Musicians are giving their music away every day.
Free album downloads. Shows with no cover. Shows for charity.
Everyone else is getting paid but you’re not getting a dime. You’re working your ass off writing and recording music, and then just giving it away.
There are a bunch of reasons for why this is, but we don’t need to focus on that now. We’re not going to revolutionize the industry overnight.
You’re not making music to turn a profit.
If you were interested in creating a product and turning a profit, just about every other industry in the world is better suited for your aims.
Focus on making money from other avenues while you pursue your craft.
And although it might seem like we’re always giving away opportunities to make money, there are actually some cases when you need to give your music away for free.
Your first demos should definitely be given away for free. They cost almost nothing to create, so you should should charge nothing for them.
When you’re a nobody and you ask for money for your songs, people will just ignore you. When you’re starting out, you can’t afford to have people ignoring you.
Put those demos on Bandcamp and blank CD-Rs.
Come up with a cool gimmick for the demos. Example: for a stoner rock band, call them “The Dimebag Demos” and put the CDs in a baggie with fake joints. Give those away for free at your shows.
The idea is to get people to leave the bar with something that will remind them of you.
You want to make it as easy as possible for people to listen to your music, especially when you’re just starting out. People are lazy. They won’t go out of their way to figure out who you are.
The Stone Foxes ordered custom fortune cookies with a funny little fortune and a link to a free song.
Trying to charge for these demos would get people to ignore you at best, and at the worst, become irritated with you.
2. Your First Album (Digitally)
Even after you record for the first time, you’re not done giving away.
At least this time, it won’t cost you directly. You’ll only be giving away the digital copy, and even then you’ll be using “pay-what-you-can” pricing.
As before, you want to attract as many people as possible to your music. This stage of the game is all about quantity, not quality. Get your music on as many iPhones as possible. Get as many people as you can to play your music in their car while they drive their friends around. Get your music in as many YouTube videos as possible.
Pay-what-you-can pricing is great because it doesn’t prohibit anyone from grabbing your album, and you’re not losing out on potential sales, either.
Trust me, we’ve made over three grand giving away our music for “free”.
I’m definitely not bragging, because $3,000 isn’t a ton of money. But to earn that on something that people can pay absolutely nothing for if they choose, is a testament to the fact that people will give you money for something if they value it.
That’s right, all of that money came from people who looked at the download button and said, “Nah, this music is worth giving them my hard-earned cash, even though I know I don’t have to.”
(Just FYI — that picture isn’t including all of the sales we make from other avenues like iTunes.)
But where you really get the bang for your buck here is in emails.
Building an email list will help you tons down the line. It’s a core rule of online sales.
The reason being, having someone’s email gives you direct contact with them. Your message is sent directly to their inbox. You don’t have to hope they see your tweet or Instagram post at the right time, you don’t have to fight Facebook’s awful algorithms to get your post seen.
Another rule of sales — the best prospective customers are those who’ve bought from you before. They’ve already shown you they’re interested in what you have.
You give away an album for free (but just digitally), and the only thing you require from the customer is an email. Then you record another record, and sell that one online for $10. You blast your list of 3000+ that your new record is out, it’s better than ever and just $10.
You’ll probably make $1000 in the first day of your release.
A lot of people are shocked when they hear that the average open rate (percentage of people that are sent an email and actually open it) for the Arts, Culture & Entertainment industry is just 25%.
The click rate (percentage of people that are sent an email and click on a link inside the email) is just below 7%.
That’s why building a list is so important: less than 10% will click the link to buy your album. The bigger your list, the more people that click “Buy Now!”.
Again — only give away the digital copy of your music for free.
You should be printing physical albums to sell at shows for at least $10. Consider how much you’re paying for physical copies (no more than $7 per unit; get it close to $4-$5 per unit), but you should charge at least $10.
You can bargain with people, but know your margins and don’t lose money on a product. If someone doesn’t want a $10 CD, tell them they can have the CD for $5, if they buy a $15 T-shirt.
You won’t make every sale, so don’t worry about walking away from one if someone isn’t willing to buy at your price.
You should give away singles periodically in order to generate sales.
If you’re successfully selling an album for $10, giving someone a single for free in exchange for their email can get them to buy the entire album.
In your sales copy, tell the person that if they fill out an email form, they’ll get the single from the album totally free, no strings attached.
Then once you have their email, you can continue to “sell” them your album.
It’s been shown that once you do something for someone or give them something for free, they subconsciously feel that they need to return the favour.
There’s two strategies to determine what single you should give away.
You can give away “the” single from the album you’re trying to sell, with the thought that if the person doesn’t buy the album afterward, they probably weren’t ever going to buy it. So it’s not a lost sale.
The other strategy is to give some sort of B-side — be it a song that didn’t make the album, or your “number 2” song from the record. The thought here is that a lot of people still buy a record for just a couple songs, and if they’re given the number 1 song for free, they might just be satisfied with that, and pass on buying the whole album.
Personally, I don’t like the idea of giving away a song that didn’t make the cut for the record. If you’re giving away something for free, it should have ties to the bigger sale — in this case, something from the album.
When should you not give away your music?
You’ll probably be enticed to play a big show for free.
The promoter will say “We spent a lot of money on this headliner, and we want YOU to open for them!”
Tell them “sure, but we’ll need $500 (minimum) to do it.”
Because the truth is, opening for a big act at a local festival doesn’t mean a thing. They aren’t going to suddenly take you on tour with them.
If they’ve budgeted $30,000 for a headliner, they damn well better have $500 for you.
You also shouldn’t play for free at a charity event. Everyone else — the bartenders, servers, whoever — is getting paid to be there. You should be too, especially if you’re the main draw, or the reason why people are showing up in the first place.
Especially when you’re just starting out, don’t give your album or merch away to your friends. If they can’t slide you $10 for a record that took you months to write, weeks to record, and thousands of dollars to make… are they really your friend?
The music industry makes it tough to make a buck. The fact that you’re expected so much to give away stuff for free doesn’t help very much.
But the best thing to do is to take those expectations and turn them into opportunities to make money. Any time you’re giving something for free, make sure you’re getting something in return.
Promises don’t count, either. You need to get a lead, or something you can actually use in order to make it worthwhile.