping my COPYRIGHT, and exploiting it, I can look to the future and know that wherever or whenever my “product” is appreciated, I will see some form of income.

      If I didn’t have that, the value to me ( just covering my recording costs, not to mention the time it takes to write, produce and mix the recordings) would be negative in economic terms ($$).

      I hope that brings us all back to the VALUE of one’s ART. You can choose to give some, or all of it away, allow others to COPY it, but that COPY-RIGHT is not to be messed with by someone other that you, the owner.

      “Sharing music”, “open source”, are all versions of distribution. I need to CONTROL my own distribution, thank you, so I can decide what to share and what to charge money for.

      Copyright law provides for all of that and protects me.

      Gregg Karukas

  7. Bob doesn’t mind if his music is copied for free, because no one has heard of him so no one WANTS to pay money for his music. But if Bob had the opportunity to $1,000 a day selling his music, I bet he’d think differently. Too bad no one cares for Bob’s music, which is why he’s failed to get significant income from his music sales.

    1. Really? Have you actually run the numbers on that? I mean, have you taken the musicians you like as a starting sample, and examined how much money they’re making from copyright royalties? I’ll bet it’s a lot less than you think…

  8. Chances are, if people got to hear good music, they would want to hear more, so that means that Bob would be able to get PAID, because people will always pay to hear good music, the “problem” is the fact that good examples of music are few and far between, and for those people who insist on having the complete works of Mozart and Beethoven to listen to, money is no object. This is one of the main reasons it might be hard to get certain compilations, and why certain people might despair at the chaotic nature of the Music World’s very own version of the Techno-Industrial Complex. The fact of the matter is what Greg calls “my idea” is not really his idea, but a probable lesser known variation on a popular already commercially available theme tune that has already been heard, which no one wants to hear, because it is never going to be as good as the original that inspired him to write his music. Jefferson Airplane is not Iron Butterfly, despite the fact they are both classified under the label of Psychadelic Rock, but that is just down to personal taste and opinion. I would never buy another Metallica CD because of Napster, which is why I now prefer to listen to Iron Maiden. No one wants to pay money to listen to shit. If everything has been said and done before, what use is there to argue about it anymore? It is all a variation on a theme anyway, and a pretty bad, boring one at that.

  9. If you don’t care to make money off of your art, that is fine; you are a hobbyist, not a professional.

    A word of advice: Either win the lottery or don’t quit your day job. People like me, who will inherit millions after our parents are gone, do not need to listen to people like you blithering on about certain things, because objectively speaking, you have no power, and you will never have power unless you stop kowtowing to the rich company men who keep the rich rich and the poor poor, as well as not allowing you to get the exposure you deserve by restricting access to your talent, which serves also to keep you poor and subservient. Do some good in your life, and start a foundation to help underpriviledged kids learn the pleasure of music, because it is those acts of random kindness and charity that people remember, and maybe people like me will buy up your entire stock of music, keeping you in the green for life, out of our resulting sense of gratitude. You owe us more than we owe you, because people like me pay your bills. Music SHOULD be for fun, idealistically, because ART serves the purpose of making life that much more beautiful and bearable, not lining the pockets of people who don’t care enough about their fans to strike up a personal relationship and say hello once in a while, in order to make them also feel valued when they are ignored by their busy parents.

  10. bobostertag,

    I think your music is terrific and I totally agree with what you’re trying to do by posting music for download in exchange for “ideas”. It’s a very unselfish move in a world that selfishness and greed drives most individuals.


    Tom G.

    1. Bob this is such an excellent post. It mThat’s a great observation you’ve made about music being somewhat singled out when compared to pirated MS software. I think it’s worth considering though that while MS battles software piracy to an extent (but still significantly), they could be more strict than they are. They have benefited over the years from piracy because it holds their market share. They have been gradually tightening it up, but won’t go after it too heavily as long as they are concerned about competitors on the horizon.

      I wonder, if the possibility exists for an independent musician to make a living selling recordings of their music (especially if playing live in front of an audience doesn’t work well for them), is there a particular reason they shouldn’t charge for their music? I wonder if the choice of a musician to upload their music online is somewhat of a luxury. Should a brilliant but extremely impoverished musician trying to support and feed their family give their music away freely when people would be willing to purchase it? Do they have a right to make a living from their music? Depending on the musician, their location, type of music, etc. selling recordings may be the only way to make any income from their art.

