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Release Music For Free Or Paid?

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This relates to the topic about the point in releasing albums.


As I said there, I read regularly, from indie musicians and unsigned indie bands, that money cannot be made from music. I hear the same from full-time but self-releasing artists. From artists signed to established labels I hear simply that less money is made from music than it used to be possible to make. Much less in many cases.


Firstly, things have changed, but not entirely. A change in expectation is needed. Also worth noting, that for many a change in ambition has occurred. "The old model does not work" is largely true, but that does not mean all models do not work. What can be achieved, or what is likely to be achieved has changed. 


Experimenting with new business models, new release models is ongoing. Little is certain. Even motivations are broadly varied.


There is a good reason pros aren't giving their music away for free.


As far as low level pro musicians go I think there are differences. The level of required knowledge for one. Developed connections for another. 


There are many many reasons many artists fail to make sales.


  • Most small artists are not marketing experts. Most individuals are not experts either.
  • Many do not have fan mailing lists. 
  • Most have poor fan engagement. Even with small labels much lies in the hands of inexperienced bands.
  • Many think Simple activity on social media is sufficient.
  • Few have coordinated promotion and publicity campaigns. 
  • Fewer still employ professional promotion and publicity companies.
  • For many, building fans involves releasing more music, a live video or two and inane or simple promotional social media posts.
  • Many spam their social media followers and think activity means posting any old news.
  • Many limit most creativity to their music, and forget about being creative with promotion, packaging, merch etc. And yes, I know Merch tends to be primarily for large established bands.
  • Many have spent zero effort establishing brand awareness, brand advocates, promotion networks, cross-promotion opportunities, establishing or supporting fan clubs.
  • Few harness incentives effectively, if at all.
  • Most have done very little to build fan profiles to help identify marketing channels and approaches
  • Only the more organised will have a formal release plan


I could go on.


The fact is, in the old music industry most would not have got to release their music either. If they did, it probably wouldn't have sold many copies either (cue countless stories of stored vinyl or CDs under bed and in cupboards). Those that did tended to do so because someone knew someone who had some experience. The list above would have applied then too (at least the non-tech reliant stuff). It's just that most musicians didn't have the opportunity to realise they knew nothing about selling music, so they didn't confront that specific issue.


Nowadays, they have the technology to make great music, but artists have almost no know how about turning great music into hits. Is this a surprise?


Chances are that if you are not doing the items on the above list, your profit making capability will be impaired.


The wrong conclusion here is that such things cannot be done in an indie environment. Another is that because you think you can't do these things now, learning them is not worth it. There are other flaws in that conclusion I won't go into here.


Most common is the reason that "I am a musician, I don't know/want to know that shit". A good cop out.


Another common one is where musicians opt out of competing on any old excuse (More common in free release market). You can't fail if you don't compete.


What has changed to a degree is the release process and the size of albums in some markets.


The music industry relies upon preciously guarded knowledge, contacts, budget, creativity, tools and processes. The true currency is, and has been for decades, the number of fans you have. Get in any conversation with A&R and that is the burning question, and for good reason. For them, good music is expected. Fans are what hooks their interest, because they know that fans mean money.


We aren't talking social media likes, or Soundcloud plays. Even paying customers isn't it (though sales are definitely their language. Followers... to a degree. Mailing list subscribers are more hitting the mark.


The music industry runs on lists. Fan lists. Contact lists. Project lists.


If you don't think you can sell your music it is only right to ask yourself why? Piracy? It has made a huge dent, that cannot be denied. Others are selling music, so how can they make it work? Not all manage to sell their music, but that is always the case, always was. Sometimes it is the uncomfortable truth that our music just isn't good enough. Often it is our approach, and the environment we created for our music to exist in. Our poor marketing. Our lack of experience. Our unrealistic expectation. Often, especially with youth, it is a reliance on the very unrealistic expectation, that we will "be discovered" or that somehow the gaping holes in our plans will be filled by someone who will arrive and fill in the gaps. Often it is simply fooling ourselves into thinking that our music should be enough and that we don't really need to spend ages learning a ton of business crap.


