Although free downloads courtesy of the artists themselves certainly appeared online well beforehand, it wasn’t until 2009 that I started coming across absolutely fantastic songs… as good as anything that a major record label could give the world. Connecting with the world-wide music-verse through Twitter was the catalyst as it became a social networking necessity for entertainers of all genres. iTunes of course had been offering free singles of the week too, sometimes offering terrific songs, including independently released tracks, though varying with what country you’re in. Hello “Before The Worst” by The Script, one of my favourites of 2009.
But it’s the performers who are doing it for themselves that interest me and make me ponder about their ultimate goals. Witness Mike Posner, who released his mixtapes for free online in 2008 and 2009, and by 2010 ended up with a huge Top 10 hit with the addictive “Cooler Than Me”. To me he’s the poster boy who made the transition from online phenom to major record label hit, accompanied by all the trimmings that one would expect – album, merch, tour, and so on. Is it worth it? Time will tell. How long will casual fans stay attached if the next record doesn’t have the same magic? Hard to say. Will they download the next record if it’s free? Very likely. If it’s for purchase? That’s a maybe – does that make selling a record a crapshoot?
What I find most magnetic about all of this free online business is that there seems to be a consistent method to getting that free music to fans. Is this replacing the way I always understood the record biz to be – discovering, marketing and promoting new talent? Has the record biz outsourced this to the online community? Radio, for one, does not seem to feed into the online community other than perhaps as research. Radio does not seem to want the latest sensation – radio wants that already grown for them, too.
It’s kind of silly if you’re not already known in some way through performing, concerts, music videos, or other entertainment vehicle, to start marketing yourself online from scratch. You already have to be part of something. Just as examples, the ever-talented Simon Curtis and Andrea Lewis were both part of the Nickelodeon movie “Spectacular!”, and Lewis had pedigree from being a cast member of TV’s Degrassi (alongside Drake, no less). And they both released stunning free online records, 8bit Heart and 54321 respectively.
You Tube has taken posting videos online many steps further than that. There is so much old and new music on You Tube that it’s mind-boggling. So if a performer has several songs and has perhaps even invested in a video or two, You Tube is also a place to grow that fan base. It also reaches the youngest possible audience, if that’s what you’re seeking.
Performers who take the extra personal steps make online sharing and communicating positively special. It might just be in simple messaging, podcasts, fan forums, live broadcasts – though some I’ve tried to see have crashed the servers they tried to use. It’s the next closest thing to shaking a fan’s hand. As a music fan myself, that connection, however brief, is very gratifying.
Even if they’re signed to a major label and can’t make their music free, it’s an important part of this process for the performers and their fans. Evan Taubenfeld calls his fans The Blacklist Club. Australian indie singer Nelson Clemente calls his fans his Cherry Tomatoes. Lady GaGa has her Little Monsters. Simon Curtis has his Robot Army, and I witnessed that effort happen almost instantly. You’re not really a name brand, you’re absorbed into the action whether it’s through sentiment or something much more interactive.
And then there are remixes. Although I tend to prefer the original versions of songs, remixes can be either extremely entertaining or utterly useless. 2010 brought us the amazing Penguin Prison and Bright Light Bright Light among others, remixers who are also DJs and performers too.
I love it when artists establish another identity. Darren Hayes had a side project with songwriter/producer Robert Conley called We Are Smug with several great songs that were available for free for a while. Producer 100 Akres has paired up with Toronto singer Roz Bell for two positively grooving free downloads, 2009’s R&B-laden “Pink Cadillac” and this year’s bouncin’ “Breakup Anthem”. Collaborations like these beg for something more thorough, and I think music fans will buy that.
Speaking of fans buying their music, I’m not sure if that’s currently the goal of performers who market their music online for free. It’s hard to say if they’re wealthy, have a solid source of income from something else (such as songwriting) as a foundation, or are everyday hard-working performers who try to use this technology platform as a launching pad for something else.
Some have already got merch, some don’t. Some have toured, even briefly, some have not. Some have had physical releases of CD’s – and have undertaken to sign each copy of a limited physical release, usually sold online or at concerts. Some have videos – some are extremely well-crafted, others are home-made. Some send or mail out their product themselves, directly from their own hands, others have people assisting them. Some manage themselves, others are with agencies or managers. Some have investors. So if they’re not necessarily wanting fans to buy their music, how do they expect to make money? And on what scale do they plan to ‘work’?
So yes, performers with free music online, you definitely have me and other fans at “Hello”. You’ve got us interested and loving your tunes, we’re just kind of curious how it will all play out for you in the long run. Engage and involve us, it’s okay to be ubiquitous. Remix your songs and take the steps to make some things a little more personal. Follow through, make and admit your mistakes, share the other side of the coin – every day is not amazing, as much as we would all like to think it is.
Find the ways to keep us coming back – even if one day your music is not available for free download. It’s hard to predict what fans and the public will want, because quite simply it’s not all about the free music.