An Internet business model built on human charity? Asking Napster users to offer up donations to the artists from whom they pirate MP3s, out of the goodness of their hearts?
The glass-half-empty types of the Net might scoff at the concept, but two benevolent Canadian computer science students think it just might work anyway. Fairtunes.com, which launched in August, has already collected some $3,264 (plus $458.58 Canadian) in guilt money for 230 musicians. And with a new plug-in for the Winamp MP3 player, released Tuesday, they hope to start collecting a whole lot more.
According to 21-year-old Matt Goyer, who started Fairtunes with his friend John Cormie, the students conceived the idea after reading Courtney Love's anti-industry screed. "We realized we weren't buying CDs anymore, and all our music was from Napster," Goyer explains. "Napster is a great way to get music, but we didn't know how to get money to artists." (Not surprisingly, Love is the most popular recipient of Fairtunes donations, and recently received a $136 check from the pair.)
With the new plug-in, Winamp users who right-click on the MP3 tune they are listening to will be whisked to a window that lets them donate money to that band with a credit card or online Paypal account. (You can also choose to read the song's lyrics or buy the CD.) Although the plug-in is still an optional download -- which severely limits the number of potential users of the service -- Goyer wants to get it included in future versions of Winamp, FreeAmp and other MP3 players. And even if future file-sharing services adopt a subscription model that pays record labels for the free access to music, the pair believes there's room for an organization that gives cash directly to the artists.
So far, says Goyer, the average donation has been about $5; and although Goyer and Cormie have been diligently writing and sending out checks, only 40 or so bands have actually cashed their checks. Many smaller indie bands have expressed enthusiastic encouragement to Fairtunes, but no major artist has yet responded personally to the small windfall.
Still, that hasn't stopped the pair from dropping out of school to work on Fairtunes full time, and mulling over business models that would include advertising or, optimistically, donations to Fairtunes itself. Explains Goyer, "There's a lot of institutions out there that are supported by voluntary contributions; I don't think it's that odd that we're doing this for popular music. Look at museums, churches, the opera -- they are all supported by the public donating money. Why can't we do the same thing for music, using a similar model?"
Now that's a glass-half-full way of thinking.