To free or not to free: I am begging you to listen to my music, but only because you want to…???

Courtesy of local music scene satirist Richard Douche-ard. Used without
his damn permission. Try and stop me!
To free or not to free?
I’ve been having a series of conversations on Facebook (12) about various components of the value of music and, much like other aspects of life (stupid Hollywoodized rules for dating for example), we’re caught between…
1) a stereotypical “please please” listen to my music form of begging… 
…juxtaposed with…
2) “I’m being cool about it and I’ll let you buy my music and check it out because it’s what you want to do” aloofness designed to maintain value and mystique.
Truth: I want to just give away my music.*

I really do. It’s nice to make back some money selling it as it costs a lot to keep a band going, but the most important thing to me is that the most people hear it and enjoy it. So, I should just give my music away to everyone who will take it? I say, at least mostly, no. (Lots of others do too or maybe they don’t.) The reasons are complex and I am still trying to navigate them and come to a conclusive decision. I’d really love to figure out how. This post is my initial thought-dump on free distribution of music. I hope it opens up more conversations and more avenues of thought, and that it helps me find an optimal working method for my own work.
*That said, if you want any of it, just ask me and I’ll gladly send you download links…but you have to ask. I won’t offer it to you. Huh?

There are numerous articles about the difference between price and value. There is a famous (and probably ongoing) debate about whether people in high-risk areas for malaria are more likely to use mosquito nets that they are given for free or that they paid a small amount for (1 2 3). The situation for musicians is, however, is not much like mosquito nets. There are huge numbers of people creating music. If we look at one arbitrary metric, iTunes has more than 20 million songs available! When I write a song, I am pretty sure the world doesn’t really need it. There isn’t a supply shortage. I write my music for myself, but then at least some part of me yearns for justification by having it reach others.

I’m begging you to listen…

While I don’t know the answer for everyone, I can speak about my experience for context. I can only assume an average person operates similarly, but I have no idea. I don’t think people value music they are handed, and, even worse, they start with a baseline “this music is bad” mentality when they begin listening. Most music is bad. Tons of musicians are vying for my attention, begging for me to listen to their music, handing me CDs, e-mailing me tracks, spamming me on Facebook…and I don’t even have any real power or clout to offer them. Even if I love their music, I can’t really do much of anything to help them succeed. 

When people ask me to listen to their music, I almost never do. I don’t have time and I don’t have interest. If you hand me a CD, it will take me some 15 minutes to open it, put it into my computer, rip it (and probably type the stupid track names in because most people handing me a CD haven’t bothered to put their disc into freedb), and then open the files. Chances are, it’s just not going to happen. I don’t mean that as a personal slight to anyone, I just won’t do it. If you send me a download link to your music (on bandcamp or something similar) after I’ve had a conversation with you, the chances are greater. If you are on Spotify, the chances are actually very high. I’ve been storing a “music to listen to” playlist and the time/risk/cost of adding your music to that is extremely low and I won’t forget about it. Sure, that playlist contains thousands of songs at the moment, but I do seem to be making pretty regular digs into it. I listen to tons of new music, particularly local music – almost 100% because I regularly hear about or read about bands. I trust when someone tells me they like a band that they have no stake in. I check it out. Still, I have far less time to do this than I have music I’d like to check out.

If you send me an unsolicited link via e-mail and we haven’t met or talked and I have no context for you, there is less than zero chance that I will listen. In fact, I will probably actively avoid listening to your music forevermore. Why? I don’t know. It sounds mean and awful, but there is some kind of social wall that I feel is being eroded when I get these messages. Unless I know you pretty well, I will probably unfriend you or block you on Facebook if you post a link on my wall to your music or event. Again, I hold some value in my private (public) space. I also cannot keep you as a friend on Facebook, but block you from posting on my wall. I don’t care if you invite me to a million events because I can block you from inviting me to events (and I just pretty much block everyone from inviting me to events as matter of making the site usable – this way, I can use the events system to actually track events). I never look at messages on Facebook, so I also don’t care if you spam me there. I will never see it. 
When you do all these things (or when I do all these things), the message is: this music has no value…so much so that I not only offer it for free, but essentially put time, money, and resources into begging you to listen to it.

Does that mean you should never “beg” people to listen to your music? Well, the line blurs between begging and promoting…

Possible successful “begging” techniques for giving away music for free: 


1. Get someone with a reputable name to give away your music for free

People perceive someone else talking about your music very differently than when you talk about it. The divide widens when it’s someone with a reputation. Recently, we gave away a new The Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library track on MAGNET. When I post that you can download our song on MAGNET (vs. our site), everyone is far more likely to perceive the song as being good (just by virtue of someone else offering it) and everyone is far more likely to share in the vicarious excitement of the song (by someone they know or follow) being touted by someone else that they’ve heard of. I am not sure that a ton of people who follow MAGNET will download the file, but I am sure that way more of my friends and followers will download it than if I just sent them to my website. Sadly, “reputable” endorsement seems to be the most powerful of movers. I’d love to say quality is the prime mover, but I don’t think it is.


