Thursday, October 9, 2008

Don't Overestimate Free

There's a lot of hype about just giving your music away for free.

"Think of the exposure! So many more people will hear it and buy your concert tickets and t-shirts! They'll all want to buy your albums in the future!"

But this is false. It works well in theory, seems to make sense, so it gets all that hype. Using a completely unfounded statistic based on zero research other than what I've been reading by music industry theorists, I've concluded that 99.9% of those that hype the "Power of Free" are not musicians trying to break through obscurity.

Everyone can think of a time they turned down something free. Why'd you do it?

- Free doesn't work because there's no such thing as free. First, people assume you want something in return. Even if you don't, your music will occupy space on their shelf or hard drive. They have to invest the time and effort to listen to your music. And more often then not, people don't want free things because they have to figure out how to get rid of it if they don't like it. Even throwing it in the trash seems like a chore. People on the street wouldn't take the samplers because they would have to carry them around all night knowing they'd probably just throw it in the trash later.

Sure, people have huge appetites for music. My iTunes folder has 6,267 tracks--which is apparently 21.4 days worth of music. But there's a Public Enemy track on here that hasn't been played since December of 2006! Do I even like that song? If I'm not listening to some of the music I paid for, give me a good reason to listen to yours!

Along similar lines, people who might scoff at the size of my collection are likely people that just horde music (or they're trying to compensate for some other insecurity). There are people who will take anything and everything that's free, but that doesn't mean they're going to be your fan or even listen to your music. And it's highly unlikely that they'll buy anything from you, music, merch, or otherwise.

- Free doesn't work as a solution to massive distribution and exposure because it is too random and not focused on a particular group of people. Specifically, it's not focused on the people that would like your music. Giving away your music to 100 random people does not mean any of those people will like it, or even listen to it. But if you use a piece of criteria to find 100 more specific people, your music ends up in the hands of someone that might actually listen to it. My favorite piece of criteria is a similar but better known artist. You like the Meters? Then studies show you'll like my music! Which takes us to the next point...

- Free doesn't work without a trusted reference helping your target audience feel comfortable taking candy from strangers. Why do you think grocery stores use ladies that remind us of our grandmothers to hand out free samples? Because we won't suspect the poison. Similarly, this is why tracking "twinsumers" online is so helpful. The whole "listeners also bought" idea gives us a since of trust and direction as we browse online.

People need to feel their time, space and energy is worth your free music. Free suggests no value, and that's unattractive. That's one reason I think people are still buying music. But there are alternatives to creating value other than money. You can give away music in exchange for another product or service. You can ask for email addresses. You could even ask for people to spread the word. In fact, somebody needs to create a widget that gives away free music after the user forwards a note to 10 friends recommending that they check out your music. That idea's on the house, but let me know when you figure it out.

Placing some value on your music is key. It helps the right people find your music and let's them do something they're comfortable with in exchange. Sometimes it's give you money, but sometimes it's something entirely different.


Alex Athans said...


Great post, and very interesting. I wrote a bit more about the business side of free stuff on my blog, if you want to take a look.

Basically, I'm with you that "free" doesn't necessarily equal "good for the musician," especially considering that most digital downloads aren't paying the musician anything, which makes it difficult to continue being a musician.

I think you're discussion of targeting who you give your free stuff to is, for lack of a better term, on-target.

Great blog!

Angela said...

Thanks for the blog Cameron!

This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately as I've been finishing and EP and thinking about how to market it.

Originally I was going to give the downloads away for free, and charge for various packages, growing in price, that include other goodies (bonus tracks, t-shirts, signed copies, etc.).

Then someone pointed out that the leap from free to charging something, even something nominal, is enormous. Downloading something for free is always just a click away. Very little effort, commitment or thought is put into it, and therefore, the downloads are easily forgotten about.

But having to pay for something requires a commitment on the part of the purchaser. They have to dig in their wallet for their credit card, type in the info, and wait for the approval BEFORE downloading the tracks. Even just that little bit of time spent buying it gives it a bit more value in the music fans' eyes. I think people are more willing to listen, and if they like it, share it, because it's something they've committed to via their bank account. Even if they paid $1 for it.

So I agree, free is not all it's cracked up to be.

Thanks again for the post!