Does Giving Away Your Music for Free Really Get People to Buy It?

musicfreeIn October 2012, I was inspired to start this website (at least in its current form), because I talked to a musician. Specifically, I talked to Owen Packard, the guitarist for UK-based metal band, Earthtone9.

I was  trying to figure out whether eBooks and mp3s could still make authors and musicians some kind of money. And, if so, how could you get discovered in a world full of noise?

Earthtone9 had experienced a surge of fame in the early 2000s, but then, as Owen put it, “imploded.” However, they had a plan to get back together and make a new album.

To do it, they wanted to try combining live shows with some serious online promotion.

Here’s what they did:

1. Gave Away an Album

Earthtone9 started playing a few live shows here and there. At the shows, the band promoted a free download of their Greatest Hits album. When people downloaded the album, the band got an email address out of it.

So now, Earthtone9 could email those fans about upcoming shows and releases.

In early 2011, when the band toured again, they emailed fans about the concerts directly.

2. Got Donations 

Through email marketing and Facebook, Earthtone9 rallied fans around a PledgeMusic campaign. The donation asked for money from fans, so the band could make a new EP.

Because of the reach of email marketing, they reached their goal in six days.

3. Facebook

Earthtone9’s Facebook was more or less stagnant until early 2012, when Owen started to give away a song in exchange for likes. He set up a “like-gate” that required people to like the Page to get the download.

So, more free stuff for better promotional reach. Here’s how the campaign worked:

First Facebook Campaign – No Promotion, Just a Download

  • 18 new fans

Second Facebook Campaign – Emailed the Promotion

  • 92 Facebook fans

Third Campaign – Emailed, Had Better Fan Reach 

  • 223 Facebook fans

4. Another Donation Campaign 

With so much new exposure, Earthtone9 decided to run another PledgeMusic campaign, this time hoping to raise enough money to record and produce a whole album.

Because of the promotional efforts, the donation campaign reached 6,000 email contacts and over 2,000 Facebook fans. 

The donation campaign raised 114% of the target goal.

“Fan funding is a whole new online concept that’s just getting started,” Owen told me at the time. “As we do more shows and add more email addresses to our list, we continue to grow influence.”

PledgeMusic allowed Earthtone9 to have total creative freedom over their new album and its production, with enough to spare to create a music video for the new single. For the first time in about eight years, Earthtone9 released an album – thanks to the power of giving stuff away for free and advocacy marketing on behalf of fans who never forgot them.

The tragic epilogue

As an aspiring musician/writer/creative type, I was happy to hear about how successful Earthtone9’s initial promotion had become. Granted, they had been a famous band at one point, so that gave them a little extra clout.

But any band could replicate that model and have proportional success, right? Maybe, I thought, giving away free albums is what bands will have to do to get discovered and cultivate a fan base.

Then, I saw this Facebook post a few months ago:


That’s right – 14,000 downloads of the free album, presumably 14,000+ email addresses that received a promotion about the new album, and fewer than 100 sales.

If this was business, we’d call that a .007% conversion rate. 

Oh wait… music is a business. Artists need to get paid. Earthtone9 got great coverage in magazines, promoted a music video and toured aggressively. So… what gives?

Here are my theories:

  • Sampling might not pay, because you can sample everything
  • Pirates (what’s the difference between streaming, pirating, and YouTubing?)
  • Free streaming, everywhere
  • Too many bands in a global war of talent

The same people who ardently supported Earthtone9 buoyed PledgeMusic campaigns, but there are a lot of people, many of whom probably downloaded the free album, who are more or less startled by the idea of paying for music.

Add that to the mix of globalized competition and streaming music providers like Pandora and Spotify (which may or may not be killing music as well), and you have a volatile alchemy of elements… none of which are favorable to album sales.

That’s not to say it’s impossible. Earthtone9’s campaigns did work, to an extent. If anything, this shows that getting paid for music may be dependent on crowd-sourcing for a product rather than the sale of the product itself.

It’s still early in the album’s release cycle and Earthtone9 has been touring this summer, but reaching 14,000 people who downloaded your free stuff and converting fewer than 100 is still bad, however way you look at it.

Photo Credit: boston_camera via Compfightcc

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