Jimmy Guterman's blog

media, technology, management, and the rest of it

Archive for August 2009

What I learned from making The Sandinista Project free for a day

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When I’m not working or blogging or trying to live my life, I steal some time to work on my fiction. I use a fine program called WriteRoom that makes a computer writing environment much less distracting than the Microsoft Word norm.

The developer of WriteRoom has written an iPhone version of the program. I don’t use it as much, but it has been the subject of an fascinating price experiment. I bought WriteRoom.iPhone soon after it came out, for $4.99, but since then the developer has been testing different price points, with conclusive results:

08/20/2009 9 @ $4.99
08/21/2009 4280 @ Free
08/22/2009 7166 @ Free
08/23/2009 4901 @ Free
08/24/2009 88 @ $0.99
08/25/2009 56 @ $0.99
08/26/2009 119 @ $0.99

Looks like strong evidence for Chris Anderson’s contention that there is an enormous difference between almost free and free, even as Joshua Benton has noted that anyone who can afford an iPhone or an iPod Touch likely can risk 99 cents on an app without falling into a lower tax bracket.

I’ve got my own story to tell about free. As regular readers of this space know, last week I made The Sandinista Project available for free for roughly one day. The record went up at 12.01am on Friday and came down around 9am on Saturday. Here are the stats:

Total number of views of the page with the download link: 17,664 (13,834 Friday, 3,830 Saturday)
Total number of completed album downloads: 7,577 (6,772 Friday, 805 Saturday)

This is not what traffic is usually like on my blog, as this traffic report from WordPress makes embarrasingly clear:


The day of making The Sandinista Project free flattened my traffic for every other day this month. (Thanks to boing boing and others for pointing to it, by the way.) Indeed, the 7,577 free album downloads exceeded the number of physical albums we sold in the two years since the record came out. I’m not sure how many legit digital albums we sold via iTunes, Amazon, etc., but much of that business is in single tracks so I suspect the digital full-album sales were negligible. It’s hard to figure out how many unauthorized copies are out on the Net, but the week before the download experiment, I checked the numbers on Pirate Bay and two other prominent torrent sites and extrapolated at the very least 6,000 torrented copies. So, between the free authorized download last week and the free unauthorized downloads of the previous 28 months, most of the copies of The Sandinista Project that people are listening to weren’t paid for.

Yet people are listening to it. In the week since the free download, more than 300 of them wrote me to either thank me or complement the work. The trolls came out, too, but we all know what to do about them. So … there is some audience of people who want this music. They just don’t want to pay for it. For this project, that was not a big problem. We weren’t expecting to get paid, and what little we did make we intended to give away. It was, I guess, an art project. We weren’t doing it to make a living. We were doing it to get heard. Mission accomplished.

But what if The Sandinista Project was intended as a money-maker? The success of the free download suggests that there is an audience interested in the work. A popular policy nowadays is to give away something of value in the hope that it will serve as persuasive marketing for something that is for sale. A free download of this record could have been a come-on for a concert, associated merch, or some high-end physical version of the same product. Not sure how well that would work. Let’s use the WriteRoom.iphone example: when the price rose from zero to 99 cents, downloads all but stopped: the worst day at the free price was 4,280 downloads, the best day at the cheap price was 119 downloads, and let’s not forget that a typical day at the original price of $4.99 was 9 downloads. There is no substantial business there.

Thanks to the lethal combination of breakthrough technology, changes in consumer expectations, and industry-wide incompetence so overwhelming that a business school could build an entire degree program around it, I suspect the existing music industry is too far gone to build a business out of a we’ll-give-you-something-for-free-and-then-sell-something-else-to-you model. The attitude at traditional entertainment companies, that we’re the geniuses and the tastemakers and you’ll buy what we tell you is good, is nearly the opposite of the Net’s relatively bottom-up approach to popularity. There will still be some very popular performers who can sell more than a million copies of a traditional album in physical or virtual form, and there will be many, many indie performers who can garner a devoted audience on the Net while covering some subset of their expenses. But for those in the middle, neither superstars or hobbyists, people who want to make a living as musicians, the current model offers little. Giving something away and hoping someone will pay for something else somewhere down the road looks more and more like a business model that’s both cynical and hopeless. The fat, spent music industry needs a punk rock of business models the same way it needed punk rock in the mid-1970s. And, as with punk, none of the incumbent powers will be the ones who figure it out.

Written by guterman

August 28, 2009 at 2:57 pm

Posted in music, publishing, wordpress

The Sandinista Project — free for one day only!

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UPDATE: The free download is over. Thank you for participating.

Happy Joe Strummer’s birthday

Joe Strummer of the Clash would have been 57 today. So today seems like a good day to give Clash fans a present.

It’s been two years. Does anyone remember The Sandinista Project?

Sandinista Project coverIn May 2007, Abe Bradshaw and the crazy geniuses at 2 Minutes 59 Records let me put out a borderline-insane track-by-track tribute to the Clash’s Sandinista!, with a different artist performing each of the album’s 36 songs. (You can read Abe’s version of the origin myth here.) We received mostly positive reviews from publications ranging from The New York Times to Pasadena Weekly, although someone told me that Robert Christgau hated it. More important, it was a great experience: I got to work with many of my favorite performers and create something.

The Sandinista Project is free for a day

The Sandinista Project didn’t set any sales records. Indeed, the number of copies distributed by unauthorized file-sharing sites was greater than the number we sold. We didn’t undertake the project to make ourselves any money (it was a charity record) so I didn’t mind that it was available everywhere for free. That’s the record biz nowadays. But it did bother me that so many of the versions available on torrenting sites (yes, I downloaded a few; depressing research) sounded like crap. They were encoded at low bit rates and sample rates, sometimes there were digital skips, and there was never any packaging. Guys, if you’re going to steal from us, at least make us look and sound good. Please.

To rectify this situation, for one day only, we’re offering, without charge, 256K versions (in M4A format, which works in iTunes and elsewhere) of every song on the record, as well as one bonus cut and PDFs of the CD booklet and packaging. So now, if you decide to steal this, it won’t sound quite so bad. You’ll still be stealing, but you won’t be stealing junk. And hurry up: this is a 24-hour offer. At midnight Pacific Time tonight, I’m taking down the big file.

UPDATE: The 24 hours is over; thank you all for participating.

Written by guterman

August 20, 2009 at 9:01 pm

Posted in music

On wishing real life were more like fiction

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Over the weekend I finished Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City. It was a pretty good book about the battle between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs over the future of Manhattan. The author is clearly on Jacobs’ side, but he shines light on both positions.

This was a big battle with big stakes, fought by people with big personalities. Anthony Flint lays out those stakes well, but I left the book disappointed because there was never any in-person confrontation between Moses and Jacobs. This isn’t Flint’s fault — it never happened, and he wasn’t going to make it up — but if I ever read a novel about such a high-stakes battle, I’d be disappointed if there was no direct meeting. I want to read about conflict rising and resolved. Yet another case, I suppose, in which fiction is more satisfying than real life.

Written by guterman

August 17, 2009 at 10:33 am

Posted in reading