Tangent: when The Motion Sick appeared in SPIN prior to ever playing a single show, we were immediately taken seriously and it became easy to book shows at venues that would never be attainable to a new band with no connections. As it turns out, being in SPIN sold fewer CDs (and downloads) than we sold on numerous good show nights throughout the years, BUT it made everyone we personally know take our band a lot more seriously. Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling‘s recent appearance over at TIME had a similar effect in justifying our existence to friends and family. The music doesn’t change just because SPIN or TIME writes about it, but the way people perceive it absolutely does. Most of these things won’t break you with huge new audiences, but they will strengthen your ties to your existing audience.


2. Offer it for a limited time

This week only, download our song. No one wants to miss out on a limited-time offer
Caveat: The problem is, our music is always available on Bandcamp in streaming form (we don’t get paid for that) and Spotify (we do get paid for that). So, I am not sure I can ever offer a limited-time offer unless we remove that, which brings forth other problems and concerns.
For fan club members only!!!

3. Offer it to a select group of people who are engaged in a special way

Believe it or not, people are EXTREMELY reluctant to be on an e-mail mailing list. They are far more likely to “like” a page on Facebook or follow someone on Twitter than to sign up for their e-mail list. From my perspective, my e-mail list is the only way to reach people that is in my control and has at least moderate reliability. So, I’ve been rewarding my list subscribers by providing a free sampler of my music every month that usually includes unreleased tracks or other special items that ONLY people on the list receive. The key here is that most e-mail list subscribers view being on the list as a deeper connection than say, following a band on Facebook. 
Downloading a track for free in exchange for an e-mail address also works, but is a little bit tricky. Bandcamp presently offers this option (and I use it regularly), but I am afraid that the users feel kind of like they’ve been duped when they see “free” and then ultimately have to enter their e-mail address and get added to your list!

4. Pay-what-you-want?

This is the one I’ve been struggling with the most. It actually makes the most sense logically from my perspective, but I think it acts as a pretty serious deterrent when it’s happening under scrutiny, which it is when we are collecting e-mails and other data. People don’t want to feel cheap. They don’t want the onus of deciding the value of the music placed on them.

In one case that I am aware of, The Lights Out, used an unobserved merch case (with cash box lockdown) allowing people to drop money into the box and collect merch at any price they felt fair. My understanding is that this has been a very successful approach and doesn’t not make the buyer feel that they are under surveillance or being judged.

UPDATE: Here’s a video tour of The Lights Out‘s merch case:

So where does that leave us?

Should we forget free?!?!?!?

I think we can’t ignore free. That is, a consumer probably should not be expected to directly pay money in exchange for your music at the instance of consumption any longer (or much longer) – see rant below. Does that mean artists make no money? Not necessarily. We need to shift paradigms. More importantly, we need to present value to consumers without cost. Of course, we’re all still trying to figure out how! We’re in an in-between space at the moment and it’s a very difficult one to crawl through…

My rant on the future of consumption below, but first…

PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE check out my music! I am begging!

My rant from Facebook: I think musicians have to stop pretending that music has much consumer value and stop expecting that people are going to pay historical prices for it. The giant corporate conglomerate market control and price fixing has ended. Now, music is so overwhelmingly available and has become virtually worthless as a commodity. We need to accept it. Does that suck for musicians? Yes, it does. Is it the reality? Yes, it is.

I view music purchasers as “supporters of the arts,” if you will. They are not doing it to get the commodity; they are doing it to encourage the artist to keep doing what they are doing. It’s turning more toward patronage, it’s not consumerism anymore (or it won’t be for very much longer I believe). We have a culture that does not value art very much financially. Thus, art has little monetary value. You can throw a tantrum about that, but it’s not going to change the facts. While I don’t support piracy in a general sense, I think we need to acknowledge that the value of music was faked for so long and that the modern consumers demand music for free (or pennies). Again, sucks for musicians, but it’s how it goes. No one has a right to make a living being an artist. Artists need to stop demanding that right if the market doesn’t support it. We can come up with a million reasons why our music should sell for as much (or more) than it does now, but those reasons are simply not relevant to market value. I realized that the fastest and best way I could lose less money making music was not to sell more or sell it at a higher price, but rather to stop spending money. Do my recordings sound as good as they would if I spent a lot of money on them? No. Would I sell more if I had spent more? Also no.

I think artists will ultimately benefit the most from subscription model payouts once statutory rates for streaming are set (and hopefully are somewhat reasonable). It also rewards people that make good music that gets listened to a lot and removes rewards for overmarketing terrible music. I think that the end of music selling in favor of paying per stream will ultimately save the art. Write bad songs, get no plays. Write great songs, get plays. First thing we need to do is abandon the idea that people are going to be willing to pay $10 for an album. That concept doesn’t have much life left in it. I say kill the pirates by meeting consumer demands, not passing imbecilic laws. Spotify is a piracy killer. Sure, the payouts need to be worked out still, but that is where the focus of legislation should be – how can we shift to a streaming, on-demand model that can work for everyone? Artists are, of course, going to lose out in this shift, but it’s inevitable.

A lot of this applies to movies, television, and other media as well. We need to figure out how to shift models instead of just trying to stop a cultural tidal wave with useless laws. These models will require a rethink of how content is produced and how much money is put into it. I think this is ultimately a winning proposition. It’s actually the real stage at which there is market equality.