Fuck You; Pay Me (By Not Buying My Music)

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It’s easy to be a musician in this day and age. Run a quick torrent search, download a cracked version of your choice of music software and cop a USB microphone. You’re all set up and ready to go. All that’s left to do is record some stuff, upload it to Hulkshare, send it to a couple of blogs and —voila— you are a bonafide musician.

This process is exactly the opposite of how it used to be. Back in the day (which was a Wednesday [which is a terrible Dane Cook reference]), artists spent money on recording time at studios, played live shows and sold their music. What hard work… how silly of them. Now a days, you can gain a huge following and even sign a record deal without ever having played a live show or even selling a single or album (See: ASAP Rocky). A majority of artists give their music away for free… but is it the right thing to do? What possible impact can it have on your long-term career? Join me as I dissect the advantages and disadvantages of selling your music and giving it away for free.

Giving It Away For Free

First off, it’s easy to “recruit” new fans with free music. There’s absolutely no risk for the consumer. It’s free! If they like it, they feel like you did them a favor; if they don’t like it, they don’t have to regret wasting money. Free mixtapes (I’ll reserve the term “album” to refer to projects that are sold) are a great way for new artists to debut themselves. It also offers established artists a way to keep or increase their buzz in between albums. Wale would do this with The Eleven One Eleven Theory one month prior to the release of Ambition, with wild success. Artists can also use leftover tracks that didn’t make the album as “freebies.” Much like how bay-area artist, Speak is giving away eight songs that didn’t make “Inside Out Boy” as giveaways throughout Hanukkah. It’s a great way to “give back” to your fans.

I didn’t really tell you anything new in that last paragraph. Free music is a necessity. However, what is more compelling to examine is artists who continually release free projects: Danny Brown, Big KRIT, XV, Big Sean, among many others. The idea is that if you release free music, you’ll recoup the money you lost in sales by being able to book more shows and sell merchandise. Danny Brown has used this tactic to great success. He was asked to be on the Relax tour with Das Racist, being signed to Fool’s Gold and is now joining Childish Gambino’s Spring tour as a special guest… All without selling an album (Yes, of course there is the Black & Brown EP but it’s a collaboration). Spin Magazine named his (free) XXX mixtape “Album of the Year.” XV and Big K.R.I.T. have also made a living off releasing album-quality mixtapes. However, what I think this does is condition listeners to equate an artist’s music with no monetary value, which will ultimately hurt an artist in the long run.

Think about it… Let’s say you go to a coffee shop and the barista behind the counter gives you a free scone without you asking. This happens every week for two years. You sort-of like the scone, but you like it even better because it’s free. Then one day you go in and the barista tells you that scone is going to be $5. Do you still want that scone? No. Were you only consuming it because it was free? Yes.

Another example is when you use Living Social or Groupon for a business you have never been to before. Lets say you get an $80 massage for $40. Are you likely to go back and pay $80 for that same massage without a coupon? No. In your mind, that service is worth $40 and you would be an idiot to actually pay full price for it.

Consumers associate value to a product. If they are used to getting something for one price, and it increases… is it still worth buying? If you enjoyed it at $0 why would you pay $15 for it? After all, it’s the same thing, an hour’s worth of music. Certainly, there are other factors at play that cause people to buy albums. I happen to believe that people bought J. Cole’s album because they needed him to win and had a connection with him as a person, not because the album itself was great or different or all new. When Big Sean released Finally Famous, he took to Twitter to beg plead with his fans to buy his album after years of free projects.

An artist should never have to say “Well, you know I gave you all of this other music, so you should feel obligated to buy this.” If an artist can’t put together a project, place a price tag on it, and stand by the product… then what does that say about them?

Charging For It

Why not sell it? That’s what musicians have done for decades. Many artists will point to the The Grateful Dead’s marketing technique of giving away “freemium” content like tapes and posters at concerts because they knew they’d make more money from people coming to shows than on actual album sales. That’s a great tactic, but if you’re concerned with making money why not get paid off an album and shows? Again, I’m not suggesting that artists should be trying to greedily take all of their fans' money at every opportunity, but I do think that if you put your time and effort into a project that you should be compensated for that.

E-40 is releasing three albums on the same day in March, and would articulate what I’ve felt for the longest time: Artists hide behind the “mixtape” moniker.

Some folks putting out three, four or five mixtapes a year. This is no diss to mixtapes. I like mixtapes. But you have some people putting out mixtapes when it really is their album, but [calling it a mixtape] is just a security blanket in case the project don’t perform well. Like ‘oh, that’s just my mixtape.’

It sounds a lot better to say that you got 25,000 downloads than that you only sold 1,000 copies. But even if you only sell 1,000 copies at $5 each on Bandcamp that’s $5,000 you didn’t have before. The most shining example of this would have to be Big K.R.I.T.’s Return of 4eva. That’s an album not a “mixtape.” But it’s free, so it’s a “mixtape.” Do you know how much money he could have made off that? I would have been proud to pay for Return of 4Eva. Releasing projects for free that should be albums end up hurting the artist just as much as shitty mixtapes. Listeners are going to compare those “classic” mixtapes to their album, and more often than not the album can’t live up to the mixtapes. I believe this phenomenon is due to the fact that the other projects were free so we expect A LOT more out of something we pay for.

As a side note, it’s interesting to note that rap music is the only genre in which artists give away free music with such frequency. Rock bands certainly don’t do that. They record songs and put them onto an album (and you may not hear “new” music from them for a year or so. Perhaps this phenomenon is due to the over-crowding of Internet rappers? Sounds like a topic for another blog post…

Curren$y makes most of his money from touring non-stop. He also puts out several projects a year and charges for them. E-40 puts out multiple albums in a year (and sometimes on the same day) and charges for them. Yes, they are both “established,” but I think it has more to do with being confident in their product and not feeling bad about asking people to pay for them. Perhaps that type of awareness comes with maturity? Soul Khan dropped one free, well-crafted mixtape, Soul Like Khan to introduce himself to the world. After that, he has released three EPs that he has charged $3 to $5 for. Those EP sales allowed him to quit his 9 to 5 job and focus on music exclusively by letting him pay his rent and bills. Why would other unsigned artists not see the benefit of this? Get paid when they need the money most and get fans to associate their music with monetary value. It’s a win-win.

Conclusion

I used to design and sell home theaters, lighting control systems and whole-home automation systems. When I first started selling high-end products to customers I felt uncomfortable asking them to pay $3,000 for a touchscreen controller. It wasn’t until I truly believed that controller was worth $3,000 and could confidently suggest they buy one that I began to sell them by the dozens.

Offering free music has worked well for many (See: Childish Gambino, Das Racist, Mac Miller), and it will be a continued marketing method. It has its benefits, but too many artists simply release music for free without considering the impact it has on their brand. At the end of the day, people who want to pay will pay and people who bootleg are going to bootleg. You might as well cash in.

Am I in the minority? Do you guys think an artist who offers all of their projects for free hurts themselves in the long-run? Certainly, Drake offered three mixtapes and capitalized off free projects, but his album sales were due more to having a strong radio presence leading up to its release (unlike J Cole). If you purchased an album like Finally Famous, Relax, Blue Slide Park or Sideline Story, did you do it because you felt obligated to buy it/support the artist or because you heard tracks off of the album and though it was worthy of your money? Leave your comments and opinions below.