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Some thoughts on 'Free' methodology and practice…

April 10th, 2008 | No Comments | Categories: cool links · New Music Strategies · tips for musicians |

It’s the big buzz-concept in the online world – the new currency is attention, recorded music can be duplicated at zero cost, so we should all give it away in order to promote ourselves as a brand, and the caveat often added to this is that we make our money off live shows.

OK, let’s contrast this with a distinction I’ve pointed out quite a few times over the years between bands from the US and bands from the UK. As a general rule (and there are exceptions on both sides, but it pretty much stands) American bands are ‘better’ live, while British bands are more creative in the studio. The reason for this is one of necessity and scale: the live circuit in the US means that you could quite easily play 250 nights a year and not repeat yourself for a couple of years. It’s quite possible for a coffee-shop-sized artist to literally ‘live on the road’ – if you want to know more about that, I seriously advise that you get Seth Horan’s ‘Between Two Oceans’ DVD – this isn’t a slick presentation about how touring works. It’s a fly on the wall look at actual life on the road. Some of it’s funny, some of it’s silly, some of it looks like proper fun, some of it looks like purile nonsense. All wrapped around Seth’s fantastic music…

The thing with Seth’s DVD is that it looks like some kind of weird fairy tale from this side of the Atlantic. Here’s why. if you are gigging in the UK alone, VERY few bands ever get to do more than 30 or so gigs a year. I asked a Live Nation employee recently about the bands they promote here, and who is doing more shows than that. Off the top of her head, the only name she could think of was Status Quo. Not one ‘new’ artist.

So, unless you’re clearing at least £500 a night as a solo artist, you aren’t going to be making a living out of gigs. The musicians I know who make sensible money playing live music in the UK are playing weddings, jazz or are in tribute bands.

So, giving away your recorded music as a way of getting more gigs makes far less sense in the UK than it does in the US. A lot of British bands get signed without having played even 15 or 20 gigs together. The standard model was to put together a band, play a few local shows, then try and get a ‘showcase’ at some shitty venue in Camden in order to ‘get signed’. (If you see footage of really early Coldplay, Stone Roses or Travis TV appearances, you’ll see what happens when a band doesn’t do the road work… painful…)

One possible answer to this is ‘well, tour abroad then!’ – which is a great suggestion, and one that some artists are able to take up. Sadly, the cost of being on the road away from home is ramped up that much higher than if you’re near friends and family that will put you up, so the chances of you making money at it are negligible. In fact, what you need in order to make money abroad are merch sales… including CDs…

As for UK artists touring in the US, that costs a HECK of a lot of money. Seriously big money. You need a major following at home, or a US record label to make it work, or to do what I do, which is to only do things that are sponsored by a European company and not get paid for gigs, but for ‘demos’ and trade shows like NAMM or bass-day events. That’s not an option for ‘bands’ or people who don’t have those kind of relationships with gear companies…

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OK, that said, what’s the value of ‘free’ for us then, given that we need to make some money off this. A few observations on the current trends in ‘free’ music:

  • Radiohead didn’t ‘give away their album for free': no, what they did was use a low-ish resolution copy of most of the tracks from the album as a way of generating MASSIVE publicity for a normal CD release, but also monetized their obsessional fan-base by selling vinyl to people who don’t even own record players. They used the leverage they had from already being one of the world’s most successful bands to create MILLIONS of pounds worth of column inches and airtime in every conceivable media channel. The amount of money they ‘made’ from their venture HAS to have factored in the amount of money they SAVED that they would normally have spent on advertising, and the amount over and above any ad campaign they could ever afford that they got from the stunt.
  • Ditto Nine Inch Nails. Trent Reznor putting out an instrumental album is not a particularly ‘newsworthy’ event. Trent Reznor ‘reinventing the way bands market and sell their product’ is. The fact that it was a 5 album set of instrumental stuff is neither here nor there. Just like Radiohead, Trent leveraged and amplified the residual level of interest there was in him as an artist already associated with the zeitgeist, albeit one quite a few steps down the food chain from Radiohead in terms of mainstream public perception. So Trent made his own album newsworthy by coming up with a payment pyramid that again leveraged his obsessional fans’ commitment to the band by offering massively overpriced limited edition packages (back to scarcity as a selling point…) and making the price on the download so cheap that the teaser ‘free’ bit of it drew people in.
  • Both bands got huge exposure, but still relied on it being any good for word of mouth to sustain it or for the success of the record to spill over into live success – Neither made a loss on the music in order to promote gigs: I think in the final analysis, both bands will have made more money from these ‘upscaling’ adventures in progressive scarcity than in any previous album… but that’s a guess. We’ll see when the stats come in.
  • The bit of this that can be drawn out for a starting artist to use is the pyramid –
    • at the bottom is freely downloadable lower resolution partial release/live set/older material/live video compilation etc. that provides the curious with something that gets them involved in what you do. It gets clicking, it demands time and means they’re more likely to stay than click away.
    • Next up is ad-supported listening – napster/last.fm/rhapsody/reverb nation – you get a coupla cents for each play, but often they’ll show up on playlists or in tag clouds and you’ll reach people who might never have heard of you that way…
    • From there we have low priced download albums – higher res than the freebies, easy to get (either from your own site or via iTunes/eMusic/CDbaby/Amazon – those are the big four) and coming with extra tracks not in the free version, sleeve notes, photos, printable artwork etc… drawing people in…
    • Next up from there is CDs – the old faithful. Audiences still want something to take home! The value of CDs at gigs is massive. Feel free to do USB sticks/MP3 players/DVD discs/whatever as well, but good old fashioned CDs might be declining, but for the next few years, you’re going to make more money on gigs if you’ve got something physical to sell. A lot more if they’re any good!
    • Then we’re into the tip of the pyramid and what goes on here depends on your audience. Some possible options – 24bit audiophile downloads :: CD/tshirt/poster packages :: CD/DVD double packs :: boxed-sets of your entire catalogue :: street-team-only dinners :: fanclub only gigs :: weird freebies (food, stickers, domestic items relating to the name of the band or the artwork etc.) :: instructional material :: remixable files :: anything personalised…

Free is all about attention. Making product available for free is utterly VITAL in the current climate. However, there HAS to be a degree of subtlety and nuance in how it is applied, how you make it work, how you reach your audience, and how you move them on from the ‘gateway drug’ of free low-res MP3s to Class A merch-buying.

And on that note, you need some free stuff, so go Here and Here to download over 2 hours of free fabulous music!. Go on, you know you want to…

And if you’ve already done that and want some more, there’s The webshop here for CDs and other downloads. :o)

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