Indie Bands | Free music downloads make money

This post will discuss the merits of enabling your music to be given away for free online and the collapse of the music business as we know it and what it means for the average Indie Band.

Giving away music for free may seem like a pretty stupid idea, what business model out there is based on giving away free product to make money? Well the truth is that businesses do it all the time – ever heard of the term “BOGO”? (Buy One Get One free). I’m sure if you’ve worked retail or been a good little consumer you’ve seen this somewhere. Guess what – it works if you know how to leverage it.

So while on the surface it may appear that you’re committing financial suicide, a few freebies can actually improve sales and build up your fan base in a shorter amount of time. But before you start tossing out CDs at your next show – read on to hear why I’m sticking my neck out with this concept.

First of all, let me tell you that when the whole Napster vs Metallica thing broke out back in 2000 or so – I was dead set against “free music”. I got pissed off whenever I saw how people justified stealing music by saying that the record labels just put out crap and all the rock stars have too much money anyway. My perspective was that downloading for free was wrong, as a member of an unknown indie band – I saw first hand how much time, and money we put into our music; to have someone ‘steal’ it after all that just seemed completely wrong.

I believe that stealling is wrong regardless of how much money the victim has. The Robin Hood concept of taking from the rich and giving to the poor is a nice romantic notion, but who the hell is Robin Hood and how does he determine who to steal from and who to give the money to? Why should a person who is ‘poor’ and doesn’t attempt to increase their station in life be entitled to someone else’s money who has worked hard for it – even if they are rich? I know capitalism is on the ropes these days…but socialism is definitely rife with issues all its own.

Anyway – I’m not trying to get political on you – so we’ll side-step this whole “is downloading music for free stealing or not argument” by rendering it moot: they can’t steal what you give away for free.

In a twisted way, this puts you back in control and allows you to have some say in what you give away, that it has your band name and credits so you get the recognition you deserve and hopefully get exposed to some new people. The CD selling model of the major labels has gone bust, and the indie bands that can adapt to the current confusion can reap the rewards. It means not doing things as they were always done before, staying independent, learning some new business concepts and applying them in ways that can profit your band for a change.

In my post on electronic merchandise, I spoke about how attractive selling Mp3s, ringtones, wallpaper and the like were; they involve up front costs but can be sold indefinitely. A large per-centage of putting out music in the past was spent on manufacturing and printing costs, with MP3s you can choose to never create a physical CD – the choice is yours.

So – there is money to be made on your digital products; if you think I’m wrong check out how many E-books are for sale all over the net! We can all take a page from the internet marketing book and give away some freebies in an effort to lure in more fans.

I hear you thinking, “okay – but how???”

Well the great thing about the internet is that anyone can find your website 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year – but why should they? They need to have a reason to go looking for you, which is pretty hard if they’ve never heard of you before isn’t it?

Giving away freebies can help you get noticed, and more paying customers. Most people won’t shell out money for music they’ve never heard before – that was the old business model – it’s not coming back anytime soon. Today it’s all about content on demand, nobody has the time or money to spend on CDs with 90 per-cent filler on them anymore.

Most live bands are prepared to play a show for free – even major label bands if the cause is right or the potential exposure is great enough. What cause is bigger than yours and what audience is bigger than the entire present and future population of the world wide web?

Okay, that might be a little bit ambitious – but I hope you see where I’m going here.

Let me try this another way: would you rather charge a $10 cover charge at a club and play to an empty venue with 150 people outside in the parking lot? You’d play for nobody, and you wouldn’t have to lower yourself to playing for ‘free’, but there’s a great chance the bar owner won’t want you to play the club ever again.

Ego plays a big part in some of the decisions an Indie Band makes in the business practice, and while I’ll leave most of these for another post at another time I think it’s worth mentioning here. Holding out to be paid at the sacrifice of building your audience is the REAL financial suicide. As musicians we’re used to being pushed around, to being screwed over by bar owners and even other bands – so I can understand why we need to charge something to build our own self-worth. However, value is ultimately determined by the customer: if they ain’t buying then you need to adjust your strategy accordingly or perish!

Playing for free takes something else – a belief in the quality of your music, merchandise and performance. If you have the same 150 in the club, you have to feel confident that you’re going to put on a kick ass show that draws them in so completely that you’ll make up the lost door money through merchandise and CD sales. Even if you don’t make a single sale, these people will at the very least be making the bar owner happy by purchasing drinks – and if you promote your Indie Band properly, they’ll hopefully remember your name, check out your website and possibly check out your future shows.

When you are given something for free, you’re generally more appreciative of it, more willing to speak about it (brag?) and share it with others and most importantly – are much more likely to spend money on something else because you already feel like you’re ahead of the game. Deep down, there is a moral obligation to ‘return the favour’ when something is given freely with no expectation of getting something in return. If you don’t believe me – try it sometime. For those cynics among you, this feeling inside is the complete opposite of feeling ‘ripped off’ and is a great way to build up trust with your audience.

Whether you give away CDs, stickers, t-shirts or charge nothing at the door – have a plan for how you intend to make money. Just because you’re performing or giving stuff away for free doesn’t make you worthless! The Grateful Dead were known for allowing fans to record bootlegs of live concerts, but they made all their cash off merchandise instead.

The last point I want to make about making money with freebies is again taken from the page of the internet marketing world – give away your MP3s for free, but make sure you collect an email address first.

You can set this up with either an opt-in auto responder, or even by having them email you (it’ll take longer but could work). By collecting the email, you have the opportunity to stay in touch with these fans and notify them of your next shows or CD release. As you build up the list, your fanbase will grow – if you respect them and don’t send them spam – there’s a good chance that you can earn a solid online income that is independent of your live performance sales.

Remember, money makes the world go around and keeps your band afloat, don’t feel bad about it. You can rest at night with a clear conscience by putting your heart and soul into your music and performances, giving away some freebies and giving true value to those that enjoy your music – the money you get in return is just the cherry on top!

Congratulations if you’ve made it to the end of this article. I realized I touched on some potentially advanced concepts of building a list, email opt-ins and digital merchandise, I will continue to explain these concepts in the future. By the time I’m finished, even a left handed electric guitar player will understand how all this works!

Thanks for reading Indie Bands Make money with Freebies!

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