Why Bands Shouldn’t Give Away (ALL) their Music for Free

Why Bands Shouldn’t Give Away (ALL) their Music for Free

There’s a lot of talk in the music industry about the diminishing value of recorded music and how bands should look for other ways to make money. The argument for giving away your music is that you should simply want to have your music heard, and since people can generally find music online for free, then why bother putting a price tag on it? Live shows, merchandise, licensing, and subscriptions are just some of the ways that bands are encouraged to generate revenue. However, should artists just give up selling their music? Are we to believe that nobody buys music anymore? I’m not so sure that’s the case.

The topic became front and center for me recently after I spent a considerable amount of time following indie artists from all over North America on Twitter. I was shocked at how many bands would automatically send me a direct message with a link to download their entire album for free. I didn't sign up to their mailing list, I didn’t have to buy other merchandise in a bundled package offer, I simply followed them on Twitter and received a free album of music. I couldn’t help but think: too much, too soon?

I started following the artists out of curiosity, but I don’t know who they are yet, what their personalities are like, etc. It was simply a first step in the relationship, and they’ve already given away what could be their most valued asset: their music. There is a hint of desperation to it, but that’s understandable, because with so many other artists out there, how do you compete? How do you get your music heard? Well, why not give away your music for free to anyone and everyone you can?

Here’s another way to look at it, keeping with the example on Twitter:

One artist sent me a direct message thanking me for following them. The message was hilarious. The artist obviously has a great sense of humour, so I already know something about them that gives me a better sense of who they are as a person. They also included a link, but it was to their website where I could hear their music, not download it for free or buy it, but simply hear it. And because the link took me to their website, it increased the chances of having me see their latest blog posts, watch some videos, to sign-up to the mailing list or even shop in their store. Although I did go to the site, I just listened to a few tracks, one of which I found kind of catchy, and moved on.

Fast forward to a few weeks later. The artist tweets something I find funny, I tweet back, and they respond to me right away. Awesome, they’re engaged with their fans, I was impressed. A few weeks after that, I tweet something, the artist responds to my tweet with a personalized joke that had me laughing out loud at my computer. The artist is paying attention to their fans’ tweets as well, now I’m really impressed. I went back to the artist’s website, saw that they had a new EP for sale, and bought it for $5.

So what happened here? The artist took time to develop a relationship with me. Once I knew the artist better, once they had made a deeper connection with me by making me laugh and responding to me personally a few times, they no longer felt like just another one of the thousands of other artists out there. They stood out from the pack because they took time to get to know me and I felt like I was a part of their world. Now I wanted to support their career. Could I have bought a t-shirt or a hat? Maybe, but I didn’t want to buy any new clothes, and I didn’t need a new mug or trinket. Could I have bought a ticket to their show next time they passed through Montreal? Possibly, but I wanted to show support in the moment, and given their geographic location, a show here was unlikely. The simplest way for me to show support was to buy their music, which is what I did. And what if they had simply given me their EP for free like the other artists? They would have $5 less in their bank account today.

But Aren’t Music Sales Tanking?

Let’s take a quick look at the numbers:

  • Digital distributor TuneCore boasts over 45 million in music sales through their service
  • CD Baby reported music sales of almost $40 million in 2010 alone
  • Our very own Bandzoogle members recently crossed $4,000,000 in music and merchandise sales.

Are CD sales down? Yes. Are they non-existent? No. Are digital sales flattening out? Perhaps. Are they non-existent? You get the idea. People still spend money on music when they perceive that music to be valuable. And this is the key to selling any product or service: creating value.

Note: There are those who will argue that TuneCore’s sales are skewed because they have several former major label artists selling in their catalogue, or that CD Baby’s album sales actually went down while new album additions went up. I don’t want to turn this into a debate about their numbers. The reason I’ve included them is that they simply illustrate that there are obviously still some people out there buying music.

Note #2: Here’s a nice article detailing how paid single tracks are still the dominant force in digital music revenue: http://www.hypebot.com/hypebot/2011/05/digital-radio-paid-musicians-36-million-more-than-paid-subcriptions-last-year.html

How to Create Value

So if the key to selling your music is to create value for it, how can you go about doing that? Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Develop a relationship with your fans

One of the most important ways to create value for your music is to create a deeper connection with your fans. Every day take time to respond to fan e-mails, tweets, questions on Facebook, etc. Don’t just promote yourself and your music, have a conversation with your fans. Make them laugh, ask them questions, find out more about them, make them feel like they’re part of your world and that you’re a part of theirs. Take time to develop a relationship with your fans and they’ll want to support your career, which can of course include buying your music.

