MC Lars – Download This Song

By Shamus Posted Saturday Jul 11, 2009

Filed under: Movies 50 comments

Here is some nerdcore rap:

Link (YouTube)

Normally I would nitpick the lyrics, particularly the stuff about “leveling the playing field” and music being a “service”. This sounds like the usual pirate boilerplate justifications, except it’s not, really. MC Lars isn’t smashing the old system by taking, he’s doing so by giving. If the old label-driven model is to be overthrown, this is how it needs to happen. The new paradigm won’t be brought about by fans ignoring copyright and downloading what they want, it will come about when artists abandon copyright for something better.

Nine years ago I read a bit by Courtney Love about how artists make money. She ran the numbers and showed how a successful artist could wind up making very little, or nothing, from their record sales. Other artists have drawn a similar picture of how the industry works. (I’d link to them if I could remember them at the moment.) Unless you’re huge, you make your money touring. Love seems to be suggesting (I think) unionization. Well, that was what she was suggesting in 2000, anyway.

I don’t think unionization (or any sort of collective effort) would be possible, nor do I think it would really adress the root of the problem. The number of people willing to do “anything” to get into show business means that artists aren’t going to have a lot of solidarity. The artists just don’t have any power over the labels. You can hold out and demand a better deal, but there are a thousand starry-eyed kids in line behind you. Love is suggesting they try to leverage labels to get a better deal, but if they had any leverage they wouldn’t be signing these awful contracts in the first place. Lack of leverage, not the contracts, is their real problem. The contracts are just a symptom.

You might nitpick her numbers, but unless she’s off by an incredible margin the picture she paints is clear: Profits from record sales are absorbed by the label. For an artist, the entire process of cutting a record and getting it on the radio is really only a means to an end: To get people to come to your shows, where you’ll make the real money.

Love (and other artists from my generation) are trying to overhaul the system. But MC Lars and the coming iGeneration that grew up on the net is simply circumventing it. If selling albums makes you no money, then why do it? If all you want is promotion, why not just give away what the fans are “stealing” anyway? Note that if this model were embraced, it wouldn’t really hurt anyone except the labels. Artists would make just as much money as before, with the added benefit that they would retain copyright over their own music instead of surrendering it to a label. (Which means they could license it to movies and television commercials as they pleased, and keep the proceeds.) Consumers would get the music for free. And labels would either find a way to make themselves useful, or vanish.

Dave Kusek, author of this book and co-inventor of MIDI music, shared this bit of trivia about MC Lars:

According to Tom Gates, “It's pretty amazing what a 22 year old kid did from a dorm room. Just in one territory: He's going back to the UK for the 5th time in one year opening for Simple Plan and then will go back in March for his first headline tour…this all without tour support. We're about 6 months from his new genre busting (it's called “nerdcore”) and he's going to make ten times as much bank than he would have if had signed to a major. Then you add in the costs of what he's spent to do this and it just all points to the future, especially when you compare it to what majors spend on developing artists. $7,500 recording costs (powerbook+protools studios) vs $250k major label. $400 photo shoot vs major label $15k photo shoot. $7,000 video vs $50k major (directed by the guy who did Eminem and just really likes Lars). Art $0 (he did it and artwerks laid it out) vs $10k major label. Recoupability takes on a whole new light.”

He’s making more money by not signing with a label. His lyric from the song is that, “You don’t need a million dollars to launch a career.” He proved this by launching one from a laptop. This is an important moment. He’s not on a label yet he’s making money and touring. Since this is ostensibly what would-be artists are after, this is going to look very attractive to them.

Despite what the lyric claims, he’s not leveling the playing field. He’s playing a completely different game, the rulebook for which hasn’t quite been written yet.


From The Archives:

50 thoughts on “MC Lars – Download This Song

  1. B.J. says:

    Incidentally Shamus, the “Indentured Servitude” relationship which exists between record companies and artists is similar to the one which exists between videogame publishers and developers.

  2. mookers says:

    Very interesting – and he’s probably right. But why does the song have to sound like something from one of my kids’ TV shows?

