What I Learned From Giving Away My Music For Free This Weekend

by Jason on November 30, 2009 · 12 comments

in Marketing/Promotion, Pay-What-You-Want, Thoughts

When Black Friday falls you know it's got to be, Don't let it fall on me

When Black Friday falls you know it's got to be, Don't let it fall on me

This weekend, in response to the feeding frenzy of consumerism that is Black Friday, I decided to offer downloads of all Jason Parker Quartet CD’s for free. I thought about reducing the price down to $1.00 or something cheap, but in the ended figured I’d just give ’em away and see what happened.

The Debate Over Free

I’ve watched the debate about the free model of music distribution, which Chris Anderson espouses in his book “Free”. And while I haven’t bought all of Anderson’s theories (see a nice rebuttal of some of them from Malcolm Gladwell here) I have long felt that musicians need to accept the fact that our music is readily available for free whether we like it or not. With download sites, bit torrents, and just plain fan-to-fan sharing, anyone can get their hands on almost any music these days without paying for it. Good or bad, that’s the reality, and it must change the way we think about distribution and making money from our art. Earlier this year Trent Reznor wrote about his thoughts on the subject, which are a must-read for all musicians. And Steve Lawson has talked about the subject eloquently many times on his great blog.

Putting It To The Test

So I decided to put the theory to the test. On Friday, I posted the following Tweet on my Twitter profile:

The blog post linked to in the Tweet asked people to go download the JPQ CD’s for free, with one line at the bottom about paying for them if the person so desired. From there they were linked to my Bandcamp.com page where they could initiate the download. Bandcamp is an amazing tool, as it allows musicians to offer high-quality downloads of their music and let the fan name the price. When a fan hits the “download” button, they are prompted to fill-in a price for the CD. The price can be “0” if they choose, but it can also be any other denomination of their liking. This give the fan complete control to pay whatever he or she feels is appropriate for the music. They can also preview the entire album before purchasing, which helps them put a value on it before shelling out the money (or not). If you are a musician and haven’t discovered Bandcamp yet you need to go there right now and sign up for a free account!

Over the course of the weekend my tweet was retweeted dozens of time (thanks all!) and must’ve reached thousands of people when it was all said and done. When I started to see retweets from people who I didn’t know I figured it was striking a chord with people.

The Results

Sunday night at midnight I checked my Bandcamp.com stats and was amazed. The three Jason Parker Quartet CD’s, “No More, No Less”, “Live @ JazzTV”, and “The Jason Parker Quartet” had been downloaded 128 times! That’s more downloads than I’ve received in the last few months combined. Most days I was lucky if a track or two were downloaded, let alone full albums.

And what’s even more impressive to me is that many of the people who downloaded the CD’s actually paid for them, even though they didn’t have to! In fact, I made more money from sales this weekend than in any other three-day period since the days right after the release of our latest CD, “No More, No Less”. All while giving them away for free!

Lessons Learned

So, what did I learn from this little experiment? For one, I learned that if you offer a product for free people are exponentially more likely to give it a try. 128 new people hearing my music is a pretty fine turn of events.

I also learned that even when given the opportunity to obtain the music for free, there are still people out there willing to pay for it, thereby supporting the artists that created it. This is truly remarkable, and gives me faith that music lovers get that the music they love cannot exist without their support. It’s still not free to produce a high-quality CD, and that money has to come from somewhere!

Is There a Downside?

I’m sure some might say that by allowing 100 or so people to download the music for free I’ve cheated myself out of 100 paying customers. But I disagree completely. I would argue that most of those 100 people would not have paid even $5.00 for the music. They only checked it out because it was free for them to do so.

So why would I want them to have my music at all, you might ask? For starters, many of those same people tweeted about my promotion, getting my name and my music in front of countless other people I wouldn’t have had access to any other way. And hopefully some of these folks really liked the music and might actually purchase some of my music in the future. I realize that this is speculation on my part, but I believe in my music and it’s ability to touch people. I have to think that the more ears my music finds its way into the better it is for me in the long run.

Should I Continue To Give It Away?

I did raise the price of downloads back up to $5.00 this morning, but I’m wondering if I should I always price my music at $0.00? It worked on a limited-time basis, but will it work as a long-term sales strategy? Is it best to give the consumer 100% control over the price of music and let them decide what it is worth?