  • Generate lots of content

Blog regularly, post video blogs, music videos, etc. If you generate content on a regular basis, you’ll give people a better sense of your personality and show that you’re an active artist. And if a fan responds to a blog post or video blog, respond as soon as you can; never leave them hanging.

  • Be genuine, be your unique self

The key to fan engagement is being your true self. Make sure to bring out your personality and you’ll attract like-minded people who you can have a genuinely deeper connection with.

  • Use emotion

People respond to emotion. Make people laugh, make them cry, inspire them, and they are more likely to respond and feel a deeper sense of connection to you as an artist. Use your lyrics, your personality, make engaging videos, well-written blog posts and show your emotions. You never know when somebody will really connect with how you‘re feeling.

  • Bundled options

Always offer buying options for everyone from a hardcore fan to someone who just wants to show a little bit of support for your career. From the single song download, to a personalized signed CD, to a bundled option with other merchandise, make sure there are plenty of options for the different level of fan.

  • Release great music

And last, but certainly not least, the most important thing you can do to create value for your music is to only put out great music. If you have 15 new songs, and even you would consider 4 or 5 of those songs as “filler”, scrap those songs. Only release the songs that are great. Only release the songs that will have a chance of standing out from the thousands of other songs out there. Focus your energies on fewer songs and do as much as you can with them: music videos, live videos, making-of videos, blog about the songs, etc. Make sure they are front and centre on your website and online press kit. These are the songs that are going to help you stand out from other bands, and these are the songs that fans will gladly pay money for.

It’s About Strategy

I’m not saying that you should never give away your music. Giving away an exclusive track or an exclusive live EP to get people to sign-up to your mailing list can be great ways to build your fan list. All I’m saying is don’t give away ALL of your music, especially if you’re not getting anything tangible in exchange. Make sure to have a strategy behind the giveaways and always get something in return whenever you give away even just one song. Get an e-mail address, get some information about the fan (where they live, their birthday, etc.), get a “like” on Facebook, or a re-tweet on Twitter.

There is Always Demand for Quality

There are indeed many, many artists out there, and the perception is that there’s more supply than demand, which is the argument for why the price of music has gone down. That might be true in some ways, but there is always a demand for quality music and for quality relationships. And people will spend money on quality. Developing quality relationships with your fans might take more time, but the return on that investment of time is exponential. And if you take the time to focus on getting to know your fans and putting out great content on a regular basis, you’ll create value for yourself as an artist, and in turn, for your music. And when people perceive value, they will spend money on it, and music is no different.  

Making money as a musician is tough. That's why you keep 100% of your hard-earned revenues when you sell music, merch & tickets through your Bandzoogle website. Sign up free now!