  3. Legal Tender says:

    I think that what he is doing wouldn’t be possible without the net itself. For the tools+networking obviously but what I mean is without it it would’ve taken way longer for people to find out how the Recording Industry really works.

    I mean, you are in a band, you get discovered and offered a contract. Do you really bother to read the small print when you have what it seems like a bright future right in front of you and one signature away? Heck, would you even consider NOT signing it?

    Knowing that you will only get 0.02 out of every record sold changes everything.

    Edit: @mookers: Ehmm…(I mean no offense whatsoever but) me thinks you are getting old, man. :p

  4. Krellen says:

    mookers: If this song isn’t to your liking, try looking up my personal favourite of MC Lars, Mr. Raven. It sounds quite different, and is absolutely hilarious.

    All Poe should be delivered in rap form.

  5. Kyrionus says:

    Wow, I’m from the UK and I get:

    “This video is not available in your country due to copyright restrictions”

    Irony much? :)

  6. Ross Bearman says:

    Thought the same thing Kyrionus!

  7. scragar says:

    You can still download the video, not that I would ever suggest someone break copyright and do so.

  8. JoeFF85/Skitzophrenik says:

    The only question I have is about whether Lars was able to get legal permission to sample from Iggy Pop without being all labeled up, since it’s Pop’s label that would OK the sample, not Iggy himself. Unless he doesn’t need permission since the song isn’t being sold per say…

  9. LafinJack says:

    When you’re “giving away” music, it helps to write some actual music to give away.

  10. Robyrt says:

    The video cost $7000 because the director did it for free, and his aesthetic was intentionally lo-fi. The art cost $0 because Artwerks did it for free. The recording cost $7500 because he did it all himself and he only needed one microphone. (Having done this part, it’s harder than it looks.) The marketing probably cost less too because he’s in a marketing-light genre (nerdcore) with buzz-friendly titles like “Download This Song”, and of course he’s been tirelessly marketing himself for years.

    While it’s an encouraging sign that a new artist can get started on very little, MC Lars is also reaping the fruits of arriving in the right place at the right time. There are only so many people willing to donate their time and money to someone else’s music video, and good enough to pull it off.

  11. Coronary says:

    MC Lars is living proof of what I’ve been saying for years””the labels don’t hate downloading and the new media because it “robs” them of sales, they hate it because it proves how irrelevant they are.

    Labels used to perform a public service of sorts, by acting as “gatekeepers” for the public. Nationwide record distribution is expensive, thus records were expensive, and you didn’t want to shell out $5-$10 for something that wasn’t any good. So the labels’ job was to figure who was good””who people were willing to pay for””and take a chunk of the profits. No problem.

    But that fundamental equation is no longer balanced. Nationwide record distribution is free, thus the marginal cost of records is effectively free. People can find what they want very quickly, thanks to aggressive categorization by music journalists (“I like bands that fuse electro with heavy bedsit twee!”) and automatic recommendation software, so there’s no need for gatekeepers anymore; the record-company apparat just gets in the way and hinders people from getting what they want.

  12. Brandon says:

    Jonathan Coulton is doing just this and making a suitable living for himself. Find JoCo here.

    I can’t remember where, but in an interview on some site or another Jonathan Coulton cited an article by Steve Albini, a copy of which can be found here, as motivation for taking the plunge and committing to releasing his music under a Creative Commons license.

    Enough of you are geeky types that I think you might like JoCo’s music as much as I do.

  13. Will says:

    JoCo is a prime example of this take on things. Also, Trent Reznor recently made a similar post on his forums about just this sort of paradigm shift, and it’s an interesting note. Basically, it boils down to making the music itself available for free, and anything you charge for has to actually be providing some significant additional value to your audience.
    Update: Here’s the link itself:,767183,767183#msg-767183

  14. briatx says:

    Offering music for free and profiting from touring / merch / donations makes a lot of sense for (most) musicians. As Brandon mentioned above, it seems to be working for Coulton.

    I don’t see it as a panacea for the general piracy problem, however, especially for things (like triple A games) that require huge upfront investments and don’t have obvious sources of revenue other than selling licenses.

