Free for All

Give it away, give it away, give it away now: A history of gratis tunes.

free music Radiohead Prince
Radiohead, back when they were asking people to pay for their music.
Radiohead, back when they were asking people to pay for their music.

When Radiohead offered its new album, In Rainbows, to anyone with an internet connection a couple months back, you couldn't Google without bumping into a story about it. "Revolutionary!" "It'll change the way record companies sell music!" "Cool!" These were typical responses heard and read throughout the world regarding the band's decision to let fans pay whatever they felt like for the music.

Turns out, most listeners chose to download In Rainbows without paying for it. Something like 65 percent of fans grabbed the album without dropping a single cent. (Radiohead will have a chance to make a little cash on the album when In Rainbows comes out as an old-fashioned CD in a few weeks.)

But Radiohead didn't really do anything new. Artists have been giving away their songs long before anyone even had a clue that one day we'd get our movies, news, mail, and porn from a magic box. In the spirit of the giving season, here's a timeline of free music through the ages.

1921, Sugar Land: Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, incarcerated for killing his cousin during a fight, pleads his case for early release to Texas Governor Pat Morris Neff. During the proceedings, Leadbelly performs — for no money — a clemency song he penned especially for the occasion. Soon thereafter, Neff frees Leadbelly. Thirty years later, the governor, on his deathbed, reminisces about his life. Between images of his first love and his final election, Leadbelly's little melody drifts through Neff's head — even though he didn't pay a dime for it.

1943, Paris: His beloved city under Nazi control and his people being rounded up and sent to concentration camps, Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt continues to play jazz — which Hitler forbids — in secret. Lucky for Reinhardt, jazz trumps Aryan power when a Luftwaffe official named Dietrich Schulz-Köhn ("Doktor Jazz") falls in love with the guitarist's sound. In appreciation for the Nazi's kind regard, Reinhardt teaches Schulz-Köhn the melody of a song he's working on. Later that night, the Luftwaffe officer serenades his lover with the song. He gets some lovin' out of the deal and therefore doesn't need to resort to his backup plan, which was to hire a hooker. Money saved is money earned. Reinhardt doesn't see or ask for a goddamn franc of this money.

1959, New York City: Avant-garde composer Moondog, the "Viking of Sixth Avenue," sets a stool at the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue, takes out one of his musical inventions — a "trimba" — and places a basket on the ground. The street musician begins playing and reading poetry. He charges no one to listen to the music, instead enacting for his fans a revolutionary payment policy: "It's up to you. No, really — it's up to you."

1979, London: The Clash releases the double LP London Calling, though it was initially slated as a single album. The band had asked its record company whether it could include a bonus 12-inch with the package. The label agreed, and the band turned in nine extra songs. Despite the fact that there were now 19 songs on two albums, the Clash insisted on charging for only a single LP, thereby giving away nine whole songs for free.

1984, Austin: McDonald's employee and budding songwriter Daniel Johnston begins keeping copies of his handmade cassette, Songs of Pain, in his pocket while on duty. During his shifts, he gives them away to anyone he thinks might like his songs.

1992, New York City: Sassy magazine attaches a free single on green vinyl to its October 1992 issue, giving away four songs by four bands: Beat Happening, Velocity Girl, Sebadoh, and Codeine. Despite the fact that free vinyl doesn't pay, the bands get good publicity.

June 2007, London: Prince releases his new CD, Planet Earth, via the London Observer newspaper, at absolutely no cost other than the price of the paper. Record stores are livid, as is the British-based Entertainment Retailers Association, telling the Guardian that the giveaway "beggars belief." Beggars belief? Really?

October 2007, the internet: Radiohead asks fans to pay what they wish to download its new album, In Rainbows, from the band's website. Most fans wish to pay nothing.

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