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Free downloading and the Creative Process: Part One

It has now been just enough time since the release of Modulator that the free downloaders have ripped their files and are making the recording available for free. There are even some sites that make my entirely personal catalog available with one click! My life's work transmitted to you for free. Yikes. How would a plumber or a car mechanic feel about that??

There are many arguments in the debate regarding the goodness/e-vile-ness of this. Some have decent point and some are just plain uninformed and stupid. One of the silliest is that artists make all their money from touring and that is just the way it works nowadays. Not true. Touring and bringing money home is still extremely difficult, making it a dubious and crap way to support one's creative activities.

But rather than go through the arguments and give my take on them, I figure it more viable to present my current strategy: an appeal. Here is the letter I am posting on sites that make my work available with no compensation for my efforts. I am not presently asking these sites to take down the files, as it may be more useful in the big picture to get people thinking more broadly about the issue and its repercussions. Feel free to pass it on and, even,  post on my(our) behalf if you come across new downloads. Though, of course, only if you are on board with it's premise.


Thanks for your interest in my work. However, in order to continue to make new recordings I need to be able to:

1. Make a living off of my currents records

2. Be able to finance new projects

By putting up this link you are choosing to reduce the possibility of these two things happening. In a very real sense when people click this link, they are voting to send me to a day job working at Microsoft, Amazon, or Starbucks instead of putting my time, energy and money towards creating new pieces. (No offense meant to anyone here. These are great places to work and I have many friends at these companies. It’s just not my work. And, incidentally, these folks generally make double or triple of my take-home pay.)

I'd much rather you write about what you value in my work and send people to my own website to support the process of further creation.

I understand that ‘sharing’ my work is, in a way, an act of supporting it. Meaning that you are saying, “Hey, this stuff is cool. I think you should check it out.” And in a true sense you are extending its influence in the world. However you are only supporting this particular artifact of my work, while undermining the process that created the piece. For example, this recording of Modulator took over two years to make. If I can’t financially support the process, then the game is over.

I am, obviously, biased towards a culture that values the creative process. And by ‘creative process’ I don’t just mean ‘a lot of artistic noise.’ I mean a process whereby completely new and original ideas are brought into the world. For many, many reasons this process is precarious at it’s best, so why not help it along rather than undermine it?

I know that you must value these things, as well. Otherwise you would feel no reason to share the results that come from this type of work. I would just urge you to take a moment to extend your thinking into what makes beautiful, amazing, powerful pieces of music come into being in the first place. And then, maybe, ask “How can I help that to happen?”


Trey Gunn


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Reader Comments (58)

Mr. Gunn

Here where I live it's not easy to find your recordings. Crimson's catalog is somewhat available, but any of your other projects are very dificult to find out and are mostly imported at some very prohibitive prices (around 40USD per album). So most of us buy your albums re-sold and used-tattered on "bazaars" and that I think is the same as downloading them.

Also I have been able to attend three of your concerts on different bands. But can't buy more from you, because I can't. Living outside US/Canada/Europe is not easy for fans, mostly because everything gets quite more expensive, so most of the times I can only listen to your new work free and pirated.

I'm truly sorry Mr. T., but I have few choices and little money. I hope you have not lost too much because of me, or guys in my situation.



July 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMalandro

As a professional photographer I sympathize with your plight. And given the state of things in the digital world it is just so easy for people to take whatever they want regardless of how it might impact the artist. My advice to you is skip the letter and go straight to the cease and desist letters and threats of law suits to any site you know is giving away your music. Being nicey nice and forgiving will in no way fix this problem. As a photographer I have the good fortune to a limited extent to track illegitimate use of my work. I even found one on a far right evangelical religious site. Between my spoken abomination and my threat of legal action the image was down within two hours. Sadly the masses in general have no real idea what the notion of artistic and intellectual rights means. If you do not respond with the threat of viable legal action that will cost them much more than the CD would have in the first place they will never understand. Needless to say I have no sympathy about this issue. Its hard enough to eke out the meager living we can as an artist. In fact, I am taking a full time job starting very soon. Thank god its not at Starbucks.

July 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNathan Griffith

Oswaldo, that's such a lame cop out. Most of Trey's catalog is available cheap to download on his site regardless of where you live. So what you're really saying is that you don't believe the music is worth paying for. I myself live on an island in the middle of nowhere and manage to purchase all my music. To do otherwise is stealing.

July 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPhilA

I thought I understood the principle of content theft before I began to make my living as a blogger/writer. After I started publishing/getting published, and people started stealing my work, I developed a different level of understanding. In addition to feeling ripped-off, I've spent a lot of time going after the content-thieves. Time that could have been spent writing and making money, which means that the content thief stole from me twice.

