Music most definitely wasn't free in 1969, when a British rock band named The Who created an anthem for a generation with its album "Tommy,"...

Share story

Music most definitely wasn’t free in 1969, when a British rock band named The Who created an anthem for a generation with its album “Tommy,” proclaiming: “I’m free. I’m free. And freedom tastes of reality.”

You had to pay money back then to buy the vinyl album so you could attain what The Who called “the highest high.”

Now there’s a bitter new taste of reality for musicians and record labels: Online music piracy may indeed make music free. Piracy might simply be impossible to stop, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent landmark ruling against Internet file-swapping sites.

Recorded music, as a result, would have to become free to survive.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

I’m not turning into an anti-capitalist radical by suggesting this. Almost everyone in the music industry could adapt, although not easily, to a new world where all songs are available for free on the Net.

So far, nothing seems to be effective in stopping online music sharing — not lawsuits by the recording industry, not the early success of legal online sites such as Apple’s iTunes Music Store.

CD music sales continue to plummet. At the same time, BigChampagne, a Los Angeles market-research firm, says visits to illegal file-swapping sites are hitting new heights with 6.25 million users a month in the United States.

Last month, the Business Software Alliance of Washington, D.C., released results of a survey showing how far the music industry has to go: “Two-thirds of college and university students surveyed see nothing unethical about swapping or downloading digital copyrighted files — software, music and movies — without paying for them and more than half — 52 percent — think it is also acceptable behavior in the workplace.”

When the original Napster shut down in 2001, downloaders quickly shifted to a new generation of pirate peer-to-peer sites such as Kazaa, LimeWire and Grokster. If these sites are shut down by court order, new sites will surely spring up.

So here’s what could become Plan B:

Musicians give away recorded music to build their reputation. They make money from concert tickets, licensed merchandise, selling rights to their songs for TV commercials and movies, and anything else that can’t be undermined by free online distribution.

Today, the vast majority of musicians — even big names — don’t make much money from the sales of CDs. Almost all those profits are kept by the record labels. But the labels don’t get a cut from concerts and other activities.

That explains to me why Mick Jagger is dragging his 62-year-old body out of the rocking chair this summer to start yet another rock ‘n’ roll world tour with the Rolling Stones.

Princeton University economics professor Alan Krueger and graduate student Marie Connolly have just written a textbook chapter titled “Rockonomics: The Economics of Popular Music” that spells out the details.

“It is clear that concerts provide a larger source of income for performers than record sales or publishing royalties,” Krueger and Connolly write. “For the top 35 artists (measured by dollars earned in 2002) as a whole, income from touring exceeded income from record sales by a ratio of 7.5 to 1.”

The Rolling Stones pocketed $39.6 million from touring in 2002, but only $3.1 million from CDs and publishing rights. Celine Dion: $22.4 million vs. $4 million. Kid Rock: $3.4 million vs. $2.1 million.

Generating enough extra demand to sell out just one additional big concert during a tour could easily cover the several hundred thousand dollars required to create and give away a new album.

Songwriters who don’t perform would still get compensated through royalties for concert performances and soundtracks, and perhaps through one-time payments from performers who want to record a song for free online distribution.

Radio stations would operate much as before. Some people might be willing to pay a few dollars for the convenience of getting new albums in CD form, so CDs could still be found on store shelves.

Even the big record labels could reinvent themselves. The labels are very good at taking unknown acts, marketing them aggressively and turning them into stars. In exchange for these services, the labels could take a share — more than likely a big share — of concert, merchandising and publishing revenue.

In the end, my proposed world of free recorded music might not look that different from today. Musicians would still have to tour relentlessly to make a living, and big media companies would still call the shots. But at least we, the audience, could fill our iPods to the brim without guilt.

Not that I can solve all the problems of big media. Online piracy of movies is starting to grow rapidly, and there’s no way Hollywood can give away its films and make up the difference elsewhere. What might work for Joss Stone, in other words, won’t work for Sharon Stone.

Mike Langberg is a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News