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Can You Recover From Free Music?

I’ve lost count of the number of articles I’ve read that insist bands and artists should give their music away for free.  Personally I believe, unless you have the benefit of on-going PR support or are reaching mass audiences through radio airplay, giving away your core product might just be a mistake you’ll never recover from. Here’s why…

Giving away your music might be a prudent strategy for artists like Prince that have successfully established, genuine, alternative income streams (EG tours) to sustain a living. However, for the average DIY, or unsigned musician who barely covers costs when they play live, is it really a smart strategy to remove your most obvious and immediate income stream?

The biggest challenge for any new artist, is to get people to listen to their music. Faced with this challenge it appears to make sense to remove as many barriers as possible that prevent such behaviour from occurring.

However, as a DIY musician it’s fair to assume you don’t have a budget for professional PR support, or a radio plugger to get your music out to mass music audiences.  So, if you do decide to give away your music for free, how many people are you actually going to be able to tell about it, and more importantly how many will actually listen? The reality… probably half a dozen devoted fans on Facebook. In fact probably the same half dozen fans who would have bought your music.

So by giving away your music for free, what have you achieved? Have you told more people about your music? Doubtful.  All you’ve really done is say to people who were actually prepared to support a struggling artist, “Don’t worry, from now on you don’t have to”. Now they expect free, will they ever pay again?

You only have to look back to the free newspaper wars in London to see this principle in action. Once commuters were able to pick up a Metro or London Paper for free, the number of people willing to pay for The Evening Standard plummeted, finally forcing them to give the paper away to survive.

The key difference with this example is while they lost money on paper sales, they were successful in reaching a larger audience of new readers (because the distribution channel was already in place) so they could charge advertisers more. Unfortunately, for DIY musicians if you take away the purchase price, and you don’t have the PR or distribution in place you: a) Don’t get a bigger audience and B) You definitely don’t have the benefit of advertising revenue as a back-up.

There is no denying that people love to share content on Twitter and Facebook, but what is it that really gets shared around? Let’s face it, it’s more likely to be the signed, radio famous artist than the new unsigned musician.  The reality is only a very small percentage of people will ever actively seek out new music, the majority simply wait for it to find them on radio.

So how do you do free? The answer is selectively. For a DIY musician, free music makes more sense as a way to retain and reward loyal fans than it does as a way to attract new ones.  Rather than giving away your core product – singles or whole albums, give them something money really can’t buy. This could be remixes, alternate versions or live tracks – always ensuring the quality remains high. (Giving away badly recorded demos is likely to do more harm than good).

If you follow this approach, giving away new, previously unreleased content you actually add value to ‘free.’ Now your ‘free’ becomes sought after, a genuine fan collectors’ item, and more importantly it doesn’t devalue your brand or your core product which you can continue to sell.

Mark Knight runs Right Chord Music (RCM), a music management and consultancy business that works with unsigned bands and independent artists. Alongside a new music blog, RCM offers a range of resources to help independent artists; including music marketing seminars, one to one sessions and best practice guides. RCM aims to bring the discipline of brand marketing to music marketing, helping artists promote their music in a more effective way.

Twitter: @RightChordMusic


Reader Comments (14)

I'm curious what you think about creative new models that offer more options than the choice between "free" or "paid."

The one that comes to mind is NoiseTrade, where everything is free but there's also a big push to leave a "tip" for the musicians. It seems to me that this leads to the kind of exposure bands need without sacrificing all the revenue.

What other interesting alternatives are there?

Kyle, another site is OKDJ has a social game where fans compete to promote an artist's free music release, and the artist rewards his Top Promoters for driving more exposure for his newly released music with free merchandise, concert tickets etc. Check it out at

I agree with you. I can't give away my whole EP for free but I can give away a single track. I can then build value with other free items like performance recordings or cover songs by request.

One thing I'm trying on my site Songs Tucker Wrote is offering a Commentary version of a song from my EP. This is where I share a short story with the song. It's only been up for a day so I'm looking forward to see what the responses to it are.