I have to go along with Nathan on the cease and desist thing. Also, if the download site is running ads from an ad network (such as Google Adsense) you can report the site and get its ad revenue pulled.

I wish you the best with this, Trey. I'll do what I can to promote this letter/post.

July 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLainie Petersen

Its a difficult one.

On one hand I'd love to be payed for all the downloads, but because people are downloading my music free off torrents lots more people have discovered my music. So without free downloading I wouldn't have an audience!!

For a "new" artist like me (never had a label to promote me) downloads are wonderful free promotion exposing me to a much larger audience.

For established artists its more difficult as they already have an audience who perhaps are getting it free when before they would have payed.

I agree the "you'll make the money off touring" argument is wrong. My problem with that is that whilst I have a audience of a few thousand they are spread out across the planet. Very hard to get to and make any kind of profit.

Perhaps payed for web streamed gigs is the answer? They can't copy that.....

July 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Stevens

The other thing which makes this so uncertain is that how many of the free downloaders would *ever* have spent money on the music? The software industry regularly comes up with crazy figures based on the fallacy that every free download is a lost sale. Then there are the people who download everything they can get their hands on, regardless of whether they ever listen to it! Most of the people I talk to say things like "Yeah I torrented that album and it was pretty rubbish so I just deleted it" or "Yeah I torrented that album and it was ace so I bought it on CD/from iTunes". Admittedly, my area (prog) has a history of fan loyalty, plus an unusual urge to own physical product without it necessarily being a superduper box set (although superduper box sets are supposed to be another way around the torrents), so maybe I am an anomaly...

July 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Ramsay


Please man, you got to understand that my "lame cop-out" is because I have no credit cards and it's not easy for me to pay the related bank fees. My point is that some of us in no rich countries have few choices, but try to do the right thing regardless.

Recently iTunes started selling cards in my hometown so it's a bit easier but anyway we depend on the catalog.

Sorry again. Please don't judge me.

July 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterOswaldo

Dear Trey reading these things make me wonder how a musician of your level (artistically sublime but not a superstar like U2) to get along and live a normal life and maybe support a family with children. It 's amazing how progress can change things dramatically. I who am simply a music fan, I always thought: "I'd love to be a professional musician!" and now I realize that these days is perhaps better to have a normal job like mine.
I wonder if all the musicians as you change jobs in order to live, What would your art?
A beautiful drive like your last "Modulator" would not see the light.
Your work produces music, but they will steal the product of your work.
As if someone walked into a bakery shop and take away the bread without paying. All this is not right.
It should also be noted that today the legal download of the disks is not expensive.
Maybe some people behave like that, in these times of crisis, because the music is not a primary good and can not absorb resources.
But unfortunately I think that most people behave this way because of their ignorance and their stupid and shortsighted dishonesty. They do not realize that by doing so they kill the art.
Greetings from Genoa-Italy

July 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMassimo Tognoni

Hi Trey:

I have always enjoyed your playing, arranging and composition .... and have always bought your various CDs over the years.

You can tell my vintage by the fact that I would like to see your artwork and playing on VINYL ....

Sincere best wishes and if it takes "tithing" to keep you musiKCing ... then count me in ....


July 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStephen Clarson

"How would a plumber or a car mechanic feel about that??"

I imagine that they would be incredibly surprised that their life's work could be transmitted digitally, which it can't - they provide a service in the physical world which cannot be reduced to a digital file. The analogy is misguided and may lead to confusion.

If you take your apples to market, and people are constantly taking your apples without paying, you are at the wrong market.

Remove your work from the digital world. You are under no obligation to conform to a digital form of file (music) transmission. Our culture has for many years accepted the idea that recorded artifacts are desirable commodities - once those artifacts are reduced to a form which can be easily and freely distributed, there is no monetary value to the artifact. Digital files can be copied and posted for free - this is an undesirable structure for those artists and writers whose works can be reduced to a digital file. Step away from this reality and look for another that brings monetary value to the musical experience - create your own structure.

July 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Short

It is really a complex issue. Bottom line is that the artist must not have his craft compromised by working and not getting paid by it.

The thing is that is hard to find a target. Of course, all P2P downloads not supported by the artist are literally illegal, bus as Oswaldo showed, there are subtleties to it that can't be overlooked. Downloaders are dividied in:

1. People without financial resources to buy the album
2. People without physical access to the music (i.e., poor distribution)
3. Peoiple who simply don't care and like to save money from CD purchases by downloading the material.
4. People who see downloading as sampling, experimenting new music before buying it.

For numbers 1 and 2, the solution is simple: selling MP3 versions of the albums for a lower price (which, considering that costs are considerably lower when you don't deal with the physical material, is possible).

Number 4 is also a simple solution scenario, when you have MySpace pages and such, providing streaming versions of the songs, with lower qulity, enabling the sampling of the music.

