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What are music fans willing to pay for?

I’m not a musician. I’m a fan. And from my perspective, it’s clear that fans do want to support artists that they like. Here’s a list of things that fans will pay for, even if they can get your music for free:

The music. First and foremost, many people will (and do) voluntarily pay for digital music, even if they don’t have to. This might be because it’s easier to use iTunes than BitTorrent. Or it might be because they want to support the artist. Or both.

CDs and merch. Atoms, not bits. You can listen to NPR for free. Do you pledge them money to support the programming, or for the This American Life DVD? I regularly buy merchandise as a way to support artists. I buy CDs at concerts, because I know the money goes directly to the artists (and because I can listen to them in my car).

Relationships. Anything signed or limited-edition is not just about the article itself—it’s about expressing a relationship with the artist. And relationships aren’t fungible. Jonathan Coulton and Amanda Palmer are two excellent artists who have close relationships with their fans, who in turn support them.

An experience. The canonical example of this is, of course, the concert – whether it’s $5 to see your favorite local band or hundreds of dollars for an arena show. But this also includes things like doing ’shrooms in a Lamborghini with your favorite drummer.

Something unique. A commissioned song is one-of-a-kind. It’s certainly worth something to the recipient.

A narrative. What’s a story worth? Apparently, quite a bit. The Significant Objects art project posts thrift-store finds for auction on eBay, along with the back stories. But the back stories are fictional, and are described as such. Nevertheless,  the items go for substantially more than their market value.

What are you willing to pay for? What have you offered to your fans? Other thoughts?

This post is adapted from one at the music, technology and culture blog, zed equals zee. debcha is a music fan, academic, and geek (not necessarily in that order).


Reader Comments (9) As this article, responding to the 2009 UK Music Survey, shows, perhaps it is also a question of whether people are prepared to pay for music at all?

October 28 | Unregistered CommenterKim TMV

This is a pretty damn excellent conversation starter...I dunno what my vote is worth, but I'd definitely vote for moving this to the main feed so more voices get involved. Gathering some actual data on where existing musicians are getting most of their revenue stream from would be a good start. I know I've got a notebook full of stuff like that but I'm on the road at the moment.

October 29 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

Hey, here it is! Thanks to whoever did that. Reminded me to share my stuff...I just did two surveys that had modest turnouts and relevant results I'd like to compare with anyone else reckless enough to be sharing market research in public:

The Audible Hype survey got 55 responses, 81% of them from the US. 57% (a whopping 31 human beings) listen to vinyl. 37% go to shows with a cover charge once a year, 33% several times a year. (Side note: in answer to the question "Do you believe you can make a living in music in 2009" -- 38% said "Hell Yes," 30% said "Probably Not," and 32% are "Waiting to Find Out." General psychology at work!)

For the World Around surveys we got 72 responses, 70% from the US. I phrased things differently here: the question was about BUYING NEW vinyl, not just listening to it. 64% said yes, and about a dozen comments asked about getting vinyl from our roster. The most requested form of merch is still shirts, with USB drives and catalog subscriptions both tailing close behind.

November 4 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

I think all your points are spot on - especially for unique merch.. true fans will pay INSANE amounts of money for things like limited edition releases / signed box set (or even digital downloads with extras like cool PDF content included).. and experiences - concerts and even online experiences with the band / other fans.

As far as people not being willing to pay for music itself anymore - I think that's a much more complex issue than the numbers thrown around by the industry cover. There are a variety of user scenarios..

The sales are suffering for the most part from the loss of the apathetic music listeners who really aren't true music fans. These kids who would once buy an entire CD just to possess the one single they heard on the radio are now just streaming it on their laptops, downloading from a Russian MP3 site or getting it from a friend. They were never the primary fan base for the artists anyway.. but there are a lot of them and they add up.. and yes, they're not buying cds anymore and that's where the labels are losing money and there's absolutely nothing anyone can do to change it. But these aren't the kids you're going after when you go after BitTorrent users (most of these people would have no clue how to "get a torrent file to 'work'").

