Open music: is it viable?

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Two hands holding musical notes

"Open source is a good idea, but no one uses it in the real world." "We can't risk our business on open source--where are the major players?" "We need to know it can work." If you've worked in the IT industry for the past ten years or so, you can remember similar quotes.

No one was willing to bet their business on such a radical way of thinking. Even the notion of this whole new "open source thing" was scary to many. Although we are seeing a change of heart from many in the software side (even Microsoft has contributed to the Linux kernel), it should come as no surprise that the bulk of the recording industry is wholeheartedly against the notion of freedom in music. With all of the encumbering digital rights management (DRM) on music files and giant warning labels on nearly every CD for purchase, the landscape looks very similar to the one we saw of software in the late 1990s. In other words, not only is there essentially no support from the music industry to free their art from overly restrictive licensing models, but, because of this, there is little incentive for indie labels and musicians to do the same. People feel that if the artists and companies they know say it's bad to free music, then it must be bad.

However, it appears that this situation is starting to change. While getting sucked into the infamous "Wikipedia Effect," I stumbled across the Nine Inch Nails (NIN) Wikipedia entry. I've always been a fairly passive NIN fan--listening when they're on and enjoying what I hear, but I rarely actively sought out their music. So it came as a surprise to me that both of their most recent releases have been set loose with the Creative Commons Non Commercial-Share Alike license. Which boils down to this: anyone, anywhere can take any part of the music and, as long as they do not use the works for profit, can remix and sample as much as they want. Moreover--this part is key in my opinion--any derivative works must contain the same license. This means that for the thousands of people who have sampled or remixed NIN's music, the music they release is therefore able to be reworked. A cycle has been started that is hard to break--and it is one that I think many people are thankful for.

Which brings up an interesting point. NIN had to leave their controlling label (Interscope) in order to achieve this kind of control over their music. This is something that many smaller artists are incapable of doing on their own due to the way the industry is set up. Even so, Trent Reznor (primary songwriter/creative force for NIN) has been quoted as saying that this project "doesn't feel like an overwhelming success.” Unfortunately, the source linked here doesn't exactly speak to what parts he is calling a success or failure.  So with that in mind, this much can be said for certain: much like the pioneers of open source software, it's not going to be a walk in the park for the pioneers of an open music industry. However, if more giants like NIN can do this, then it will start making it easier for the rest of the industry to do so. If it continues to prove a viable model for musicians and record labels alike, even the dinosaurs of the industry will be forced to take notice (again we can point to Microsoft as an analogy). Art is meant to be shared, and to share is human. Many of the same principles that are applied to open source software can be applied to the entertainment industry as a whole. NIN still sells their music online and in stores and are still making a good profit. Their music is being shared more than it ever was and under the blessing of the creators. It can work. If more big guns can start doing this, then it's only inevitable that the smaller ones can follow suit.

So, that leaves the next question: who else do you know that does this? Small or big artists, please post them in the comments section. I'd be curious to know if others have broken free and started embracing what is hopefully the future of the industry. Do you see this sort of trend as a good or bad thing? For more information on what you can do with Nine Inch Nails' music, go to Included is a free download of their latest album, with many source files of tracks from their albums.

Travis Kepley is a Senior Instructor at Red Hat where he helps employees, partners and customers understand how Open Source Software can create a better IT and business infrastructure. Travis started at Red Hat in January of 2008 as a Technical Support Engineer before becoming a Solutions Architect prior to moving to his current role.


If I recall correctly Reznor had referred to the "pay what you want" model for the Saul Williams disc he produced as not being a particular success. For that disc Williams and Reznor released the album for free and you could pay what you wanted; most didn't pay.

Since then Reznor has tried 2 different release types. "Ghosts I-IV," a 4 disc instrumental album, was released with the first disc free of charge and a nominal charge for all 4. "The Slip" was recorded quickly and released immediately in digital form as soon as mastering was completed. It was released completely for free in FLAC and other formats. Reznor used that to back a big tour that brought in revenue. Both of these albums are copyleft.

I know I read that, even though most got the album for free, he sold more than he did for his previous album. So even then, he (Saul Williams) was selling more than he did before--which is always good.

I too was introduced to the potential success of open licensing in the music world by "Ghosts I-IV" and "The Slip". Prior to this I had been opposed to the closed nature of the music industry, as patent-encumbered formats and DRM were becoming the norm, but I never realized there was a feasible alternative. I knew that I wanted the system to change but I had no idea how that might happen or how I could support it, so I just went along with the status-quo. I had heard of the Creative Commons license but never expected it to be something that would catch on or ever become viable on a large scale. Then one of my favorite bands, the kind with a large enough following to really be able to inspire change in the way the industry works, came along and released two very successful albums under a Creative Commons license. This gave me hope that we could begin to see a shift.

Radiohead also toyed with some of these ideas not too long ago, by releasing the music video data for "House of Cards" and the tools to make the video (although unfortunately not the music itself) under open licenses. They also initially released this album, "In Rainbows", with an open distribution model where users could choose to pay whatever they wanted (even nothing) for the album. I took this opportunity, as did many others, to support this effort by giving a few bucks in the hopes that it would catch on. If I remember correctly they made a reasonable amount of money out of it and the album was a hit well before the official release on a physical medium.

More recently the music site Jamendo has given me the means to locate and support bands who choose to release their music under copyleft licenses. At first I was skeptical and didn't expect to find much that I would enjoy, but I was very wrong. In fact I'm listening to a creative-commons progressive rock album by JT Bruce that is pretty good as I write this comment :)

So, I wholeheartedly agree that open music is very viable and I truly believe its popularity will continue to grow. I wish I could say that every song in my music player is under a copyleft license encoded in an open format, but I'd be lying. However if more widely renowned bands and their labels start to embrace openness, and more music is distributed through open channels, hopefully that could be the case in a few years.


Jonathan Coulton releases all of his music CC by-nc. Every bit of it, except for covers and "Still Alive" (the Portal ending theme), which he wrote but, rather obviously, did not perform.

After listening to a number of his songs streaming on his website, I went out and grabbed a torrent of all his music in FLAC. It felt really cool knowing that I was doing this thing (downloading music via P2P) the music industry hates, and that it was all completely legal and blessed by the artist.

That's exactly what I was looking for. I didn't realize he was the guy behind Still Alive. I'm sure he has received plenty of press for the game music, so hopefully he's doing well with this model. Like anything in the music industry, a lot of it is good timing and good press. Thanks for the heads up on Jonathan Coulton!

However, if more giants like NIN can do this, then it will start making it easier for the rest of the industry to do so. If it continues to prove a viable model for musicians and record labels alike, even the dinosaurs of the industry will be forced to take notice (again we can point to Microsoft as an analogy). Art is meant to be shared, and to share is human. Many of the same principles that are applied to open source software can be applied to the entertainment industry as a whole.

Recently a couple of billionares started recruiting other billionares to join them in giving away half of there wealth to (presumably carefully chosen) charities. In other words "wealth" is also meant to be shared and to share is human.

My hope for the future: not just software, not just art, but "wealth" being the means necessary to first get by in life but then also to get by comfortably become "open".

We all (mankind) need a Declaration of Independence type view of not just politics but also of commerce, finance and industry...: the people (of each land) are the sovereign thereof and not just their chosen form of government be and need to be of, by and for them. Anybody / any organization aspiring to operate within the bounds of any people's sphere of interest must be required to intend and in fact to act in that people's best interest. Like Martin Luther King ...: "I have a dream"

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