Number 3 is the REAL problem. However, how many are those? Is it worth appealing to them? We are talking about people who probably won't buy the album even if there is no other way to get it, we're talking about people with bad intent.

Considering that, any struggling musician (and I admire Trey for his everlasting efforts to make music) must focus on two fronts:

1. The hardcore fans: this audience is prone to be targeted with special ediitions, bonus discs, special packages, gifts (a backstage pass for a concert for buying the album) and such. They can adn want to pay more for a more premium experience with the artist.

2. The casual fans: here, price is what makes the difference in a purchase. These people are satisfied with regular versions of physical CDs and MP3 downloads with downloadable artwork.

I don't want to dismiss Trey's more than good intentions, but fighting illegal downloads is like facing windmills, and it takes a lot of energy that would be better suited for the creative process, music and business wise. It is frustrating, it is cold, but unfortunately this is how it is.

July 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRodrigo Leme

@Michael - Even if you don't digitize your music, someone will rip your CD so not sure that would help.

The fact is that the ability to copy digital files reduces the perceived value to almost nil, so if you agree with music futurists like Glen Leonhard you have to 'sell the experience'. If you're not into touring (I'm not) then you could try a subscription/membership site like Matthew Ebel or myself who sells guitar lessons and live Q&A sessions. Some new content could be initially exposed just to members, then rolled out for free over time so people would pay for immediacy in that case. So they get access to you in some manner.

July 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWill


You have my complete support and sympathy over this matter. It is an issue I have been knee deep in myself for the last 4 years, trying to help combat such problems.

I applaud your stance with the open letter, but I will warn you now, the vast majority of "sharers" will rip it to pieces and call you all manner of nasty names. Blogger - owned by Google - are the worst culprits, handing out free blogspace to everybody and there are many many thousands of blogs giving away what seems to be every note of music ever recorded. What is damning and galling is many of these cretins demand PayPal donations for THEIR work. All they do is leech a ripped file from someplace else, steal somebody elses' piece of writing and think they should be getting paid for this and screw the artiste.

Blogger has a complex procedure dealing with piracy in the form of DMCA's. You have to file one for every individual violation. You have to give excessive amounts of detail including address and phone numbers. I have seen some bloggers get hit with a DMCA who then would post it on the blog complete with phone numbers urging their readers to spam the artiste and send them endless abuse. Anyone who is trying to protect their copyrights and income are branded as "assholes." It is shocking and depressing to witness it. But Google don't care. They genuinely believe that everything should be "free" and violations are merely expressions of "free speech!"

It is worrying seeing the book publishing industry walking right into the digital trap with various authors' endorsements. They have invested in the digital reading devices and making more books available electronically. Mark my words, the book industry will face certain collapse because PDF files are easy to copy and distribute for free. So very soon, authors won't be able to make any money from their work either... and book publishers are foolishly allowing this climate to develop.

There really does seem to be no real solution to the digital piracy issue. I wish I could say there was, but there isn't. What we are witnessing in the 21st Century is the devaluation of Creativity. As you know, Robert Fripp has often quipped as advice to musicians "become a plumber" - he is spot on. Creatives need to live, eat, sleep etc like the rest of us and now the only way for this to be possible is to take a full time job outside the creative industry. This has a disastrous domino effect because when one is doing a 9 to 5 type job, when one gets home, the last thing one wants to do is Create.

I do wish you luck with this letter, but I fear it will create backlashes that will shock and sicken you from so called music lovers.

July 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBaz

I'm continuously amazed by people who justify theft. You can call it different things, try to justify it or believe that your case is special, but in the end it still comes down to theft.

July 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEl Jefe Gordo

I am curious about characters, such as Oswaldo, who claims he cannot afford to buy music, or cannot access it. Yet, Oswaldo has a computer with Internet access, and is capable of downloading files from a P2P network. Surely he is not as hard done by as we might be led to believe?

I live in the UK and even here, I am frequently disappointed by the cost and availabilty of music. This does not entitle me to steal it.

Here's an example, going by Oswaldo's method. I want a certain type of car, the new SuperThunderCougar XX. However, I cannot afford the car in question and there is not a dealership in my locality that sells one. One day, I spot an STC XX while walking down the street. The doors are unlocked and the keys are in the ignition. Do I take the car?


PS: Thank you to Trey for the music.

July 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJon Godfrey

Maybe in some point I understand Oswaldo. I'm too living in country where after normal day of work I only afford to buy 1,5 or max 2-3 albums. Maybe it would be simpler when I can earn money which allows me to buy album after one hour of work. Itunes in my country - ha ha! NEver heard about that before. it's easy to judge someone. Don't make him live in cultural cave. Good Job Mr. Gunn

July 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterOnegumas

These are unfortunate times for musicians or those who intend to make a living from music. I am ambivalent to piracy of this nature because there was no guarantee that those who download your music for free would have ever bought your record with their own money. While all the rhetoric is bandied about to the why's and where's of downloading music - the fact of the matter is that you would never have made any money from those downloaders if their supply was cut-off or the technology had never existed. OK - so your music is being heard by people who would never have previously heard it - may be that's some consolation? I doubt it because you need to pay your bills.