The biggest music lovers are the people who are most active on these Torrent sites.. and the same people who spend THE MOST money on the artists (see : .. so do the artists really want to stand behind taking these kids to court?

Most people i know use BitTorrent sites to figure out if they like the music at all - but, once a fan, these people will spend copious amounts of money - paying for the files even after they posses them - plus merch + concerts. Friends who are active on BitTorrent sites almost always go back and pay for what they end up liking - to the extent that one friend purchased SEVEN COPIES of an album (digital files) from the artist's site in order to distribute them to his friends. Shee already HAD the music.. she was simply paying tribute to the band for producing it. True music fans are very much PRO artists getting paid for providing good music.

On the downside, if the music sucks the files are usually just ditched - but this is a sink or swim industry anyway - Rule #1 For Success will never change: Don't Suck.

The reality is that the ease of file sharing (online and off) has changed the game and there's no going back. In the end, it's the industry giants that will suffer the most (big labels / publishers - until they change their model for making money) - not the (smart) artists. They will adapt.

I've worked in this industry for 15+ years and no UNsigned artist I know is suffering hugely because of these changes.. The unsigned musician (who doesn't suck) makes money the same way now as when i started - by touring and selling merch (including CDs at live shows - which people will are still buying - especially if the artist is smart and sits behind his own merch table).

In fact, technology, social networking and service sites have only made it easier for these guys to do what they have always had to do - get the word out. get their music heard. reach fans and connect. Now they can create a personalized web presence withOUT hiring a web designer (and create an app for their band). Now they can make a video with a couple friends and a cheap camera and get ot OUT THERE. Now they can record / mix their album without paying a studio thousands of dollars (+ burn and package their own cds / merch).

Anyway - obviously you'd have to write a book on the subject to begin to cover all the ways the game has changed - can't even scratch the surface in a comment ;) but i think the key lies in changing the way you think about what you're selling.. and how you're selling it. (here's an interesting point for selling too : because people will always pay for something special and/or personal.. period.

Thanks for starting this conversation and for the consistently great content on this site.


November 4 | Unregistered Commenterinvisiblepilot

Someone with free time today should grab the Hypebot invites to this:

"Online Music Consumer Behavior Seminar" sounds pretty relevent, huh?

November 5 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

Thanks for the kind words, everyone.

invisiblepilot, I think you've hit the key point: fans have to be invested in you to invest in you.

November 5 | Unregistered Commenterdebcha

I read a summary of a recent study that proved that those who illegally download the most music are also the biggest music supporters, spending much more than average, which I at least think is very accurate for myself. I admit to sharing albums with my friends, but I have always spent a giant portion of each paycheck on music since I ever started earning money.

That said, your list is very accurate. When choosing what to spend money on, it is more often with the bands that you develop relationships with. And that's also what the internet is allowing bands to do more easily than ever before.

November 5 | Unregistered CommenterMary Crosse


I, too, am a fan first and producer second, and I think you've really framed the question well. I think that one of the things utterly missing from today's music scene is a place to really nurture the relationship between the artist and the audience. I'm not talking about those venues/showcases that are more like a police line-up, or a meat-market, or a Wal*Mart, but a place that's inspiring, creative, and very mutually fulfilling to all who participate. A place that can be both intense and meaningful (the two fundamental properties needed to catalyze Conversation Capital.

This is what I hope to create with The Miraverse. With luck we will be operational this time next year.

November 13 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Tiemann

We recently purchased a "3-d printer" that can make little things out of plastic. At a recent show, in addition to our band's usual supply of t-shirts & stickers, we also offered little plastic space-invader pins and trilobyte models. Neither of these things had our band name on them, but fans LOVED them, and they ended up being our biggest sellers. It bothers me a bit that these "merch" items are only weakly related to our band - they fit our personality (science, video games, quirky technologies, etc), but have nothing to do with the music itself. We have plans for more tightly integrating this into what we do musically, and designing/printing merch that does have our band name on it (anyone good with cad software?). But I guess my point is: don't be afraid to get creative with your merch, even if it's only loosly related. Has anyone else done anything like this? (See pics at

January 28 | Unregistered CommenterNancy

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