Back when we attended the Winter Music Conference in March, workshop after workshop emphasized one point: artists have to put their music out for free to get noticed. Speakers at panel “Mad Men & Women: Marketing Campaigns” even pointed to Deadmau5’s early days at WMC, passing out his tunes to attendees. So, if it can work for Deadmau5 nearly 10 years ago, it can work for the rest of us – right?
Free music – to start a career, to keep interest, and to ultimately stay ahead in the music industry – divides artists and industry professionals, with many stating the process is a must and others ardently opposed. High-profile artists, such as David Guetta, endorse the practice, and even more consider it a career necessity. Rusko implemented it into his strategy for releasing music, as of October 2012. In preparation for his Kapow EP, the dubstep producer revealed all albums and EPs will come out for free through his website from now on.
“The natural thing for me to do is release ‘KAPOW’ myself. How I want,” Rusko said in a statement. “The way I want and at the speed I want. It’s about promotion and not profit – I want to give the fans the music in real time. If they can help me promote it, too, then it’s essentially what a label does anyway but just without copyright restrictions. The fans are key in the success of ‘KAPOW.’ If you like it, send it to a friend. I just want everyone to be able have my music if they want it.”
While Rusko’s albums still appear on iTunes and major magazines like Rolling Stone provide press, the viral propagation effect has kept Pretty Lights’ career afloat for the past few years. In a 2011 Spinner.com interview, the producer born Derek Vincent Smith revealed that giving music away pays his bills, which, at the time, encompassed a separate tour bus solely for recording on the road, LED panels for live performances, and five-person off-tour and 11 on-tour staffs.
In fact, a study from Michael Fiebach’s Fame House found, Smith’s putting out free music with a Bit Torrent partnership significantly drove traffic to his site, all while making an EP-single-video bundle the highest download off Pirate Bay.
Yet, while the free music drives the traffic to the site and populates Smith’s shows, he has to consider how his approach will make him money. “I’m spending $250,000 on this record out of my own pocket, so it’s like I’m trying to figure out what I’m gonna do to recoup that,” he told Spinner.com in 2011. “I can sell a record and give out an EP, or I can just be straight up and be like, ‘Yo, man, I’ve given y’all eight albums, buy one.’ I’m trying to figure that out. Or maybe I’ll just eat it and be like, ‘This is me really believing in changing the game in this way, and this music is dope. Here, take it.’ I’m still piecing together a game plan on how exactly this record’s gonna come out.”
Based on these successes, free music appears like the way to go, but as artists like Pretty Lights, Rusko, and Guetta have established fan bases, the hear-like-buy model results in monetary gains. The question is, for artists with nascent fan bases, does this strategy actually work?
The Case for Free
Based on the models Pretty Lights and Rusko have employed, free music forms the gateway to actually making money, which comes from live shows, merchandising, or sales from iTunes and Beatport. Think Like a Label’s Jeremy Belcher, in “Why You Should Give Your Music Away for Free,” claims that, because digital music destroyed decades-strong record industry practices, listeners won’t buy from a band they don’t know. As a result, something free – a song, a video – must be out there to attract interest.
“Do you think OK Go would have been as successful as they are if they had charged people to watch their famous treadmill video? Hell No,” Belcher wrote. “Very few people would have paid for it, and they sure as hell wouldn’t be as big as they are now. The more fans you have, the more people there are who will buy what you are selling.”
Free content attracts potential paying opportunities, NewMusicStrategies.com pointed out all the way back in 2008. While “Why Give Music Away for Free” proclaims free should never be a business model, it can be a strategy – an offering without significant future efforts that leads to better opportunities.
SongCastMusic.com echoes this, explaining artists miss out on valuable promotional opportunities when music isn’t free, as consumers now expect readily-available cheap or free songs.
Just like social media, free music can have an effect or every little influence – it’s all in the artist’s strategy. Ditto Music cofounder and CEO Matthew Parsons talks about social currency and reciprocation in regards to free music and social media: While fans may have to do something (such as “like” a Facebook page or joining a fan club) to download a track, the artist should be involved, such as sharing or retweeting to build a strong fan base. Beyond a “like,” fans should have to seek out the free music at some point or receive it only through making another purchase (tickets or merchandise).
The Case Against Free
EDM is a whole ‘nother animal, however, and lasting power has to be stronger, unlike OK Go’s video strategy. In “Everything is Popular is Wrong: Making it in Electronic Music, despite democratization,” Bulgarian-German DJ Stefan Goldmann admits that electronic artists have a harder time establishing themselves because of two factors: “lowered barriers to participate,” or simply the ease of software and technology available, and the extremely chaotic marketplace making discovery of new artists harder for both the DJs and producers themselves and the listeners.
But, Goldmann points out, this phenomenon took off in the 1980s, with use of the four-track tape recorder and home studio capabilities. This approach, he claims, still hasn’t significantly affected major labels but has killed indie establishments, presenting the end-user with millions of tracks and creating a loss for the performer, who often has to be both an artist and a label and spends less time making quality music.
“Being a ‘musician’ is increasingly becoming a profession for those coming from inherited wealth or being mercantily exceptionally clever,” he wrote. “It’s less then ever a question of the intrinsic quality of the music. What used to be done by professional enthusiasts now becomes the domain of the artists — turning them into designer, PR dude, and distributor. It all subtracts from the time spent actually creating music.”
Yet, with proponents of free music pushing the notion that losses from free tracks get recouped in live music, Goldmann states this is less and less the case with electronic music. Two factors are at work: the high turnover and the high concentration of DJs. As we have seen with the producer prodigy phenomenon, a couple of high-charting singles propels a 21-year-old to the main stage of the Ultra Music Festival and into major club tours, but he’s quickly replaced with someone else.
Is it possible for someone like Avicii or Skrillex to continue that momentum, let alone an up-and-comer with a far lower profile? The former has put out free music (see social media-referencing tracks “2 Million” and “3 Million”), but critics have called his efforts, such as crowsourcing a track, unoriginal, and a polarizing soul- and country-influenced live set at Ultra could end up being a true career killer.
Even if the producer prodigy (or older DJ that hits it big) burns out, thousands are lined up to take his place. Because of the promotion aspect, DJs in Berlin, based on Goldmann’s observations, are willing to do sets for free.
Free, as well, sets up the tone for a career. Just like dilemma Pretty Lights faced in 2011, fans and listeners expect a free item to always be that way. Unlike Pretty Lights, Right Chord Music’s Mark Knight points out in “Can You Recover from Free Music, no promo budget results in fewer listeners finding and hearing the music.
“So by giving away your music for free, what have you achieved? Have you told more people about your music? Doubtful,” Knight wrote. “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?”
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