Giving Away Music is Bad Business

Every time I hear of some new artist giving away their entire new album, I cringe. I tend to peruse a lot of “industry” blogs, and it seems that all I hear about is how the music industry is dead, you’ll never make money, and you should be giving away your music and selling “an experience” or some other “connection” that you should do simply to make money. The thing is, that’s wrong. Music is still selling, and selling very well. Sure, it’s dropping off, but there’s still billions of dollars being spent every year on music.

The problem for most artists is that people aren’t buying their music, so they decide to blame the Internet, the industry, the economy, or whatever else, but the bottomline in everybody’s book is that they think they need to giveaway their music for free in order to get noticed. Not only is it wrong, but it’s making things worse.

A few years back, Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead each decided that labels be damned, they were giving away their music for free, and doing a pay as you please service. It was at that point that everything was pretty screwed for everybody else that followed. All of a sudden, every pirate in the world all of a sudden had this great sense of justification and vindication, and they rallied behind the artists to support them in their cause of pushing “free music.” But what happened as a result of that is all of a sudden people expected free music, or scoffed at those who dared charge money for their recordings.

The thing is, people don’t see music as from a signed artist, once-signed artist, or unsigned artist. Some people do, but for the most part music is music. So when Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead did this, they unknowingly set an expectation for music as a whole… not just for once-signed artists. If Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead had each never been signed to a label, they would not have been able to successfully do what they did, and honestly 99.9% of music consumers wouldn’t have even known about it, even if they had been the first. (Trent Reznor even proved this himself by trying to promote the release of Saul Williams the same way, and the project fell on its face.)

Even after those two bands famously did it, in the rock community (particularly indie, acoustic artists) some bands were still able to grab a little bit of attention by releasing their album for free, but only because it was somewhat of a rarity. Can’t sell your album? Release it for free, and grab attention. Now however, it’s what everybody is doing. That’s a bit of an exaggeration of course, but now that every marketing 2.0 person is preaching about releasing music for free, nothing is going to set you apart anymore, and you’re back to square one.

The really unfortunate thing this has created is a culture of rock music consumers who just expect free music. Now I’m managing a band and trying to sell music in a market where everybody else is giving it away for free, and it stinks. Now I know you’re thinking that we should adapt and do whatever everybody else is doing and try to come up with another way to survive, but that’s simply not an option, and I’ll explain why: we’re not on equal footing with everybody else.

These bands that are giving away music for free have nothing at stake. Lots of them are in music just for the love of it and don’t want to make any money at it. There’s nothing wrong with that, but one person’s hobby is killing another person’s career. I read interviews with these “artists” and watch videos, etc. of them all saying how they like being the starving artist, and don’t mind it, and yadda yadda yadda. Why do they say that? For a lot of them, like I said it’s just a hobby and they’re already financially set. They’re not really investing anything but time, so it doesn’t matter to them. Even if they’re not financially set already and they’re taking a minor risk by pursuing music, they have the luxury of falling back on friends or family, or simply going back to doing their day jobs.

The band I manage is from Australia. If they come over here on a touring visa, they can tour and that’s it. If they don’t make it, there’s no fall back. They can’t get a job, they don’t have a rich uncle or a “label” that consists of some dude with deep pockets to keep them afloat. When they come over here, they’re literally putting everything on the line. It’s all at stake, and here they’re having to compete with people that have nothing to lose.

It’s really unfair in a way, but that’s the way it is I guess and it’s really not going to change. But it’s really ironic that these so-called artists are citing a “dead” industry as an excuse for them killing it themselves.