Just a Fan: the Give and Take of Downloading

Jeff TweedyWilco fans set up a new website to send a message to their favorite band—and the record industry—with a small donation and a promise to buy an album many already have…months before its release date.


Two years ago, peer-to-peer file sharing was still emerging and was usually seen as a scourge in the music industry; stripping artists and their labels of precious money and subverting what we knew as the Industry. Most bands stepped cautiously, to say the least, and deferred to their labels on how to handle this new technology that took the power of distribution and handed it directly to the fans. Most bands, that is…

Wilco saw early on how sharing—and I choose the word sharing carefully—can be good for everyone. Frustrated with their label situation and eager to tour on new music, the band made a strategic decision to join what nobody can beat and began streaming Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in its entirety…for free.

Thousands of fans streamed the album and downloaded it from Napster and Audiogalaxy and wherever else they could find it. It was free. It was available. It was madness. And what happened? Months later when it was finally released, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot debuted on Billboard at #13, the highest chart position of any Wilco release. The fans went out and bought what they already had for free.

Fast forward to two weeks ago: Wilco’s newest album, A Ghost is Born, shows up on Soulseek. How does Wilco respond? By posting the correct order of the tracklisting and releasing the cover art and liner notes. And how do the fans respond to that? They create justafan.org to raise money for a charity hand-picked by the band and craft a statement promising to buy the album when it’s released on June 22, sending a message to the record industry itself. It’s simple and concise and tells the Powers That Be that we, the record buying public, are not the enemy. To date, they have raised $2,585.

Luckily, Wilco takes their penchant for experimentation as seriously in the front office as they do in the studio. When asked by Rolling Stone late last week how the band feels about all this, band manager, Tony Margherita

said, “The band and I think this idea is great because it just underscores something we believe very strongly: that real music fans are prepared, even anxious, to prove their loyalty and support their favorite artists,” Margherita says. “They want to participate. These people are not the enemy . . . They’re the backbone of what we all do.”

Why is it that Wilco gets it and most of the rest of the music industry doesn’t? It’s about trust.

Glorious Noise talked to two of the creators of justafan.org, Ronen Givony, creator of Be My Demon, a Wilco lyric archive, and Jeff Dashley, co-creator of Via Chicago, a fansite and bulletin board, about the origins of the idea and the meaning of trust between artists and fans.

GLONO: What’s the point? What do you hope to accomplish?

Givony: The first point is to stand up and be counted—to say, as a collective group, that the perception the music industry has of its true audience (i.e., music lovers) is a complete and total joke. The second point is to make a statement that’s often lost in all the noise about declining record sales and copyright infringements and P2P networks and whatnot, namely: how an organized and passionate fan base could come up with an alternative to the frankly ancient model of record sales and distribution than the one we have in place today. I wondered it if wouldn’t be interesting to try having fans send a payment to the band members themselves—through some kind of Paypal system, say—instead of having the twelve or fifteen dollars we spend on albums end up in a marketing department’s campaign of the next Britney or Justin Timberlake record.

Dashley: Also, to make sure everybody wins: Wilco, the fans, Doctors without Borders and even the record companies that, at times, can doubt their customers and their customers’ practices in obtaining music. We are trying to bring a little awareness to our demographic, the dedicated music fan, and the practices that we keep. I can only imagine the success that would come from the record companies trying to develop an easier way to connect fans with the bands they adore. Look at the indie market. Think of the benefits of helping those bands get better distribution. Better touring options. Not every kid lives in a major city. A lot of kids, and adults, are faced with buying music at Target or Walmart. If they are lucky, Best Buy. Walmart and Target don’t carry Iron & Wine. They probably don’t even carry Modest Mouse. So these kids have to go online and find their music, and if they don’t have a credit card, their only option is to download illegally.

GLONO: How did the idea first come up?

Dashley: I believe it was the 20th or 21st of March. Ronen sent me a message asking me if I, and viachicago.org, would be interested in putting together a fundraiser for Wilco. He’d noticed the growing numbers on Via Chicago due to the leak of Wilco’s newest album and kind of wanted to prove a point to the record industry.

