At New Music Strategies, we’ve been thinking about an idea that we believe would be really helpful for music marketing, would contribute toward ethical and sustainable practices for musicians and music businesses, and which we believe consumers would get behind.

We were talking this week about the fact that many people (on all sides of the digital copyright debate) speak about their relationship with music consumption as having an ethical and moral dimension.

People talk about how they like to ‘support the artist’ in certain instances – whether it’s that they are fans of a specific artist and want to see them create more works, or that they have a more general sense of obligation, gratitude or individual ethics when it comes to online music purchasing. Most people seem to be conflicted – not sure what impact their decision to download unauthorised content might have, or whether it makes any difference at all.

Some feel that there is an element of protest and ethical civil disobedience in their decision to download music released by multinational corporations, or music represented by organisations who support the disproportionate legal action against music fans. Some artists are known to be in an exploitative relationship with the record label and wouldn’t necessarily get paid anyway. And it’s even more complicated than that too, when you consider the treatment of contributing (but not featured) artists, sustainable use of materials in manufacture – and the durations and conditions within contracts that may be considered unfair.

So we came up with the notion of Fair Trade Music.

The idea

We thought it would be interesting to develop and implement an online benchmarking process that would set a series of criteria up as representing ethical, sustainable music industry practices that parallel the ethical trading standards set by Fair Trade grocery items. We thought it would be important to make it so that consumers had the opportunity to easily choose Fair Trade alternatives, just as there are Organic Food sections in supermarkets.

We would love to see a Fair Trade Music section in Amazon and on iTunes as well as elsewhere online and off. We believe that just as they do with Fairtrade groceries, consumers would be encouraged to consider the practices that support the music that they buy, and make decisions informed by those practices.

Fair trade music need not necessarily be more expensive – in fact, it may actually be cheaper than the alternatives, but they would represent not just a better deal for the featured artist, but a more sustainable and less exploitative music industry overall.

We do not pretend to know or have a grasp of all of the criteria that would ideally be included as part of the benchmarking process. We think that would need to be negotiated amongst all interested parties, and conducted as part of a proper research project.

Our idea was to consult with a range of consumers, musicians and music industry workers to try and ascertain what those criteria would be for Fair Trade in the music sector – whether it be that record label deals offered artists a particular split of the proceeds, that contracts were only of a certain duration, that artists had a certain degree of creative control unfettered by commercial imperatives, that CD covers were made of renewable resources… stuff like that.

The plan

Stage one would be to figure out the parameters. What exactly would constitute ‘Fair Trade’ in music releases? In live music events? That’s the research phase.

Stage two would be to design and implement the database and registration process as well as a way in which the labelling could be implemented. This would be the prototype phase.

Stage three would be to promote and ensure its adoption. This is the implementation phase.

Partnering possibilities

There are a number of organisations that we think would perhaps be interested in exploring these ideas – from organisations that represent the interests of musicians to consumer information groups, universities and music schools, creative industry business groups and so on. We’d like to talk to the Fair Trade organisation itself too. Word has it that they’ve given thought to music, though I suspect in a slightly different way.

We believe that the system would act as a great marketing tool for genuinely ethical music producers and labels, an incentive for music companies that come close to the benchmark to go that extra mile, and an extra incentive for music purchasers (as well as some clarity and transparency about where their money will go).

Our idea is to develop the benchmarking system and online registration, pitch the idea to online (and offline) retailers, but create the register as an open database of music releases (and possibly even live music promoters and events) that fall under the Fair Trade music banner.

We do not wish to set up a new retail outlet to compete with existing offerings, but rather establish an open system for marking music that does get sold in existing retailers as offering an ethical music purchasing choice.

This would enable consumers to make informed choices about where their money goes, and would encourage record labels who wish for their releases to be considered fair trade as a marketing strategy to have transparent and sustainable agreements with the artists they release.

Just thinking out loud here. We’d love to hear your thoughts about this, and look forward to the conversation that follows.