    Edited to Add: I feel like all I comment on here is copyright stuff! I love your site, Shamus, and come here mostly for humor and game analysis. I really enjoy all your posts, I just usually feel like I don’t have anything to add to the discussions.

  15. Inquisitor says:

    Reminds me of this Weird Al song, which takes a sarcastic tone on the same subject.

  16. SteveDJ says:

    Here is another example that, although intended just for the comedy and publicity, seems to be giving him equal success:

    From the story, United sounds like they now want to license his work for internal training (ok, not a record deal, and not big like Hollywood movies, but that still means $$$ to him). And, with the talent he displayed, he’s probably going to get other offers too.

  17. Samopsa says:

    Yeah, Trent Reznor has some interesting bits on the nin forums about this. He understands the market, and works with it, rather then against it.

  18. Collar says:

    The problem with music by Steve Albini is another you may have been thinking about.

    I’d known that record companies didn’t exactly give bands (especially those starting out) the best deals for a long time, but reading this for the first time years ago really made me just stare at the screen in disbelief. Never looked at the industry in the same way again.

  19. Doran says:

    “This video is not available in your country due to copyright reasons.”

  20. radio_babylon says:

    “Love seems to be suggesting (I think) unionization. Well, that was what she was suggesting in 2000, anyway.”

    i think the only thing shes suggesting these days runs along the lines of “stop calling me skeletor and putting me in your dead pool”

  21. neminem says:

    ‘Til his laptop dies. Then he’ll take it all back. ;)

    I love Lars so much. I don’t really agree with him that music is “a service” now, but then, neither does he, really, given the cds he keeps producing (and which I keep purchasing).

  22. Telas says:

    Well said, Shamus. I remember reading in Rolling Stone back in the 80s how much money the Grateful Dead were making on their concerts. Sure, there’s the venue, the services, etc, but we’re talking millions per show in 1984 dollars.

    Don’t forget about the payola that is still going on, and being accounted for under ‘marketing’. Anyone from the States know a radio DJ? I bet he has a Sony laptop. Probably has a whole bunch of Sony electronics in his house, too…

    Were I a music producer right now, I’d front the production costs for the album, market almost exclusively on the internet, give the music away at near-marginal-costs (i.e. less than $5 a CD), forget about DRM, and bet it all against a small cut of concert grosses.

  23. Nentuaby says:

    I think MC Lars is in the haft of this spear, not its tip. At very least he’s pretty well down the spearhead. There’ve been artists living that way for several years now. I’ve been exposed to several of them from the other end of the equation now, too- going to mid-size music festivals, you often see a few of the younger acts were invited there after raising their profile this way.

  24. Bryan says:

    Yet another article on this here. A couple paragraphs up from the end of the article (before the comments) is a list of exactly what the music industry *should* be doing — but is obviously not. This guy, and a few others like him, are.

    I suspect they’ll out-compete the record labels, given enough time. We’ll see…

  25. mc says:

    “When you're “giving away” music, it helps to write some actual music to give away.”

    /me listens.

    Hmm, I hear music. Wait, what’s that?

    /me pauses.

    I also hear elitism.

  26. Itse says:

    There’s different labels and different bands in different situations.

    What’s really hard for a band is to get people to even hear your name, distributing for free really solves nothing.

    If you believe in what you’re doing, you can get through that by spending a lot of your own time doing marketing and pushing your band forward. But not many musicians actually know anything at all about promoting themselves, and it might be about the last thing they like to do.

    This is (a part of) what labels are for.

    My friend, who has a university degree in IT (and another in musical theory) is in a metal band that’s signed to a pretty traditional record label. The label is small and specializes in more or less alternative metal, so they’re already sort of reaching out for the right audience. The label pays people to do promotion, and while they might not get the best money can buy, it’s propably better than what the band itself is capable of; especially since the album is released all over Europe (and North America), which brings a need for a lot of translations for example, and just a lot of people you need to get in touch with in different languages.

    The label also got them interviewed in magazines all over Europe (not the biggest ones, but Metal Hammer Italy was nice), pushed the album to critics and actually got them to listen to it apparently, as there’s something like 50 reviews linked from the bands site, and many have obviously given the album some time. This massively increases the chances of someone actually hearing at least their name, and maybe raise some interest in what they’re doing.