May 23 | Unregistered CommenterTucker

Hi Kyle, Andy

Thank you both for bringing these websites to my attention. My initial reaction is one of curiosity, the idea behind both sites is sound, and by bringing together a community of music fans they could in theory provide the mass audience required to make free music giveaways valuable for new artists. (who dont have the support of a label or PR company) The cynic in me wonders how many people sign up to these websites in support of one artist and then never visit again. I'd love to be proved wrong though!

May 23 | Unregistered CommenterMark Knight

Another benefit of Noisetrade is capturing the downloader's email address. That way, the artist can foster a connection to sell tickets, merch, and music down the road.

I notice many artists give away EP's, live albums, or rarities on Noisetrade for an email address. When a flagship release comes up, they still sell it through iTunes and other paid sources.

In short, smaller budget releases are used as fan acquisition tools.
Bigger budget releases are more heavily monetized.

I disagree. Most of us who are in bands are not looking to make a few dollars, what we want is to be able to make a living out of music. When you are an unknown band your goal should be to reach as many ears as possible and putting a price on your music is a big obstacle to achieve this. Now, if you are in a mediocre band and your songs are not that good, then like you said, it won't matter if you give your music away, because people won't listen and you could have at least gotten $40 from your family and friends who'd feel obligated to buy your album. It doesn't make sense to worry about making $40, $100, or even $200, if what you really want is to make a lot more, just like it doesn't make sense spending $1500 on nice CD packaging for your CD.

Me and my band, The Watermarks, decided to offer our previous EP as a free download as an experiment, and the response was so amazing that we give all our music away for free from a number of sites. We even upload it to torrent sites, and encourage "illegal blogs" to post our music. If you're unknown and you sell your music no one will bother to distribute it illegally, which means that a lot less people will know who you are. We also encourage donations. Now our music gets distributed multiple times more than it used to and we also make more money from donations. And the best part, was having our EP reviewed by dozens of music blogs from all over the world, all of them positive reviews. Our plays on Last.FM increased tremendously, as well as our number of Twitter followers and Facebook fans, and our first video was watched by thousands of people, a great number of views came from Europe. We believe in giving away our music so much that we even give away our physical CD's for free at our shows whenever we can. We put a donation box besides our CD's and we always get a decent amount of money, certainly much more than before, when we used to sell our CD's for $5 and sold an average of 2 per show. Last year we were lucky enough to open for Echo & The Bunnymen and play in front of 1000 people, and we made 100 CD's and also gave away buttons. All the CD's were taken, we sold several t-shirts, which is very rare, and in the donation box there was more money than we got from the venue. However, even if we didn't get donations, I'd still give our music away for free, because at this point in the game it's not about the money.

Last week we released a new single and a video for the single and the response has been even better then with our last EP (in case you're interested:

Not only I think giving your music away for free is a positive thing, but I think that selling your music is a mistake most of the time.

May 23 | Unregistered CommenterCesar

I think in the current atmosphere of music consumption a big advantage is that musicians are able to give away their music for free to help spread the word about themselves which in turn will help them grow their fan base. When a new product is released the company releasing it usually gives it away for free to promote it. They spend tons on marketing and still give away their product (at first). I think we all have to get used to the fact that Torrenting isn't going away and musicians are going to have to expect not to make as much from selling albums as they once did. Also, DIY musicians need to do every single thing in their power to get their music heard by everyone they can because there is so much else competing for people's time now, not to mention all the other musicians trying to achieve the same thing you are. We live in a world where the only chance to be successful as a musician is to build a loyal fan base on your own without the hundreds of thousands of dollars and connections major labels used to invest and because of this giving away music to help market yourself is one of the only leveraging powers we are lucky enough to be afforded.

Free album download at

May 23 | Unregistered CommenterChancius

Hi Cesar,

I think your comment sums up my point - I'm not saying bands shouldn't give their music away. But if they do they must have a plan to reach a critical mass of people. Whether through professional PR or DIY hard work and making full use of Torrents. A lot of bands could learn a lot from what you have achieved by making it happen. Most sit back and wait for the world to come to them!

May 23 | Unregistered CommenterMark Knight

This is definitely true, it's a lot of hard work. Making sure to thank every single person that mentions us on their blogs or recommends our music, making our music available in every single site we can, having a live show that's unique, engaging with our fans, which I don't like to call fans, but friends, like on Facebook, for example, we don't use our page like every single band out there who will only announce their shows, post the show pictures, thanks the fans for coming to their show, and try to sell products, I think that's the best way to make your fans lose interest. I like to have conversations with them, and post music related videos that might be interesting, or even funny videos, talk about the music industry, and all the anti-piracy nonsense, etc, etc, etc. We probably promote ourselves about 10% of the time.