Givony: The idea very much came out of the blue, after I finished reading a story in the New York Times Magazine about the Grey Album, and that DJ [Danger Mouse] being served with a cease-and-desist order, and all the websites that organized that one-day protest around it—and it got me to thinking, well, shit. But the subjects of the music industry, file-sharing, downloading, royalties, “worthwhile” vs. superficial bands (for lack of a better set of terms), etc., have all been on my mind for years. Remember that my college [Yale] was party to one of the very first three lawsuits filed nationally by that overblown and glorified hair band, Metallica, over the issue of allowing their students access to Napster. In addition, being a major fan of bands whose new material always seemed to leak rather early, all before the phenomenon was accepted the way it is today—Radiohead, Pearl Jam, Wilco, and so on—you could say I’ve had a few more years to think about it.

Dashley: So many times the fans and those that participate in downloading of music files on the Internet become the scapegoat for the industry’s ills. However, as it was proven with YHF, Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief and other highly anticipated albums, there is a large percentage of the music buying public that can have an album that they downloaded for months and still be there to purchase it at the local record store the day it’s released. So Ronen wanted to enforce this theory by organizing a testament to it. He wanted to establish a way to pay the band back. Since there were probable contract conflicts with giving the money to the band itself, I proposed that we give the money to charity. Even better, to include the band and management in this decision and allow them to name the beneficiary.

GLONO: There were several revisions of the statement; what were the sticking points?

Givony: When I first floated the idea, to a dozen or so people, their responses seemed to fall into two camps: one—mostly men, for whatever reason, I now realize—that rather seemed to enjoy the idea of drafting a collective statement in response to the music industry, and another, shall we say, who were either uncomfortable or (more probably) just skeptical of such an effort’s worth. The first camp, it seemed to me, were very much people like myself—incredibly (even insanely) devoted music fans, who also had a very strong penchant for politics

Dashley: We also had a tough time getting the point across that we are not the enemy. We are the fans. We are the people excited about the bands we support. The same people that buy all the records and go see the shows. It’s not like it’s always easy either. Wilco’s not on the Billboard charts week after week. Does Clear Channel even know they exist?

GLONO: And you’ve received support from the band?

Givony: Plenty of support, and worlds more than I would have predicted, or had any right to expect. Initially, I sent off just an early draft of the statement to [Wilco singer] Jeff Tweedy, along with a very brief explanation of what I had in mind. Much to my surprise, I had an email from Wilco’s manager Tony Margherita in my inbox no more than six hours later, saying he was “intrigued,” and asking me to give him further details. From there, he and I exchanged a handful of emails, mainly for him to sign off on the various versions of the statement as it evolved, as well as to show him how the test site was coming along, etc. In addition to Tony, Wilco’s webmaster and Internet consultant, Ken Waagner, also signed on very early and promised to help promote the effort via the band’s website, wilcoworld.net.

Dashley: I think you would be hard pressed to find many bands that are as open to their fans, and excited to reach out to them. The response was instantaneous and extremely positive. Jeff and Tony suggested that we use Doctors without Borders and maintained contact with us throughout this whole process. It goes to show you what can happen when a hungry fan base is actually addressed by those delivering the music. Give us the chance, treat us like people and we will respond with overwhelming enthusiasm.

GLONO: Any fear of the RIAA coming down on you? They do have a bit of a heavy hand.

Dashley: I can’t see any reason why they would concern themselves. We’re not doing this to promote illegal filesharing, or are providing any downloads. We are not telling people to do anything illegal. We are merely asking that if anyone has downloaded the new album before its release date, let’s show the band and the industry that we are not criminals, that we have good intentions, and will be the first people through the music stores doors the morning of June 22, all the while helping an amazing charity that is doing their part to reach out to those in need as well.

Givony: You know, being the flake that I am, I really hadn’t even considered the possibility of some kind of legal action arising out of all of this. I saw this whole thing more as a very symbolic gesture, as a way for people who have been branded by the music industry as little more than petty thieves to take a stand. Sure, I saw the statement as a kiss-off to the RIAA, and sure, I hoped to push some buttons with it, but until someone asked me about possible legal ramifications, I hadn’t really considered the thought of someone actually getting in trouble for acknowledging they had downloaded a record early—though now, in hindsight, the concern seems fairly obvious.

