What’s the value of free music? Surely the artist has worked hard on it and should be appropriately compensated. This is an argument I hear pretty much every day form some corner of the internet. I have been around the music business to remember the days when CD’s where the primary form of music consumption and even an independent artist could shift boxes at the time at live shows. The distribution channels for the niche markets were not that far-reaching, especially for unsigned artists, but they were there. If you knew how to promote your album, you would get a respectable stream of sales.
The high cost of entry
On the other hand, the cost of entry was higher. Studio time was expensive. Home recording equipment was not yet able to produce professional quality unless you were willing to invest a small fortune. Promoting the album was expensive. You were sending physical copies to magazines in a hopes that they would review your record, or buy advertising space in the magazine. It was the early days of the internet. It would be a few more years before music blogs would start to appear. Music fans bought music magazines and read them from cover to cover.
You would not even dream about being able to reach thousands of people globally. Very few independent artists had music videos. Tours were organised by phone. The email was still a new form of communication and not used by most small-town venues.
But at the end of the day, people purchased physical copies of your music. It felt like all the hard work was worth it.
A different look
Today we play a completely different game. The cost of entry has dropped next to nothing. You can record your music and have it in the streaming services in a matter of days. The music can live in a digital form. You can DM your Dropbox link to hundreds of bloggers with hardly any cost. Videos can be filmed, edited and distributed by only using your phone.
Many artists who grew up in the “good old days” feel like their music is not valued anymore these days. I fully understand why they feel this way, but to survive in today’s music business, we need to take a different look at the value of the music. Recorded music is still as relevant as ever to the artists, but we need to take a broader view of how we make revenue from it.
Online music discovery
The job description of an independent artist has changed a lot. These days, we need to have multiple skills to navigate the modern music business. Social media has become the playground for music discovery and in many ways a gateway to a lot of opportunities. By us crying over how people don’t pay for music anymore is not going to change human behaviour. Streaming services are how people listen to music these days, and you are not going to change their behaviour by not having your music up there.
And here is something else for you to think about. Back in the day, when you sold an album, that was it. That was all of the money you were going to make from that album with that customer. With Spotify, sure thing you will get paid peanuts for a single play, but you will get paid every time someone listens to the track. If you focus on making so great music that people cannot stop listening to it repeatedly and learn how to promote it well, your music might keep making money from it years to come.
Blueprint on how to make money from free music
Now let me take this even one step further. Live shows are an excellent source of income for most artists. But when you are going to make the most of it, is when you start pulling a crowd. If the venue knows by having your name on the poster is going to fill the venue, you will get booked a lot. So why not look at this as an end goal with your recording? Why not give some of your music away for free, in exchange for email so that the next time you are playing in the town, you can email a several hundred people about your show? Maybe the value of your music is not just directly in the transaction of your fans purchasing it, but somewhere else.
Also, I can tell you from experience, the best way to sell physical albums these days is during live shows. Think of it this way. Make a good eye-catching video, share it on social media and encourage people to like or follow your page. Then drive them to your mailing list by offering a few free tracks in exchange. Once you have enough people on the list in a particular location, organise a show. Even though these people might already have some of your music, they will buy physical products after a great show.
The above is a simple blueprint for how to put a lot more value into free music. And don’t forget, it is not about what your fans can do for you, but what you can do for your fans.