      I know you are mainly focusing on the corporations and have many valid points in that regard that I agree with.

      I will say that I witnessed a professional recording session once where there was a very talented producer employed by the record company. It was abundantly clear that the producer brought out the best in the singer and the musicians – they were playing at a level that they wouldn’t have played otherwise. Tom Dowd might be an example of this–or maybe Clive Davis or Teo Macero (jazz recordings). Of course, a large corporation doesn’t need to be involved for there to be a good producer.

      I am certainly no apologist for these corporations, but I think there’s something to be said for the value of many young musicians having guidance that raises their standards.

      I think we probably agree that there is a definite place for record labels to the extent that they can handle some things (promotion, artistic direction etc.) so the musicians can focus more on music. I think these record companies just got way too big and powerful as you’ve said…the playing field is being leveled (e.g. “The World is Flat” – Tom Friedman).

      Thanks for tolerating my rambling.

      Frank VanderSloot of Melaleuca
      Melaleuca Foundation Charity

  11. This comment says much more about you than it does about Bob’s music. There are a lot of BRILLIANT musicians who don’t make a good living because they aren’t promoted well to the right audience or the right projects (video/movie soundtracks for example)…an many musicians aren’t financially successful until after their death! Bob obviously has another source of income so he can follow where his own creativity leads.
    McKay Christensen

  12. This comment says much more about you than it does about Bob’s music. There are a lot of BRILLIANT musicians who don’t make a good living because they aren’t promoted well to the right audience or the right projects (video/movie soundtracks for example)…an many musicians aren’t financially successful until after their death! Bob obviously has another source of income so he can follow where his own creativity leads.
    McKay Christensen

  13. I like the article and in my opinion without the internet so many artists would be nobodies. The internet and in particular youtube has helped struggling artists get known by the rest of the world.

  14. I’m a huge Patton fan, and even though Lovage was a radical departure from a lot of his earlier/solo stuff, I loved it! I plan to put up a new page at soon and I’d welcome any comments about improvements.

  15. I agree with one of the earlier commenters. Without the internet, many artists wouldn’t be where they are today.

    – JO
    moving pods

  16. Much of the discussion about copyright is above my level; I’m not an artist, but I am a devotee of new and innovative music. I just downloaded All the Rage and am listening to it as I write.

    Fascinating and complex piece, which is going to require several more listens before I can comment more intelligently. Thanks for sharing it.

    Fergus Mayhew

  17. This issue came up with a friend who owns a restaurant in the UK. He was asked for £300 a year to play music. He succesfully challenged the corporations by asking for full disclosure of all of the artists they represent, so that he would be able to assess how much of their music he would be playing. After several letters back and forth they decided it would cost too much for them to disclose the full list of all of the artists they claim to represent, so they backed down.

  18. That is quite a thoughtful article…. and so is most of the commentary on or about it.

    Having really been a homeless and starving musician – eating out of bins and just totally “gone” from some serious life issues, the idea of “a perception of security” seems to appear important, as going without a place to live, work and food to eat is not terribly “liberating” in terms of “attachment to material things”.

    Perhaps it seems to me that life is a feast, only some of us get the pleasure of fixing the cars and computers to get to the gig and be recording the event – and paying for the phone lines to upload the data…. add infinitum.

    There is quite a lot to consider overall in this matter, and I agree with your summarisation of the matters.

    I am too tired and hot and it’s late and I am losing cohesion on the subject.

    Some points… TV in Australia is mostly reruns of shit American sitcoms – back to back almost 24/7, with incessant saturation advertising all the way through it.

    There are moves afoot to mangle the internet to stop people accessing anything much – that the studios own, especially if it comes out on Aus TV 6 moths or a year or more after it comes in the USA, and without shoving the incessant almost back to back adds through the shows…..

    In regards to music, if it wasn’t available on the net, I wouldn’t see, watch, buy or listen to an awful lot of it myself.

