If talking to independent musicians about the benefits of distributing content for free you most certainly will come across four arguments in monolithic defense.

  1. I paid too much in creating this to give it away for free.
  2. Free distribution is beyond control.
  3. How am I supposed to pay my rent if I give away my works for free?
  4. Free doesn’t work.

This article deals with all of them – kind of. But the main focus is to show that an artist is not alone in employing “free” strategies. It’s reasonable. It’s common business.

Please note: I won’t discuss copyright issues in here. But no matter if you give away your song for free to billions of people or if you sell a licence to one company – your copyright in your song remains unaffected. Please keep that in mind.

What are the costs?

Let’s try to break it down. The product you are reluctant to part with for free is the downloadable digital file of your song. The cost we are looking for is what you invest in the making of it, right until the music reaches the consumer. Whether there’s really no option to give it away for free, and whether there is no way for a free strategy to work – well, we have to prove it for this very product.

Manufacturing of CDs or any other media and touring isn’t included in here. At this point, we are looking at free digital downloads only. You may give away free CDs, and you may give concerts for free. These are different services. For a start, let’s try to keep it simple. What investment of any kind is involved?

  • Songwriting: Time and energy. It’s a creative process and can’t be measured in terms of money.
  • Instruments and equipment: Of course, you might need more and other ones later on – but eventually, it is an essential tool set you need in the beginning. These are fixed initial costs that you spend once. They pay off with each additional production or project.
  • Rent of rehearsal room: Regular and continuous cost.
  • Rehearsing: Time and energy. This is regular daily work.
  • Studio rent: This is being spent once for every production. However, depending on your demands in quality and accuracy, cost will differ substantially.
  • Digitisation: Cost is negligible.
  • Digital distribution: Again, cost varies significantly. It starts with an effort in time (sending by email), or distribution via the band’s website (hosting costs), and it ends with distribution via aggregators and download platforms that have to be paid.
  • Marketing: This might be the most expensive of it all… if you’re following the regular path of shiny polished sales culture.

Yes, it’s barely affordable.

Yes, anyone should be reluctant to give something away for free that took that much money, energy, time and personal engagement in the making.

Got Brass in Pocket?

However, if someone proposes to you to embrace a strategy of free, instead of reacting indignantly it’s much more reasonable to learn more about it. You still may decline it later.

You should ask “Why?” and “How is it supposed to work?”. If you don’t buy it – let him show you a case study. Try to find out if it does work in some field or environment. This doesn’t necessarily have to be in music business. Best ideas come from adapting something we learn elsewhere. Obviously, no strategy will come guaranteed. Yet, there should be a high probability it can work out.

Therefore, you should at least consider to give it away for free. I’m not telling you to give it all away for free. I’m not telling you to give it away for free only. But – free works. Actually, it does work elsewhere since more than a few years. I’m not speaking of start-ups. It’s reliable, grown, and traditional business.

Is It Apples And Oranges We Compare?

I’m not a native music business professional – basically, I have a strong background of ten years experience in software industries. The companies I formerly worked with provide digital asset management systems or enterprise content management systems for media business and broadcast in particular. These are highly customisable systems and scalable modular products controlling every part of the content lifecycle. Difficult to advertise and demanding long terms in software development. To cut it short – terribly expensive in the making, and expensive to buy too.

Oh yes, I almost forgot to mention: It’s not Open Source Software. Not at all.

Right there and with all companies I got in touch when partnering in projects, the model of free was everywhere. Though – it didn’t strike me as such. Because it has been (and it still is) a very common approach. It depends on how to look at it. Nobody would give away a product worth several 100k Euros for free – just like no artist is supposed to give away his flagship product for free. But there are other ways to employ a strategy of “free”.

So let’s get into detail whether it’s reasonable to compare software and music business in terms of “manufacturing” and cost. Why is it important to compare the type of costs? I learned that many artists point out music production can’t be compared to other fields and professions, in particular because of recording costs. Now, what’s up with software industries?

  • Software design: As with songwriting, it is a creative process. Don’t get it wrong: I’m not referring to he actual design of user interfaces and the like (which is another part in product development). This is about the architecture of software, the system’s concept and its coded structure.
  • Computer hardware: You need hardware for your team and for yourself. You’re rarely on your own but with a team – as with bands. As in music, cost in hardware has decreased (storage capacity, processing power, transaction cost). Though if you are hosting your own site and you need secure backup solutions plus professional software licences it is very expensive. As with music hardware, these are fixed initial costs that you spend once. They pay off with each additional production.
  • Rent for office: The equivalent to rehearsal rooms is the office. And you surely have to pay the rent for your offices – and no question they are more expensive than a rehearsal room.
  • Software development: The basic, down-to-earth programming job. Daily work. But… you have to pay salaries. This means a huge and massive amount of money. Huge as in several 100k Euros. The developers’ job is similar to a combination of rehearsal and studio work.
  • Digitisation: No cost at all since of course the code is a digital product.
  • Implementation: To some extent it might be digitally distributed, but there’s hard work to do at the customer’s place too. Unlike software that you buy for your PC at home, systems like these have to be implemented. This is when you’re running out of time and when overtime is common. Bugs have to be fixed in the very last second – again, it’s cost-intensive.
  • Marketing: Since I’ve excluded live music above I will exclude trade show presentations here. Marketing in customised software means having a website, some glossy brochures – and word of mouth.

Software system providers pay way more money on one project than an artist does. But then again their product is much more expensive – and it’s sold only a few times. Now, where is it that you, the artist, is comparable with a software entrepreneur? What is it that you as an artist can learn from them?

The second part to this article is about to be published in two days.

This text has been published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 3.0 Unported licence. If you would like to make use of the text or parts of it in a way that goes beyond the scope please get in touch with me.