Friday November 19, 2004

The Honor System.

Anyone who knows me is familiar with my longstanding appreciation for the music of Juliana Hatfield. I truly believe that she is one of my generation’s most talented musicians, living on the fringes of self-imposed obscurity.

Allow me to tell you a story, and then I’ll get to the point.

Juliana hasn’t always been an obscure rock figure. In 1993, Hatfield exploded into popularity with her sophomore album, Become What You Are. With a track on that album making its way onto the successful Reality Bites movie soundtrack, Juliana was quickly becoming an indie-rock sensation.

But commercial success was fleeting. Outspoken about her discomfort with all the attention she was receiving, Hatfield took her fame with a grain of salt. Her third album, Only Everything was touted by her record company as the record that would ultimately catapult her into mainstream fame & fortune. While the record was well-received by many, it was not the commercial success everyone had hoped for.

Following the Only Everything tour, Juliana retreated into the studio to record another album. Working alone, and playing many of the instruments herself, what emerged was a sound that was very different from the feedback and bombast of Only Everything. Atlantic Records was not pleased with the results and ultimately shelved the record, which has been hailed by many fans as her masterpiece.

So if the record was never released, how can fans call it her masterpiece? Answer: through the power of theft and the internet.

Someone with access to the songs released the unfinished album, called God’s Foot, onto the internet via P2P filesharing networks. Incomplete, out of sequence, and unedited, Juliana had mixed feelings about the release:

There were definitely songs that I wanted to throw out and not have people hear. So I find out that there is at least one version of the album that is being traded or sold on the Internet and it’s got songs on it that I didn’t want people to hear. …I feel personally offended that someone would slap a bunch of these songs on and call it God’s Foot and put it out there.

There are pros and cons though. I was glad that people were able to hear the songs that I was proud of. That’s the only way people are ever going to hear them. I was in a bind. I couldn’t release the songs and the label wasn’t going to release them so I’m glad people heard them. At the same time, I felt abused. People were taking my stuff and doing what they wanted to do with it. But I’m sure the intentions were good. I don’t know if it was being sold. If people are selling it, that’s a whole other thing. That’s just bad if people are making money off my work and I’m not getting a dime.

Since the God’s Foot debacle, Juliana has dumped major labels and made music on her own terms. Her relationship with the internet has been tenuous at best, with many of us believing that she doesn’t even own a computer and rarely goes online for any reason.

Now Juliana is surprising all her fans by doing something that I’ve never heard of before: posting unreleased songs on the internet, to be paid for using the honor system.

From her management at Fort Apache :

Juliana is making some here-to-fore unheard music available on her website. The first two of these recordings will be launched next week. The goal is to post two new songs, every two weeks, for a year. Payment will be on the honor system and from this experiment we’ll all learn whether or not an audience will support an artist or just enjoy the music with no sense of reciprocity. I might do some reporting in here about the number of downloads verses the number of payments.

It should be an interesting experiment indeed. Will fans pay for what they download? Will some of them post the songs to filesharing networks? Will the songs be collected by fans and then sold as compilations on Ebay? It’s an interesting experiment, this honor system.

Some artists, like Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses and 50 Foot Wave, release exclusive online tracks on a regular basis on their websites. But these systems differ from Juliana’s test distribution plan in that they require payment before download.

The songs haven’t begun to appear on the website yet. I can’t help but be fascinated by the trust Juliana must have in her fans, and the hurt and disappointment she might feel if her trust is betrayed.

Is the honor system going to work?

Commentary


David Schontzler » 4716 days ago #

I think that something like this can work for an artist that has a small, but genuine following. It’d never work if Britney or Christina tried to pull this (why pay for crap anyhow?). When you are a fringe artist, your audience knows you and respects you. If they can buy your music with the proceeds going directly to you, the artist, they’ll most likely do it. I’m not saying there’s going to be a 1:1 ratio, but I wouldn’t be suprised if it was somewhere around 2:3.

« Older writing is available in the Archives.