When Should You Give Away Free Music?

About a month ago, we posted an article in support of musicians offering free downloads for their tracks. Numerous music forums and sites continue to grapple with this idea – how does offering free music really affect your worth as a musician?

Should musicians give their fans and the public the option to choose which songs they pay for and which they’ll take for free? Or should musicians give free samples of a select few songs and sell the rest?

The musician’s career, like any artist’s, is a process; trial and error. The musician tries, and tries, and tries until they catch a break — land a radio hit, tour with a well known brand, find the right marketing formula — whatever it may be. Sell a few tracks, give more away, tour, promote online and in the streets, offer a special free download giveaway and then try to sell some more tracks.

With the advent of the internet, DIY labels and self promoted artists, via sites like Bandcamp and Kickstarter, the music industry is both a public and private space. For most musicians, their music is also their career, a place to monetise their experiences.

The Changing Landscape of Music
At the height of tangible music sales — records, cassettes, CDs — this was the avenue to realise and quantify success. As online piracy parallelled and surpassed actual sales, the music industry saw a rise in tours and live concerts, back to the days when live music was the only option to hear the phenomenon.

haile supreme of Congo Sanchez

Musician Haile Supreme who is currently touring with the “psychedelic tribal house” band Congo Sanchez, says he does not charge fans for any downloads of his music. “I would only have people pay for my music if a record label made me,” he said. Supreme wants to keep an open dialogue with his fans. When they download his music online, from sites like his Bandcamp, Supreme only requires contact information.

He says he is able to keep in contact with fans and interested listeners this way and invites them to live performances and sends updates on upcoming tours. Supreme believes live shows are where you connect with your audience on a raw level, the true point of making music. A live stage is a space that cannot falsify talent with engineers and producers.

In December 2013, Music Industry How To published the article, “Why Not Letting Fans Buy Your Music Cheapens Your Brand and Loses You Money.” The author touches on several points of branding yourself as a musician and giving monetary worth and value to your sounds, under subheadings like “Not Selling Your Music Cheapens Your Brand,” and “Too Much Free Music Trains Fans Not to Buy.” Regardless of marketing tactics and whatever modes other people think they should value your music with, the music, the product, is the most important factor to measure and value music by.

You are not cheapening your brand or your music by not selling your music, you do that by creating cheap music.

Avoiding Buyer’s Remorse
Buyers remorse is the worst remorse. Established fans and potential interests need to be shown the product (your music) before only given the choice to buy. While artist confidence is crucial, musicians need to trust and respect their fan’s ability to choose and have preferences.

A musician may choose at different points of their career to offer free downloads. To promote a debut album. To promote any new album. Although no formulaic answer will satisfy this debate, the answer may come through balance — possibly offering one fourth of the songs on a new EP for free, while also promoting and offering a full sale of the EP. Satisfy your own wallet and your fans.

Musicians need not only to make out their feelings in song, but to relay to the public why their song, their product, is worth consumption. Musicians can quantify consumption not only through monetary worth but with the help of technological tools, through data analytics and old-fashioned audience feedback.

There is no foolproof way to garner fans or sales. An active online presence, a physical presence at live shows and the constant production of music all play a factor. Musicians need to have an open dialogue about brand management methods, free music and “selling out.”

Image Credit: The Active Soul/Modern Hieroglyphics

Niko Nelson

Niko Nelson is currently a MFA student in Los Angeles with an unrelenting devotion to music journalism of all genres. Although punk rock holds forever a place in her soul, she is passionate about the many subgenres of electronic music.