Music, Writing, and Art in the Age of the Optional Purchase


In the summer of 2010, when I started my first job, I listened to about six hours of Pandora a day. The ads were an annoyance, but I sat through them because I loved the songs that Pandora found for me.

I knew that there was such a thing as “Pandora One,” but, like most millennials, I scorned the idea of paying for something I knew I could get for free.

Yet Pandora persisted. Hours and hours a day, it brought me amazing bands I never would have otherwise heard.

A few months in, I took the $32-a-month plunge. And I’ve never looked back.

Why did I buy something that was so optional? More importantly, how can any creative person ever hope to get compensated in the age of the optional purchase?

The passion of the Pandora

I bought a Pandora subscription because I loved the service and wanted to support the service.

That was the only reason.

Free music is everywhere. It’s kind of weird: we’re listening to more music than ever before, in more places than ever before, but you always hear worries about bands and record labels and album sales.

Yes, it’s extremely easy to listen to music and buy music. But it’s just as easy to get the music for free.

The same goes for television shows, movies, and great writing (ahem).

Millennials grew up in the age of the optional purchase. We’re fully vested in the cloud and we know how to surf it, finding those dark alleys where hunch-backed websites offer streaming HBO shows for a download of a free video player, where unpronounceable peer-sharing services lurk just off the shore of innocent media. Singing their cursed siren songs of free downloads.

If we aren’t passionate about it, we never, ever have to pay for creativity again.

Not buying creative stuff has become a norm for millennials. So much so that when we’re presented with the idea of buying anything on the internet that we won’t be able to physically hold in our hands, it befuddles us and occasionally offends us.

Writers ,bands, and visual artists have to try really, really hard to get even four dollars for an EP or an eBook.


Because there’s equally good stuff just a click away, for free.

When I tell friends I use Pandora One, they’re stunned.

“Why would you ever pay for that?”

Aside from thousands of hours of entertainment, let me break down just how many bands in my iTunes are bands I never would have found without Pandora’s help:

1. A armada, 2. aaron comess, 3. the album leaf, 4. am-boy 5. arovane, 6. balmorhea, 7. bitcrush, 8. broken spindles, 9. by the end of tonight, 10. the cancer conspiracy, 11. chris squire, 12. dead letter circus, 13. don caballero, 14. deosil, 15. dosh, 16. eastern sun, 17. exotic animal petting zoo,18. faded paper figures, 19. garaj mahal, 20. general fuzz, 21. god is an astronaut, 22. her space holiday, 23. irepress, 24. joey fehrenbach, 25. kodomo, 26. like bells, 27. lymbyc systym, 28. my dad vs yours, 29. ozric tentacles, 30. patrick o’hearn, 31. polvo, 32. raisinhill, 33. russian circles, 34. school of seven bells, 35. signal hill, 36. sinewave, 37. sleeping in gethsemane, 38. steven wilson, 39. sts9, 40. tack till, 41. tycho, 42. ulrich schnauss, 43. van she, 44. william orbit, 45. williamson

Artists need to overcome the public’s fear of the unknown

People hesitate to buy something online from a barely-known band for the same reason you’re impatient while you read this: you’re not sure it’s going to be worth your time.

I bought albums from all of these bands, but not before finding and hearing the songs over and over again on Pandora, then previewing a few more on YouTube.

The irony? I could listen to all the songs on YouTube, forever, and call it a day and never support the artist in any way, shape, or form (yeah, Pandora gives royalties to streamed artists, but YouTube is a different matter).

Again, I became passionate about the bands, because I’m free to preview the material.

The same internet that risks giving away all of the bands’ stuff for free is also connecting me with all of these obscure artists in the first place. I want to support them, so I make that optional purchase.

The writer’s problem

I self-published a short story collection, “Technology and Culture Stink!” earlier this week.

It’s $2.99, which works out to about 17 cents a story.

Oh, you’re not going to buy it? Even though you enjoyed reading this blog post?

I don’t blame you.

Reading a book is an investment. In terms of our media consumption, books are in trouble: the rate of production is slow and the rate of consumption is slow.

Computers have spurred incredible growth in the number of songs people consume, but they sure didn’t do anything for books.

Reading an unknown author’s self-published eBook is almost unthinkable.

My hope is that, by writing enough blog posts, people will start to trust my writing enough to indulge me with that two dollars and ninety nine cents (or download it for free during one of the promotions), but I’m not sure it’s going to work, given how many books the average American reads.

The breakdown

1. Creative work is available for free, everywhere, on the internet.

2. Our capacity to consume is exponential because of the internet.

3. The democratization of publication has hurt the credibility of authors and musicians when it comes to getting compensated: people don’t trust that it will be good. If it is, it better be really good or they won’t pay for it.