As far as I know I've never downloaded something that's available legitimately via commercial channels and I've bought more music than you could believe. You could say it is folks like me who subsidise the downloaders, but I am not bitter. I've paid my way. However, the MusicBizTM is an artificial construct that has only existed since the 1950s - having its hey-day during the 1970s where the concept that anyone could have a career in music first appeared. There's a real difference between someone who says "I am a musician" and those who actually earn a regular wage playing - they are the ones who are either session musicians or playing in the orchestra pit - people who's work cannot be digitally copied. Whereas those who release albums and CDs and expect a regular paycheck are expecting too much. Since the turn of the century and the poliferation of the highspeed Internet download, a new morality has grown in the young. To them music is free - it is everywhere for them - on the music TV channels, on YouTube, on commercials and ringtones. It no longer has any material value. This probably has a lot to do with the move over to digital music from tangible music products - but the fact that there has been no big popular musical movement since the early 90s (I'm thinking possibly "grunge") - one has to think about music and its impact on popular culture. It just isn't that important - it is ephemeral - light-weight and ultimately throwaway - hence no-one really wants to pay.

I wrote a piece about the MusicBizTM on my own site talking about these concepts and how the notion of a music industry is now outmoded and outdated called "Death to the MusicBiz" which compares the music industry and those expecting to make money from it those who hunted whales for oil.

But let me offer this thought exercise for you: what would you think if all those downloaders suddenly bought tangible versions of your albums, except they bought them second-hand from eBay or from shops? How would you feel about them, because they would have spent their money on legitimate product but you'd never receive any of the cash?

The reason I ask is that while the MusicBizTM has always railed against "Home Taping is Killing Music" (no it didn't) and now digital piracy (again - there's still no evidence that it kills music as one study showed that illegal downloaders in the UK spent £70 a year on legitimate music opposed to the £40 that their goody-goody opposites spent) the MusicBizTM has never complained about the trade of second-hand records. Now I've spent a fortune tracking down OOP recordings this way, but I don't feel guilty about handing over my cash when the poor old artist doesn't get a groat. Funny old game, ain't it?

My personal belief is that musicians should quit belly-aching and get a proper job to pay the bills and do their music as a hobby. Of course, this offends a lot of musicians because they have the arrogance that comes with artistry believe that common-or-garden work is beyond them or would get in the way of their "art". Try it, it might work - I mean the world will always need plumbers and you can't digitally copy that!

Don't worry about the musicians, folks - Starbucks is a'calling!!!

July 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDarren

as mr.Gurdgieff said "If things could be done in a different way,they would be done in a different way"

July 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTamoz

To whomever thinks I steal because I don't want to pay:

You may say you live in the UK where music is expensive, or in some island with iTunes, or even in the US. Can you imagine the life of a music fan in, say... Malawi where luxuries such as albums or CD players are not eaily available? No iTunes store and the few records are mostly crappy music? How would you judge someone who literally has no access to other stuff but via Torrents?

And by the way, I said before I try to buy by any legal means whenever I can. I don't like to steal and certainly appreciate the effort shown by musicians in putting a great product out, but sometimes the availability of music stops us from acquiring it as easy as you "occidental" guys. Consider the things Rodrigo Leme said.

Please think in all those variables before you make an opinion.

July 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterOswaldo

If you can't afford it, it's not ok to take it.

I can't take food from the store just because I can't afford it. Some places give it away for free, and it's ok to accept it from them because *they* are willing to give it to me, but I can't take it from just anyone.

I can't move into a house that I can't afford to buy. Some places will let me stay for cheap, but just because I want what I consider to be better doesn't mean I can just live there - I have to be able to afford it because it took a lot of work to build it.

I can't take music just because I can't afford it. Some artists are able to make it available more cheaply than others, but just because I consider myself a "fan" and have bought past releases does not mean I am entitled to take something else without paying for it. Someone *worked* to create it, *paid money* to create it, and have the right to be *compensated for their intellectual property* if I want to hear it.

There is no such thing as "someone who literally has no access to other stuff but via torrents." If you have the Internet, you have access. If you don't have a bank card, you can still get one. No one in the music industry is in any position to turn away sales, so if you write, something can be arranged.

It's an incredibly simple concept: If you take something that was not given to you by whoever owns it, this is called THEFT. It is illegal. Don't do it. The cumulative effect is greater than you know.

July 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPaulie

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