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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)

There are so many out of work lawyers right now.

I don't know why a bunch of them don't get together and form a firm dedicated to solving this kind of problem.

Then charge musicians a subscription fee for "legal protection."

July 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBill W

@Darren, you suggest that musicians get a proper job to pay the bills - what if creating music is the work they (we) want to do? Arrogance has nothing to do with it. Maybe it's just that they (we) want to create something (music) and get paid for it.
To modify Trey's analogy slightly, what if you were a waiter in a restaurant, and you went through an evening where your tables all stiffed you? Now there's a "real" job where you can bust your hump, and still not get paid, because, in my experience, if you get stiffed, tough nuts, you have to cover the cost in your tips, so you lose money (and maybe your job to boot). If you were a plumber or mechanic, and you got stiffed, you would, let's see, what's the term, oh yes, go to court.
@Trey, best of luck in this, but I have to agree with other folks that you may have to resort to a tougher legal stance. I hope for everyone's sake it doesn't come to that.
Lastly, as one who has bought your (and others') music legitimately, please keep it coming.

July 20, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjim

The last line in your first paragraph sums up the issue nicely:

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

A plumber or car mechanic does not earn money for work performed ten years ago. They must work every day of their life to earn their keep. They cannot expect royalties from a drain they repaired in 1993, or an engine rebuilt in 2002. They must consistantly offer new services to expect an income.

Now artists must also earn their keep like honest men. The bourgeois notion of the "rock star" who becomes rich from a couple months of work performed a decade prior has now ended. Welcome to the twenty-first century, Mr. Gunn.

July 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterP. Zeibak

The inanity is starting to accumulate in some of these comments and bears addressing.

Darren, especially, seems to have a chip on his shoulder. He says, "those who release albums and CDs and expect a regular paycheck are expecting too much." No one here has said anything about 'expecting a regular paycheck'. They're just expecting to not have something they put up for sale be stolen. Gunn isn't expecting anyone to buy his CD; he's just expecting it to not be stolen. There's a huge difference.

Darren also claims, "there's still no evidence that [piracy] 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". Unless those illegal downloaders are spending that £70 on precisely the same music they're illegally downloading, then a) they're still stealing, and b) the money they spend is going elsewhere than to those they're stealing from. Funding one artist while screwing another is supposed to be a consolation?

And finally, "Since the turn of the century and the poliferation of the highspeed Internet download, a new morality has grown in the young." Simply because it can be done easily doesn't make it okay. Let's see how philosophical you are about "new morality" if someone steals your car.

He then says, "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" Who are you, or any of the masses of illegal downloaders, to make career choices for other people? Gunn isn't asking for any special privilege or free pass to being a musician - he just doesn't want his products stolen.

P. Zeibak says, "A plumber or car mechanic does not earn money for work performed ten years ago." Who here is asking for money from ten years ago? Gunn isn't talking about royalties, he's addressing his product offered for sale. Do you consider it alright to steal cars made in the previous model year? After all, car companies only have the right to make money from what's just rolled off the assembly line, right? The people here comparing products and services are comparing apples to oranges.

He then has the gall to say, "The bourgeois notion of the "rock star" who becomes rich from a couple months of work performed a decade prior has now ended." If you knew anything at all about the career of Gunn, or most other working musicians, you'd realize how pathetic and meaningless your comment is.

Joe Schmoe says, "Really? You worked on this album for two years straight, eight hours a day, five days a week, like normal people with normal jobs?" Joe sounds to me like a guy who gets paid for more work than he actually does, doesn't like his job, and projects that frustrated state onto everyone else, resentfully.

Best of luck, Mr. Gunn. I've enjoyed your work on the 7 or so albums I've bought which include you, and hope you can keep it up.

July 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKevin

Most or all of Gong's latest opus "2032" has been uploaded onto You Tube. micozmic (I believe one of the people in the group Microcosmic who worked on 2032) makes a statement in the comments, and then these are the replies of the uploaders. Disrespectful and disgusting. I posted the URL of this blog entry there.


"i know how much hard work and also steves money went into the producing of this i was involved in it... you havent even made an animated video clip..........if u really support the band u would withdraw it from u tube and maybe more people would go out and buy it rather than download it for free.. the band got riped off in the 70s and this is a chance to be rewarded for some of their and peace man ..mic cosmic"


I fanatically love music Gong and music which is identified as "progressive rock music" and I do not consider that the publications in a network I rob musicians... For musicians it is free advertising and thousand new admirers which without my, absolutely disinterested, educational work never and would not learn about existence of these Great musicians...


Free promotion...
And I bet they get their paper Doll-Hairs from their shows. Since they have been touring around quite a bit.
So, I'm not going to Draw it White.

