“Free as in freedom, not as in free beer”—Richard Stallman
Prix libre, from French is usually translated in English as Pay what you want (PWYW), or Pay what you can (PWYC), rather than a literal Free price. It is a term that is used to describe the way the equivalent value in money has to be determined by each person who would like to buy the thing.
It’s kind of hard to be more abstract. It has to be understood within other ways to put a price on something—free, as the 1960’s San Francisco Diggers advocated, at cost of production, or with a sliding scale from either of those to a supporting profit, and of course for profit.
The first radical use of Prix libre I’ve experienced was in the small town of Tarbes, France, at the Celtic Pub—a venue whose shows were all for prix libre. At the entrance there was a box for donations that also had a sign explaining the implications—you are paying for your drinks at the bar, you are paying for the concert with your donations in the box. It mentioned that through this system they were making shows affordable but absence of donation would finish by ending the reputation of the venue and bands would stop making the detour to play in the town.
In a way, they were explaining how the pricing put the responsibility of supporting the network of touring musicians along with keeping it accessible at the same time. On average it meant that you may have less money at the rough end of the month, but keep the door open to people who couldn’t afford a set price. The bartender would then remind everyone of the concept and pass the hat-shaped box. The same principle was going on in the anarchopunk scene and squat scene, in other cities like Grenoble, Marseille, Toulouse, or Lille.
It’s around the same time I started to hang around more bands with a radical practice of this concept, like the anarchist hip-hop band l’Oiseau Mort, the first band I’ve got records for prix libre (though their last record was sold for a fixed price of €4.60, which is exactly the production cost), or emo-crust Bökanövsky—their merch would be sold for pay what you can. Some years later, as the band from our label were one by one transitioning to its use we decided to switch all of the records, cassettes, zines & patches to pay what you can.
From the beginning in 2010, we had been making things following the Plan-it-X record motto of “if it ain’t cheap it ain’t punk”, in which cheap meant affordable. It was a bit difficult to sustain it as we tried to keep prices as low as possible and still give away or cut discounts so that people who couldn’t afford it would still get our stuff. In the fall of 2015 everything was for prix libre, with or without a short explanation depending on the type of places and their previous exposure to the concept—more than a pricing in itself, it was a matter of sharing the practice and to encourage others to do so. Other practices taken from the anarchist milieu would be degendering of the language and use of gender-neutral pronouns, veganism and encouraging folks to pee sat down in order to keep shared bathrooms clean and accessible.
After a year and a half of strict use of the free pricing, I would say it has more ups than downs. On the upsides it keeps our stuff affordable no matter the context, currency and state of the inflation. On the downside, and especially on tour, the notion of support can easily be avoided and there was a few examples in which it ended with full bags of merch traded for some small change. In the end, it sort of evens out as the pricing gets known and often, the average amount of money is bigger. Maybe because the bands are better and attract more people now, than five or two years ago?
We printed “don’t pay more than €8” on some older releases, sold some for €5, when it’s not outrageous in some punk & hardcore circles to buy an LP for €15. On average, we’re able to get money back quicker to help other folks release their stuff more easily. If we often leave the distro unattended with a jar for the donations, the practice of pay what you can often lead to having to engage in conversations, asking about the pricing, about the means and process of production to determinate how much they want to pay and demystifying it along the way.
On any given day, I would say that one of my ideals would be to help in implementing anarchist practices into the mainstream, though in real life it often means cooptation. In the third issue of the Grenoble collective anarchopunk zine Maximum Cuvette, there was an article about the economic concept that gave a few examples of the use of Prix libre by cultural administrations, in which free shows became shows on voluntary and encouraged donations as prix libre, and also gave the example of the bandcamp.com platform, which offers digital downloads for pay what you can, although not translated as prix libre on it’s French version.
Many economists have argued some benefits of using it in the virtual (and legal) businesses, but none really touched the social functions that come with using this system, meaning the anarchistic ideas may too easily be removed and the advantages salvaged. While I’m still not exactly sure when this form of payment became commonplace within the DIY punk scene and grassroots leftist movement in France, it was in October 2007 that it broke into the international mainstream with the pop band Radiohead’s single “In rainbows”.