Ashland singer/songwriter Gene Burnett is hoping people will do the 21st century equivalent of tossing a few dollars into a musician's guitar case.

He recently began offering songs on his Web site, , on a donation basis. Visitors to the site can download songs from Burnett's 11 albums for free, or they can click on an image of a tip jar and make a donation.

"It's just like if I go to a club. I gauge how much I like it, look in my pocketbook and decide how much to give," he said. "I'm offering the digital equivalent of that."

Burnett, 50, has long had a Web site, but the donation option is a new feature. Visitors were downloading music clips from the site, but he found few were buying his $12 CDs except for friends or people who had already heard him perform.

He decided that offering his songs for free or for a donation was one way to get his music out to more people. He fully expects some visitors to download songs without paying, and even pass on the songs to others.

"I'd rather they listen to it for free than not listen to it. Through file-sharing, they may be turning someone else onto it. They may very well be the bridge to someone who will pay for it," Burnett said. "Maybe one or two in 100 will be a true acoustic fan who sees value in the music. If it gets out in the world and gets heard, I'm more excited about that than any money-making potential."

Offering songs for donations is an unusual but not unprecedented way for musicians to get their music before a wider audience.

The English band Radiohead made headlines when members released their new album "In Rainbows" on Oct. 10 as a download on a donation basis.

Soon after, the music industry newsletter "Record of the Day" conducted an Internet survey of 3,000 people who had downloaded the Radiohead album. One-third downloaded the album and paid nothing. The average price paid was $8.36.

There is some evidence that downloading music on a donation basis is growing in popularity &

and that fans are becoming more willing to pony up some cash.

The Luxembourg-based company Jamendo facilitates musicians selling music by donation and offers 69,000 songs to European and American audiences.

In January 2006, Jamendo generated only 20 donations that averaged $10 each, for a monthly total of $200.

But the numbers have been trending upward. In October of this year, the company generated 95 donations that averaged $14.74 each, bringing in a total of $1,400 for the month, according to an analysis of Jamendo raw data conducted by the Internet economics Web site /?p=99.

Of course, few musicians are getting rich off of music that can be downloaded for a donation.

Marc Gunn, an Austin, Texas-based musician and the former publisher of an Internet magazine devoted to music marketing and promotion, has been offering donation-based music downloads of his Celtic and Irish songs for seven years.

"Donations are not huge. We're lucky if we get something in any given month," said Gunn in an e-mail interview. "However, I see free downloads as a means to build a fan base. And that works. We have people all the time who e-mail how much they've enjoyed downloading and sharing our MP3s with others. And some e-mail that they just bought our CDs, too. It's a great marketing tool."

Canadian musician Jane Siberry, who now goes by the single name Issa, has been experimenting with what she calls "self-determined pricing" since 2005.

Her Web site reports that 56 percent of people who download a song click on the option that they will pay a self-determined amount later. Another 19 percent select that they will pay nothing. Only 17 percent pay the suggested rate of 99 United States cents per song, while 5 percent pay a different amount. The average amount paid per song is $1.18.

Back here in Ashland, Burnett said he hopes more music will become available for download by donation. He said the practice helps musicians bypass the music recording industry and deal directly with fans and potential fans.

"I'd love to see more people doing this. Let people decide for themselves what to pay," he said. "Maybe then we can get back to the joy of making music rather than the anxiety of selling it."

To hear more from Burnett, visit his Web site or drop by Liquid Assets Wine Bar, 96 N. Main St., between 9 p.m. and midnight on Tuesdays where he and musician Seth Richardson have a regular gig.

Staff writer can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com. To post a comment, visit .