What If We Give It Away?

I typed out my last post – about iJamming! being a Labor of Love, and how some of you might possibly want to turn it into a Form Of Income – on Thursday night, while sitting in bed catching up on PodCasts. As always, it took me but a minute to find a couple of serendipitous links to the very subject about which I was writing.

First up, the latest indiefeed ‘electronica broadcast introduced me to one Thomas Greene, whose track ‘Dreams’ was interesting enough, in an experimental bedroom techno kind of way, to send me off – at indiefeed’s invite – to his label’s website, There I found the following message at the top of the front page:

Stereotype is here for one reason: to get our artists heard. Every label says that, but we’re changing the rules to prove we mean what we say: Every song by every one of our artists is free to download.??We can think of no better way to pull down the barriers between the audience and our artists. But guitar players gotta eat too, so here’s the deal: We make it easy for you to listen. If you find that you love it, spread the word to your friends, buy a CD from the site, or go to iTunes and spend a buck on that track you’ve been listening to obsessively.
Stereotype strives to create an atmosphere of partnership between label, artist, and audience so that we all benefit. Let us know what you think.

Next up, I got listening to KEXP’s Music That Matters program, a near hour-long show full of new, interesting and just-about-underground left-field rock. My interest was quickly piqued by the announcement that Harvey Danger – a group that was briefly a hit in the late nineties – was giving away its new album, via free download, no strings attached. I visited the web-site, and it’s true: you can download their third LP Little By Little complete with inter-active artwork and liner notes, as either a folder of MP3s or as a BitTorrent file.

Harvey Danger’s new album Little By Little falls somewhere between Dandy Warhols glam, Coldplay epic acoustic rock and Supergrass piano-heavy pop. It is available for free download at the group’s web site

As you might hope, the Seattle act offers an explanation for why it has chosen to give not a single song – and crucially, you cannot download just a single song – but its whole album, away for free. Here’s their explanation, in full:

Why we’re releasing our latest album for free on the Internet

In preparing to self-release our new album, we thought long and hard about how best to use the internet. Given our unusual history, and a long-held sense that the practice now being demonized by the music biz as “illegal” file sharing can be a friend to the independent musician, we have decided to embrace the indisputable fact of music in the 21st century, put our money where our mouth is, and make our record, Little By Little…, available for download via Bittorrent, and at our website. We’re not streaming, or offering 30-second song samples, or annoying you with digital rights management software; we’re putting up the whole record, for free, forever. Full stop. Please help yourself; if you like it, please share with friends.

Of course, the CD will also be for sale on the site, as well as in fine independent record stores across the country, in a deluxe package that includes a 30-minute bonus disc that serves as a companion piece to the record proper (retail price for the package is $11.99).

We embark on this experiment with both enthusiasm and curiosity—and, ok, maybe a twinge of anxiety. Why are we doing this? The short answer is simply that we want a lot of people to hear the record.

However, it’s important that people understand the free download concept isn’t a frivolous act. It’s a key part of our promotional campaign, along with radio and press promotion, live shows, and videos. It’s a bet that the resources of the Internet can make possible a new way for musicians to find their audience – and forge a meaningful artistic career built on support from cooperative, not adversarial, relationships.

We realize that digital files are the primary means by which a huge segment of the population is exposed to new music; we also believe that plenty of music lovers in the world will buy a record once they’ve heard it – whether via radio or computer.

We also believe there’s an inherent qualitative difference at work—not only between MP3s and CDs, but between clicking a mouse and finding a record on the shelves of a good record store. These experiences are not mutually exclusive – they’re interdependent facets of music fandom, and equally important considerations for a band in our position.

Even with the proliferation of websites and magazines paying attention to independent music these days, it remains difficult for bands—especially rock bands—to get exposure, regardless of how good they may be (or how successful they once were). Making the record freely downloadable removes the main barrier that exists between an artist and the world of potential listeners. And we do mean world; the web’s reach is everywhere.

Whether or not people will buy something they can get for free is obviously a big question, and there are facts and figures to support both sides of the argument. We think it’s not only possible, but likely. The more fundamental challenge is ensuring people have access to your work to begin with.

At the risk of sounding Pollyanna-ish, making records has never been about making money for this band. If the worst thing that happens is a whole bunch of people hear Little By Little… and no one buys it, we’ll know our experiment was costly. But that won’t make it a failure.

This is by no means a manifesto. We don’t pretend to be the first band to spin a variation of the shareware distribution model. We love record labels and record stores. We buy lots of CDs and are committed to supporting independent music. We’re not a bunch of fake Marxists. We’re just trying to be smart capitalists so we can sustain our lives as musicians. This is an experiment. We’ll let you know how it goes.

Meanwhile, please enjoy the record. Everything else is secondary.