But going back to thanking the people who mentions or recommend us, and how important this is, one of the coolest things I've experienced was when I got a Google Alert saying someone had mentioned us in some forum. It was a German forum based on Berlin, and someone just recommended our music. I didn't want to register to be able to reply to his thread, but I did, and as soon as that happened more people joined the thread. Some people didn't want to download our music because they needed to give out their email address, so I just uploaded everything to our site and gave them the link to download our music directly. Everyone was pretty nice, but the cool part happened afterwards, when they added our music to the forum's playlist, and then our we started getting a crazy number of hits on our video for Fast Song, and they were all coming from Germany, we got more hits in a couple of weeks than the previous 6 months, I was blown away. And just because I wanted to thank the person who mentioned us. Just a little story that you might find interesting. Or maybe not, hehe.

May 23 | Unregistered CommenterCesar

I like your idea of giving your fans something extra for their support. I work for a website called Legitmix that provides an innovative way to do this.

Basically, Legitmix was created to free DJ's up from copyright clearance. A DJ puts up his work that contains copyrighted samples and identifies the songs he's sampled. Then we create an instruction set that fans can buy which uses their copies of the original tracks to digitally recreate the remix. Because the fan needs the original tracks both the DJ and the original artist get credit and get paid.

For an indie artist who wants to give away some extra goodies to their fans Legitmix can work like a fan check. You can put up a free remix but require your fans to have your album to be able to recreate it. Legitmix will check their music folder, find your album and use it to give your fans some cool extra content. And if their missing a track we can sell it to them right through our store.

As much as I worry about free music, I think Amanda Palmer proved with her kick starter campaign that people really want to support artist they love. We just have to provide them with a way to do it that is fun and rewarding.

May 24 | Unregistered CommenterNeal Mc

As a music composer/songwriter/producer, income from music sales. streaming and licensing is core to my business. I perform occasionally but its not a main part of what I do. I have tried various strategies to reach audiences - providing music for free, by donation, for an email address, for a discount price, for full price. If I was doing this as a hobby, which I did for many years, then my goal would be to reach lots of people who would get enjoyment from my music. I decided a few years ago to have a professional goal of making a reasonable income. This has proved more difficult than I thought. What I have learnt is that if someone really likes your music they will pay any reasonable price for it. If you give music away for free then many people expect that forever and you can get stuck with free-loaders - a bit like some businesses find with Groupon where they get new customers because the discount deal is so cheap, but not long-term customers. Exchanging free music for a email address can build a contact list of sorts for future mailings, but again how many of those are true fans. By donation schemes do seem to engender good will but I have never made much money out of those myself. If I was a performing artist I think this would work better. Ultimately, I think it comes down to creating at least one really great piece of music that hooks people into your music world. Create a great video and get it out there as far and wide as possible. Good content pushed hard enough will bring genuine fans who will naturally want to share and spread your great music around.

Mark, thank you so much for offering up this perspective, if only because we in the indie-music community needed a "counterpoint" stake in the ground against which to weigh the prevailing notion. Like in so many instances, I think the truth lies somewhere in between (and maybe that's what you're saying - "FREE" should be a targeted strategy, not a default).

For me, a happy medium has been free streams of everything I'm going to release, but purchase (digital or physical product) is pay-only. Honestly, I'm not sure whether my music career is headed on a trajectory that will necessarily ever allow me to earn a majority of my income from it, but I would at least like to cover the cost of my EP release project, just out of consideration for the bottom line of my own personal income stream. Charging for my discs (and other pre-sale, crowd-funding-styled offers) is the most realistic way to do it.

May 25 | Unregistered CommenterDan Hylton

Save the money you might have spent on a radio promoter and give your music away free. Radio is a complete waste of time, unless you're just trying to impress your mother

May 29 | Unregistered Commenterjesselun

Great topic!
What about giving away a demo version of a song to be released using "pay by tweet"?

June 4 | Unregistered Commentercostas

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