Posted by skullfunk.com on May 24 2011 2:14 PM
Excellent advice! :agree:
Nine Pieces for Nine Pianos
Posted by Nine Pieces for Nine Pianos on May 24 2011 2:16 PM
Dear Mr. Cool, Thanks for your blog article. I'm trying to figure out the essence of your advice which seems to be- make people like you via a relationship and they will buy your music even if its just slightly catchy. This sounds like what happens in my career with my Mom. The way I figure it- if only people who like me, like my music then it probably isn't that good yet and I need to get back in the practice room. Maybe its me, but I don't want to spend my time tweeting to other people, I want the MUSIC to be my tweet. If someone writes me, I write back sure but I want #5 to be where I put most of my energy. Just because LAdy GAga takes off her clothes- I gotta do that to be successful? Don't even get me started on the 99 cent album bs. I'm not a real public type of person. I just want to make music and present it on my website. Can you help me do that? Here's what I need from you: I do spend a fraction of my time trying to get traffic to my website so folks will browse ( www.aratunes.us ). Some things I want to learn more about from experts like you are: how to write blog posts that come up strong in search, how to find bloggers to review my music, how to find internet interest groups that might like my music, primer on hashtags and trending topics for twitter, heck a primer on twitter in general if someone tweets my link how do I maximize that, making my facebook band page work for me (because I want the like tool to invite folks to my zoogle page). Can craigslist generate quality hits? How do I maximize youtube videos into traffic? internet marketing? I appreciate your posts, have read them all. Just wonder if you see any room at the table for a guy who wants to connect musically rather than personally. Thanks, Aratunes
Crash Cadet
Posted by Crash Cadet on May 24 2011 2:22 PM
Good one man. I think you're right about generating lots of content. My problem is that i don't know how to make that content interesting. A blog/twitter/whatever is good, but how do you keep it entertaining, other than talking about the music? If I don't have a new song to hype, then what is there to talk about? I don't think anyone cares what I did today, if it had nothing to do with the music. I don't see how anyone would stay interested if I tweet things like: "today, took the dog for a walk. Shopped for groceries." Maybe I'm just not enough of a narcisist, or not creative enough to make the boring details of my life interesting.... Thanks! -CC
Posted by FreedomAndForgiven on May 24 2011 2:39 PM
Groovy article man. Lots of good info for people.
Posted by CHARETTA on May 24 2011 3:19 PM
Well said! We've been doing this exact thing recently, and we are starting to see the return on it. More quality fans come from interaction, and they are more likely to share it with their friends when you talk to them in a personal way. We've also been doing the free download thing, but only 1 song, and you have to join our mailing list to get it. An e-mail address has value, so I don't view it as totally giving it away (as you mentioned). If anyone cares to check us out, it's http://charetta.com
The Directory
Posted by The Directory on May 24 2011 4:06 PM
This was really helpful - thanks!
Stenner Productions
Posted by Stenner Productions on May 24 2011 5:36 PM
Great advice Dave. Your right about the support issue. Fans will support you if they are into your music. One thing you mention is you wanted to support the band but did not want anymore clothes, mug or trinket. I believe by simply asking for support from fans they will support you. So adding a statement next to the album where it can be purchased should show beneficial. Something to the like's of "If you enjoy our music, videos, etc please show us your support by purchasing our songs" Something to that effect and maybe worded towards the style of the band. I have personally found that by simply asking for support can go a long way and your fans will be happy to do so. From your statements I believe this is a must.
Posted by Prohaize on May 25 2011 6:02 PM
This is some helpful stuff! Thanks
Posted by WWW.QUIETSTORMBEATZ.COM on May 26 2011 1:41 AM
great info Dave, and also, i think,continuously giving your music away for free sets up a mindset and expectation that its always going to be for free and also the idea that you aren't serious and you only do music strictly as a hobby.
John Rowles
Posted by John Rowles on May 26 2011 1:49 AM
One of the better articles I've read. I started my business based upon giving away music for over a year. One way I started to market myself was to find a public access TV/radio station and volunteer to write a few theme songs. I didn't know if I could cut it but the response was overwhelming. I ended up scoring 6 shows with affiliated radio shows. Giving music away can lead to some great things, creativity, and most importantly building personal relationships with your fans and customers. It also lead me to do scores for independant films which has been quite an experience.
Dave Cool
Posted by Dave Cool on May 27 2011 4:05 PM
Thanks for the great feedback everyone! I appreciate reading your comments, and one common issue that seems to come up is "what do I say on Twitter & Facebook?". I've taken note of that and I'll address it in a future blog post or feature interview with a social media expert. Specifically for aratunes, you brought up a lot of real issues that most artists face. I've taken note of them and will try to address them in future posts. And if the essence of my advice appeared to be to make people like you via a relationship and they will buy your music even if it's just slightly catchy, then that's on me for not being clearer. I think that there is just so much music out there, and a lot of it is really good, but unfortunately I don’t believe it's enough anymore for an indie artist to have really good music and let it speak for itself. That's simply a starting point. If the music is not there, you can't even play the game. If the music is there, then yes, my belief is that the best way to sell your music is through direct-to-fan relationships. It's a slow-build, but it builds a solid foundation. There are always exceptions to every rule, but that's my point of view on where things are at for artists today. Look forward to continued discussion on the state of the industry in future posts... Cheers! DC