    And so on and so forth. There’s just a lot of work included in promoting bands, whether you package it with album distribution or not. Lots of good bands have distributed albums over the internet and gotten nowhere. Being free solves very little, and if there’s not an expectancy of a lot of money coming in, it’s really better to make it where you can.

    But why a label and not just an agent to do marketing for your free record and make money touring as suggested?

    Gigs only make money if you can get enough people to see you at one time. Distributing over the internet can lead to a situation where you have 100,000 fans spread in 10,000 cities around the world. You can also only make money from soundtracks, commercials and so on if you
    A) make music that has any chance of appearing on a soundtrack
    B) are not against making your music part of meaningless sound fluff that surrounds us all the time.

    Also, touring takes a lot of time. One of the better things to come out of recorded music is that the artists can now have other lives too. They can pursuit their other interests in life (my friend didn’t get those two university degrees for nothing), be there for their kids (not that she has any, but some people do), so forth.

    Regular stuff that regular people like to do.

    If you’re making funny, catchy, flavor-of-the-week pop-crap like MC Lars there (and I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it, I’m just calling it as it is) then yeah, you can get some big bookings in large university cities and make some money, and if you’re single and goodlooking it can be fun too.

    If you you work in a genre which doesn’t interest the mass audiences, you have to basicly become a top band in that genre to make any sort of “real” money touring, especially if you happen to have a band of six that need a little more equipment than a mic and a laptop to perform. And it propably still doesn’t really pay for all those days away from home.

    (In any case, my friends band has also independently signed with an agency to get them some gigs, so they’re not stuck with what the label can do for them.)

    We live in a capitalist world, where you can pay people to do things for you. A lot of the time the people you pay do a better job than you would, and you’ll have more time to do what you’re actually interested in doing (for example becoming a better musician and making better songs).

    Sure, you can get screwed if you’re not careful, but that’s life for you.

    There’s a lot of sharks in the music business, because there’s a lot of young naive artists with dreams of instant riches and fame, but if you’re not of the latter, the former are propably not interested in you anyway.

    Oh yeah; my friends band is Cantata Sangui. She’s the singer, they’re on Spotify, they rock and I can show you about 40 reviews to back me up on that.

    (I have no direct connection to the band and my opinions about life are my own.)

  27. toasty says:

    Itse brings up a good point. Its easy for the next britney spears (*shiver*) to make money without a record contract. However, in the realm of underground (or even simply non-mainstream) music its a heck of a lot harder. Especially genres like metal. Some of the best metal bands I know of, and listen too, are from Sweden, Finland, or Netherlands. They don’t speak english as their first language and while they can compose good english lyrics getting some marketing to America (where the real money is in the Music industry) I’m sure is very challenging. That and metal bands will have at least 4, if not 5 or 6 people on stage, plus a track in a lot of instances of power metal (you just need that awesome backing choir! :D). Getting all that on stage and then preforming a concert where you can make money (real money, not just above breaking even) isn’t something that happens easily. In many instances it will take years of hard work, and several albums worth of content for a band to get out there and make it big. Nightwish (one of my favorite bands) was good from their first album (okay, its their worst album, by far, but it does have some very strong instrumental pieces) but it took until their 5th album, one live dvd, and lots of and lots of touring till they hit “mainstream” with their music. Nightwish is world-famous and amazingly popular relative to some metal bands. I don’t think they could have done what they did by themselves; they were all just about teenagers when they formed the band. Without the help of a Record Label they couldn’t have done what they’ve done methinks.

    That being said, I think record labels are dieing. Music won’t die with them, it’ll evolve. But the evolution won’t be as simple and clean-cut as we can hope. It’ll take a long time and it won’t be the mainstream people like NIN or MC Lars who suffer from this. It’ll be the small, unknown underground bands like Alestorm (TRUE SCOTTISH PIRATE METAL) who probably would never have gone anywhere with their brilliant music if it wasn’t for their record label.

