Free Isn’t Always Worth It

24 Jan 2011 by Randall Helms, 2 Comments »

Last week on the always-excellent Bassmusicblog, ID put up an astute post up about some of the problems with giving away music for free:

Over the last couple of years, and in the last 12 months especially, the idea of giving away free tracks has become massively more common. Three years back, it was pretty rare – a name artist would give away a remix that never came out and everyone would jump on it. Now, it’s a pretty established PR tactic …

What’s the effect of all this? Well, the first thing is clearly that the novelty value of free stuff is wearing off. Giving something away for free isn’t really something that’s going to guarantee some publicity any more. You now have to market it too, to some extent …

(We are) in danger of muddying the waters between ‘free’ and ‘paid’ even more. An increasing percentage of music is now available for free (legally) and it’s starting to make the divide look even more of a bizarre construct than it already was. Why is this track free but that track is 99p? Is it better? Why can you download this track for free from the artist’s soundcloud, when you can also pay £1.29 for the same track in the same bitrate from beatport? It’s probably going to lead quicker to the situation (which I believe is coming anyway) where music will basically be free, and those who want to donate to the artist, can do.

If you click through to the post on Bassmusicblog, you’ll see that I’ve already added a few thoughts of my own on this topic, which I would now like to use this space to expand on.

Firstly, I think it’s worth noting that this question, of whether or not it is useful to give away creative work for promotional purposes, is one that applies to anyone doing creative work, whether musical, literary, or other.

Honestly, in a world where so many people give so much away for free, what’s worth paying for?

I don’t think there are any simple answers to this question. In terms of the specific issue of music producers throwing out freebie mp3’s like Mardi Gras beads, well, I’m not a producer, and in fact I’m one of those cavemen who hasn’t yet bothered to buy any kind of digital mixing setup, but what I can say is that judging from a listener’s perspective the amount of free stuff now available seems to be, frankly, a bit overwhelming. So overwhelming, in fact, that a lot of the time I just can’t be bothered with it.

And I suspect that I am not alone in that respect.

People have, I think, become conditioned to expecting online content to be free, and this is something that applies equally to music as to newspapers. At the same time, as I discussed in my dissertation, online advertising has not actually proved that effective (or lucrative) outside of Google’s search advertising.

In my opinion, this process has been accelerated by the fact that the distribution process for digital as opposed to physical content is much simpler, faster, and cheaper. Therefore, if you are an aspiring musician (or journalist or author) it is a very simple matter to make your content available for free in order to attract attention and, down the line, hopefully some money.

The problem with this model, however, is that it fundamentally devalues your product. If you are giving it away, is it worth anything?

At the same time, this flood of free product has also meant that the content has become much more disposable, a point well captured, I thought, by the Indian dj Arjun Vagale in an interview with Jonty Skruff:

During my vinyl days (I) spent huge sums every month but back then every tune had a much longer shelf life than they do now. I wouldn’t play a track now more than two or three times, because every week there’s so much new stuff.

Anyone who follows electronic music will know that quality control has really suffered as a result of the shift to digital distribution. I dabbled a bit in production with my friend Jamie back in the early 00’s and we even got to the stage of sending out demos to a few labels, all of whom told us that our stuff wasn’t ready. Looking back, we weren’t, but if we had had more time to polish our stuff up it would have been release-worthy (in fact, I think a lot of Jamie’s later solo stuff was worthy of release, but that never happened for a variety of reasons).

If we had not accepted the verdict of the labels our only option would have been to have set up our own label, which would have been a fairly risky venture, as we would have had to get everything pressed to vinyl (not cheap!) and then secured some kind of a distribution deal. Since the outlay would not have been small, we would have been taking quite a risk (at least judging from the financial perspective of people in their early 20’s).

Today, however, we could have easily set up a digital label and just put out the tunes. No trouble!

Of course, the fact that the barriers to entry have collapsed has also meant that a lot of people are releasing stuff that simply isn’t ready to be released. One of the common complaints from friends of mine who are digital dj’s is that the process of finding tunes is much more time-consuming than it once was, simply because there is that much more crap to search through in order to find stuff that is halfway decent.

