Why give music away for free?


I had an email from a musician today who said he was struggling a little with the idea of giving away mp3s. It’s a really common issue, and so I thought I’d share my response.

1) You’re not giving away music, you’re giving away RECORDINGS of your music;
2) Don’t try to make money from your music, make money BECAUSE of your music;
3) Economics works differently for bits than it does for atoms.


How can I sell mp3s from my website?

A while back, I gave some thought to the question “How can I sell my music online?” and concluded that a good mix seemed to be getting it as many places as you possibly can using a digital aggregator like CD Baby or maybe a no-frills option like TuneCore – while simultaneously making it available to purchase from your website.

Well, it’s all very well to say “I’m going to sell my music from my website” – but the actual process of setting up an online payment and fulfillment system is something else again. The process of integrating e-commerce into your website can be confusing and frustrating – particularly if what you have to sell are digital files rather than physical products.

Because when people make their purchase, they want their mp3s right then and there. And that means setting up automated, coded systems – which can be a little more challenging than sticking CDs in envelopes…


What file size and type?

So you’re putting your music online. You’re going to make it available to people, and now you have to make a decision about what file format you’re going to use, what encoding rate, and what sort of file size you’re going to subject your customer’s bandwidth to.

There are two answers to this question. The first is the ‘it depends’ answer. You can do a whole lot of calculations about your own bandwidth and budget, expected download popularity, server space, etc. You can make allowances for all the different online retailers and the file types they use.

The second answer is really simple and it applies when you’re selling your music from your site. It doesn’t depend. And while I’m buying myself another argument here – I’m going to say that right now, I reckon this is the best answer for online music file types.


Cliff Bolling is a hero

Cliff Bolling's studio

The Wired Blog points to the Herculean effort of one Cliff Bolling who has been digitising his collection of 78s and uploading them for the world to listen.

The thousands of files are at 128kbps (though Cliff has been saving the source WAV files to DVD) and the ID3 metadata tags are just begging to be reworked so that artist and title display properly in iTunes, etc. – but what a heroic and selfless act. The man deserves a medal.

Listening to the music itself is like a window into a time not so far gone in history, but it’s largely been buried because it’s simply not economically viable to release this stuff in large quantities on CD. This is, I’d argue, what the internet is best at – and why we need to change copyright.


How long should song samples be?

Simon HarrisI’ve gone on record as saying that in almost all circumstances, I’m generally opposed to the 30-second sample. 30-seconds is not enough time to learn to like a song. It might be enough to recognise one, but that’s about it.

As a rule of thumb, if you want people to like your music, you have to let them hear it. And that means give them the whole track. I still maintain that this is far and away the best way to build an audience for your music.

But I was lucky enough to bump into a musician friend of mine who hops between London and Birmingham (making the most of the strengths of both places for musicians) and he played me a sample track that takes a slightly different approach.

It’s a smart one and not one I’d considered.