Peter Gabriel: Free Music

Peter Gabriel: Your Ad Here

Adapted from a BBC interview with Peter Gabriel
on his involvement with the WE7 download system
in the course of which he shares his
insights and concerns
about the musician’s role in a digital future.
For full video interview
click here

I think the move away from DRM (Digital Rights Management) is a big thing, and although some companies are resisting very hard at the moment, I think it’s a little bit like King Canute sitting in the waves as the tide comes in. And similarly, for musicians to try and fight free music, I think that one’s gone past them too. I think the statstics are that in a lot of countries record sales have gone down 30% a year over the past couple of years. Retailers are closing every week. Record companies, including the majors, will have to act differently, and I think they’ve been a bit slow or nervous in accepting that the old model is going – if not gone.

New models haven’t yet replaced that old model – certainly as income sources. But there are fantastic opportunities: never before has someone with something to say – wherever they were born in the world, whatever language they speak – had the chance to get to a global audience as quickly, freely and inexpensively as they can today. Many of the barriers to reaching an audience, which included the taste-making (or censorship ) of A&R departments in record companies, those in a way can be challenged. If you have a good focus and a good database of fans, however small, offer the potential for an economy that will allow artists to survive.

The other thing that you have to look at is, if music is all out there and available for free, whether there are any ways of deriving an income from that recorded music? I’d argue there are two ways. One is an ad-embedded approach, advertising at an informational level so that its digestible and not so painful: actual useful stuff to hear about that doesn’t go on too long. That’s why I was attracted to the We7 model. The other aspect I think is to offer filtering, helping people get a better selection of stuff – with all the stuff available, how do you really get through to the stuff that’s useful to you ?

A lot of people under the age of thirty don’t buy music any more: I think record executives are noticing their kids doing the same thing as every other kid is doing. Along with their artists. they have to say ‘OK, how to deal with this?’ Established artists like myself are going to find all sorts of ways and you shouldn’t worry about us. But you should worry about young artists coming through – and I can speak for the field of world music here. A lot of those artists have had 50-60% of their income from record sales and that’s gone – so that’s a huge thing. In lots of ways advertising is really getting in bed with the devil. But if we can find a way to make it useful, entertaining and full of information, perhaps that model will secure an income flow to be shared with musicians or the rights holders.

Music: free, safe, legal, share we7

Like all the people involved in this venture are, I’m a believer that there’s enough of an audience, enough music that will become available and enough advertisers that will believe in it. We’ll put it up there and see if it flies. All sorts of models are being explored – I like this one. In commercial radio, artists are very used to having their music surrounded by advertising. We performers have no control over that advertising or access to the income from that advertising. In this We7 model, if we can get it to work, there’s a real source of income for artists. It could be a real nurturing source of income in an area that doesn’t currently exist. If you think of it as a podcast/radio model – rather than just sales – then it’s occupying new territory.

When we set up the European digital distribution service OD2 – which did very well before iTunes – it took about two and a half years to get all the major record companies on board. This time around I don’t expect it to take that long. You can never be sure, people are people. But I think there’s more willingness now that will allow us to hold a full-blooded experiment. The majors are opening up in all sorts of ways and looking at all the different models and seeing what they think might work. EMI’s move with iTunes to offer DRM-free music a couple of months ago offers people something they want. Ultimately, if those involved in selling are not giving buyers essentially what they want then they’re failing.

Universal Records: Now 30% friendlier to consumers

I understand how some people feel it’s payback time for the labels; they’ll share music willy-nilly because they feel the labels have shafter them for so long. But if you go up to anyone in the High Street and say, ‘We’ve got this great new concept. You’re going to work harder than you ever did before, and the great new idea is that you’re not going to get any money for it.’ I know what the response will be. Why should artists be any different? We need an economy that supports talented people not having to go out and get a day job – being creative should be their job. If there’s great stuff that people want, whether it’s films, video, music, then why shouldn’t they be asked to pay somewhere along the line? If we can’t do it in the old way, let’s look at all the new ways.

There’s been a fundamental shift away from property and possession. We used to say ‘possession is nine tenths of the law’. Distribution was based on physical copyright and real tangible goods. In the digital world, that’s gone: it’s dead easy to copy and shift things out to millions of people. Access and filtered access are what’s valuable now. Companies are valued on the number of eyeballs (views per page) rather than on the number of sales.

I can look up Wikipedia or Google at any time, rather than have a huge library. All this stuff is moving around freely and that’s really important: a great leveller for the world. At the same time, I do think it’s fair that people who generate content should get something for it. Where there’s some general flat rate payments for goods, time after time we see artists are right at the bottom of the feeding chain. It’s only when there are incremental payments according to usage that we have something recognizable as a flow of income – and that’s the model I tend to believe in.