In conclusion, it seems clear (to me, at least), that the widespread availability of free entertainment and information on the web has devalued information as a whole, and has also made it more disposable. This situation is why I think that there will be a growing market for experts who can help people navigate through the sheer crush of information – why waste your time sifting through thousands of new albums when someone you trust can tell you which ones to check out?

These trusted voices might be friends or they may be completely unknown to you, but I do think that their importance will grow as the sheer quantity of choices available to the average consumer expands.

Secondly, I think that the other lesson that I draw from this situation is that creative people need to think carefully about what they give away for free. Are you giving away a bunch of tracks in order to clear out your hard drive, or is it a more carefully thought through process?

Like it or loathe it, every creative person operating today has to be a marketer as well as an artist, singer, author, whatever, which means thinking through whether or not it is actually worth it to give away stuff for free just to attract a short burst of attention.


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  1. Oliver says:

    Hi Randall,

    Another great post that mentions the essentials.

    I agree – what is free actually worth? If you look at the FT and WSJ (business media), they get strong loyalty and readership (plus can charge substantial subscription fees) because their content is strong and they don’t send it our for free. I’m a big fan of the meter system; even though I won’t necessarily pay to subscribe to these websites (I don’t really have the time to read enough to justify £20 a month or so), because I know that after 10 articles a month I’ll have to pay, I value those “free articles” more than I would if everything was free. This reinforces my brand loyalty, ensures that there is a good chance I’ll mention something I read at the FT, and therefore makes me more likely to share that content with others. Interesting to see how the New York Times’ “metered” pay wall will work given its consumer credentials.

    The noise out there is deafening, so curation is definitely a strong area to focus on. We are seeing this more and more in the news media industry, with “curators” becoming key filters for people who want more (content quality) for less (time). Aggregation gives specialization to some extent, but has not proved super-efficient at delivering customized content to highly segmented audiences. I know RSS works well, but I often want only the “China” news of a certain publiation and such feeds are not offered.

    Curators, in the broadest sense, can be anyone from bloggers to people you follow on Twitter – already we are seeing people focsuing more on lists and tweaking desktop clients (eg, TweetDeck) instead of logging on to Progressive websites like the Guardian are feeding into this more and more, to complement the traditional role of the editor, as is the Guardian’s “comment is free” community – I often follow comments to lead me to more information on a given topic.

    So this leads to the role of communities. Facebook is great for me for this. As you said, curators can be your friends, and I now get around 20% of my daily reading from friends’ links on FB. A lot of my friends, pressed for time, have commented that my links are an important part of their daily digest (I get paid to read the news for many hours a day; they don’t). In fact, I now pay more attention to what I post…if this can become a general trend then a new layer of filtering will emerge (possibly).

    So that means I guess that whoever has the social media crown will become an important platform for content (Facebook for now, obviously), but looking at Chinese social media trends, I see some new elements emerging. Whereas most “Westerners” will have FB, and a few Twitter, that is usually it when it comes to social media. For many Chinese (numbers growing daily), the will have a Sina Weibo (a super effective microblogging tool – unkind to call it China’s Twitter as they are really killing it with photos and video), Kaixin001 or one of similar FB-type platforms, and Douban. Douban for me is very interesting – it is a place for “intellectual” discussions and blogs. Think MySpace for artists, writers, intellectuals, musicians. The Chinese social media space is already seeing greater segmentation than Western social media (on a mass scale). Of course, you also have to take into account different Chinese reading habits (the young crowd), but that is for another time.

    For marketers/advertisers, I think FB is great. As are all strong communities. I used to get put off by banner ads (still do, generally), but FB is doing really well with its targeted ads. I know privacy is an issue, but I still see 5-10 FB ads a week that I’ll click on. What do you think of this? I wonder how companies can tap into other communities, like Comment is Free, without provoking a backlash.

    Final point. Again, your point about quality control is very pertinent. But if you look at news websites, I find a lot of people now saying they don’t give a damn about editorial control – they find themselves liberated from the decisions of publishers and can access anything they want, when they want. This appears to be a strong sentiment. How do you see “curation” working mass market (of course, some of us already turn to curation)?

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