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It’s a weird feeling, but I’m sick of hearing how Radiohead is “changing the music industry.” And it’s not because I don’t love what they’ve done, it’s because I’m left wondering: Why haven’t more musicians started giving away their music?
It seems like a no-brainer that album sales will continue to plummet. Musicians that hope to secure a career in music need to look elsewhere to earn money. The funny thing is that musicians already know this—because that’s how it has always been. Most musicians make less than $1.00 off of each album sold, and historically, less than 15% of bands actually make money from album sales (coming soon: 0%). The truth is that successful artists ALREADY net the bulk of their bankroll through sources other than album sales.
That brings us to Radiohead. They did the math and then did something about it. Instead of relying on skimpy returns from album sales—yes, skimpy, relative to the fact that Radiohead sells millions of albums—they allowed their music to be downloaded for free while accepting non-compulsory donations. As a result, they’ve been graciously rewarded by generous fan donations and media praise. Not to mention the kind of free publicity that garners heaps of potential new fans.
Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails is one of the few to follow Radiohead’s lead. Three weeks after Radiohead’s album release he announced that he’d be giving away his latest collaboration with Saul Williams. Recently Reznor remarked, “in the future songs can be a way to entice fans to buy concert tickets and merchandise.” He definitely has the right idea: give away your songs to capture the attention of new fans and sell your live shows.With that said, I’ve written a letter to the world’s musicians who have yet to loosen their clasp on the measly royalty checks their record labels afford them:
I’m asking you to look past the pocket change you receive from digital album sales and make your music available online for free.
I understand that after spending months in a recording studio, you may be a bit apprehensive to fork over your cherished songs. Especially considering that some people may actually be willing to pay for them. But in the end, I believe there are more incentives for giving your music away digitally. Lucrative ways for musicians to make money include:
- Live shows and merchandise: These two have always been the #1 source of income for musicians. Give your music away because, from a marketing standpoint, every fan you earn is one more customer to whom you can sell merchandise.
- Music Licensing: Although often eschewed by independent musicians (remember when The Shins shamed their music in a McDonalds commercial?), music licensing can subtle and doesn’t have to be tasteless. For example, the Dresden Dolls earned about $40,000 when they licensed “Coin-Operated Boy” for a jelly commercial in Austria.
- Donations: Collect 100% of your earnings when your fans give directly to you. I created the site musicNetural.com so that you can start collecting donations right away. Alternatively, you could set up a donations site yourself using PayPal, Amazon or Google.
I understand that some musicians don’t have the right to distribute your recordings for free (i.e., if you’ve already sold the copyright). No problem—you can still support our cause.
- Educate yourself about copyright laws, the RIAA, and unfair music industry practices. Before releasing your next album consider a Creative Commons license instead of a traditional copyright.
- Take immediate action by displaying the musicNeutral button to let everyone know that you support alternatives to album sales.
With that, I wish you the best of luck with your career. If you’re a new band and you need a fan in me, try making your music available for free—and I promise that by eliminating the #1 obstacle to widespread exposure to your music, you’ll rein in a lot more than just one new listener.
Chris (and the rest of musicNeutral)