Should Your Music Be Free?

Often I see many potentially flourishing careers killed at the first hurdle due to money. In this new paradigm in the music industry the customer largely believes that music is (or should be) free, asking for money (especially as an up-and-coming act) can really put people off and ensure that the only people who ever get to hear an artists project is their friends and family.

Historically the recording of an album would carry with it substantial costs, and to record a good quality project the artist would need money invested into it and would therefore go to a record label. The label would give the artist an advance; a quantity of money which the artist was expected to use to create the album. The advance given by the label would be recouped from sales and royalties before the artist got to see any income from these revenues, and largely the advance would never be recouped, meaning that artists rarely made a lot of money from selling their recordings. Revenue streams such as radio/performance royalties, live performances, synchronizations (licensing your music to TV/film/video games) and brand sponsorships are generally a lot more fruitful to the artist than album sales.

Technological advancements have made it possible to record and digitally distribute an album for next to nothing, therefore allowing upcoming artists to bypass the traditional “label route” and release digitally without worrying about manufacturing and distribution costs. So independant artists are now able to release an album without worrying about trying to recoup money invested in them by a label, which is where the choice between free or retail comes into play.

A lot of artists (quite rightly) think that due to the amount of work and time that has gone into the album, that they should be rewarded financially for their work. This can sometimes lead them into the trap of charging $10/£5 for their project on iTunes/BandCamp, often selling about 20 units to their family members and close friends and making a quick $200/£100 but blocking their career from moving on any further.

Due to the amount of excellent free music available, fans are now very particular about spending money on a project. Look at it from their point of view; they’ve likely never heard of you before, why would they risk their money on your project, when established artists like J. Cole, Wiz Khalifa, Curren$y, Big K.R.I.T, Kendrick Lamar, Wale, Odd Future, 9th Wonder’s Jamla artists and many others all have full original projects available online for free. Many of these artists are now selling a lot of units, but they all started out releasing free music to establish themselves, and have reaped the rewards in the long term.

Your aim when releasing music should be first and foremost to get people to hear it, charging them for the pleasure is definitely an obstacle that should be avoided, especially with your first few projects (Actual Proof of Jamla Records told me that they usually work on a formula of three free releases before the fans know and follow an artist enough to be charged for a project). Many artists have used the model of releasing a few solid projects independently online before either releasing a independently released retail download via iTunes (e.g. Kendrick Lamar, Dom Kennedy, Smoke DZA) or a retail album (e.g. Wiz Khalifa, Drake, Tyler The Creator) and this model seems to be working well, with all of these artists eventually becoming very successful via this model.

It is also important to remember that, as I mentioned at the start of the article, revenue streams such as radio/performance royalties, live performances, synchronizations and brand sponsorships are a lot better for you if you are able to access them, and this will only come by getting your music out there and letting people hear it. These revenue streams are all accessible from a free project, whilst keeping a happy fan base who don’t have to pay to download your album (but will very likely buy a ticket to see you perform live, and purchase some merchandise while they are there).

One of my major gripes with up-and-comers is the fact that they often expect to be able to build up the hype to make their first project to do So Far Gone, The Warm-Up or Kush & OJ numbers. I usually get at least an email per day asking to be interviewed by an artist who only has one or two singles online, in the hope that they will build up a following who can’t wait to download their debut project. The fact is that all of these “instant success” mixtape releases have been preceded by tapes that even now, many people aren’t aware of, that introduced them to a fan base, who helped push the artists to a platform that allowed them to generate enough hype to crash Twitter. I can’t interview someone on the basis of a single, without the interview coming off generic and dry, as I don’t know enough about the artists, and therefore refuse every one of these requests. It is a much better strategy (in my eyes at least) to get a project out there, so that you can approach bloggers/journalists/friends/family/people sitting next to you on the bus and give them a project which tells them what you are about, and demonstrates exactly what you do, and how good you are at it. Getting a project in circulation is the only way you are going to be able to build enough hype to get huge download numbers. Nobody does it off the first one (and definitely not until it’s been out for a while and people have heard about it).

There are also a couple of alternatives that could bring in some revenue without affecting the accessibility of your music. The first one being Bandcamp’s “Choose Your Price” option, which allows you to set a minimum, and fans can decide how much they’d be willing to pay for your music. My recommendation here would be to set the minimum cost as zero, meaning that your music is still available as a free download, and is therefore there is no reason for fans to avoid it, but in a lot of cases (due, I find, to guilt) many people will pay a few dollars/pounds, meaning you can potentially generate a bit of income, whilst getting your music out there. Another model, which has been successful for Top Dawg Ent (Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, Jay Rock) is to release the project on iTunes, then drop it for free (with a couple of tracks missing) a couple of weeks later. The only issue with this, is that you could possibly annoy your loyal and paying fan base (which happened with me when Kendrick’s O.D. dropped, and again when Q’s Setbacks came out — having said that I am still a big fan of both artists). A third possibility would be this in reverse, many artists have released a project for free first, then put out a “deluxe” version on iTunes (or even physically) at a later date with a few extra tracks and some better mixing.

As you can see, strategies for releasing music these days are a lot more varied than they once were, and whilst I understand the attraction of a quick bit of income, I’d urge new artists to consider their long term career when deciding whether to price their project, or whether to just release it to the Internet and just allow people to listen to it. With a bit of online promotion and a free download, if your project is good, people will hear about it, and you will have a much more prosperous career ahead of you. Once you’ve released a few projects, and are happy about the size of your fan base and a confident about the number of people that you believe will be willing to pay for the album, then by all means, prepare for a retail release, and hopefully your hard work will pay off!

Category: Words I Manifest

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