When Musicians Use Creative Commons Licenses

By Asha Velay

By 2008, American industrial band Nine Inch Nails had sold millions of albums, toured all over the world, and won several awards. On February 2nd, 2008, something unexpected happened: the band’s founder, Trent Reznor, announced their next four-part instrumental album, Ghosts I-IV, would be released under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial Share Alike license (BY-NC-SA). Through this license, fans can remix and share the songs on the album, as long as fans attribute the author and do not use the work for commercial purposes. If they “alter, transform, or build upon” a song by remixing it, they must distribute the resulting work under the same or similar license, which allows the remixed tracks to remain open for more remixing.

Reznor explained his motivations for choosing this format:

“The end result is a wildly varied body of music that we’re able to present to the world in ways the confines of a major record label would never have allowed – from a 100% DRM-free, high-quality download, to the most luxurious physical package we’ve ever created.”

Reznor is an outspoken critic of some of the traditional revenue models in the music industry. For example, he was upset that his record label charged his album at higher price points than other artists, explaining in an interview with Rolling Stone that prices were set especially high because NIN had a dedicated fan base willing to pay the higher amount for his music. Reznor has also encouraged the public to remix his songs – in the past, he has taken songs from his ProTools sessions, converted them into GarageBand files, and made them available to the public – allowing anyone with Garageband to remix his songs. In Reznor’s case, a “some rights only” approach instead of an “all rights only” approach may be a better option. This is especially true for an established band like Nine Inch Nails who wants to bring music to their dedicated fans without the barriers of higher album prices.

That is not to say Ghosts I-IV didn’t profit immensely. The album grossed over $1.6 million in revenue in the first week it was released, and hit #1 on the Billboard Dance/Electronic charts.

The album went onto become the bestselling MP3 album of 2008 at Amazon.com. Fans have responded to the licensing arrangements in kind, launching full communities of their own for collecting, promoting, and releasing remixed Nine Inch Nails tracks.

In the last decade, remixing practice has changed from a niche, often concealed, highly specialized skill, into a marketing tool, promotional opportunity and point of focus for online music technology communities. Creative Commons enables these practices through easy-to-use licenses. Musicians have the freedom to decide the terms of their license up front, without the need to negotiate individual rights for each re-use. This next section shows how artists in other genres use these licenses.

Kellee Maize

Creative commons licenses are not only successful for established electronic artists but also emerging hip-hop artists as well.  Kellee Maize is an independent female rapper who used creative commons licenses to encourage the public to remix her music without the burden of asking for permission each time.

Maize ended up being a best-selling artist on Amazon; releasing 7 albums, touring around the world, and securing sponsorship deals with with Toyota. She also landed a feature story in XXL Magazine, and recently performed at Bonnaroo and Governor’s Ball Music Festivals.

For Maize, maintaining her artistic integrity was important. She states: “I feared devaluing art. Art is incredibly valuable….It’s a catalyzing medium to evolve consciousness. I realized then that my music has more value if I can get it to more people. It was a risk because we could have been wrong.… but it worked.” Through this business model, Maize can continue to rap about the social and political issues she feels passionate about and still effectively promote her music and gain new fans.

Chris Zabriskie

Chris Zabriskie is a musician, singer, and composer who writes original scores for film, television, ads, and games around the world. His list of client includes Cartoon Network, The Wall Street Journal and Adidas.  Zabriskie credits Creative Commons with jumpstarting his entire career.

Much Like Reznor, Zabriskie felt like Creative Commons was the appropriate vehicle for getting his word out. When Zabriskie was building his brand online and establishing himself as a composer, he found out the attribution requirement could be a powerful tool.

He uploaded hundreds of videos to YouTube, allowing clients to find his music for their various projects. Zabriskie explains: “There are 48 hours of new video being uploaded just to YouTube every minute. Somebody, somewhere, always needs music for their project. [I] let people do what they want with your music, and they’ll promote you.” Zabriskie has been scouted by several of his clients, including business owners and filmmakers.

He has scored many feature films, television shorts, and received new commissions, with many clients even paying to license some of his existing works. He found this attribution requirement so powerful in the sharing of his music that he ended up removing the noncommercial clause.

To aide Zabriskie’s business model, Creative Commons provides a standardized solution for his music. He states that “CC is a really good, clear way to communicate what you can and can’t do. You could do your own licensing page with all sorts of stipulations, but CC has done all the work for you. It’s accepted, it’s recognized, and people go looking for it.”

There seems to be a theme with these artist’s different stories, creative commons was able to give them an outlet for their work that traditional copyright law could not provide for them. Glyn Moody, editor of the blog, TechDirt notes that  “Copyright, with its ever-expanding range of restrictions and harsh punishments for those who overstep the mark – even unwittingly – hardly promotes that exchange. Creative Commons licenses are the true allies of artists who are struggling for recognition and remuneration, thanks to their broad permissions and explicit encouragement to share and enjoy, which promotes and enhances that exchange – and helps to generate that crucial financial return too.”

The open music community has continued to grow in recent years and has many interesting remix contests with artists such as Fort Minor,  the hip-hop side project of Linkin Park guitarist, Mike Shinoda. Fans have also created a Creative Commons Music Awards, which debuts later in 2018.

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