I think both Stereotype and Harvey Danger are doing a thing. The same way that I put my writing up here for free because writing is what I do with my life and I want people to read what I have to say, so it would seem that Harvey Danger have put their new album online for free because music is what they do and they want people to hear what they’ve recorded. I like to make money from my writing, Harvey Danger would like to make money from their music and, presumably, all the acts “signed” to Stereotype Records would like to sell records as well as give them away online. But in all cases, making contact is key; without it, income is impossible. But once communication is established, the hope then is that the giving away of quality output will lead to audience loyalty and their willingness to pay for that output in the future.

As Harvey Danger note, they’re not the first band to give away an album. Wilco made a profound statement about the contemporary music business when they bought back the rights to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot after it was canned for being uncommercial by the group’s then-label, Warner Brothers, and made it available for free download in 2002. The move was so popular that it was not only eventually picked back up and released by another subsidiary of Warner Brothers, but finished atop many a magazine End of Year Poll. Wilco repeatedly noted in interviews that the experiment paid off even more quickly, not only on a purely visceral level – people heard the album and reached their own conclusion about its viability as a work of art – but on a financial level, via increased gig attendance.

Harvey Danger are probably hoping for something similar. After five years out of the limelight, the group would be a hard sell to any independent label, and probably a no-go for a major. Going by current business deals, then even if 50,000 copies of Little By Little found their way out of record stores around the world over the course of a year, then by the time the group had been charged back their recording costs and sufferted the usual additionall royalty deductions, they’d be lucky to end up with royalties of more than $25,000 – approximately 50 cents an album. However, if all 50,000 fans are invited to download the album for free, but then asked to contribute something back to the band or to buy a hard copy based upon their enthusiasm, well, the figures quickly comes out in the group’s favor.

Say just 1 in 10 people who download the album – 5,000 people – kick in a $10 donation by way of thanks for the free MP3s, that’s $50,000 straight back in the band, already far more than the group would have anticipated in royalties. Say that another 5,000 offer to buy the double-disk package the group offer online for just $12; that’s $60,000 in income, of which likely half that amount will be profit. Suddenly, a group that looked like a bad investment to most record labels has netted itself around $80,000 from a new album, while successfully distributing its music to 50,000 people around the world.

In its own ideal world, when Harvey Danger goes back out on tour, it can then hope to play to an audience that’s already heard the new record (for free), rather than feeling like has-beens struggling to sell albums (for $15). If that results in more bodies in the club, it will also in turn leads to a better payout at the end of the night and a larger income from t-shirts and the like. (The ‘like’ surely including the hard copies of that double disc CD.) Instead of looking like they’ve passed their sell-by date, Harvey Danger may once again look upon themselves as a viable act with some financial security.

My figures are probably optimistic: the group states that it will report on its ‘experiment’ and let’s hope that they do. But if what we’ve seen from the likes of Wilco and Harvey Danger is an insistence by older groups that they are still commercially viable when major labels have decided otherwise, then what we’re seeing from younger acts like The Artic Monkeys (who gave away most of their set via MP3s before releasing their second single) and labels like Stereotype is the opposite: a confidence that the act(s) is/are so fresh, the music so damn good, you’ll want to become a fan and you’ll happily pay for the music down the line. In the Arctic Monkeys’ case this has already been proven via their number one single, ‘I Bet you Look Good On the Dancefloor’; in the instance of Stereotype Records – whose roster includes not just electronic artist Thomas Greene, but the epically ragged PJ Golden, and the deep-throated Mike Coykendall – it remains to be seen. But in the current climate, you can’t blame any of them for trying. In fat, you should be thanking them. Via paypal.

And while you’re at it, the annual iJamming! pledge drive continues. Read the post below this one.

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1 Comment(s)

  1. 27 January, 2006 at 5:35 am

    Philip from Stereotype Records writes:

    “Hi. I appreciate your article on us (!).

    I tried to leave this comment, but the damn thing kept saying I was putting in the wrong code (unless I am even dumber than I look, this wasn’t the case). Maybe you could add?

    Philip from Stereotype Records here. Thanks for this mention to our experiment. The bands (including me as PJ Golden, by the way) are indeed signed to the label (not “signed”), but the contracts are very flexible to allow for the possibility that our idea is just mad and won’t work.

    So far, we have seen a bit of success in terms of folks coming and listening and have been solicited by a few TV shows to send our roster’s music in for consideration. We’re not sure that the folks paying to download idea is working, yet, but the stats from our digital distributor lag pretty heavily.

    We’re thinking of adding a digital “tip jar” at each artist page. Is that cheesy? We’d really like to hope that our work will pay off for our artists. It all remains to be seen.
    all rights reserved, but listen for free! “


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