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Free Music Doesn't Mean Devalued Music

The concept of zero took ages for societies to recognize—let alone understand—and it’s been a stumbling block in economics recently, especially for the music industry. Those who think about economics in terms of scarcity get upset when abundance pushes price down towards zero (as we’ve seen with digital audio files), as if the economic equation was broken (even though it isn’t).

But artists and other creators hit a different stumbling block than economists: zero is a problem because they feel like their art is worthless.

They aren’t hung up on scarcity. They’re hung up on “devaluation.”

The thing is, value and price are not the same. Price is monetary value, but value is so much more than money. Price gets driven down to marginal cost, but value factors into the demand side of the equation. Expensive things aren’t necessarily valuable, and valuable things aren’t necessarily expensive. I value oxygen a lot, but it seems silly to pay for the air I breathe.

Songwriters who get hung up on “devaluation” confuse recordings with music. They equate the two. A recording is not the song, it’s just an instance of it, and a digital audio file is just an instance of the recording. Equating these reduces music to recordings, to files. As important as recordings are, there’s so much more to music! When you think of a song, do you think of the recording, or a memory you had connecting with the music? Do you think of the file and how much it cost, or the emotions and relationships that the music conjures up? The recordings are just a means through which we experience the music. Songwriters (of all people!) should know that the value in music is so much more than the price of a recording. It’s not devaluing music to give it away for free, but it can increase its value by allowing more people to connect with it, to know, love and understand it—to value it. It’s through that experience that music is valued, not price!

Ironically, the underlying concern ends up being economic—how will we make money? A price of zero for digital audio files doesn’t mean that no one values songwriters, or that no one is willing to spend money on music and keep them in business. The trick is to flip the economic equation, and think of it as a cost of zero, and then you realize that the trick is to use as much of those abundant goods as possible—sharing digital audio files makes the music more valuable and leads to more opportunities for monetization. When you give music away and connect with an audience, the opportunity for monetization is in the associated scarcitiesaccess, containers, community, merchandise, relationships, unique goods, the creation of new music, etc.—by giving people a reason to buy. Getting distracted by “devaluation” prevents you from seeing the opportunity—the necessity—to experiment with new business models.

Can we please stop complaining that free means devalued?

Blaise Alleyne is a songwriter who plays violin for lots of other songwriters. He’s also a programmer, a writer, and an advocate for free culture. Previous versions of this post have appeared at and on Techdirt.

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Reader Comments (4)

I think you're right. The important thing is to know how to leverage free music.

First, there needs to be some kind of perceived value associated with the free music. If people don't know an artists then they're probably going to want to hear the music before they decide to download it. People aren't going to get too excited by the thought of a free download unless they're convinced that there's a solid chance that they're going to like it. Social proof, good photography and clever marketing can prompt people to bite on your free music offer. Then, if they like you need to capitalize on your opportunity.

Your free download should initialize a relationship that will hopefully last a long time and be a win-win for everyone. The key is to have a good mailing list that you use properly. If you can build up enough perceived value, for example, at a live concert, where you're able to convert people into fans on the spot, then you can get away with giving out downloads in exchange for email addresses. You can set this up with download cards through Otherwise, it's critical to make your mailing list signup form easy to find and to give people a good incentive to sign up. You can offer free downloads as an incentive.

Once you get people on your mailing list, it's important to engage them. Don't just collect names. Have a plan. You can set up an autoresponder sequence though a company like I'm about to set this up for a client of mine so that his subscribers will get a free download every month for a year. Each email will give the subscriber a good reason to open it and will also remind them of the opportunity to buy a full length cd and/or merch.

So to bring my point home, I agree, free music can be very valuable. Hopefully it's very valuable to the person on the other end. If it is valuable to the person on the other end then you just need to leverage that into value on your end and to initialize a series of win-win interactions.

December 21 | Unregistered CommenterScott James

I definitely agree with your post. However for the last 50 years the music business was equated with the record business. The value of music is equated with what the consumer perceives to be the worth of owning it in whatever format it may be available in. This is why superfans are willing to buy $100 box sets. To them the value of the music is equated with the experience and the entire energy surrounding that artist's brand. Hence the recordings themselves may never have the same value that it once had but the value of the brand that each artist posses and hopefully maintains can certainly be capitalized upon in terms of touring, merchandizing and focusing on their superfans that are really the backbone of any music venture.

December 21 | Unregistered CommenterAllessandra

In response to the past 50 years in the music business as the record business. Music was really never a business until the 1950s. Performing arts were a business, yet not a very lucrative one. PT Barnum had more to do w/creating a business of performance, hence music, than anyone you can imagine. He created the art of press agentry...or buzz around live events.
Hence the term three ring circus.

The music industry has become as manufactured as the auto industry. There is obviously a measure of genius behind both. And each has become a technological phenom unto itself. Yet, I fail to see true artistry in any kind of just doesn't exist.
Janet Hansen

December 26 | Unregistered CommenterJanet Hansen

wow what a great explanation of something ive tried hundreds of times to tell my friends in bands haha i just sent a link to this to about 40 people

January 4 | Unregistered Commentercraig

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