The subject of giving away music for free is a touchy one for musicians, and rightfully so. Music isn’t something that appears out of nowhere for people to enjoy. It takes money and time and sacrifice to create. Unfortunately, the world’s relationship with music is a complicated one that often leaves hard-working musicians high and dry. It seems that people are more addicted to music than ever before, but are less and less willing to pay for it.
The truth is that there are times when you should absolutely be giving your music away for free. Whether you love or hate the idea of giving away your music, it’s something that can bring you big advantages in today’s complex music industry climate.
When giving away free music makes sense
You should only be giving away your music when you have a good reason to. In an effort to drum up more business, everyone from restaurants to internet service providers give away free or discounted parts of their offerings to bring in new customers. If you’ve just started making music and want to share it with the world, making some of your work available for free is a good idea. Like a new coffee shop in town pulling in new neighborhood customers with a free cup of coffee, giving away free downloads of your music can help introduce your music to potential fans.
Experienced and established artists have the opportunity to promote big events like album releases and tours with free music. Rather than giving away everything for free, single downloads can be given as rewards for fans who pre-purchase albums, sign up on email lists, or attend live shows. It also makes sense to consider giving away exclusive or rare music to the most devoted segments of your fanbase. For example, writing music exclusively for fans who support you through a subscription-based model is a way to reward your most hardcore listeners and get funding for your work at the same time.
When you should be charging for your music
Giving away physical copies of your music, whether it’s to fans or to radio stations, print media, or blogs, gets real expensive real quick. CDs and vinyl records can be given away to fans, but you probably should only do it if you have a good reason to, like during a big radio contest. But whether you offer your music physically or purely through digital platforms, you should consider not giving away entire albums or EPs for free.
People are in the habit of saying that all music is basically free to everyone today, but that’s not quite right. Through streaming and other platforms, artists can earn money for their work, but it’s not easy. Though there’s exceptions, giving away completed versions of an artist’s work typically diminishes their chances of earning money even further. Instead of offering all your work to fans for free, consider being strategic about what you give away. If your specific aim is to find new fans, earn money, or promote a tour, think about how giving some music away for free can help you do that. And remember, your music has value whether you’re earning money from it or not.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.