Why Bands Shouldn’t Give Away (ALL) their Music for Free

This post was written for Bandzoogle, a website platform for musicians. Bandzoogle is a Montreal-based company, founded and run by musicians, and has every tool a musician needs for their website. Visit Bandzoogle.com to take the tour or get started right away and build your website free.

There’s a lot of talk in the music industry about the diminishing value of recorded music and how bands should look for other ways to make money. The argument for giving away your music is that you should simply want to have your music heard, and since people can generally find music online for free, then why bother putting a price tag on it? Live shows, merchandise, licensing, and subscriptions are just some of the ways that bands are encouraged to generate revenue. However, should artists just give up selling their music? Are we to believe that nobody buys music anymore? I’m not so sure that’s the case.

The topic became front and center for me recently after I spent a considerable amount of time following indie artists from all over North America on Twitter. I was shocked at how many would automatically send me a direct message with a link to download their entire album for free. I didn't sign up to their mailing list, I didn’t have to buy other merchandise in a bundled package offer, I simply followed them on Twitter and received a free album of music. I couldn’t help but think: too much, too soon?

I started following the artists out of curiosity, but I don’t know who they are yet, what their personalities are like, etc. It was simply a first step in the relationship, and they’ve already given away what could be their most valued asset: their music. There is a hint of desperation to it, but that’s understandable, because with so many other artists out there, how do you compete? How do you get your music heard? Well, why not give away your music for free to anyone and everyone you can?

Here’s another way to look at it, keeping with the example on Twitter:

One artist sent me a direct message thanking me for following them. The message was hilarious. The artist obviously has a great sense of humour, so I already know something about them that gives me a better sense of who they are as a person. They also included a link, but it was to their website where I could hear their music, not download it for free or buy it, but simply hear it. And because the link took me to their website, it increased the chances of having me see their latest blog posts, watch some videos, to sign-up to the mailing list or even shop in their store. Although I did go to the site, I simply listened to a few tracks, one of which I found kind of catchy, and moved on.

Fast forward to a few weeks later. The artist tweets something I find funny, I tweet back, and they respond to me right away. Awesome, they’re engaged with their fans, I was impressed. A few weeks after that, I tweet something, the artist responds to my tweet with a personalized joke that had me laughing out loud at my computer. The artist is paying attention to their fans’ tweets as well, now I’m really impressed. I went back to the artist’s website, saw that they had a new EP for sale, and bought it for $5.

So what happened here? The artist took time to develop a relationship with me. Once I knew the artist better, once they had made a deeper connection with me by making me laugh and responding to me personally a few times, they no longer felt like just another one of the thousands of other artists out there. They stood out from the pack because they took time to get to know me and I felt like I was a part of their world. Now I wanted to support their career. Could I have bought a t-shirt or a hat? Maybe, but I didn’t want to buy any new clothes, and I didn’t need a new mug or trinket. Could I have bought a ticket to their show next time they passed through Montreal? Possibly, but I wanted to show support in the moment, and given their geographic location, a show here was unlikely. The simplest way for me to show support was to buy their music, which is what I did. And what if they had simply given me their EP for free like the other artists? They would have $5 less in their bank account today.

But Aren’t Music Sales Tanking?

Let’s take a quick look at the numbers:
  • Digital distributor TuneCore boasts over 45 million in music sales through their service
  • CD Baby reported music sales of almost $40 million in 2010 alone
  • Our very own Bandzoogle members recently crossed $4,000,000 in music and merchandise sales.
Are CD sales down? Yes. Are they non-existent? No. Are digital sales flattening out? Perhaps. Are they non-existent? You get the idea. People still spend money on music when they perceive that music to be valuable. And this is the key to selling any product or service: creating value. Note: There are those who will argue that TuneCore’s sales are skewed because they have several former major label artists selling in their catalogue, or that CD Baby’s album sales actually went down while new album additions went up. I don’t want to turn this into a debate about their numbers. The reason I’ve included them is that they simply illustrate that there are obviously still some people out there buying music.   Note #2: Here’s a nice article detailing how paid single tracks are still the dominant force in digital music revenue: http://www.hypebot.com/hypebot/2011/05/digital-radio-paid-musicians-36-million-more-than-paid-subcriptions-last-year.html

How to Create Value

So if the key to selling your music is to create value for it, how can you go about doing that? Here are some ideas to get you started:
  • Develop a relationship with your fans
One of the most important ways to create value for your music is to create a deeper connection with your fans. Every day take time to respond to fan e-mails, tweets, questions on Facebook, etc. Don’t just promote yourself and your music, have a conversation with your fans. Make them laugh, ask them questions, find out more about them, make them feel like they’re part of your world and that you’re a part of theirs. Take time to develop a relationship with them and they’ll want to support your career, which can of course include buying your music.
  • Generate lots of content
Blog regularly, post video blogs, music videos, etc. By generating content on a regular basis, you’ll give people a better sense of your personality and show that you’re an active artist. And if a fan responds to a blog post or video blog, respond as soon as you can and never leave them hanging.
  • Be genuine, be your unique self
The key to fan engagement is being your true self. Make sure to bring out your personality and you’ll attract like-minded people who you can have a genuinely deeper connection with.
  • Use emotion
People respond to emotion. Make people laugh, make them cry, inspire them, and they are more likely to respond and feel a deeper sense of connection to you as an artist. Use your lyrics, your personality, make engaging videos, well-written blog posts and show your emotions. You never know when somebody will really connect with how you‘re feeling.
  • Bundled options
Always offer buying options for everyone from a hardcore fan to someone who just wants to show a little bit of support for your career. From the single song download, to a personalized signed CD, to a bundled option with other merchandise, make sure there are plenty of options for the different level of fan.
  • Release great music
And last, but certainly not least, the most important thing you can do to create value for your music is to only put out great music. If you have 15 new songs, and even you would consider 4 or 5 of those songs as “filler”, scrap those songs. Only release the songs that are great. Only release the songs that will have a chance of standing out from the thousands of other songs out there. Focus your energies on fewer songs and do as much as you can with them: music videos, live videos, making-of videos, blog about the songs, etc. Make sure they are front and centre on your website and online press kit. These are the songs that are going to help you stand out from other bands, and these are the songs that fans will gladly pay money for.

It’s About Strategy

I’m not saying that you should never give away your music. Giving away an exclusive track or an exclusive live EP to get people to sign-up to your mailing list can be great ways to build your fan list. All I’m saying is don’t give away ALL of your music, especially if you’re not getting anything tangible in exchange. Make sure to have a strategy behind the giveaways and always get something in return whenever you give away even just one song. Get an e-mail address, get some information about the fan (where they live, their birthday, etc.), get a “like” on Facebook, or a re-tweet on Twitter.

There is Always Demand for Quality

There are indeed many, many artists out there, and the perception is that there’s more supply than demand, which is the argument for why the price of music has gone down. That might be true in some ways, but there is always a demand for quality music and for quality relationships. And people will spend money on quality. Developing a quality relationship with your fans might take more time, but the return on that investment of time is exponential. And if you take the time to focus on getting to know your fans and putting out great content on a regular basis, you’ll create value for yourself as an artist, and in turn, for your music. And when people perceive value, they will spend money on it, and music is no different.  

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