I haven’t sufficiently processed these thoughts yet, and I’d love to get your take on it. Have you tried anything like this? Did it work for you? Is $0.00 truly the future of music pricing, or am I crazy for giving my music away?

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Donovan Pfeifer November 30, 2009 at 3:47 pm

As someone peripheral to the music scene, I thought I would add my perspective to Jason’s marketing study here. I NEVER buy music without hearing at least one full track for free. I am a huge fan of on-demand streaming (ala bandcamp, MySpace, etc) to test drive music. In fact, if I hear a bit something interesting, I’ll go straight to Rhapsody to see if they have the album then I’ll listen to it for free, then go to Amazon or iTunes to purchase. If there is no free method for hearing the music first (and not just little clips but whole tracks) then it is not likely I’ll buy the product at all.

And if the download is available for free, I’ll set my price accordingly. Something I want that comes from a huge artist like Radiohead might not get many of my dollars, if any. Something I want that comes from a middle- to local-sized artist that is really exciting will get the full standard fare. The point is it’s consumer-driven, a sliding scale, and based on emotion.

My vote: I love the free download idea.

Sunna Gunnlaugs November 30, 2009 at 4:03 pm

I like it. You probably reached new fans by doing this. You’ll get the rewards at some point. What goes around comes around.
Have you considered offering low quality downloads for free and charging for the higher quality downloads?

Scott McLemore November 30, 2009 at 6:36 pm

I think it’s great that you made a profit while eschewing consumerism. However, I’m not sure that you should make all of it free all the time. Certainly some of it or, as my better half suggested, lower resolution versions could be free. The question in my mind is what happens when all music is free? Maybe it will be great. It will for sure be interesting. We definitely need to find a new business model for the selling of recorded music, but maybe you already did: tips.

Twitter: teledyn
November 30, 2009 at 10:01 pm

Imagine if you had the email address for every last one of those free downloaders AND the address of everyone they told. And imagine if you knew where they lived and it just so happened that you’d always wanted to tour in a place where some number of them lived and so you asked them, “Hey, could any of you hook us up with people out there who could help us plan a tour?”

Do you suppose, after you made this personal contact, contact that asks THEM for their real human help, do you suppose if the tour got set up that they’d come to see you?

Twitter: 1WorkinMusician
November 30, 2009 at 10:20 pm

Thanks for chiming in Dono! I think a lot of people feel the way you do about getting to preview the music before they buy it. That’s one cool thing about Bandcamp and their player/widget. Full streaming of all the songs!

And thanks Sunna and Scott for your thoughts too. I used to offer the low-rate downloads free until Bandcamp got rid of them. Is there still a way to do ths.

MrG – I intentionally did not want to make people give me their email address for this promotion. I wanted it to be truly free, with no strings attached. However, now that I’m back to the paid model I do require anyone downloading to give me their email. As for the folks who did download, I hope to make contact with a number of them through Twitter. Do you have any other suggestions on how to go about that? I would welcome your input.

Andrew Durkin November 30, 2009 at 10:21 pm

I think this is a great idea, of course, and I’m not surprised that it went well. As I have said before (maybe even in a comment on this blog?), with my own band, I have noticed that (for instance) when we do a live gig, a pay-what-you-will approach can sometimes bring in more bread than a fixed cover.

I’m as ambivalent as Scott about the idea of going “all free, all the time.” If it’s an occasional thing, that also means it’s more of an “event” — just like a traditional “blow out sale” in the brick and mortar world — and the story behind that, plus the expiration date, is at least in part what drives new people to come check out what you’re offering.

Also worth considering: that segment of the listening audience (some of whom surely reside in the jazz community) who thrive on exclusivity, and who are drawn to a given artist not because their work is cheap or free but because their work is hard-to-obtain and/or expensive. That would be the segment that could be appealed to with extras that weren’t offered for free (additional mixes, out-takes, video, etc.).

My only question: based on this experience, have you thought of any ways to improve a similar sale in the future? I.e., would you do anything differently next time?

In any case, great job, and thanks for sharing your thoughts on what happened.

