Give It Away – Or Just Give Up? [Music Business Advice]

Free Music.

Having read those words, your brain is most likely already overflowing with thoughts, ideas, and opinions. Free music is, to say the least, a controversial topic that raises all kinds of questions, such as these:

Do people still pay for music?

Should music be free?

In an age where so much creative work – from your favourite album to these words – can be digitally encoded and in turn be thought of as nothing more than information, ones and zeroes and patterns of electrical charges inside a computer, just another form of “content” – should it all just be free?

Does information “want to be free”, as so many like to say?

As we’ve previously said, these questions and more will continue to be debated today, tomorrow, and well into the future. But as we also found out in our previous editorial, communication is going to be – in fact, already is – a crucial factor in creating and maintaining a sustainable career in music. We also offered our love and respect to those musicians who make an active effort to communicate with their audiences about the realities of a career in the music business.

That offer still stands – but this time around, we’re going to look a bit deeper, at exactly how different artists publicly react to the ‘free music’ issue.

Broadly speaking, bands and artists tend to respond in one of three ways:

Response 1:

Resignation, defeatism, depression and despair. Common statements run along the lines of “I don’t know why I’m bothering anymore – nobody values what I do. I’m on the edge of giving up…”

Although expressing your feelings is completely valid – and the way such statements come across depend on contextual factors such as the artist’s music, how they communicate with their fans in general, their artistic personality, and so forth – this type of response is highly likely to result in damage.

Some musicians build entire careers around art that deals directly with raw and unfiltered negative emotions; but negative thoughts and emotions can overwhelm even the strongest of minds. When negativity spills over into every interaction an artist has with the outside world, it quickly becomes too exhausting and alienating for all but the most stoical fans to handle. Hostility may result from this approach, but it’s more likely that over time, the artist in question will see their fanbase slowly wither away as more and more fans realise how much it’s bringing them down.

Response 2:

Anger, resentment, hostility and aggression.

“Why the fuck don’t people buy music anymore?! Don’t they know musicians don’t make that much money? It’s not all glitz and glamour, you know! Would you like it if I walked into your workplace and told you to work for free?!”

Fortunately, this response is pretty rare. But it is out there. Again, expressing your feelings is valid; but doing it in this way actively serves to push fans away and encourages still more hostility in response. The result? Band-fan warfare. Nobody wins from this approach! Any survivors from one side are going to hate the survivors from the other side, and eventually everyone will lapse into the same depressive patterns that make up Response 1.

It’s worth bearing in mind that while the recorded music business has never been that popular, it really became demonised when it responded to the digital music revolution with anger and hostility. Lawsuits, DRM, Sony’s rootkit scandal? All the result of Response 2. It’s mind-boggling that some artists will happily put down “out-of-touch” record labels while embracing the same basic attitude adopted by the major industry players in the early years of the new millennium.

Response 3:

Careful thought, market research, and a bit of creativity.

This response is becoming more and more common as bands and artists wake up to the communicative benefits of social media and networking platforms. With Twitter, YouTube, and (to a lesser extent, given its new policy of expecting page owners to pay to reach the audiences that ‘liked’ their pages in the first place) Facebook, bands and artists can work with their fans to deliver products that satisfy their fans’ needs while providing the act with a sustainable career in return.

A common complaint amongst musicians is a perceived sense of entitlement amongst their fans. The extent of that entitlement obviously varies from act to act, but it can be a real issue. If your fans are consistently obnoxious, rude, and demand that you effectively provide a free service in return for attention, perhaps you should consider making a determined effort to attract a new kind of fan! There are many enthusiastic, dedicated, mature and industry-savvy music fans out there – and the sooner you find them and bring them into the fold, the sooner your career’s health can take a turn for the better. It’s hard work, but it’ll be worth it in the long run.

Simply asking your fans where they go to listen to and / or buy music (Spotify or nothing else? Bandcamp? SoundCloud? iTunes? Brick-and-mortar record stores?), how and where they listen to that music (On a phone? On a computer? Through headphones? Seven-foot audiophile-friendly speaker stacks? On the bus? In the car? While doing housework? While exercising? Etc.), and thinking up new ways to make your music available and compel fans to invest in you can make a huge difference to your career’s trajectory. It sounds cheesy, but if you show people that you care about them, they’re going to be more likely to care about you.