I don't think "Gong" cares about a video on the greatest online video storage with 562 views. That's more free promotion than cutting away their pieces of paper with digits on them.
So no, the videos stays, unchanged.
Also, more people would buy the album if it had more good songs on it, and wasn't so exspensive... I myself haven't got 1 Buck to spare, so... And it's not like this video gives ME any income... Art belongs to the public, you should know that
Happy Holidays to you though.


i know what you mean. But it works both ways I think. Personally I've first heard Gong on youtube - and this convinced me to order their cd. If not the internet - especially youtube and p2p I would probably never hear stuff like Gong or Ozric Tentacles which are not very well known in my country...

July 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKris Nelson

@Matt Stevens: The big difference here is that as a developing artists it is 100% within your right to make available and encourage downloading of your music without compensation as a promotional tool. If U2 did not have a record deal they could opt to do the same. This all boils down to creators of art having the ability to control them.

July 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRonansRecordingShow

Hi Trey,

Folks. The issue is not complicated at all. He created a work, put it up for sale and wants paid for it. Others don't want to pay for it and download it illegally thanks to 'torrenters'. I've been on both sides of the game and decided (thanks to a friend of mine who got my ethics in on the matter) not to do that anymore. I haven't done that with Trey's music but had with others and have since quit. A key point to make is that one is violating the copyright of another's work when one does the illegal download. As a practical matter, both iTunes and have loads of affordable downloads. That's where I've gotten Trey's last two releases. Let's pay the man for his work. It's only fair.

Dan Anderson

July 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDan Anderson

Much of the solution lies in trust and honest intention. Support for the independent artist is vital to the creative community as a whole.

July 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJohn A Wilcox


Here's a variable that perhaps you haven't thought about: exercising some self-restraint and doing without a few things you can't afford to pay for legally. There's a lot of music I'd love to buy and hear but I can't buy it all, so I have to pick and choose. You can do this, too. Pick what you can afford and is most important to you, and listen to that. Also, Internet radio is often legally free and offers many additional (and quite interesting) listening options.

We can't personally own every single recording that we're the slightest bit curious about.

I find it saddening I have to deliver this basic lesson in life, personal responsibility, and financial self-discipline to someone whom, I am assuming, is an adult.

July 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEduardo

It is a difficult situation.

On one hand, it is cheap and easy to download free music, movies, books, photos without paying any coin.

On the other hand, the person who feels bad is the artist, the moviemaker, the author, the person who has the capacity to create something new and bring to the world.

I recommend that people in some countries who are not wealthy enough: try to buy the album after downloading the media which you had purchased.

Globalization does not give enough opportunities to get the media. Some countries are richer than another ones you know...

July 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJuan Carlos

Juan Carlos:

It's not a difficult situation at all: If you can't afford it, maybe you should find music you can afford to buy.

How is that "difficult"?

Mr. Gunn doesn't just "feel bad" when you steal his music. It's depriving him of his livelihood, his way of earning a living. What if someone stole money from you? Would you like that? If that person explained his stealing by saying "It's difficult," would you accept that as a valid explanation?

Somehow, I doubt it.

July 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEduardo

It is quite amazing how at the click of a button one can "own" all of your recordings. More astonishing is one can "own" all the recordings of other artists who have a larger history/output. Entire catalogues by KC or enormous catalogues from Zappa can be "owned" via a simple search. And with the Google-like torrent search engines out there many artists don't stand a chance of making it worth their while to continue. I thank you for continuing though. What really disturbs me is someone justifying this theft by saying, "oh (fill in a name/band )-McCartney, Elton, Bono, Sting etc has a gazillion dollars and castles and islands and rights to the first inhabitable planet we find...". It is THEIR MONEY. They earned it and it should be up to them whether to give it away or not. And typically they do, but in the form of charitable donations, to needy entities. I'm a huge fan of the Canadian artist Nash the Slash. I think he is one of the most talented and brilliant individuals on the planet. The following is from his website; posted earlier this year and quite similar to what is asked of here. I hope he doesn't mind my copying/pasting it. Just want Trey (another incredibly gifted artist) to see he is not alone!
As an independent artist, I have spent my entire career building trust with my audience. I will never sell out and I will continue to create interesting music and present it to the many die-hard and neophyte Nash fans in the form of CDs, DVDs, etc. In my effort to make my music available to the public, I am trusting you, the fan and the purchaser of these fine recordings, not to make free copies for your friends. Instead, tell new fans where to find the CDs to purchase for themselves.

I am not a corporation and I do not have lawyers that will come and sue you for illegal downloads. I need to survive as an artist. I need your support for me to be creative and not worry about how many people own my CDs without paying for them. The Internet is a wonderful promotion tool but bad for royalties. As an independent, I can't do anything about what happens to a CD once it is released into the world. If I put out just 100 copies of a CD, in one year how many Nash fans around the world could possibly own it?