Twitter: 1WorkinMusician
November 30, 2009 at 10:52 pm

Thanks for your comments, Andrew! I agree that making it an “event” is a good thing, and that sometimes people need that kind of motivation.

Your question is a good one, and as I said I’m still kind of processing the whole thing. But next time I will probably build some sort of exclusivity into it (see what Rob Michael @atmostrio is doing with charts for one example). I might also try the email capture route just to see what kind of effect that has on the numbers. I really don’t know how people feel about giving out their emails for the music. But I do agree with MrG that it would be good information to have. I’m also trying to think of creative packages to come up with so that there is a free level, but there is also some kind of incentive to bump up to a paid level as well.

Would be great to hear some other ideas. Maybe together we can come up with a model that we can all try?

Chris West December 1, 2009 at 3:21 am

No you’re not crazy.

I guess it depends on your goals but I think the most important thing for a musician that wants to do anything other than hide away at home and play is that people hear their music. By hearing your music I don’t mean just once either. People use Spotify, CDs, vinyl, mp3s and so on to hear your music.

There are lots of factors/barriers involved that stop people from hearing your music and making them pay for it is obviously a major one. Making them provide you with an email address is also a barrier. It is smaller but it’s there.

The location of your music is also a barrier to some. If its only on your website/bandcamp then that stops those that only use Rhapsody/Last.fm etc.

I reckon the majority of people at the moment listen to music on a portable device or on any device and in mp3 format. If you allow people to take away your music for free so they can put it on whatever portable device they use you’re probably gonna reach more people.

Another barrier to consider is credibility. I suspect there are some people who feel a band that charge full price for a CD or download is more credible than one that gives it away. I’m sure the opposite is true for some forward thinkers as well.

Getting back to the issue of free this is my personal experience and I must mention my band is in a totally different genre. I released our album at the end of October, it’s free to stream in full from our website, Spotify, Last.fm and many other places. It appeared on an mp3 sharing blog 5 days after it was released so I bit the bullet and ‘leaked’ it to the other major file sharing blogs I knew of and asked that they use my link so I could track downloads. So far we’ve sold 70 CDs and had 1000 free downloads. I can’t track the paid downloads for another couple of months but it will be nowhere 1000 that’s for sure.

Depending on what barriers you identify (and how they apply to your music/genre etc) I would suggest the event should simply be the release of your album and you should make the downloads free and available to all. The paid model should be for the physical item or the live experience or a t shirt or a house show.

You could still allow people to pay for the downloads if they want but the key is to make them free first and allow people to pay if they want. I think this is a subtle but important difference from just a pay what you want model. Some will feel guilt for taking your music for free unless you tell them it’s ok first.

Kevin Reeves December 1, 2009 at 5:14 am

Great post. I’ve been toying with this concept as well, given the Radiohead deal as well as the introduction of noisetrade, which is another site that allows for the pay what you want model. This is a tough one. You slave over a record for months, putting in about 10 grand or more, and then turn around and allow people to potentially take it for free. It’s a model that still has me thinking. I mean, my first record is available as a download for free if one signs up to the mailing list, but that’s a 4 year old album that has had it’s legs in the internet market. It didn’t make a ton of sales, but I’m now using it to try and get more names on my fan list for when the next album comes out. It’s the next album that I’m contemplating the pay what you want model. Wonder if I should offer it, and also put it in iTunes, amazon, etc, and see what happens. Thanks for making me think on a Tuesday morning. Have a great day, and I wish you continued success with your music.

cory huff December 1, 2009 at 10:45 am

Jason, your public experimentation is awesome. I love reading about what you’re doing.

I say keep going with it. Try everything. Offer it for free for a while (say, a month), then offer it for free with an email sign up, then offer it with a $1 minimum. Try all of it. If you can, do A/B testing with your download page to see which one works best for you.

Keep it rockin’!

Pete Smith
January 31, 2010 at 7:31 pm

Most of our tracks are released under a creative commons license.

We are an independent record label not a big bad corporation out to sue you for file sharing, we WANT you to spread our music around.

With such an overcrowded market place giving away your music is essential in my opinion. The biggest problem for emerging indie artists today is obscurity, not piracy. To find out more listen to The Antiqcool Podcast .


Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: