my selfish reasons for making free music with free software

People sometimes ask me why use free and open-source tools for my music production, when there’s such an incredible wealth of commercial options out there. More often, the subject of selling music comes up, and people ask why I give mine away for free. I’d like to say that it’s a selfless promotion of free culture, but the reality is far more pragmatic, and perhaps a little selfish. Using free tools and releasing my music for free is simply what works best for me.

It has to be said that a part of why I use open-source music tools is simply because that’s what’s available for my preferred platform: Linux. That’s not the whole story, though — I ran Mac laptops for six years, and I’m still quite comfortable using Mac OS X, so I could easily have run commercial music software if I’d wanted to. Why didn’t I, then?

Free as in free

Perhaps the biggest factor for me is cost; as a hobbyist musician, the money I can spend on my craft is limited. While the open-source world has some unique selling points — JACK, for one — I’m willing to concede that commercial tools like Logic are better in a lot of ways than open-source tools like Ardour and Qtractor, and the open-source world certainly can’t match the breadth of plug-in synths and effects available commercially. The fact is, though, that the open-source tools cover the bread-and-butter stuff well enough for my needs, so I don’t need to shell out money to get that basic functionality.

If I was making music for money professionally, then it’s quite likely that the cost of a commercial setup would pay itself back in time savings. As a hobby, though, my time is free, as long as I’m having fun. For the price of a Mac Pro and Logic, I could go buy a Minimoog Voyager, and I sure as hell know which one of those purchases I’d have more fun with.

I’m certainly not opposed to paying money for software — adopting open-source software for pragmatic reasons leaves me ideologically free to buy commercial software for pragmatic reasons, too. I might not get $700 worth of fun-value out of buying Logic, but I could definitely get $150 worth out of buying Pianoteq PLAY. I’ve also thrown a little money Ardour’s way, because I want to see it continue to develop and grow.

The cost of making money

Well, that covers the free software, but what about the free music? Especially today, when independent musicians can sell their music online alongside the big-label releases, what’s pragmatic or selfish about giving my music away?

The pragmatic reason is that, as the old adage goes, you have to spend money to make money. TuneCore lets you sell your music in online stores, like iTunes, Amazon MP3, and eMusic, but it’s not free — there are fees, both up-front and ongoing, and while they’re minimal, I doubt I’d sell enough tracks to make a profit. Other services do the same thing by charging a percentage, instead of outright fees, but there’s still a time cost, and sorting out disc codes and doing a bunch of data entry and uploading isn’t an activity that counts as Free Hobby Fun Time.

The easiest thing I could do would be to set up PayPal payment for downloads via Bandcamp, but even that has a hidden cost.

Feedback loop

I love having people listen to my work, and it’s great when they let me know they’ve listened and enjoyed it, but it’s better still when they take the time to describe what they didn’t like about it, or suggest improvements. Good feedback is worth its weight in gold, and the number of people out there with the time, inclination, and necessary experience to give constructive feedback is very small.

By eliminating cost as a barrier to entry, I’m getting more people listening to my music that I’d get otherwise. That’s awesome in itself, but having a larger audience also increases my chances of getting the kind of feedback that can help me become a better musician.

It’s important to note that even $0 minimum, pay-what-you-want downloads can be a barrier. You may not be forcing people to pay, but you’re still implying that you’d like to be paid, and many listeners — particularly the fellow musicians that could give you constructive feedback — won’t be comfortable downloading your work for free. Even if they do pay and listen, they’ll be a lot less likely to give you feedback, since they’ve already given you their hard-earned cash.

Maybe this will all change in the future — maybe I’ll make it big, start charging for my tracks, and have cash aplenty to pump in to a plugin-laden commercial music setup. If that ever happens, I might have to come back and eat these words, but for now, it’s great to know that I can keep making free music with free software for as long as I want.

3 thoughts on “my selfish reasons for making free music with free software

  1. “adopting open-source software for pragmatic reasons leaves me ideologically free to buy commercial software for pragmatic reasons, too”

    Not a very strong philosophical stand, though.

  2. No, it’s not a strong philosophical stand, but that’s the point! The pros and cons of both proprietary and open-source software in general have been discussed at length by people much smarter than I, and their arguments are just as relevant for music software as they are for anything else, so I’d just be wasting everyone’s time by writing yet another article about open-source’s fundamental advantages.

    The point of this article was to show that, even if you ignore the open-source vs proprietary discussion, using Linux for music production is not just a viable alternative, but a preferable one in some very simple, tangible ways. I don’t use Ardour, Qtractor, Hydrogen, et al just because they’re open-source — I use them because they’re cheap (well, free!), flexible, capable, and run on my preferred OS.

    I’m guessing you have some fundamental problems with proprietary software, but I don’t necessarily. I certainly prefer open-source, but I don’t think proprietary apps are evil, and if they fill a need for me, I’ll certainly investigate them. Pianoteq is a great example — it’s a very niche application with no direct open-source alternative (LinuxSampler can also produce great piano sounds, but it’s a fundamentally different tool), and it has an excellent Linux port. It’s not free, of course, but the price is reasonable, and I’m quite willing to pay it to help its developers continue to develop it.

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