Gigs can be costly affairs – perhaps offering unique gig- or tour-only merch could attract more people to your shows? The Dillinger Escape Plan made their track Happiness Is A Smile available only on 7” vinyl that fans could only buy from their on-tour merch table – then, when it was all over, Dillinger put the track up online to stream so the fans who didn’t buy a copy didn’t get left out. A single song became a buzz-building tool, a way to get people to come to shows, a unique collector’s item for the fans who bought it, a unique experience for those fans who actually played the vinyl and didn’t make it the centrepiece of a shrine to DEP, and finally it became something for the rest of the Dillinger-loving world to discuss and obsess over when it was finally made available on YouTube.

Does recorded music have a value anymore? Well, Happiness Is A Smile certainly did – and still does!

The digital world offers still more opportunities for open-minded musicians. From pay-what-you-like models à la Bandcamp to crowdfunding campaigns, a little thought, market research, and creativity goes a long way. Pay-what-you-like can also be a great way to see just how much your own unique audience thinks your music is worth, providing you with invaluable information that can help you adjust your strategy in the future. At the time of writing this, however, two big examples of the power of the internet are pressing on my mind, and I’m going to let you know about them now, in chronological order.

When it comes to the musicians in my personal social circle, very few have the same connection with their fans that Rob Chapman does. If you’ve not heard of this guy yet, check out his YouTube channel here and get stuck in. Besides being a YouTube star, guitar teacher, the owner of a guitar company (Chapman Guitars) and more, Rob Chapman fronts a Brighton-based band called Dorje. In a world where recorded music apparently has no value, because nobody buys it, Dorje:

– Recorded their first EP, a two-tracker named Primordial Audio Chronicle;

– Made PAC available only as an exclusive perk on an Indiegogo campaign that was set up to fund a tour with legendary sessioneer Phil X, and his band The Drills;

– Sold 1,059 copies of that EP, along with other perks;

– Went on tour in a massive bus and had the time of their lives, while the YouTube video for lead PAC track Aeromancy racked up over 100,000 views. That video, at the time of writing, has now been viewed 342,286 times – all thanks to the power of the internet, with no external label marketing or distribution aid whatsoever.

– Were the brains and talent behind one of Indiegogo’s top crowdfunding campaigns in 2012.

Does recorded music have a value anymore? Primordial Audio Chronicle certainly did – and still does. Although the Indiegogo campaign is long over, you can buy Primordial Audio Chronicle on iTunes here.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Rob Chapman has spent many years building up several brands via YouTube because he’s some kind of uniquely gifted rock god. How else could this be? Well, the best way to see sense here is to watch some of Rob’s videos. The guy’s humble, generous to a fault, and his YouTube videos contain plenty of useful tips that aspiring musicians can and should take on board. Getting to a point at which Dorje could achieve that level of independent success didn’t just happen overnight, true, but it is still possible – and Rob’s not one to hold back. He’s a born teacher, and makes a real effort to connect with his audience.

Watch, learn, succeed, repeat.

Finally, I want to give you one more example of the power of the internet. As regular readers will have noticed, we are extremely excited about Maxi Curnow right now. Musically, his latest release, STEM, blew our minds – but Maxi’s approach to selling STEM has made us all the more evangelical.

In a world where recorded music apparently has no value, Maxi Curnow’s STEM is selling very nicely. But Maxi himself isn’t profiting from the proceeds. Rather, all the money made by STEM – a twenty-minute epic track that took God only knows how much time to write and record – is being donated to the Nayee Asha Orphanage in India; a location at which Maxi has previously worked as a volunteer.

How awesome is that?!

Now, let’s take a step back here; it’s very easy for an artist to get this approach wrong. Where is the line between charitable giving and shamelessly cynical exploitation of disadvantaged people for the sole purpose of increasing brand awareness? Well, wherever that line is, Maxi is on the right side of it. Like Rob Chapman, he’s generous and humble to a fault. He has the right attitude – not just to music and the business side of things, but to life in general.

And that’s what all this comes down to. Attitude. Positivity, playfulness, and conscious creative thought versus negativity and the black-dog crush of depressive behaviour patterns.

If you’re a musician, and you’ve made the only logically correct choice: Don’t stop, and keep going.

If you’re a musician whose actions and words are only serving to push the ones who love you away, think about how to make things better for yourself.

And if you’re a music fan who’s read this out of curiosity, remember that communication is, at the very least, a two-way street. And your attitude counts for something too.

But that is a whole other post…


Follow TMMP via Twitter and my brand new Facebook page for more advice and awesome music! If you’re a regular reader, thanks for the support! Don’t stop, and keep going!

Posted on 31 May 2014

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