  28. Julian says:

    I could swear I had a precognitive dream about reading this post. Particularly reading the part that said “Love (and other artists from my generation) are trying to overhaul the system.” triggered something in my subconscious.

  29. “Note that if this model were embraced, it wouldn't really hurt anyone except the labels.”
    Sounds a lot like the “excuse” for how something else doesn’t hurt anybody except the labels.

    1. Shamus says:

      Alex: With the crucial difference that the New Way is done with everyone’s blessing and consent.

  30. mookers says:

    @Krellen: I listened to Mr. Raven. I liked it. Well, as much as I like any rap song lol

  31. Richard says:

    Loved the track, and enjoy supporting Indie artists, so pulled out the credit card (I buy my music even when it comes via the cartel).

    Googled his website
    Find album with the track.
    Hit “buy on iTunes”

    Not available on Australian iTunes store. Can’t buy on US store unless you have a US credit-card.

    OK, try Amazon store.
    Set up downloader thing that’s required.
    Fix password since I never use Amazon and forgot my pw.
    Spend 10 minutes arguing with Amazon site which insists on resetting country to US, but providing Australia as an option.

    Give up, configure 1-click with default AU address.
    Get the shits with Amazon insisting on required a %#^#%$ shipping address for a download.

    Discover also refuses to provide downloads outside the states.

    He may be “indie”, but he’s still living within the framework that treats the Internet as a geographic entity. I wasted about 15 minutes trying to give him money for his music, but it is actually impossible for me to pay him unless I’m willing to pay $2 extra for a CD, then pay for shipping, then wait for the CD to actually arrive.

    Maybe I should just go “download this song”.


  32. bbot says:

    Shamus, to make up for your absolutely shameful lack of blogging, I wrote a guide on spawn heckling, wherein I mostly witter about dynamic spawn rooms and how much toy fort sucks.

    If you actually received the e-mail, then, excellent, I guess.

  33. Robert says:

    This is how things have been happening in China for years. Artists put out their music for free and make money at concerts (from CD sales and tickets). The trick is getting noticed in the first place.

    The most famous example (over here, at least) is probably 豬之歌, which launched 香香 on her career.

  34. Miral says:

    Somewhat ironically, I bought one of his CDs (The Graduate) specifically because it had this song on it. (I thought it also had Mr. Raven, but apparently not. I’ve definitely heard that song before though; I wonder where from. It does have Ahab, which is a rap spin of Moby Dick…)

    There were a couple of songs on it I didn’t like all that much, but most of them were really good.

  35. LafinJack says:

    /me listens.

    Hmm, I hear music. Wait, what's that?

    /me pauses.

    I also hear elitism.

    As someone else mentioned, it’s a looped sample of an Iggy Pop song, tweaked a bit. That’s not “music” in my opinion, unless you’re going somewhere interesting with it like The Avalanches or The Books. Elitist? Fine. I don’t have to think a two year old banging a stick on the sidewalk is music, but we’re free to disagree.

  36. ClearWater says:

    Hehe, my almost-three-year-old heard the song and started singing it: “Dah dah dadah. Dah dah dadah. Song!”

  37. I think I might die from laffs. Youtube says “this video is not available in your country due to copyright restrictions.
    I hate the internet.

  38. Blackbird71 says:

    @Inquisitor (15)

    Ha! I was going to link that one, but I’m glad it already got in. What’s even more amusing is that Weird Al put that song up for free download on his website prior to the album release.

  39. Tesh says:

    I was going to note the eerie parallels between this and the game dev world, but B.J. beat me to it. In the first response, no less. Unionization won’t really work there either, but it’s still not a good situation.

  40. Brian says:

    Anybody else finding these stories similar to the breakouts in webcomics, magazines, and indie games? Talented young artists working tirelessly to promote themselves, circumventing the established publishers by publishing their work directly to their audience? With webcomics it’s a vehicle for the merch; with magazines, it’s about premiums sites and subscriptions; indie games provide famously robust demos to hook you into purchasing the main game.

    Everything the internet touches, it draws in. And that might not be a bad thing.

  41. TSED says:

    As a person who is trying to get a band together, I will say this:

    I would sign a record deal.

