When Trent Reznor expressed disappointment over Saul Williams’ sales data last January, bloggers and journalists offered many reasons why, when fans were given the option to download the NiggyTardust album for free or for $5, only 1 out of 5 downloaders chose to pay the $5. Some argued that there should have been an option to pay something less than $5. Others suggested that Williams wasn’t a big enough act to pull something like this off, and that Reznor may not have been the right man to endorse and market Williams’ style of music. And of course there was talk about sorry state of the recorded music business.
But I think there was a more fundamental problem with the payment option for NiggyTardust that was not emphasized enough in the analysis following Reznor’s annoucement: Fans were being asked to pay for music BEFORE hearing it. No previews, no 30-second clips, no nothing. Getting people to pay for music before hearing a single note is, as others have explained, a very tough thing to do. I have to imagine that some portion of the downloaders who chose free would have been willing to pay if they actually knew what they were getting beforehand.
(Now don’t get me wrong: There’s nothing wrong with people choosing to download an album like this for free. And given the tremendous promotional fallout from the NiggyTardust experiment, I personally don’t consider the release an economic disappointment at all. But I do believe that many fans want to support their favorite musicians when possible, and selling downloads isn’t dead yet. So for artists and labels, it’s worth thinking about how to incentivize fans to pay for digital music even when free is an option too).
I wonder what the percentages of free and paid downloads would have been if streaming audio clips of NiggyTardust had been made available on the website? My purely speculative guess is that some of the free downloaders would have chosen to pay (because they know they’ll love it), some would have chosen not to download at all (because they know they’ll hate it), and most would have still chosen free (because they’re not sure how they like it or they simply don’t want to pay). So they probably would have gotten a little more revenue this way, and still delivered the music to a lot of hard drives and iPods of potential long-term fans.
Going one step further, I wonder what would have happened if Reznor and Williams had emailed the free downloaders a couple weeks later and said something like, “Hey there, we hope you’re enjoying NiggyTardust. If you’ve decided you like the album, consider clicking the link below where, for only $5, you can download higher-quality audio files and help support Saul Williams.” Could a significant number of listeners be persuaded to pay after the fact? I guess someone’s just going to have to try it…
I suspect there were some other complicating factors going on here. The mainstream press is really reluctant to press any 'me too!' stories, which I suspect this one fell victim to. It's not the same story as the Radiohead experiment, but it's not sufficiently distinctive for most journalists to grasp the difference.
So despite the fact that I'm actually a bit of a Saul Williams fan (and a NIN fan from way back), I didn't even find out about the Niggy Tardust thing until Trent Reznor started complaining that people weren't doing it properly.
But that said, I'm a big believer (as you know) that people hear music, then they like it, then they buy it. And you can't do it in any other order.