Sad, but they are all, very common scenarios.


A common trait I find with older musicians, the guys that were in bands and went around the block a few times, is that they feel they are too old, and don't really want a career in music. They just want to make music. I not think wanting success automatically means you have to pursue a career. Nor do I think it involves making millions. What success is, varies. To each person it is different.


if your dream is that of millions in the banks and being an international superstar, achieving your dream always was roughly the odds of winning the lottery. I think the difference now is that the middle ground of being a music pro who earns well enough to make a living us more easily achievable


For some, success is about free plays. Is the measure of worth of our music that of how many free plays we can get? Surely that is a measure of how many people we can put our music in front of? Hardly a clap on the back is it?


On some level for all, other than artistic goals, it is surely about people liking what we do? More people? It would be nice. But it needn't be our only ambition or realistic expectation.


A bit of a ramble, I know, but hey..... Thoughts anyone?






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14 minutes ago, john said:

There is a good reason pros aren't giving their music away for free.


I agree with everything you said and am thankful for your hard-hitting truth on the subject, as always. Concerning the quoted line above, that's the thing. They actually are giving it away for free, because they have little to no control over stopping it from being free. Name a popular song and I'd say there's a 99.9% chance I can have it on my computer and listen to it, for free, within minutes. Thanks YouTube and the like. That's truly my only gripe. Spotify, Apple, etc… take the songs and stream them as well. Try getting out of it and you're lambasted across the net for being a cry-baby that has more money than most so should just shut up and do it for the "gimme, gimme, gimme fans". I've read hundreds of articles and comments on that exact scenario from Metallica to Taylor Swift and on and on. So it's almost like blackmail. What artist wants to risk the negative publicity and possible damage that can come with it (mainly losing fans) by complaining? So they go on tour.


I do think ideally the option to do both is the best path. Give away 3 songs for every 1 song you have up for sale. And if it could be guaranteed that the 1 song you have for sale wouldn't be readily available for free within a week, it could work. That could potentially lead to artists not giving away any of their songs for free at some point. Yikes!!

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I'm mostly just responding to the title of this topic, which is "Release Music For Free Or Paid".


Unless you already have a large audience, I don't think you have any choice but to release your recordings for free. Technology has made it possible for nearly anyone to create quality recordings that could have only been made in a studio 30 years ago. Thanks to the Internet, there are no barriers to worldwide distribution. Nowadays I feel like there are more people making and distributing more quality music than ever before, and there is a massive amount of previously recorded music which is either available for free, or for pennies a day. It's not hard to see why the value of new recorded music has dropped to zero.


For me, success is making music that people want to listen to. The day we break triple digit listen counts on any of our Soundcloud tracks I'll be a very happy man, and I'll have to pick a new goal.


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Hey Chumpy


In biz terms different groups of people equate to different potential income streams. Listeners only matter with regards to two direct income streams (spotify etc payments and potentially more lucrative YouTube plays) and their ability to grow fans. There after the purpopse is to convert fans into superfans, because superfans still buy everything going. Fans are somewhat less reliable.


It should be noted that a fan of a local band is no different to a fan of an international act... they are still regarded with a degree of awe and possessiveness. The superfan theory applies just as well to both.


The closely guarded secrets (which are in truth not that mystical) of converting fans into superfans is the bit most indies have no idea about.


@HoboSage of course you don't. :) No sense spoiling your fans. Make them really work for your acknowledgement.





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Seems to me that the important question really is - Do you (we) have fans? And if not...How do you get fans?


Without fans, there are no sales or even many free downloads. There aren't even many listens.


And then within  'How to get fans'... the question of 'free or not' probably comes up.


In my mind, when you're unknown, you have to give to get... initially you're always putting up something free. Maybe that's playing supports for nothing, maybe putting your own time and money into Youtube promotion, handing out demos...whatever... So to me it's not so much 'free downloads or paid downloads' it's more about the fact that sticking an album up for sale on Bandcamp won't make you a penny without fans...so first you have to get fans...IF you want them...IF you want sales...and getting them requires a commitment, sacrifices that are really not likely to sit well with everyone. It's just a fact of life that those sacrifices will be harder when you're older and no longer living off the bank of mum n dad ;) That's not a complaint... just the way it is. I've done it before... walked into the bosses office and said 'Sorry I'm leaving, we're off on tour'...that's actually pretty easy (and fun) to do when your job is in a shop, you have no kids, and there's a free room at mum's ;)  Not so much when life is more serious.