    I would not sign a deal for multiple records, but I will say that I have a deep and burning desire to see a CD in shops with a gorgeous cover and that CD having me as an artist on it.

    Another point was made: I’m a metalhead. I’m going to make death and black and doom metal. Yes, there’s a lot of word-of-mouth amongst metal heads, but the genre’s so huge that any two metalheads will have totally different tastes in music. I can’t stand power metal, for example. I doubt any power-head could listen to the doom I’ve got playing right now. People into Gothic Metal can’t stand black and death, people into black and death get bored by Gothic. And when you start bringing out Folk and the ten trillion different possible genre fusions (including non-metal genres, like, say, jazz)… Yeah.

    I derailed myself. Back to the point, “use the internet!” doesn’t work for everyone, for different reasons. It’s not always about the money, it’s about getting your music out. Or some one mentioned 100,000 fans in 10,000 cities – how does that make you money? What about even more niche genres? I doubt any grindcore band in the history of time has made money off of the internet. There is absolutely no friggin’ way Lux Occulta (avant garde) could have done ANYTHING without a label.

    @Toasty: As for Alestorm being underground, what? Dude, they’re pretty huge for a metal band. If you want to see underground metal, look at like, Kalijuge or Decrepitus or Awkward Silence or something. Bands that haven’t TOURED THE WORLD and all that jazz. Bands that any metalhead worth his salt hasn’t heard of before. Have you even been to a local show?

  42. It’s been pointed out that this approach will not make everyone money, particularly people doing independent music in more obscure genres.
    That doesn’t seem notably different from the current situation to me. A new model which is viable is not the same as a new model which is a panacea.

  43. toasty says:

    “Have you even been to a local show?”

    When they start singing in English (not Bangla) I might get the courage to see Warfarze or Cryptic Fate. :D

    Sorry, I just had to say that. And while Alestorm might be well known within Metal… that’s not saying a whole lot. Metal is pretty much underground… though you have a point. But I don’t know near enough about metal to be talking about it much, honestly. :D

    1. Shamus says:

      Are you folks suggesting that “metal” is more esoteric than “nerdcore”?

      I can’t decide if that’s preposterous, or awesome.

  44. toasty says:

    What I’m saying is that, in my experience, when I say the words “metal” to people they assume a bunch of young satanists screaming incoherently while smashing drums and breaking their guitars. Okay, maybe not that crazy, but I have some friends who I know have never listened to a lot of metal but claim to “not like metal” (statements like “no crazy music” or “metal makes my nose bleed”) I know that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

    Now, I have no idea what nerdcore is, but just have some sort of feeling that it sounds like less of a turn off than the picture that I described in my first post. I’m a metalhead and the idea of inhorrent screams and noise for noises’ sake just doesn’t appeal to me.

    edit: A quick search on nerdcore confirms my original thought (sorry, I didn’t watch the vid. i have a slow ‘net connection and can rarely be bothered to try and watch music videos and the like unless I really want too). Nerdcore is hiphop. I don’t care how you try and define it, but the very fact it has hiphop roots in my mind means its a whole lot less underground that metal.

  45. Wendy says:

    @ Sungazer The best thing about Dick Dale? In interviews he usually refers to himself in the third person:

    “And that is why the music business hates Dick Dale”


  46. Arquinsiel says:

    If artists only publish CD’s to get people to come to gigs….

    And I download music, then go to said gigs…..

    How does that hurt the artist?

    I remember a few years back My Ruin were coming to Ireland and just circulated an online petition to see how many people were interested in coming to a show and if it’d be worth their while. The way you’ve described things CDs are now filling the same role with a converted pricetag of 30+ USD to sign your name (seriously, music prices in Ireland are beyond insane).

    And since people will ask, yes, I will buy a CD or two if there are any on offer at the gig. This isn’t always a possibility though. The one time I had a chance to explain my position to a bandmember he hugged me. Good times.

  47. AH says:

    The revolution is already here:

    The signal to noise ratio can be a little on the low side (but then the average music stores signal to noise is also low), but there are some real gems there. All donate-ware.

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