Of all the changes in music distribution over the past decade, the biggest by far is that the technology is now commonplace to allow consumers to acquire music online without paying for it. Defenders of this practice, myself included, have described it as the harbinger of a revolution. We predicted that making music free on the Web would render record labels, management firms, and other industry power brokers unnecessary, allowing artists to build followings without relying on middlemen. Though it wasn’t clear what new economies would arise to replace artist revenue lost to vanished record sales, we were confident a healthy and equitable system would evolve.

Needless to say, things aren’t going quite that way. Though some emerging artists have certainly made file sharing work for them—the Black Kids and Drake, off the top of my head—they’ve by and large used free music to build their brands and secure traditional record deals. Many free-music advocates—again, myself included—are beginning to acknowledge not only that its promise hasn’t been fulfilled but also that the doomsday scenarios seem to be coming true, as both major labels and independent artists struggle to survive. In a December blog post for Tiny Mix Tapes entitled “2009: Fuck Love, Let’s Make Dystopia,” Chris Ruen sums up this souring outlook by calling the practice and philosophy he ascribes to most file sharers “freeloading.”

“Freeloading says that music is free because it ‘feels’ free, because it can be had for free,” he writes. “Freeloaders say no expressed idea or recording has an intrinsic value. It’s like water, everywhere and naturally occurring. Music is everyone’s, so we’re justified in taking it. No artists’ labor has an intrinsic ‘monetary’ value, and we all need to just get over the dirty concept.”

Of course, no form of labor has an intrinsic monetary value; what it’s worth depends on how much people can be persuaded to pay for it. If the product of your labor can be converted into digital data, they can easily choose to pay nothing. Speaking as someone who made a record in 2009—my band Mannequin Men spent much of the year recording and promoting Lose Your Illusion, Too, on the now more or less defunct Flameshovel label—I’m a little jealous of people whose artistic output can’t be downloaded.

My experience with Lose Your Illusion was a big part of the reason my opinion about free music changed so dramatically over the course of this past year. It was the first album I’d been involved with that had a real label backing it up and covering the bills—all my previous records had been self-funded, self-released DIY projects—and as such it was the first one where the music didn’t “feel” free. Somebody else’s money was on the line.

When Illusion leaked via RapidShare shortly before its release date, at first it felt pretty good. Someone obviously thought the album was good enough to upload, and someone else thought it was good enough to download. Surely this would generate some positive word of mouth—when the record came out it might even sell better as a result. That never happened, though. I kept track of more than a dozen file-sharing links, eventually counting more than 1,000 downloads. I’m not sure yet how many copies have actually sold, but I do know it’s fewer than that. Vinyl stock was still sitting on Flameshovel’s shelves when the label packed up its offices late last year. (It’s now strictly a back-catalog operation, with no new releases planned.)

Maybe people just didn’t like the album enough to buy it. Maybe the important thing is that it got heard, whether they liked it or not. But seeing it posted online so many times was demoralizing. Nobody doing the posting ever contacted the band to check if the leak was intentional, and I can’t imagine they were thinking about Flameshovel’s tiny staff trying to steer the sinking ship. That really kneecapped my idealistic enthusiasm for file sharing.

Ruen still hopes “freeloaders” can be convinced to change their ways. He thinks it will help to remind file sharers who traffic in independent music that it comes from labels that most of them claim, in other contexts, to want to support. Ruen proposes that independent record labels borrow some tactics from companies that sell fair-trade coffee—he’s betting that many file sharers have ethical qualms and can be lured away from BitTorrent by a guarantee that their money is going to a label that does its business in a transparent, artist-friendly fashion.

But curtailing file sharing is probably like trying to repack Pandora’s box. It’s one thing to get someone to pay a 20-cent premium to feel slightly better about the coffee they were going to buy anyway; it’s another entirely to get them to pay for a cup when there’s a place next door giving it away. How much guilt does someone have to feel in order to forswear the nearly limitless amount of high-quality music freely available online?

It might not even be worth trying to find out. Maybe musicians should simply accept that their music is stripped of whatever monetary value it once had and busy themselves looking for those alternative sources of revenue that haven’t materialized yet. Free streaming music accompanied by ads—already offered by services like Spotify—might be a solution. Corporate patronage, either through sponsorship or licensing, might be another, but few people seem sanguine about it. Ruen thinks sponsorship is just as bad for musicians as being signed to a major. And DJ Shadow, in a blog post early this month, dismisses corporate cash as unreliable—for most companies, supporting musicians is merely a form of brand extension, to be abandoned when money gets tight.

“Conventional wisdom amongst my peers,” Shadow writes, “has been remarkably short-sided [sic] over the last decade: ‘Yeah, CD sales are down, but all the money is in licensing.’ Not anymore. ‘Yeah, licensing money is down, but the video game industry is killing it.’ Less so these days, according to recent data. ‘Well, the real money is in touring.’ Really? When was the last time you saw a ‘new,’ post-record company artist headline a major music festival? At this rate, we’ll be stuck with Coldplay for decades (no offense intended).”

Gothy neocabaret singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer has a fan base that’s something like the ideal music 2.0 audience that the free-music movement dreamed every artist would have: midsize at best, geographically scattered, but incredibly devoted. Though by her own account her 2008 solo album sold more than 30,000 copies, she might as well already be living in a world where music is free—she hasn’t seen a penny in royalties and doesn’t expect to. Fortunately for Palmer, her fans are eager to go along with her oddball money-making schemes—in an impromptu webcast-based auction she held in May, they bought a bunch of stuff lying around her apartment, from instruments to costumes used in video shoots to the wine bottles she and her assistant emptied during the sale.

Palmer, a former street performer, has no qualms about asking listeners to put a dollar value on her music. In a September blog post she writes that hat-in-hand solicitation is what’s going to finance nonstars in the future. “Artists will now be coming straight to you (yes YOU, you who want their music, their films, their books) for their paychecks,” she says. “Please welcome them. Please help them. Please do not make them feel badly about asking you directly for money. Dead serious: this is the way shit is going to work from now on and it will work best if we all embrace it and don’t fight it.”

Direct artist appeals make an end run around some popular freeloader rationalizations—that file sharing only hurts faceless record-company suits, that there’s no point buying albums to support musicians because labels always screw them out of their cut. The question that’s concerning artists more and more, though, isn’t whether to attach a price tag to what they do—it’s how to make that price tag stick.