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On the (related) topic of 'how do you get fans'... by the way... I reckon it's still the case that you have to be shit hot LIVE  (don't you???) ... if you're not gigging, and if you're not way above the rest LIVE then there are no fans, no sales (are there? it's a question too)... It's perhaps the case that these days a pre-recorded performance on YouTube counts as 'Live', but it's still the same thing or at least I'm counting it as the same thing, except that I reckon YouTube success relies on some additional or slightly different skills or qualities such as how you engage with the audience. 


And beyond that, for sales worth speaking of... when you've got the great live act or a bit of a buzz on YouTube or whatever... you have to have something special even compared to other great artists. 


Maybe all sounds obvious... but at one time or another, many people (including me in my dafter moments) will get into a mindset of 'well I've got some good songs, people listen and say they like them...surely a few will stump up some cash to download them'... but it just doesn't work that way. And then moan that people aren't buying or argue about whether the download should be free or not.


All that said, if there's a way to make money from music sales without blowing a crowd away live or becoming a youtube celeb... please someone tell me how...'cause I could do the wizard of oz thing really happily :) 

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You are right, it doesn't work that way.... people don't just pay for your tracks from nowhere.


Fans can be recruited in other ways (than live), but they mostly involve a lot of money and back scratching. Generally it involves high levels of media coverage, where fans become transferable. Remember the Monkees? The Partridge Family? Fans were established in a TV show and transferred to the band. X Factor, American Idol and The Voice all create stars but there is a proxy live gig element there.


One of the first I remember crossing from a hype bubble (instead of a talent show, the Disney Channel, or a TV show) was Bros. Their first live show was Wembley. They hadn't gigged anywhere before that, had no fan base from a show... it was all built from publicity and media hype along with saturation airplay on the radio.


Of course such saturation is beyond pretty well everyone but a select few. Then again coverage recruits fans. Until very recently radio remained the number one method of new music discovery while YouTube was the main way listeners kept listening. Assuming you don't need to recruit enough fans to fill Wembley, you don't need that level of saturation.


Mainstream radio remains an almost impossible nut for indie to crack, but there are other ways in. Radio may be number 2 in music discovery, but you'll be glad to know that YouTube is now number one.


Some other useful stats to help fight the doom and gloom:


71% of music users access licensed music

1/3 of 16-24 year olds now pay for a music streaming service

37% use streaming services.

82% of YouTube users use it for music (93% of 16-24 year olds)

58% of YouTube users use it to find new music (69% of 16-24 year olds)

48% of internet users pay for music in some form


Hardly time to hang out the flags and throw a party, but it's not the blackest days of piracy either. There is opportunity to recruit fans. There is the possibility of making money from a number of revenue streams. Enough to live from? For most, no, but it is possible. Much more possible than it once was....


Labels make money from artists across a number of platforms, but the two main ways they make money from the music itself is through sales to fans and sync. Streams contribute but most offer pitiful rates. YouTube is a valuable contributor, making it a wise choice for a number of reasons.

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2 hours ago, Richard Tracey said:

On the getting a fan base front - there are blogs out there who specialise in certain types of music. Send them your songs. If they like them, they will feature you, post a stream of a song or songs and more than likely interview you if they really like your stuff.


Very true. You may be interested to know that among the intended changes in Songstuff is the introduction of a database of music industry contacts. This includes an index of more than 1,000 such music blogs, categorised by music genre.At this stage we plan to introduce a subscriber based donation and access to the database is part of our way of thanking members for agreeing to make regular donations. Such a subscription is important in that it allows Songstuff to make budget based plans which is far less certain with unpredictable, though very welcome, occasional donations. The plan is to make it much easier for members to find the right key bloggers to support their promotion needs.