It’s still really hard – and always was really hard – to break through as an artist. But the opportunities do now range from zero to global overnight with a smart YouTube video. At the same time, artists probably have even less control now in terms of what happens to the content they’ve created. You like to have some feeling of control over these little babies you’ve brought into the world. To have them ravaged and shared around is not a good feeling unless it’s something you’ve voluntarily opted for. If someone comes into your house and takes stuff in the night it feels different from looking at what you have in the daylight and saying, ‘this stuff here can be for free and this other stuff I want to earn from.’

I was part of a struggle for artists to get more control over what happens to their work – originally in competition with the record companies. The whole sixties Beatles’ revolution was part of a movement which allowed people to control how their music was seen, heard, used etc – and I really don’t want all that to be eradicated. In some areas, like concerts, people pay more and don’t seem to have a problem with that. They pay absurd amounts for ringtones. Yet the basic commodity is now seen as something that’s going to be for free. As musicians we need to accept that and try to eke out new ways of getting a livelihood.

Transcribed from an interview for the BBC News Click service


  1. Robert Mercer

    I’m a recent user of you tube I think it’s great to see real people doing crazy things and it seems to me that we are getting away from the celeb culture and through you tube ordinary people are getting a voice which they would not have a chance using main stream media e.g not belonging to the RADA school or equity union and as one musician said some time ago free music can boost sales because some people prefer to own a piece of music. Money is important same as the human voice – through you tube we still have free speech – what price can you put on that – some musicians would never get an airing – now they have a real chance.

  2. Tom

    Thanks for this Robert – my feelings exactly!

  3. JoosTVD

    Good to hear Peter´s opinion! He´s very on top of the latest innovations and solutions.
    Sorry for my lack of writing decent english,got a dutch mind, so fill me in anytime!
    These days everyone around the block IS a musician, DIY or not, IS or owns a record company, has his 15 minutes of Warhol fame. The “one day flies” and the “who has been’s” list grows longer by the hour. On the positive side, there’s a lot music to choose from these days, at any hour of the day. Just check google, you´ll find platforms, postcasts, social media, blogs and this one. I gratefully use them all. Free? Yes, just stream your favourite artist on Spotify. “Thank u, that´s another 3 miserable cents for the songwriter!” Only the greedy monopolists (mayor record companies) still try to milk out the same old deaf, dumb and blind cow, that´s called entertainment industry. I think: rethink the old businessmodel. Equal share everyone? Advertising can work, only if it´s not distracting the purpose of a song you just want to listen too. For the hermit musicians out there it´s great to get some feedback from all over the world though. It´s a two way street so let´s embrace eachother and keep on top of things right? Checking this site everyday.

  4. Great article……and interesting comments. For all the negatives I’m not sure how lucky folks realise they are with having access to the internet, easy and cheap uploads of their tracks to digital download sites e.g. ITunes, Amazon etc. – its v.easy and cheap to self release singles and albums these days and also as Robert M notes above, also get stuff out there on YouTube. Even as few as 15 years ago I’m pretty sure this wasn’t as accessible. I guess as artists its important to make the best use of whats available and to continue to think creatively not only about the music we make but also lots of ‘out the box’ thinking about sales, self promotion and exposure.

  5. Isn’t it all a case of shutting the stable door once the horse has bolted ?
    I think the media played a big part in conditioning the general public to think that music should be free. Big artists who’d already made their money , inadvertently shafted up and coming musicians , by doing big deals with rupert murdochs empire and giving their albums away FREE with a newspaper. That sent out a message that big artists were giving their music away free. What hope was there for the artists who invested time , money , passion into their craft , only to arrive at a closed door that was once open ?
    We were forced to give away our music , because it gave us an edge , but then everyone started doing that and free music is now “expected” and taken for granted.
    I make electronic music , and have to pay electric , upgrade software , buy VSTs. Its not just a case of picking up a guitar. Dont get me wrong……i absolutely love making music and would do it in my sleep if i could , im annoyed that the industry is like this. Imagine asking a plumber , painter and decorator , mechanic , secretary , gardener , postman , shop assistant , office worker , etc…….to work for free. Imagine how dull a world without music would be.
    I’ve discussed this many times online in various forums , and it seems to be the general consensus that if you want money for your music , that theres something wrong with your artistic motivation , and making money from it is almost anathema.
    I like some of peter gabriels music……big time , dont give up , games without frontiers , but i dont know if he’s trying to save musicians or kill it all off. After all , he’s made his millions so what has he got to lose , while we are struggling to get to the place where he once was ?

  6. The Beatles said when they heard about publishing, that they thought that music was just floating around in the air. Well, now it is and it’s not a bad thing. I’m just happy to have my stuff heard, (but a few bob would be nice).

  7. Steve Watts

    I believe Mr Gabriel now makes much of his money from the substantial fees charged by Real World Studios to record artistes whom are then expected to give their music away for nothing. Pfft.

    I also can’t help but see that the studio website has an online store selling amongst many others Mr Gabriel’s own works. Surely it should just be a free download service?

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