Should Artists Give Away ALL Their Music for Free?

Unless you live under a rock, you are likely aware that the music industry has undergone a fundamental shift in the past ten years… or, has it?

Since, oh, let’s say the beginning of Napster–you remember the little file-sharing project designed by one of my fellow Northeastern University alums (well, technically Shawn Fanning dropped out in 1999 so we were only there at the same time for a year), music sales have been in a steady decline. First it was album sales that took a hit, then digital, now the entire idea of purchasing music has become something as antiquated as paying for local TV.

(Hmm, well, actually, that’s even gone since they stopped local analog TV signals on Friday June 12, 2009.)

Well, you get the idea. For children growing up today, the idea that you actually need to enter a credit card into iTUNES, or go to a record store to buy your favorite band’s latest CD is no longer something that even enters their mind.

When I asked my younger family members who are still in high school how they purchase music, I was met with a blank stare.

“What do you mean? You just rip it off of YouTube.”

Oh. I didn’t even know you could do that.

Sure enough, when I tried, I found it quite easy to grab any tune I wanted right from a video on YouTube.

Oh, but surely that’s just a single… if someone truly likes a band they will then go to iTUNES or the band’s website and buy the full album, right?

Well, maybe. But more than likely they will wait until one of their friends acquires the full album, then sends it out to everyone in their address book via email, Dropbox, or any other very simple file sharing method.

Oh, but of course, there are measures that protect against that. DRM… and that thing iTUNES does where you can only play an mp3 you purchased on iTUNES on five registered computers. Sure–that’s something. Yet chances are if a young music listener can’t get an album they want for free with minimal effort, they aren’t about to waste time making an actual purchase. They are going to move onto the next band that sounds fairly similar, and whose album they can stream for free or just download in its entirety for free.

Which brings me to the original question–Should artists give away ALL their music for free?

My vote? An emphatic no.

And here’s why.

When you give something away for free, immediately a consumer lowers the expectation of how good the product is going to be. This is true of ebooks, CDs, movies… pretty much any product.

Free movies on Netflix are NEVER as good as the blockbusters that you have to rent on iTUNES.

If your uncle offers to give you his old car for free, you would naturally assume it’s a lemon… right?

When Radiohead first tried this approach with their album, In Rainbows, offering it up to fans as a “pay what you want” download, they set the stage for major label bands to start giving away their albums. I’m not a huge fan of Radiohead, but my immediate impression was that they must have felt their album wouldn’t have sold that many copies and never would have recouped the millions of dollars of advertising.

For them, it didn’t matter. They already had a major fan base, and were touring the world. For the new band just starting out, it might matter greatly.

Still, my impression of bands that immediately followed suit were that there albums weren’t up to snuff.

Has Springsteen ever given away a free album? Tom Petty? The Beatles? Not to my knowledge. People are willing to pay for quality.

However, for the independent artist trying to make his or her rent, who hasn’t yet hit the level of acclaim as Springsteen or Petty, clearly expecting a public to buy CD’s when they rarely purchase music is a difficult process, to say the least. And those few CD sales might very well mean being able to buy groceries this month.

Solution? There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution just yet. However, the tried and true marketing strategy has been to offer SOME of your products for free to entice new fans, or potential buyers, but not ALL. Giving EVERYTHING you’ve ever done away is a mistake. Yes, you are still fighting an uphill battle in that younger generation expects that your album should be free, however, you are only going to hurt your career by giving it all away.

As they say, “Why marry the cow if you can get the milk for free?”

Er, something like that.

Point it, an artist who is genuine and really produces an album that is worthy of being sold for $15 (it’s gotta be good!) should do all they can to convey this value to prospective fans. Give away a song or two, but not the whole cow.

Oh, and back to my original question once again… is this anything new? No. Back in the day, there was no way to even record sounds. All music was in fact free.