Musicians and artists always want more exposure and fans. After all, that’s what you need to build a fan base that will help financially sustain your career in music.
One of the fundamental ways of getting more exposure is making your music easily accessible in the right places. The more people who hear your music, the quicker they can decide if they like it, and hopefully, convert into a fan down the road. Also, it makes it easier for fans to tell their friends about your music through word of mouth.
The biggest barrier to this process is poor marketing and limiting access to your music, which usually happens if people have to pay to discover your music or you only provide snippets of songs.
The solution to getting more exposure, and hopefully new fans, is to give away your music for free as a marketing strategy and an investment into your brand. To some, it may seem like a radical idea. We have romanticized this traditional music model that revolves around musicians selling records.
Unfortunately, those days are slowly coming to an end, as technology has changed how we consume music and shaping our expectations. People just don’t buy records to discover new music anymore. As a society, we are seeing a shift from ownership to accessibility with the popularity of streaming.
The fact is, free music is everywhere. You can basically listen to any popular songs on YouTube, Soundcloud, Bandcamp and even Spotify all for free. Of course, as an independent, your music is less likely to be as freely distributed or accessible. Hopefully, that will change by the time you finish this blog.
Especially if you still haven’t established yourself yet, giving your music away for free makes sense to gain exposure and potentially grow your fan base. The concept behind giving away free music is that you are sacrificing short term monetary gains for a larger payout in the long run.
If you feel like you’ve done well in your career so far by not offering your music for free, more power to you. However, it is possible you are limiting your potential.
Is giving away free music necessary?
In a world where music streaming is dominating how we consume music, it’s harder to sustain a music career by selling records. With technology making music so easily accessible and transferable, our future expectations of music are changing.
If you’re not totally convinced that consumer behavior has shifted away from people purchasing music to downloading it for free, take a look at these stats:
- 70% of online users find nothing wrong in online piracy (approx 90% of 15 and 16-year-olds feel this way)
- 61% of online users don’t believe they should have to pay for music
- There are $12.5 billion in economic losses per year due to piracy in the music industry
- 95% of music downloaded online is illegal
Based on this, it’s safe to assume that upcoming generations won’t expect to pay for music downloads and will easily find a way to listen to music for free regardless. Although, this may not be the case just yet for the older demographic (40 and over) as it may take them a bit longer to adapt to music streaming.
Listeners used to buy, then listen to music and hope that they liked it, but that is no longer the case. There was a time before file-sharing took off where major labels intentionally pushed albums with 1 or 2 hot radio songs, but the rest of the songs were not good. As you would imagine, music consumers got fed up with this shady practice, which may have contributed to the popularity of music piracy. In other words, consumers don’t want to take the chance they may not like the music.
In order to adapt to consumer expectations, the most reliable way to promote music is to consistently have people hear and download it… for free! The end goal is for people to get to know and love your music. Then, they may want to own it, and that’s when you will actually start selling your records.
How I am supposed to make a living off music then?
I know that making professional quality songs in a studio can be expensive. You’re not alone if it’s hard for you to come to terms with giving it away. However, in the present music economy, it’s becoming the cost of entry. Rather than framing it as “giving away free music,” I think of it more as investing money into your brand to generate brand awareness.
In this digital age, you’ll be able to monetize your music through music publishing and your brand. The common forms of income your brand generates are through live shows and merch. By using free music as a marketing strategy to attract and build an audience, you’ll be able to funnel them into other areas of your business to make money. This means that your priority as a musician is to grow your fan base by making your music as accessible as possible to the right audience.
You can reminisce about the good old days of record sales, but these changes in music consumption are real. Adapting to this new model where monetizing your branding is the central focus makes the most sense. In the new model, you reap the larger benefits in the long term by foregoing short term sales.
For many independent musicians, especially those just starting out or not fully established, it may be difficult to sustain a music career without record sales. This is why it’s more important to have other sources of income or a day job to keep you financially afloat for the time being.
Is free music actually “free?”
Giving out free music as a marketing strategy shouldn’t be in vain. The idea is that you want to be the one to upload your music through the channels you choose so that you can take control of the relationship or at least get something out of it that will help your career in the long term.
When giving away your music for free, it’s usually in exchange for an email or social media follow. You could set up your email list service to automatically send a download link to those who sign up for your mailing list through an automated process. It may not seem much for the investment you made into making your music, but don’t underestimate the value of the email address!
- Bandcamp: Platform for independent artists to distribute, stream and sell music
- Show.co: Marketing tools to get emails and more followers
- NoiseTrade: Distribute free music in exchange for email or a tip
- ToneDen: Automate the process of trading free music for social media follow (Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, Spotify, Youtube)
- Unlock.fm: Widget that allows you to exchange free downloads for an email address or tweet
You don’t always have to give downloads for free. Services like Bandcamp have the option for people to ‘name their price’ and pay what they think is a fair amount. If they input $0, they will have to leave an email address.
