There’s a lot of experimentation and speculation these days about what is to become of the music business now that the Internet has supposedly made music free. Many musicians and music lovers claim that artists should, if they’re clever, be able to give away their recordings and make their money through touring.
I’m not entirely sure about this. Band merch is a funny thing. I personally don’t care for band t-shirts that much anymore. As a fashion statement, they’re pretty bottom-tier. If you are talking about making out good on tour entirely from door take, you’ve got a long hard crawl upwards before you become that much of a draw consistently – years of working the clubs making a name for yourself while pretty much living in poverty.
At least, that’s how it looks to me. But I have nothing to back up that opinion. Thankfully, someone has decided to challenge the “give away free music and make money on tour” model with some actual research. If you’re a band or musician who’s giving this model a go, follow that link and sign up. I’m very interested in what Hank might uncover if he can get enough data.
I think there’s a false dichotomy at work here though, that says that you either sell music xor you give it away. I don’t think there’s any law, of the physical, economic, or governmental variety, that implies that if you have mp3s available for free download, it is impossible to also sell music in some format for money. I think Andrew Dubber is pretty close to nailing it in “How Can You Sell mp3s at Gigs?” People still buy CDs, especially at shows, because CDs are still worth paying for. Compared to mp3s, CDs have better sound (no data compression), usually come with printed material that includes both nifty cover art that artists often choose carefully to go along with the experience of the music, and information about how and by whom the music was made that music fans find interesting; and in a sense they’re more durable – I could lose my entire mp3 collection in one unexpected hard drive crash, but it would require something like a fire or a well-placed tornado to wipe out even half of my CDs. Also, CDs purchased at shows are a kind of souvenir of having been at the show; each time you pull that CD off the shelf, you’ll remember the show you were at where the band ruled so hard and you had such a cool time, that you were inspired to buy it in the first place. Heck, every time I look at my Warmers “Thin Air”/”Occupation: Fish” 7”, I remember the first time I ever heard them, when they played at the Boat House, and how I still wish I’d had enough money to get the CD instead of the 7” because they were so good. Sure I could probably find their album online somewhere now, but it wouldn’t be the same experience.
Anyway, what was my point? Oh yeah, there’s plenty of gray area between “we give away all our recordings for free online” and “we expect to be paid for every note we play that reaches another person’s ears.” And I think that gray area is where it’s at. See, technological advances have not only made it ridiculously cheaper and easier to distribute music to people, they have also made it cheaper and easier to record music, in case you didn’t notice. Time was, a band could hardly get a listenable recording of their tunes made without hiring professionals, trekking to a studio, putting in a lot of time and money. Record labels served as the gatekeepers not just to getting recordings of music in the hands of people (distribution), but also to being able to afford getting those recordings made in the first place (production). The production end of this role is often overlooked in these discussions, but it merits pointing out that recording technology is more accessible to artists now than ever before.
What this means is that artists can record and release more music. And yet, MySpace still only allows you to put up six songs at a time. What I’ve been thinking lately is that giving away some recordings free can help raise interest in others. Put up free mp3s on your MySpace page or band website of live recordings, demo versions, rough mixes, outtakes and the like; provide your fans a regular dose of new stuff to listen to. The tracks that you put a lot of care and expense into producing, put on your albums, and sell those on CD and in mp3 downloads of the paid variety. Recently, we’ve also seen artists drum up interest for a forthcoming album by releasing a few tracks (or in some cases videos) online in advance of the CD release; you could put those on your website or MySpace page temporarily for a limited bit of time too.
Overall, it’s not as cut-and-dried as, you either sell everything you record or give it all away, and in fact I think the most advantageous options promotionally and hence financially lie in doing some of each.