4. My book of short stories is here, if you want to take a closer look at it. You could also read a free short story of mine that’s on the internet, to see what the material is like.

9 thoughts on “Music, Writing, and Art in the Age of the Optional Purchase

  1. There must be some kind of formula or semi-quantitative line where people get enough of your free stuff to want to buy your complete works (or at least spend money on you). And then if you overexpose no one wants to because they are used to getting it for free. Have you read anything about that, or done any research on that? Seems like if someone could figure out how much free is advertising vs giving it away, that would be verrrry useful for well, pretty much everybody.

    1. I think it’s going to depend a LOT on what you’re creating, so I don’t think there’s really a right answer.

      Sometimes, I wonder if fan-funding may be one way to do it for authors who do build up a following with their material from people who expect it for free. That way, your work is promotion and promotion is your work and your pay. “Hey, I’m working really hard on this project but need X dollars to complete it!”

      More realistically, I think that authors need to just put out teasers and excerpts of their work to intrigue people about it. But to get the traffic to the excerpt in the first place, I think you need to relate current events to your material somehow… still trying to figure that one out, haha.

      1. Yeah I’ve been looking at Kickstarter for a while now, kind of eyeing it… No idea if any novelists have been successful raising money – but compared to how much money a video game takes to make, vs how much money you could pay to reasonably support an artist to write full time (w/ no dependents, I’d say 30,000 or less really). If I was a famous novelist, I’d certainly try to kickstart a project – you give me .99 cents now, I deliver you an ebook in a year.

        The only thing is that publishers at least used to give the illusion of the disconnect between the artist and money… and that can be very important for image. No one wants to think of Jack Kerouac starting a kickstarter for the money….

      2. Haha — yeah, I think fan-funding of artist projects will be able to go a long way. Bands have already been doing this with really, really successfully.

        It might be a little painful to see authors break their illusion that they need money to create art (which, really, we don’t, we just need to it to stay alive and create art), but I think everyone can once in a while acknowledge the necessities of capitalistic exchange for a higher value.

        The one problem with the service you posted — as much as I love the idea of serializing books and having automatic subscriptions — highlights the problem of Kickstarter for writing in general: some of the rewards for funding the project are naming characters and things.

        There’s a scary realm of “social” books on the horizon and I think this could really serve to dilute writing in general, because we depend on the author for that author’s vision. Crowd-sourced books could be awful, and awfully popular.

        In the end, I think we’re just going to see a diversity of forms rather than a bias toward any particular one… but it remains to be seen if all of those forms, some of them, or none of them are actually “profitable.”

  2. Great post. Honestly, it just helped me make a decision I was having a hard time making with regard to the pricing of my own ebook (Not to make you feel overwhelmed). Thank you.

    I’m definitely going to keep reading. Much love.


  3. It really is about building trust with your readers/audience. And giving them the impression or feeling that they can’t live without what you have to offer them. With so much out there and much of the content (whether it be music, video, books, etc) poorly edited, it is even harder to gain the trust of an audience. Why pay for something when the risk is so high?

    I have enjoyed reading your blog today (spent the last hour reading old posts.) Thank you for all your insight on marketing. I am still trying to learn how to build great blog content, share, and interact socially, along with all the general marketing stuff. (oh yeah…and still write!) I look forward to future blogs.

    1. A good question to ask yourself. How much have I spent on books, music, video games or, videos that were poorly edited/produced already? These are from artist you have known in the past to make exceptional works. Maybe, it was from a publisher that has in the past always amazed you with their content. Only to be let down this time because, of whatever reason.

      One of my favorite books that I have ever read was by the author Don Lancaster entitled “Incredible Secret Money Machine II.” This book is not sold in book stores nor is it sold new on Amazon. To obtain a copy you have to contact the author online at his own website ( or, call his company at (928) 428-4073. It is a self published book before, the days of Amazon existed. Much of what he talks about is how to setup self publication company. I would have not known anything about him either. If a friend would not have let me borrow this book.

      From what I have experienced it is both getting the word out about your book. Then, making sure that its content delivers what is promised. Take notice of how radio broadcasters are now putting out best selling books. They do have an advantage of using a radio program to broadcast on. Yet, what causes people to take interest in them is by the free broadcast. In which they hear them speak on related subject matters.

      I found this website while, doing a search on Skyrim. I read the article and, made a few posts on BlaiseLucey blog concerning it. This is the type of website that is very appealing to myself. I am seeking artist that have a similar problem with reaching an audience. To many individuals nonmainstream media isn’t worth viewing. Else, these same people do not know where to even begin to search for good quality content. That is a cultural issue that we all must face. Even if the content provided is free

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