Show your support by keeping it honest.

Listen in safety.
Nash the Slash

July 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKevinZ

People tend to talk at cross-purposes about this issue (and these comments are no exception), partly because the legal, technical, social, business and moral aspects of it all get lumped together. It's worth separating them out.

Legally, intellectual property in general and copyright in particular are strange, often contradictory ideas created at particular moments in history to serve particular interests. The strictly legal dimension of music, downloading, etc interests me but doesn't elicit automatic respect from me – indeed, I'm critical of many aspects of it.

Technically, it's now possible to create, disseminate and store music as strings of zeros and ones with no accompanying physical artefact. I find that very useful.

Socially, kids these days are getting in the habit of downloading music for free. I find that very interesting.

Business wise, big music industry interests are in trouble at the moment. I don't weep for the industry, but I don't want to dance on its grave either. Meanwhile, the little man is also often finding it hard to make ends meet (not that it's ever been a picnic for the little man in music).

Morality transcends all of these things. I like Trey Gunn's music, and he's made a direct, very polite, good-faith appeal to people not to download it without paying for it. That in itself should be sufficient, but he's also given us two very good reasons to do as he asks. First, he needs to pay the bills. Second, he'd like to make more music.

Whatever your views on all the other aspects of music and downloading (and there are many valid and interesting perspectives and I'm sure we can have a great argument about the subject), surely the moral case for doing as Trey asks is rock solid?

July 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterErk Gah

Wow, interesting discussion.

Ethical determinations based on resentment are likely to be crap. Some people get to make money by producing art. Some people have to make money by scrubbing toilets. This is reality. And it doesn't make the toilet scrubber morally superior to the artist. Nor does it mean that the toilet scrubber has a right to steal the labor of the artist. Nor does it mean that the work of the artist is any less "work" than than the work of a night janitor.

As others here have pointed out, the reality is that the market can't support all the talented artists who want to make a living from their work. Most artists are going to have to pursue alternative employment if they want to pay the bills (or marry a very understanding spouse), and most artists (at least those that I know) know this. That is why you see so many artists in low-paying, low-prestige jobs that nonetheless give them the flexibility to both survive and produce art.

But just because the market can't support everyone doesn't mean that an artist doesn't have the right to determine if, and how, she participates in it. Some artists can be supported by the market, if not fully, at least partially. If the artist is supported by the market, she is likely to produce more, and perhaps better, art. Some artists may not want to take this risk or may be content with producing art part time, but artists who do want to go full time should be able to do so without being handicapped by those who don't like the artist's terms. Telling an artist that she shouldn't expect to be able to support herself by making art is probably good advice. But don't actively interfere with her attempts to do so.

If an artist chooses to "give away" art as a marketing scheme or in hopes that they will be supported retroactively (i.e. busking), that is their choice. If an artist chooses to sell her art, her ownership should be honored. Nobody is being forced to buy the art, but they are being asked not to steal.

July 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLainie Petersen

What website was that?

July 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRon Stransky

The economics of the music business are changing in every way. Thirty years ago, half the people I associated with made a reasonable living as musicians, playing in bars and hopefully working their way up the food chain. There was an established path (riddled with land mines, but a path nonetheless) to move your career forward. People, in general, had an appreciation of music and pursued it in all its forms. There was no easy way to "jump the turnstile" and cheat the creators out of their rightful due.

How things have changed. The local live music "scene" in most cities is a ghost of what it once was and most of those who can find gigs work for little or nothing, just to keep playing. People stay home in droves, watching 300 channels and Blu-Ray movies in their cocoons. They have grown so accustomed to free content that many believe it is a right. The perception that "famous" = "rich" doesn't help either. Most people have no idea what it costs to run a band and assume that the bands they see touring nationally are already wealthy. So it's easy to make the leap to the idea that the downloader "deserves" the music and the artist doesn't deserve the revenue. I mean, they're already rich, right?

So, bands have gone back on the road in a way we haven't seen in a long time, if ever, to try to stimulate sales of their works and to generate what revenues they can. That creates more competition for the ticket-buyers' dollars, depressing sales and making the tours less profitable (or worse, UNprofitable).

Is there a solution? Not in the current business model, I'm afraid. Maybe something could be created that is similar to the way ASCAP collects and distributes revenues for songs played on jukeboxes, radio, and by cover bands. It would, by necessity, be a bit "1984" in nature, since there would have to be a way to account for what everyone listens to, wherever they may be, and to report that data back to a central database. But, the upside is, everyone would simply buy a "music license" of some sort and would then be free to acquire and listen to whatever they wanted without restrictions. It would also simplify the distribution model, since you would no longer need the "turnstile". Yes, it's a radical approach. But, the current system isn't working and I see no realistic evolutionary approach that would correct the problems.