Posted by 777BEATS on May 29 2011 8:19 AM
[quote="quietstormbeatz"]great info Dave, and also, i think,continuously giving your music away for free sets up a mindset and expectation that its always going to be for free and also the idea that you aren't serious and you only do music strictly as a hobby.[/quote] you got a point!!!
His Child Music
Posted by His Child Music on May 29 2011 9:18 PM
Is there any way that I can give away my CD's (www.hischildmusic.com) and just charge for shipping and handling? I would be mailing a hard cover actual CD, andt it would cost some time and money for supplies.:):)
Allison S
Posted by Allison S on May 31 2011 11:34 PM
HisChildMusic - To do this you would just charge the $2-$3 for the CD and in the description or in a text feature just mention it is to cover shipping. You could also just charge say... a penny for the CD and add in the regular shipping charge in our shipping section in the Store. Hope this helps!
Posted by nico on Jun 9 2011 4:56 AM
I'd be curious to have some more discussion about the topic of "TIPPING" the artists (the "Pay what you want" option). I've heard some crazy stats on this and have a little bit of experience with the average per song that people will pay when you give them an option being actually MORE than the typical 99 cents per song. Have you got any stats on that?
Dave Cool
Posted by Dave Cool on Jun 21 2011 12:43 PM
Nico: Bandcamp boasts that the pay-what-you-can model does in fact result in higher revenues for the artist, check out this blog post: http://blog.bandcamp.com/2009/07/13/trent-reznor-and-another-way-of-thinking-about-pay-what-you-want/ It wouldn't surprise me if this is true across the board. Cheers, -DC
Beat Master Troy
Posted by Beat Master Troy on Jun 23 2011 12:25 AM
When I come out with a new album. I always give away a free download of one of the songs off of the album. Because it they like the free download,then they will purchase from yoarsu,most of the time. It's been working for me for years now. It's a good way too give back to your fans, when you're unabled too perform because you're an disabled producer/artist like my self. The Disabled Recording Artist Beat Master Troy http://www.beatmastertroy.com:laugh::bawling:
Dave Cool
Posted by Dave Cool on Jun 23 2011 4:08 PM
bmastert: Definitely not a bad idea to give away some of your music for free to give people a taste, it's a good way to entice people to buy the album for sure. But I've found recently that bands are going too far and giving up on selling their music at all, simply giving away all of their music, which I don't think is the right strategy. There are people out there who still want to pay for music, and I think we should let them. Thanks for reading the post and for commenting! Cheers, DC
Beat Master Troy
Posted by Beat Master Troy on Jul 1 2011 12:44 AM
Should disabled recording artists give away their music for free, because they can't perform live on stage, such as myself?
Dave Cool
Posted by Dave Cool on Jul 3 2011 10:58 PM
@bmastert: I think moderation is key. I would definitely have some streaming music available to give people a taste of your music, then give away some free MP3s to build up your mailing list, but not entire albums. If you're not able to generate income from live performances, in my opinion that's even more reason to monetize online album sales. And once you build up your mailing list, you can speak directly to your fan base, create value for your music, sell them albums, exclusive tracks, merchandise, etc. Cheers, DC
Raul Quines
Posted by Raul Quines on Jul 20 2011 12:14 AM
Thank you DC. A very insightful article. The principle "don't give it (all) away" rings true on many levels and applications in any business transaction and life endeavor. It's definitely applicable in my field as a composer trying to make my music audible and be rewarded for my music-creations. Much appreciate it. Cheers! RQ
Posted by Soundstatues on Jul 20 2011 1:18 AM
The notion of giving music away for free is based on several false assumptions. Look how much free music is out there---and look how few downloads it results in. Sure, if a mega-band gave away all their music, it would get downloaded a LOT. But how many of you who give your music away have wound up with thousands of downloads? Just because something is free doesn't mean it's good. It's not like "if I don't give my music away for free, then I won't develop an audience!" It's actually more like, "if the music isn't good, then you won't develop an audience." If your music is good, then it WILL sell. No talented band failed to "make it" because they refused to give away their music for free. If your music isn't good, then sure, you'll get a few downloads if your music is free, but you won't develop an audience. Another point: as a manufacturer (the product is music, in this case), YOU set the value. Look at all those stupid designer handbags, shoes, and sunglasses. Are you gonna tell me crap like that is worth HUNDREDS OF DOLLARS? And yet, people eat it up. When something is pricey (to a point!), it's cache increases. Again, if the music isn't good, then it doesn't matter---set the music for free, $1, $100, $1million, whatever. But if your music is good, then don't give it away. No one expects Steve Jobs to go around handing out iPods and iPads. Don't be a sucker.
Posted by Kobrah™ on Oct 24 2015 9:56 AM
This was a really good read! I firmly believe that if you're going to give something away for free, get something from it. Many times when we get something for free from a retail store or something along those lines, notice we tend to forget we even have it or barely look at it. But anything we pay for we pay attention to because we gave something to get it. Music is no different.
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