    So the hoary old chest nut about copyright infringement – Uhhh fuck them… If they had not of made the sale, then they would not have made the loss..

    From time to time there ARE some DVD’s or CD’s that I do want to buy – out of the endless sea of “media saturation”; and so I will periodically go and buy some things some times.

    But really – One of my main gripes about all this revenue generation and distribution costs, is that with digital distribution – most of my gripe about things like Itunes etc., is that to do the jump from the recording studio – to a server and to download, and STILL having to pay the intermediary pricing model that is similar to making a hard copy CD., all the shipping and retail costs and profiting, and then having to go and buy the physical medium…

    I am also aggrieved that enormous amounts of music and video’s is locked away never to see the light of day and if it wasn’t for the collective consciousness of humanity digitising and sharing it, then it would be lost forever.

    That’s crap.

    I am mostly rambling… so I will shut up.

  19. Yeah – this was a point I wanted to express:

    Wayyyyyyyyyy back in the Summer of Love in San Fran Cisco – with all the “hippies” and their bullshit;

    They started off with (obligation) free sex, free drugs, free music, free food – all caring and sharing etc., with communal kitchens etc., well it all started off great (????) but it all turned ugly as the taking and the drugs and I suppose VD etc., all set in too., and at the end of the summer, the “hippies” had a formal burial – with ritual coffin etc. of the concept of the “hippie scene” was dead – the event was over – the “free communal experiment” didn’t work and it’s better to get a job and work in, instead of dropping out and copping out.

    I have seen the live footage of that actual event and the interviews with the people holding it; and it’s a bit different to the write up in Wikipedia – who write, “It’s finished here – but take the message back and live it where you are:

    During the Summer of Love, as many as 100,000 young people from around the world flocked to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, as well as to nearby Berkeley and to other San Francisco Bay Area cities, to join in a popularized version of the hippie experience.[20] Free food, free drugs and free love were available in Golden Gate Park, a Free Clinic (whose work continues today) was established for medical treatment, and a Free Store gave away basic necessities to anyone who needed them.[21]

    The Summer of Love attracted a wide range of people of various ages: teenagers and college students drawn by their peers and the allure of joining a cultural utopia; middle-class vacationers; and even partying military personnel from bases within driving distance. The Haight-Ashbury could not accommodate this rapid influx of people, and the neighborhood scene quickly deteriorated. Overcrowding, homelessness, hunger, drug problems, and crime afflicted the neighborhood. Many people left in the fall to resume their college studies.[21]

    On October 6, 1967, those remaining in the Haight staged a mock funeral, “The Death of the Hippie” ceremony, to signal the end of the played-out scene.[15] Mary Kasper explained the message of the mock funeral as follows:
    “ We wanted to signal that this was the end of it, don’t come out. Stay where you are! Bring the revolution to where you live. Don’t come here because it’s over and done with.[22]

    Yeah – much to think about, much to do.

    1. And the final bit – One of the chicks in the middle of it all said, “Many of the people who turned up here and got turned on etc., (to acid) they all used to eat at the free kitchens and communal feasts etc., well by the time it was over they NEEDED to be fed in the communal kitchens.. (because of the drugs and crime and many of them were drug fucked from the acid etc.)

  20. Rarely have I seen an article filled with so many little-known unpleasant “industry truths” that also spans so much information and yet is still somehow written in concise language.

    Hats off to you Bob Ostertag. Thanks for the fantastic (and personal) insight.

    I don’t think I was alone in my anticipation to hear how your “give all music away for free” model worked for you in terms of revenue, exposure, creative growth, networking, meeting new musicians, personal fulfillment, etc. I don’t mean to seem as though I completely missed the point of your article (which of course I didn’t) but I think people would be interested in hearing what you value as the true reward for doing it your way.

    Thanks again. You’ve definitely gained a reader.

    Damon Cisneros

    Music Producer | Audio Production Studio

  21. OK,but by playing recorded music in your cafe you are doing live muscians out of a job. You wouldn’t dream of playing for live music, or would you? So music has become like the water. Go to the tap and turn it on. Wonderful.What’s going on at the other end of the pipe? Who knows, who cares?

    -david watson.