The economics of FREE music

Premise: Music is Cheap! Fans are Priceless!

A couple of days ago I spoke for the LA Chapter of Songsalive! The topic was technology and strategies to treat your music business more like a business. During the workshops, a lot of material was covered but at the Songsalive! meeting and during the tour, a common theme popped up. FREE Samples!

I had just completed a mini-tour involving 5 workshops and 5 performances over 10 days or so. On the way back I stopped back over in Utah and had coffee with my friend Marc. He had hosted a house concert for me to start the tour.

As we talked he said I should have a FREE CD with my songs and asking for people to spread the word. He’s right. He told me to look up the book FREE: The Future of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson (The Long Tail). Turns out, you can get the unabridged audio for. . . free?

During the workshops across the country and by no less than 3 people at the Songsalive! workhshop, I was asked variations of this question.

Should I put FREE 30 second music samples online?

My response was varied…

How many albums of previously unknown artist have you purchased based on 30 seconds of music?

Are you more interested in $10 or 10 fans?

A 30 second sample isn’t really FREE, is it?

Would you buy your music based on a 30 second clip? Come to think of it, would you buy your music based on a 2 minute clip? (that’s a tough question).

Of the first question, one person responded that they occasionally purchased new music based on samples. I’m certain they were lying – mostly to justify their heels in the ground position that they never need to offer their music for free. It’s their product for God’s sake. You wouldn’t expect a grocery store to give you something for free?

I would but that’s a discussion for another day.

CD Baby, Amazon, and Others

A closely followed and associated question was how they could put their music for sale online…(Amazon, CD Baby, iTunes, etc.)?

The notion that many of these performers have is that by being available on these websites and having 30 second clips of their music, they are going to start making money! Whether they admit or not, they want to, hope to, dream to, make big money! If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be so determined to pay to put their songs online – without any radio play, exposure, or marketing.

The idea of being “discovered” is intoxicating. The idea that the web makes it easy to be discovered is the silver-bullet.

Unfortunately, these musicians, many others, and myself at times, is placing the value in the wrong column. Which brings us back to my initial premise…

Music is Cheap! Fans are Priceless!

When I performed at the house concerts and the venue in Vegas, I was asked by several people at each venue if I had a CD. I am in process of recording a new CD and re-recording the tracks from last year’s CD, so I did not press more of last year’s CD. In fact, I had left my t-shirts at home and had NO CD’s with me.

That was a big mistake. Almost un-forgivable. People wanted to take me home with them and now I am not there to consummate our relationship. I’ve heard the consummating the relationship is the funnest part and I missed it!!!

I am in process now of creating a CD with a smattering of songs from last year’s CD, working demos of this year’s CD, and some additional songs – acoustic workings of new and old tunes.

I’m going to also have some recorded narrative explaining the songs and telling the story. I have a spindle in front of me with 100 CD’s. It cost me about $20. I have a CD burner and I have black and white labels. The labels list the songs, my website, my facebook page, and ask the listener to connect. To get on the mailing list. To pirate my music and spread it around.

I’m making a sign that says

“1 CD = $10.

2 CD’s = $0
If  you promise to give 1 CD away”

The CD label also says, “If you like what you hear, copy this CD and then give it to a friend. If you don’t like what you hear, give it to an enemy!”

I will ask that people who listen and enjoy consider a Paypal donation to cover future FREE CD’s distribution.. the cost of the CD and the cost of mailing them out.

The truth is, my music is valuable to me. And it is thankfully, valuable to a few others. But, for me, until some type of critical mass is reached – and maybe not even then – passionate listeners (AKA fans) are the most valuable commodity. I am happy to buy them with my music. It is a fair trade.

What about you?

Posted in Blog, Music Business, Social Media, Songwriting and tagged , , , , , .


  1. Hey Matthew! – “Are you more interested in $10 or 10 fans?” Wow. What a terrific question! Very insightful and an excellent thought provoker. I also like it because, quite frankly, some people might decide that they ARE more interested in $10. That’s their prerogative. Thanks for sharing this today! – Nancy (and, in case anyone is wondering…no, we’re not related) 🙂

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