I am a jaded, cynical bastard. I'll be the first to admit. But my cynicism is not the usual pretentious, disgruntled angst that rages in many others that never got their "Shot in life." No, my cynicism is focused on the realities of what I love...music and all things music related. From bands, to the records, to the labels, to my own attempts at making music I have spent most of my adult life obsessing and pursuing a phantom dream. The dream of creating something people would like. That would move people. Something that would change the world and at the same time loving others that are already doing it.
Think back 5 years ago. Napster was making a name for itself, the iPod had found its market and techie music nerds everywhere had found something that would revolutionize the way music is distributed. It was during this time that a radical idea's seed had been planted. To use the internet to exchange and market music. I had just moved to Los Angeles when all this was happening. I had gotten lucky enough to meet a group of musicians through mutual friends the first week I moved there. I was even luckier when I found out they were connected to the music industry and actually knew what they were doing. On top of that, their visions of wanting to use the internet to market music were very similar. We would brainstorm for hours on how to use the internet to get people into the music we were making. How to get our music into people's hands so that they could hear it and would want to come to our shows. We always ended with the same idea:
Give it away for free...
At the time Apple had started to get iTunes together and we could see as a group where this was going. As my luck would continue to have it our second guitar player (I was the other) was also an accredited sound engineer who had worked on many pro projects. He had invested in buying Pro Tools and we also had an electronic drum kit. We weighed the costs and realized that creating a record in our own apartment would allow us to not worry about recording costs and therefore feel the need to recoup any of it through sales. This lead to us simply giving CD's out for donation only.
Was the music we made good? I am biased so I will say it lacked but was very ambitious. Did people like it? Let's just say we never found our "niche." Did the cold, hard truth of Los Angeles' music scene murder my dreams under its bloody axe of superficial, oversaturated crap? Let's just say music is back to being a hobby. But one thing I found through all of it was the power of the internet and marketing.
Flash-forward to today and we can see this concept in full swing. MySpace is the "Come listen to our new CD!" capitol of the world, there are more places to put your band's music then I can even comprehend and iTunes is the all ruling god of it all. Still, there is a lacking element of today's internet music marketing. The shit is still for sale.
If I learned one thing from Los Angeles it is that the world has come full circle with technology and knowledge. Long gone are the days of mythical rock bands, the LCD drenched recording sessions and the famous producers. Turns out they were all regular people who had a knowledge base about something normal people couldn't afford. But now we can and now everyone knows how to get a CD together and put it up on there blogs, fan sites and god knows what. So considering this obvious tidal wave of competition along with the increasing resistance from music lovers getting sick of being bombarded with music solicitation via email, why wouldn't all musicians give everything away for free? What are we really trying to accomplish here? Do we really think we will make it through this ever populating world of mediocrity by selling our unproven worth? You may be great, but who cares if I have pay before I like?
Radiohead released "In Rainbows" earlier this year to critical and commercial success. I personally do like the record but what I loved the most about it was the marketing scheme. You see, Radiohead is one of those bands that are always victim to the pre release album leak over the internet. It is a perpetual thing and common law lately had been to push the release date up and rush the product out. Major labels continue to cross there fingers instead of using some foresight that they are not going to be able to stop this. So what did Radiohead do? They put the entire record on the internet for free 2 months before the release. You could still pay for the record. You could literally pay anything you wanted, but you could also pay nothing and download it. Why was this brilliant? Because it circumvented the internet music leak scene and pushed everyone into a nice corner to download and enjoy. They controlled it. What was the need to go rummage the internet for the bootleg when the band was offering it right there?
"BUT ALBUM SALES WILL BE AFFECTED!!!!" says the major labels.
Yep they were, because Radiohead debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts. They were affected in a very positive way. This was proof that a band has the ability to control each aspect of there music, including people getting it for free.
So what are the benefits for people who aren't Radiohead? How about considering that if you have invested in a basic recording set up and have the ability to get a CD onto the internet that any purchase you do make is entirely profit. Does that sound good? You have to put in perspective. If you are offering music for free and people are taking it you are getting amazing promotion for next to nothing. There are no costs for materials, all the sites for promotion are free and you don't have to worry about a distributer. On top of that allowing a donation for the CD is a much softer way to solicit a purchase then demanding a sale. People love the choice and they love the fact that they may be actually willing to give you something for it but on their terms.
If bands considered this opportunity it could greatly benefit both fan and musician. This way taking pressure off the band to recoup financial loss and let the listener choose what they want and if they want to spend money on it. You may find that giving out a few things for free now could help you sell many more things in the not so distant future.