All change is not improvement, but all improvement is change.

July 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Leathart

I read all the comments...

First off iTunes is NOT the only place to buy music online, I mean there are countries where iTunes service is not available to them but who cares... There is CDBaby, Amazon, if nothing else, musician's own website.

Prog listeners are actually much more sensitive to this issue. I had made a survey a few months back, and most of the prog listeners don't even buy their music on Amazon nor iTunes... they go directly to the artist's website because they know the musician they love will earn more if they did that.

Another thing I found out from my survey is that 95% of prog listeners buy only 1 CD per month. Very few buy 2 and even fewer buy more than that. And 99% of the time they want the physical product because of the artwork. Of course this doesn't say anything about their illegal download habits, but, I can only assume that someone who
is sensitive enough to buy directly from the artist would be more sensitive about downloading from torrent sites. I wish I asked that question in my survey, I didn't LOL

Strangely enough, some young musicians I have personally talked to made comments like "they would be excited to see their work on torrent sites, because it would mean more people would be aware of them", and someone already mentioned this in a previous comment. It is weird of course but for some, getting the word out one way or another is all that matters.

I don't really think touring brings enough money to most of the musicans unless they are mainstream musicians because, most of our favorite bands are playing for a really low price. Otherwise we couldn't really afford to see them live. However on the other hand, think of RUSH for example. I saw them in the 12th row 2 years ago and paid $150 for 2 tickets. Now to see them at the very same spot this year I would have to pay over $500!!!!!!!!! That's what they do when their music is downloaded illegally!

It is sad to admit that the digital age will make matters much worse day by day for the artists. I don't think it will stop in any way... And anyone who creates artwork and makes a living off of that would have every reason to be mad and frustrated.

Unfortunately it is up to the musicians to try and find new ways to promote and sell their products. And it is up to us to decide if we will value their work or steal it.

On the other hand, I don't think buying a second hand CD or book is in any shape or form wrong... although the money doesn't directly go to the musician, at one point that CD and book were sold and paid for by someone who later decided they no longer want it.

Soon we won't really need anchormen because we get our news from twitter or independent journalism sites, the TV's will be useless, everything will be on the computer or cell phone or your pocket TV whatever you want... Books are already being downloaded from sites like They are making monster consumers out of us... we want things fast, now and we get sick of them the next minute... when people live like this, nobody really stops to think or second guess their actions... it is just sad...

July 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHande Burdg

Oswaldo - I don't get how you can easily torrent yet not download legally. It doesn't matter where you live. If you can afford an Internet connection (assuming you're paying for one) you should beable to also buy music. By Paypal for example.

Darren - You do not want a musician making you're coffee any more than you want your Plumber to release a greatest hits CD.

The main thing that frustrates me is the attitude that "the artist should use their time creatively rather than chase money, then everything will be better!" It's not easy to create when you're starving because you're not getting paid! You have to chase money. Sad, but true. I honestly wish there were a way to locate who downloaded what and make them pay the artist. It continually astounds me that everyone enjoys music yet they don't respect where it comes from. When you download something illegally you are taking away from the artists ability to do what he does and hence you're voting for that artist never to produce or create again. Sad that people do this.

July 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPhilA

(I also posted this on FB)
here's the idea I have been considering. It's a little like the Radiohead "pay what you want" model but we don't have legions of loyal fans (we are an acoustic blues outfit that just started playing gigs). Here's the idea: instead of selling CDs at shows and selling downloads on our website, we offer people to pay what they want in person... We offer them a one-time-use promotional code printed on a little card with some artwork. They enter the code on our website and download the music. the card may have a sticker or signed/numbered artwork or something else that could be considered valuable beyond 'just a piece of paper. We rely on their sense of good will (and possibly sense of shame) by allowing them to donate what they feel is appropriate. I got the idea after we did a show a few weeks ago and had no CDs to sell. people asked us if we did and I realized that even if we did, how much profit would we make after the cost of creating the CDs? This eliminates the cost of physical reproduction altogether (certainly not a new idea) but at the same time, give people the opportunity to donate in exchange for the recorded music via download. And I realize that someone as popular as Trey Gunn would still run afoul of illegal free downloads if he were to do this. But it should be an interesting social experiment for an thusfar unknown band to try.

July 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBob Kessler

I've bought Music For Pictures in Warsaw 3rd of July (thnx for great concerts :D ), nice piece of music and thnx for your autograph :)
About buying files from your store: why some of them are only mp3s? All in flac please!

July 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTHRaKeD

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