Give away music for free

Bands should give away their first recordings for free.

This idea is not new. First recordings used to be called “demos.” Bands gave away demos. People tape-traded them. They were meant to be distributed freely. If bands charged money for demos, it wasn’t much. Demos weren’t albums, and were priced accordingly.

In this age of Pro Tools, however, band’s first recordings are more likely to be full-length albums than three-song demos. Bands can record at home, free of the demands of the studio clock. So now they make full-lengths and think they can get full-length prices for them.

This is wrong thinking. In this age of downloading, people are hardly willing to pay for albums by established bands, much less up-and-coming ones. But you’d be surprised by how many young bands have self-released albums for sale, or are sitting on them, waiting for labels to pick them up. Both are exercises in futility.

Andrew Dubber, whose blog New Music Strategies tackles industry questions head-on, has this bit of insight in this post:

Don’t try to make money from your music, make money BECAUSE of your music

Payment of anything is a powerful barrier to music consumption now. What would a band rather have — a handful of sales each month with pocket change revenues, or no revenues upfront but many fans familiar with the music and potentially buying merch at gigs?

Only in one situation should a band not give away a first recording: if a label puts it out (or it is so good a label might put it out “as is”). One shouldn’t pirate one’s own album if it has viable sales potential.

But even this exception has exceptions. If a label-released album yields few royalties for a band (which is often the case in metal), then the band has little incentive to fight piracy. In fact, it should actually encourage piracy, because it gets more exposure, while losing little. Only the label loses out. Here, labels’ and bands’ interests are not aligned, which is a whole another can of worms.

- Cosmo Lee