The principle that is at play during an exchange like this is reciprocity. When you offer something that is of value for free, there will be those who want to return the favor and find a way to support you if they like your music and truly resonate with your brand. That’s why it’s also important to follow up with an email with a link to buy your merch if you happen to collect email addresses in exchange for the music.
The other benefit to free downloads is collecting data. Depending on how you distribute the free music online and if you have Google Analytics, you can gain access to valuable stats about what sites your fans are coming from, what city they are in, and their demographics. In some cases, you can learn which songs are your most popular. Having access to this information about your fans can make your marketing efforts more effective.
If you have Facebook Pixel installed on your website, you can also use free music as a way to create custom audiences for Facebook Ads so you can retarget them in future ad campaigns.
In other words, your music doesn’t have to be free “free,” but the more free it is, the easier your music can spread. But don’t always expect something in return for a free song. There will be people who are not even willing to give up an email address and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean they still won’t stream your music and possibly become a fan later or tell their friends about you.
By giving away your music for free, you are improving your chances for more exposure, creating brand awareness, taking ownership of the fan relationship and collecting valuable marketing data.
Does giving away free music really work?
In an interview on the Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon talked to Chance the Rapper about why he doesn’t sell his music. For those not familiar with him, he’s an independent artist notoriously known, and even criticized, for not selling any of his music.
“As music grows, there’s always new ways to releasing… there’s so many ways music moves around now that trying to fit it into a ‘for sale album’ is obsolete now.”
Giving away free music doesn’t mean you’ll achieve the same popularity and exposure that Chance the Rapper did. Although, I do believe it helped to accelerate the process.
From what I have researched, early in his career, Chance the Rapper gave all his music away for free through mixtape sites like DatPiff without collecting any emails. Of course, the quality of his music and brand helped tremendously as well as the exposure he eventually received from bigger artists and producers in the industry that accelerated the process further. Still, I imagine this model of not charging for music also greatly contributed to the start of his success.
Chance the Rapper is not the first person to give away free music and become wildly successful. However, he has definitely been the poster child for giving away free music from the start of his career and has not sold a single song or record (at least in the traditional sense). Run the Jewels (discussed below) has also followed a similar free music model from the start. Although not as popular, they have found great success with strong merch sales and sold out shows across the country. You can throw Logic and Russ into discussion as well.
Ultimately, you decide how much free music you give away and what you expect in return. If you don’t feel comfortable giving away your music in a Streaming Music Model, you have other options.
What about physical copies of music?
Unless you have established some prior contact or relationship with a listener, people are generally not going to buy a CD from you unless they’ve heard the music first. Giving out free CDs of your music can be a good way to get your name out, but there are two problems with this.
First, it’s probably not the most economically feasible thing to do for most musicians. After all, it costs money to press CDs.
You can give out free CDs to those in your target market, but you need to make sure that packaging and branding are on point to convince them it’s worth the effort to listen to. Burning a bunch of blank CDs and handing them out will not cut it.
Second, people don’t really listen to CDs as much as they do with streaming or even digital downloads. CD drives and players are on their way out. Many cars and laptops don’t have CD drives anymore, and who do you know that has a Discman?
With that being said, it makes the most sense to allow people to download your music essentially for free and make it accessible for streaming.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t sell physical copies of your record. Vinyl still has its niche in certain genres. I believe that there will always be people who want to have some physical copy of the music. Rather than buying it for listening, fans are more likely to buy as a novelty item and gesture of support. I truly believe that fans who really connect with you will go out of their way to buy something to support your music career. So yes, having physical music to sell as merch at your show is still important as it is a great token for fans to have as a reminder of the experience.
For a good example, check out Run the Jewels. They make all their music easily accessible to stream or download free on their website. At the same time, they sell physical copies of their music as well. Similarly to Chance the Rapper, they’ve had tremendous success with this model with all their merch sales and selling out shows across the country.
An option is to bundle your CD and merch together to make it more enticing for someone to purchase. Even being available to sign CDs and take photos helps up the value. Another alternative is USB sticks with your music and exclusive content like remixes, behind the scenes footage, music videos, acoustic versions, and bonus tracks. The key is to get creative while keeping your brand in mind.
Consumer preferences are continuing to evolve with technology, and it’s important to understand the bigger picture to make the necessary adjustments to stay ahead of the game. Many artists that resist the changes in the music industry will eventually lose out to similar artists who stay ahead of the curve. This means lowering the barriers to your music so songs are more accessible to stream and download without a monetary obstacle.
If you don’t feel fully comfortable giving away your music for free right off the bat, you can try selling it first to see how it does. After several months when sales slow down, offer it for free as a strategy to build up your email list.
Keep in mind that just giving away free music may not be very effective if:
- Your music is not good
- You haven’t established a target market
- You don’t have a fan funnel and online marketing system in place
- Your brand is lacking or not clearly established
In other words, make sure you plan and create the right processes to make this work. Remember that your ultimate goal is to build a following of super fans that really connect with your brand and are willing to buy whatever you put out. Putting out your music for free to stream and download is a start to achieve long term success in this emerging music economy.