It’s funny, because a day or two after I drafted what became the more-or-less final version of the statement, I went to see a concert with a group of friends, all of whom are first-year law school students. Besides being amused and mildly entertained by the whole idea, the very first question that came out of their mouths (almost to a word) was: “So, you’ve gotten in touch with a lawyer about this, right?” I don’t know, I suppose I’m mildly tickled at the thought of being sued by the RIAA, and being made an example of, all for writing up a statement expressing thanks to my very favorite band, and handing over whatever people care to contribute to that statement to one of the single finest and most worthy nonprofit organizations in the world. If they really want to come down on me for expressing my personal views on the music industry, and attempting to organize a donation to charity—well, I just find that kind of exciting. I have not the slightest doubt in my mind which side the court of public opinion would come down on.

GLONO: Why do you think Wilco has the fan support they do? Why do people buy their albums when they can, and often do, get the free online?

Givony: Simply put, I think people are just absolutely starved for any kind of artistic expression bearing the unmistakable emblem of integrity. I think this actually has quite a bit to do with why mostly respectable but not overly brilliant bands like The Strokes, The White Stripes, etc., have made such a splash in recent years—because people (both the public and the critics) are just so goddamn fed up with being spoon fed nothing but mass-marketed and mediocre blather for years.

Wilco is one of that small group of bands (in which I would also put artists like Radiohead, U2, Pearl Jam, Paul Westerberg, The Flaming Lips, Guided by Voices, et al) for whom, quite simply, the music is the thing—not the image, or the video, or the marketing campaign; not the celebrity girlfriends, or wardrobe malfunctions, or gratuitous publicity stunts, or magazine spreads, or car commercials, or light shows, or fireworks or lasers or rows on rows of sweaty hardbodied dancers (much as I do like that last part, I’ll admit), or whatever else it is that’s come to comprise the persona of popular artists and rock and roll stars these days.

Dashley: I would add that loyalty breeds loyalty.

Related articles: Speaking of Tomorrow, When Will it Ever Come?, Wilco trusts fans with free streams of yet-to-be-released Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; Back to the Future, the RIAA relies on 30-year-old argument for declining sales; We’re All Parasites Drinking John Coltrane’s Blood, the ethics of downloading; and mp3rd Rate, why the RIAA should love music fans. Also, Harvard study disputes claims that downloading hurts music sales.

16 thoughts on “Just a Fan: the Give and Take of Downloading”

  1. nice work, derek! hopefully this will kickstart some much-needed reform and rethinking throughout the recording industry.

  2. nice job derek —

    good to see a real account of the brains and heart behind this project.

    who’d have thought jeff and ronen could be so well spoken? i heard they usually have trouble with words that have more than two syllables!

  3. Great piece, DP… Very encouraging for all who are genuinely concerned about the options – or lack thereof – of music’s availablility on the web. Even though I’ve not gotten my copy of AGIB yet, I will – so I’ve already given Doctors Without Borders (one of the best causes on Earth) ten bucks.

    Note to Wilco: thanks for bumping the release date to my birthday. Very thoughtful of you.

  4. That’s a shame. Fortunately, there are many other honest, generous fans out there to make up for your selfish act.

    Great article Derek! GloNo proving once again that you have more class than Pitchfork.

  5. I have a feeling that “gjl;” wouldn’t have bought it anyway. That’s what that Harvard study [url=http://news.com.com/2100-1027_3-5181562.html]proves[/url]: that only 1 out of 5,000 downloaders would’ve bought the album if they couldn’t download it.

  6. It certainly does in my world, merv.

    So what about this: why is GloNo the only website not somehow directly involved in the project that’s linked on the page footer? Just curious……

  7. “Downloads have an effect on sales which is statistically indistinguishable from zero, despite rather precise estimates,” [url=http://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/05/technology/05music.html?ex=1396497600&en=71b2898a5d0c0b03&ei=5007&partner=USERLAND]write its authors[/url], Felix Oberholzer-Gee of the Harvard Business School and Koleman S. Strumpf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

  8. Great Article. I’m genuinely impressed with the spirit & creativity that was shown by the creators of justafan.org. Nice work and a great message. Wilco rules, by the way!

Leave a Reply to Chris H Cancel reply