Recordings were always looked at as loss-leaders to musicians on major labels. They rarely ever recouped their advances on actual sales. And even when they did, it was hardly enough to live off of. Even back in the heyday of the industry, most musicians made their money on the road in ticket sales and merchandising.
Just because musicians now have direct access to their fans and can make up to 100% of the sale of a digital download (or 70% from iTunes) doesn’t mean they need to employ the same old-school, major label philosophy of the pay wall.
The Milk Carton Kids
Los Angeles Based, The Milk Carton Kids, give away their first two albums as free digital downloads and to date the albums have been downloaded a combined 250,000 times. This immense exposure and lack of a pay wall lead to them gaining worldwide recognition and many opening touring gigs as well as gaining the attention of Anti Records. Now signed to Anti Records, they have kept their first two albums available for free download. They are touring the world very successfully (packing clubs wherever they go).
Their new album, Ash and Clay (the one nominated for a Grammy for Best Folk Album) is their first album released with Anti Records. This release is not available for free download however. Remember this is the label’s decision. I don’t expect labels coming around to the pay what you want model anytime soon. If you’re not on a label, you don’t have any rules you MUST follow. This worked for them. Could it work for you?
Fun fact, when they first formed in the Summer of 2010 they opened my Midwest tour and I opened their California tour.
Pretty Lights (similar to many other EDM artists) has been giving his music away since the beginning. He built up a strong following on SoundCloud and his new Grammy nominated album A Color Map Of The Sun, is available for free download on his site.
**Thanks to Zach David for pointing this out
Other Artists Who Successfully Use The Free Download/Pay What You Want Model
I’ve known Jeremy for many years as we’re both from Minneapolis. He is one of the biggest acts in Minnesota and packs the legendary 1,600 seated First Avenue (of Purple Rain fame). He recently signed to Glassnote Records (Mumford and Sons). Before he signed, he gave away all of his music as digital downloads for ‘pay what you want’ via BandCamp. He still offers this on his website. He tours the country regularly.
Rogue Valley, also a Minneapolis band, (the lead singer, Chris Koza, co-wrote most songs on my upcoming record with me) similarly gives away all of their music as digital downloads for ‘pay what you want via BandCamp (they happen to have the same management as Jeremy). They have a song on the new The Secret Life of Walter Mitty soundtrack alongside Of Monsters and Men, Jose Gonzales, Jack Johnson and David Bowie among others.
Roster McCabe / Night Phoenix
These guys built their career on the live show. I lived with a few of them for years in Minneapolis and helped manage them early on. They recently changed their name to Night Phoenix (after a member change), but over the past few years have been selling out venues around the country and pack the 1,000 capacity historic Cabooze in their hometown of Minneapolis. They are a live band. They give away all of their music (including CDs at shows) for ‘pay what you want.’
I’m not telling you to absolutely give away your music, but it can be part of your overall approach. Collecting emails and zip codes for free downloads has worked tremendously via Noisetrade and BandCamp for many touring artists.
Remember, though, just giving away your music is not a strategy in it of itself. It’s part of the overall equation. You still need a promotional strategy (and great music) that sets you above the thousands of other bands doing the same thing.
Have you had success in a ‘pay what you want’ model? Share in the comments.
Ari Herstand is a Los Angeles based DIY musician and the creator of Ari’s Take. Follow him on Twitter: @aristake