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What the music industry can learn from the open source movement

By Charlotta Hedman

”The music industry is fighting the internet”, says one open source enthusiast I’ve been talking to. “But no one can fight the internet and expect to win”.

If music execs think they have a problem on their hands when it comes to pirates, that’s nothing compared to the strong ideological convictions that swept through the software industry in the 90s.

In the early days of computers, when most users could be found in damp university basements, software was set free. Mainly because a lot of the early users wanted to modify programs to their own liking. Hence software like Linux was born, shared, modified and eventually became the foundation for several successful businesses.

Today open source is embraced by most of the software industry. And guess what, it’s an industry that is still making money. What does that mean for music then?

Henrik Ingo, who blogs about business and open source, says that it’s impossible to revert back to the 90s. Music is free and so is software. Although Ingo does believe that artists and programmers should be paid for their work. But protecting old business models that aren’t working isn’t helpful for anyone.

Mark Baker has worked for both Red Hat and Mysql and is another open source enthusiast.

According to him the movement has matured and gone from a sort of stick-it-to-the-man DIY philosophy to actually being part of the software establishment. Red Hat Linux is now one of the major operating systems in the world.

Red Hat is based on Linux, the code is free, but the packaging isn’t. The way to make money from open source products is by charging for add-ons and additional services.

The same idea might be applied to beer, but doesn’t instantly translate to the music business. Although Baker suggests that artists or labels could release tracks for free to create a demand and then approach fans with extra services and direct marketing to those who already like the product.

There are also examples of artists using the open source method successfully. Henrik Ingo writes about musician Jill Sobule who adopted a donation model where fans paid her before the music existed. It worked and she earned about $75 000 in two months.

Sobule came up with a way of including her fans in the process of creating an album, and at the same time charging them for it. She adopted a donation model where fans could pay for different services, from $10 for a digital download of the album to $10 000 for an opportunity to sing (or play a cowbell) on the record.

But there are still a lot of differences between the industries. The open source movement sprung from developers wanting to modify programs. People who buy music usually want to get the finished product. Although according to Ingo that’s changing as well.

“Youtube is a good example of people using music in the same way as programmers are using open source code. Fans can make their own videos or record themselves covering or singing along to their favourite songs. No one seems to be worrying about licensing, they’re just having fun and sharing their work.”

Where should the money come from then? Well according to Ingo there is money to be made as long as there is an audience.

Stewart Townsend, who was one of the driving forces behind Sun Microsystems, thinks the music industry can learn from how a free product like open software has evolved into a something people can and are making money of. If music was free then artists could gain more revenue from tours and merchandise.

“Reducing the overhead or access for artists to get their work out in the open, for free, giving a wider view of the music industry globally, would enhance the overall industry”, says Townsend.

He argues that the software industry has actually become better because of open source and because the users are part of the process.

“Letting the community solve problems is beneficial, it doesn’t have to be that the companies themselves employing hundreds of engineers, let the intelligent users contribute.”

And maybe that doesn’t just apply to debugging, maybe it’s time for the music industry to start listening more to the fans.

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