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It seems like the last thing people want to do these days is exchange money for recorded music. Artists and labels have long considered revenue from band merchandise merely a supplement to money from album sales, but as a September 10 article in the New York Times Magazine pointed out, some are beginning to see merch as the real product, with music just sort of attached to it: You could buy the most recent Of Montreal album, False Priest (Polyvinyl), in the form of a T-shirt with a download code. The new Matthew Dear album, Black City (Ghostly International), is available as a $125 sculpture, reminiscent of the cryptic obelisk on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Presence, that has a download code inscribed into it. The magazine quotes something Sub Pop Records vice president Megan Jasper said in an August post on the Seattle Weekly‘s music blog: “We used to give many of these tchotchke items away for free in an effort to entice people to pay for the music. But we’re considering flipping our strategy so that people pay for the toy and receive the music for free.”

With album sales falling through the floor, lots of artists have taken to heart the conventional wisdom that they have to use social-networking sites to survive. If a band connects more intimately with its fans, the thinking goes, then the fans will feel more loyalty and spend more money—not just on music but on merch and concert tickets. The weak link in this logic is pretty obvious, and I expect to hear a lot of ideas in the months to come about how to realize the presumed connection between social-networking juice and revenue. Especially since the music business, among its myriad attempts to figure out how artists and label people can still earn a living, looks like it might be ready to try something pretty radical: asking people to pay for music with buzz.

In June a website called Pay With a Tweet went online. It offers a service to intellectual-property owners: use our tools to distribute your song, DJ mix, e-book, or whatever for the price of one post to Twitter about that work. (The site doesn’t actually host any files—it provides an embeddable button for conducting the transaction.) The service has hardly taken off, but its premise alone represents a fundamentally new way of looking at the bottom line. Pay With a Tweet might be the first site to try to establish a rudimentary social-networking economy that involves the actual exchange of goods, but knowing how the Internet works it won’t be the last.

Old metrics of gauging popularity like chart positions and magazine covers are becoming increasingly irrelevant. The threshold for charting has fallen so low that the almost comically uncommercial Melvins broke the Billboard top 200 for the first time this year, selling 2,809 copies of The Bride Screamed Murder between May 30 and June 6—far from the best sales week of their three-decade career. Facebook fans and Twitter followers are starting to look like more reliable indicators of an artist’s popularity. San Francisco avant-rapper Lil B the Based God hasn’t sold a single song since he split from the Pack to pursue a solo career, though he’s released plenty—he just hasn’t been charging anything for them, instead releasing them through free download services like HulkShare or as low-budget but professional-looking YouTube videos. But at press time he had more than 67,000 followers on Twitter, and if you follow him you know he can make the most of the medium. You won’t see Lil B on the charts, and judging by radio play he may as well not exist, but in terms of buzz he’s a rock star.

The question remains, though: How do you translate buzz into gear or rent or studio time or frozen burritos? If a song is worth one tweet, does that make one tweet worth anything?

Leif Abraham, who founded Pay With a Tweet with Christian Behrendt—as a creative team they call themselves Innovative Thunder—thinks it might. The idea for the site came from a book they wrote as Innovative Thunder, Oh My God What Happened and What Should I Do?, specifically its chapter on encouraging a promotion to go viral. PWAT arose out of their attempt to use the book’s own lessons to promote it—they’re selling it for a tweet. “We wanted to give it away for free,” he says, “but free wasn’t cool enough.”

The site has a few suggestions for musicians: “Sell your new single or music video for a Tweet in order to promote your new album or tour,” it offers. But Abraham says there are many more possibilities—50 Cent could sell a song, say, for a tweet that promoted his Vitamin Water. “If this band’s goal is, for example, getting a record deal,” he says, “here is an artist that already has a certain amount of fans or a status in a certain scene. You need to kind of be a finished brand already to get a record deal. Pay With a Tweet helps artists gain this attention that could then help them to get a record deal.” Paris-based electro-pop group the Teenagers, whose 2008 album Reality Check was a minor hit in France and the UK, have been selling a single through Pay With a Tweet as part of their effort to find a new label.

Local consultant and Internet whiz Harper Reed agrees that social-networking success can be whatever an artist defines it as. In a bit of start-up-style jargon, he refers to it as a “conversion” whenever fans do something the artist wants them to. “Is the conversion that they would buy a shirt? Or that they would buy an overpriced ticket from Ticketmaster? And you have to think, What is going to get them to that point? Is it really downloading an MP3? Or is it tweeting? Will that get more people to that point?”

Reed thinks that musicians, marketers, and anyone else operating in a buzz-based economy should look at their social-networking converts as a potential labor pool for crowdsourced work—as a former developer for Skinnycorp, which runs the crowdsourcing-dependent T-shirt company Threadless, he knows what he’s talking about. Musicians can draw on their dedicated fans to form virtual street teams or submit remixes or shirt designs for a contest, for instance. He compares this to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk marketplace, which pays a small amount of money to each of a large group of people for doing tiny tasks that add up to something bigger. “This idea’s obviously the future because I’m pretty sure everyone in the world is gunning toward unemployability,” he says. “Like, ‘What do you do?’ ‘I have no idea.’ I think it’ll start moving toward this idea of, ‘Well, today I helped this artist pick colors with a million other people.'”

Reed thinks crowdsourcing is a natural fit with promotion. “You look at companies like Cornerstone and they’ve been trying to do this with street teams for years, but no one’s been able to say, until Twitter and Facebook, ‘Do this thing which is beneficial for our label and we’ll give you something in return.'”

But what good is promotion if no one’s buying the thing being promoted? Reed and Abraham both suggest that services like Pay With a Tweet could offer a more concrete way to measure artists’ popularity, something that could make them more attractive to big companies and their marketing agencies, which are fast supplanting traditional labels as a source of paychecks for less established acts. But until Internet buzz is as legitimate a currency as the dollar or the yuan (something David Foster Wallace might have imagined), hyping an IP product will remain just the first step toward one of the traditional ways of turning fans into profit—and more and more music consumers are opting out of the step where money changes hands.

Perhaps the biggest stumbling block for any scheme to use incentives to generate fan-driven buzz is their rapidly diminishing rate of return. As more artists look to social networks as promotional tools, fans will be able to expect more compensation for their cooperation—it’s hard to get people to keep tweeting about your band, for instance, if you keep offering them the same amount of stuff to do it. As Reed points out, services like Pay With a Tweet could accelerate this change in audience expectations. “If you reward someone for something they’d do naturally,” he says, “they won’t do it naturally again without a reward.”