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November 03, 2011

To Free or Not to Free?

This morning, I got a mass e-mail from a friend who plays in the popular instrumental band Pelican. He was trying to spread the word about another project of his, San Angelus, which had just posted its new album for pay-what-you-want download on Bandcamp

Back in 2007, the idea of Radiohead releasing In Rainbows for free download was revolutionary. These days it's becoming routine to get free album announcements in my inbox. Columbia signee T. Mills released his new album Leaving Home for free. Successful songwriter Andre Merritt, who's written major hits for Rihanna, Chris Brown and Omarion, is about to drop his new album Elektrik City for free on 11/11/11. I've even encountered indie labels (the metal labels Throatruiner and Works of Ein come to mind; I'm sure there are plenty in other genres) that offer their entire catalog of digital albums for free download. 

I go back and forth on how I feel about free digital releases. On one hand, I recognize that for your average independent artist without a name and/or a major publicity budget, obscurity is a much more immediate problem to solve than record sales - a potential fan is more likely to take a chance on you if there's no financial risk involved in listening to your music. On the other hand, I'm concerned that the more independent artists and bands get used to giving away their music for free, the harder it will be to convince a fan to pay for anything. In other words, is the increasing prevalence of the free download model a response to changing patterns of consumer behavior? Or is it shaping that consumer behavior? And could either chicken or egg have a damaging effect on music creators' livelihoods?  

It's some small solace to find that major label marketeers are exploring these same marketing principles. ASCAP member and entrepreneur Minh D. Chau recently posted some thoughtful commentary about this very subject on David Carr's "How Warner Music Turns Social Media Fans into Customers" article from InformationWeek.com. In it, Chau summarizes what Warner executives Eric Snowden and Carmen Sutter said about their digital marketing strategy at the recent Web 2.0 Summit:

  1. When you're unknown, make it easy for people to engage (content is free, content is everywhere)
  2. When you become more popular, you can ask more from people (content is paid, content is exclusive)

Sound familiar? That's the same idea behind your band releasing your music for free via Bandcamp. It means thinking about digital music as less of a commodity in itself and more of a loss leader for a physical CD, or a live show, or a t-shirt. With indie artists and major labels both exploring this "freemium" model, perhaps the solution to the chicken or egg scenario becomes less important than what we can learn from how music consumers respond to it.

Think we'll see more majors releasing entire albums gratis? Have an anecdote about your success (or lack thereof) in releasing an album for free? Let us know in the comments field!