Does Your Music have Value?

This post was originally written as a comment on Andrew Dubber’s New Music Strategies blog recently where he asked “Why give music away for free?”

My work involves listening to a lot of new music by a lot of independent artists, who have wildly differing attitudes regarding the value of their own music. At one extreme some performers only feature short clips of their songs on their MySpace page for fear of losing record sales if fans are allowed to hear the whole thing for free. At the other end of the spectrum are artists who proudly announce they’re releasing their new EP or album as a free download from their website. Some will even mail a CD-R of their work to anyone who wants one, anywhere in the world, free of charge.

But both extremes strike me as misguided. The Record Industry is in crisis with single sales dropping through the floor. How many extra units do people honestly expect to sell as a result of NOT putting the full version of their ‘A’Side on MySpace. Twenty? Two hundred? It sure as hell won’t be two thousand.

By the same token if you’ve invested time and money in making an album, then offering to mail free CDs to anybody who wants one sends out completely the wrong message. (Can their music be any good if they’re that keen to to give it away for nothing?) Other people won’t value your work if you don’t appear to ascribe any value to it yourself.

Which is why my advice to every independent artist would be NOT to blindly give their music away free to all comers. Instead release your recordings sparingly in the form of singles, EPs and albums – using Tunecore and AWAL – exactly as you would if you had a record company. Put together mini tours, videos and promotional campaigns to support every release – even if the tour is only local pubs and the video shot with a mobile phone.

The more seriously artists treats their own work the more seriously other people will take it. A series of full commercial releases gives you a better chance of airplay at radio. It also gives you a discography. Note that this isn’t about shifting units – any actual sales income will be a small bonus. It’s about credibility, building up a body of work and establishing a fanbase.

With this in mind, artists should (in my view) definitely put their single and best album tracks up on MySpace in full. This isn’t the same as giving music away free – instead think of MySpace plays not as lost sales, but as airplay. Yes, people can grab your MySpace audio for free if they really want to. But if Radio 1 played a track of yours on heavy rotation, people could grab that off the radio for free as well. The benefits far outweigh the risks.

So if we expect low sales and turn a blind eye to filesharing, how will we earn an income from our music in the future? From the same place artists have always earned their income – from your fanbase. Traditionally, 95% of the money a fan paid for your album went to record retailers, wholesalers, distributors, manufacturers, publishers, managers and record company shareholders in any case.

So stop searching for that elusive deal, cut out the middlemen and devote serious thought and energy instead to building a loyal following. Write those blogs, answer those emails, gather those addresses, build that database, nurture that goodwill. Above all keep writing those great tunes. Building a fanbase is simple enough – all you have to be is good and the word will spread.

Jono McCleery was broke when trying to record his album, and emailed fans for donations. Kat Flint did the same. Both raised the money and both albums were superb. In future, great artists may never numerically match the album sales of the bad old days. But they’ll see a damn sight more money for each unit sold.

And great music will always arouse the same passionate loyalty in their core audience – as Radiohead’s limited edition ¬£40 “In Rainbows” Box Set proved. For $15,000, well-heeled US fans can book the legendary Janis Ian to come play in their living room. How much would I pay to go and watch (say) Stevie Wonder working in the studio for a few hours? Not quite fifteen grand, but quite a lot.

A large committed fanbase guarantees you a diverse future income – whether it’s in the form of house concerts, CD box sets, limited edition vinyl, T-shirts, DVDs, or straight donations towards studio costs. New converts will also flock to buy discs and merchandise off you at gigs.

And since you’ll still own all your publishing rights the wonderful PRS will send you cash everytime one of your songs gets played on the radio or performed at a registered venue. If it gets picked for a film score or used in a TV commercial – bingo, more cash and further record sales from the exposure. We should all be so lucky. Like I say, all you have to be is good.

So the one time when it does make sense to give your music away for free is to help you build that fanbase. Offer something of real value (such as your last commercially released EP) in exchange for a name and email address. And continue to offer free and exclusive stuff from time to time to thank your followers for their support.

And though I take Dubber’s comparison mentioning his E-book being available free online, I’m going to cussedly pay for a bound paper copy on Lulu because I want to keep it beside my bed. If people like something enough, they’ll pay to enjoy it in the best possible quality and help support the people who created it.

Tom Robinson

London-based broadcaster & songwriter, born 1950. His best known songs are 2-4-6-8 Motorway, Glad To Be Gay and War Baby; he has also co-written songs with Peter Gabriel, Elton John, Dan Hartman and Manu Katché. Read More...


  1. Many fans will always want some merchandise to hold. Whether it is a vinyl treated lovely and valued, or some limited release. A burnt CD can be thrown around, scratched, lent to friends and then you can return to the computer and burn a new one.

    The flood of freely available music can cause a band to become known but actually have very few true fans. And it is the true fans that go to concerts, look for physical items, promote the band to their family and friends. Also will much online music we lose the concept of an album a story, and maybe even over time people notice the sound quality less and less.

    Of course perhaps we are extreme but to make a stand you must go the whole way.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful article. I’ve been having a very animated discussion with a friend on mine about this very issue. He thinks we should be releasing all our music for free, whereas I took the same standpoint as you do in this piece.

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