@Monostone, I will happily move the posts over to create a new topic from Richard's post onwards. :)

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1 minute ago, HoboSage said:

John, was it any hassle to get the Paypal donate button and service without being a true charity?  Could it be used as a "tip jar"?


No real hassle. In the UK it counts as a kind of club. In essence it is an unofficial not-for-profit set up, of which clubs and community groups often are. It is an area I want to bring clarity to. Although a cost is involved, I am investigating moving Songstuff to being fully registered as a not-for-profit entity. There are, if I remember correctly,  roughly 8 basic not-for-profit types, 4 of which are full charities. I will post a full explanation and justification for this path forward, including implications for the community, the site as a whole and for me personally in a separate topic, article or site page. I think clarity is necessary and an official not-for-profit would be a welcome step for the future of the community.

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  • 2 months later...

my thinking for why most musicians fail to make money is that most would-be fans are mostly interested in seeing/hanging out with other fans, not because of their connection to the music itself.  fans go to concerts largely to see each other.  they listen to songs based primarily on the fact that others they know are or might be listening to that song.  such that music is largely just a means of connecting with others you want to connect with.  so there's a sort-of inevitability to the winner-take-all in music.  

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One point I would make is that it is easy to think things are just one way, because that is all we, ourselves see. If all we see amongst our peers is piracy, then that could easily be our view of the industry, or our view of "people our age". That is not a prerogative of youth either.


Awareness comes from observing, from talking to friends online and offline, old and young, and by reading trend reports from industry (admittedly much fewer numbers do the latter lol). Much like the perspective on albums too.


The fact is that at least for now, albums are still made, and record labels still sell music. Were albums to stop making money, were music to stop making money, believe me, record labels would not be seen for dust as short term profit is pretty well all they care about.

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Also:  the real money in music does not come from performance.  It comes from songwriting.  It comes from owning "the song, itself."


(Of course, this presupposes that you own the rights to a song that, one way or the other, will be frequently played.  Doesn't matter where, or why, or by who, provided only that it is, and that it's a place where BMI or ASCAP or SESAC will be aware of it.)


And then, I think ... volume!  The more songs you have out there, the better are your odds that "even the purely-random fish" will strike at it.  "How big is your catalog?"

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I'm really not worried about being able to sell my stuff if I can just get it to sound sellABLE.  Once I have the ability to produce quickly (I'm having faith it's gonna happen) Once I have the product I plan to use every internet tool I can find to learn how to market it, I've already seen a few seminars on how to acquire passive income (I think that's what they call it) and definitely seen some eye opening stuff.  Seems to me that there are people who will buy your music if you will take the (painstaking) time to get it where they can find it and give incentives to share and buy it.  It does sound like you'd have to really throw yourself into the business side of things too and you may be looking at a year or two of grinding before you see the pay off, but there are sites that walk you through these things, tedious as they may be.  

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  • 1 month later...

Good article John.


I'm no longer an artist and now concentrate on writing for other Artists. It's become very noticeable that the Artists that are gigging and also are good at self publicity or have media help and DJ radio contacts bring in a lot more revenue than those that aren't socially as active and have less idea of how to market themselves.


I do some promotion and marketing for them myself but am no expert. I don't even know how to utilise any other available platforms other than Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. I am fortunate enough to have a couple of independent record labels that do some work on promotion and marketing and also sublicense to other distributors but their budgets are nowhere near to what the major labels spend. It's the reason that I don't rely solely on revenue from songs that I pitch successfully to artists because I also have to pitch songs for TV and Film.


Basically the vast majority of Songwriters and artists are swimming upstream in a torrent. The market is now flooded with songwriters, singer songwriters and artists who are all competing within a market that has become accustomed to downloading or streaming free music.


I know of several pro songwriters who have left the music business because they can't earn enough money to live on. I spoke to a friend earlier today who has written a number of hit songs in the past who is now busking because it earns him a better living. He still gigs with different bands but he doesn't rely on that for regular wages.


Truth is that the whole music industry is in a mess and it all began with the digital revolution. I think it will take a long time before some sort of solution or balance is found. 


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