Giving music away for free: Is it worth it?

Rhian Jones

The steady decline in the monetary value of the global recorded music market has been plain for all to see over the past decade.

Piracy has helped bully the halcyon days of the £10 CD out the door in the UK, leaving behind a near-bankrupt retail giant (HMV), and making megabucks album marketing budgets largely a thing of the past.

However, performers are now making more money from a combination of touring, brand partnerships, merchandise and synch deals than at any time in recent history. Which begs the question: how much do artist value their records in the first place?

In 2006, producer Derek Vincent Smith AKA Pretty Lights released his first album for free. Three albums and three EPs later, nothing’s changed.

Available to download directly through his website via his own record label Pretty Lights Music, fans worldwide can legally own his entire back catalogue via a few clicks, no pennies paid.

This approach hasn't hurt his popularity: his latest album Color Of The Sun debuted at No.2 on the Billboard Dance/Electronic Charts and sold 15,000 copies in its first week.

“I released my music in 2006 for free because no-one knew who I was. Then with my consecutive record I found that the free download was selling as well,” explains Smith.

“I carried on doing it to create this relationship of loyalty and respect between my fans and myself as an artist - the fans of the music come to my shows and support me because they get the music for free.”

Shows like these are Smith's main income stream. After playing two sold-out nights at Colorado’s 9,000+ capacity Red Rocks Amphitheater in August  - as well as a few festival slots this summer including Bestival, Squamish Valley Music Festival in Switzerland and Virgin Mobile’s Freefest in September - he’s currently touring the US with his band for the first time.

“Touring and developing my brand, Pretty Lights, is the focus for my continued revenue and income,” he says. “To be successful today is about being talented as a musician and as a business person. It’s not about being lucky or getting a break any more, it’s about making it happen for yourself.”

Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds recently told Music Week about getting minimal income from music streaming services and download sites – despite being one of Spotify’s top artists (the Las Vegas group’s hit single Radioactive is the platform’s second most-played track of 2013 so far).

“All sales of music have gone down the drain. That’s not where an artist is making their money,” said Reynolds. “An artist is making their money at the live shows. Your music is something to give to someone like you would an invitation to come to your art studio. Does this interest you? Great, then come out to a live show and see what we’re really about.”

This might be well and good for artists who have a record label’s (or a parent's) bank account to back them up for those initial touring and recording costs. But what about the upcoming acts waiting to be discovered? Thom Yorke of Radiohead had a lot to say recently about how ‘damaging’ the new industry is for emerging talent.

Most of these artists will require some investment - and that investment will largely be made available from record companies, who are becoming increasingly adept at discovering and exploiting sync, touring and merchandise opportunities for their acts. Of course, they also want a return on their investment - which means giving much music away for nothing under their watch is very unlikely.

However, there are a wealth of helping hands out there that can offer unsigned artists a leg up. PRS For Music Foundation has given over £16m to the creation and performance of new music throughout the UK since being established in 2000. 

Today they offer a number of different funding programmes including the Momentum Music Fund which offers grants of £5k-£15k for artists and bands to break through to the next level of their career. The Arts Council also offers support.

“Competition is always fierce,” said grants coordinator for PRS for Music Foundation Nicole McNeilly speaking at last week's Belfast Music Week. “We want to see a fully-formed project, we want to see that you’ve thought out who’s going to do promotion, are you talking to people to make the most of the opportunity?

“Keep getting music out there, the more of a story you create around your music, the more chance we’re going to recognise you as someone who has got it sorted.”


Tags: PRS for Music Foundation, Dan Reynolds, Making money, Pretty Lights

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