Online music distribution: Not all free is created equal

Drummer in a gorilla suit
The image Andy Budd promoting Silverback is by Danny Hope and made available under a Creative Commons license

Jonathan Ostrow has written an inter­esting and thought provoking post on distrib­uting your music for free at Music Think Tank. The main point is that no money doesn’t have to mean no trans­action. Even if you are not getting paid cash you can demand value in the form of attention, in a newsletter sign-up or publicity, in a tweet or Facebook like. The post gives some good advice on how you can put this in to practice and there is a useful debate sprouting in the comments about the general concept of giving music away without charging cash for it too.

Jonathan’s post and the comment thread have made me think more about my previous post, Give your music away: You have nothing to loose but your obscurity. That post was intended as an overview but there is a great deal to this subject and it deserves a deeper look.

If they don’t value your music they don’t deserve it

This point is made well and force­fully in the comment thread of Jonathan’s article by Tim London. The key question is, are we as musicians devaluing digital music by distrib­uting at no cost or are we reacting to an existing situation?

I think it depends on where you are in your career. My previous post was based on the idea of a musician emerging on to the internet with a small local following. For them attention is valuable. If you have a national reputation, are touring yourself (perhaps opening up for estab­lished acts) and have a robust and active online fanbase then perhaps free is no longer a useful strategy for you.

The main point is still how to you get attention. Perception of value is important. This perception is influ­enced by popularity. Even the most jaded hipster in the whitest skinny jeans likes some kind of valid­ation of their choices. I think that risking a non-existent income stream to try to build a business is worth a shot. The perception of music as a free resource is not just down to independent artist distrib­uting for free. Spotify, YouTube, Songza and the file-sharing community are part of this too. Changing a culture is a big ask.

If you’re not getting money what can you get

Jonathan’s post suggests two things you can aim for in exchange for a download,

  1. Attention
  2. Promotion

Attention, in this context, means a mailing list subscription and promotion a tweet or Facebook share. The MTT post details some good mechanisms for helping you to set this up.

These actions are only valuable as part of a strategy. An email address is useless unless you are going to send that person a newsletter that will interest, excite and involve them. Similarly the social network link share will be of little value without a great landing page to greet anyone who follows the link.

Unfortunately you have to do the work to set this up, it’s not as immedi­ately valuable as a cash trans­action. If you can do this work well you can get a great deal of value from the inform­ation you have gathered.

Measure results to evaluate the strategy

Measuring the performance of any business strategy is crucial to any online promotion whether you’re GlaxoSmithKline or a basement guitar hero. There is little point shooting into the dark. Your time and attention are valuable. If nothing else you could spend it writing more music, so it is very important to measure the results.

For a mailing list this means measuring how many gig tickets, downloads, CDs, albums, t-shirts or autographed pairs of pants you are selling to your mailing list. Segmenting your list depending on where the address came from is very valuable and worth the time to set up. This could be as simple as adding a column to your contact spread­sheet or as advanced as using SalesForce.

For the Twitter and Facebook links this means using Google Analytics URL builder (or similar). This way you can track who comes to your site from which shared link and what they do once they’re there.

What you are looking for are conversion ratios,

  • How many folks on your list buy stuff?
  • How many folks follow the promotion links?
  • How many of them download a track?
  • How many folks from the social network promotion join your mailing list?

You can even measure secondary referrals by sending people who follow the social network links to a separate landing page and set up a new custom URL to check the performance of their tweets and shares.

The larger the sample the more valid the data as typical e-commerce conversion rates are around 2.3%, so you will need several hundred referrals to get valid data. Even without that level of traffic you will be able to see the value of this strategy to you in a few months.

What can you do if it’s not making you rich

If this isn’t making you any money there are a few key areas you can look at.

Getting people to your download page

Input is crucial. The more visitors your download page has the more downloads you will get. Promote your site (profile on Bandcamp or whatever) actively. Get out there and tell folks about your awesomeness as no matter how awesome you are if I don’t know you exist I can’t benefit from your holy glow.

Make your download page work for you

Put great engaging content on your download page. Make sure people can listen to your music before they download. You’re asking for a contri­bution from them and no matter how small it might seem to you it might seem too big to them. Sell them your music. Tell them what you will give them and involve them in your work. Let them see a past newsletter so that they know how cool it is. Tell them how big your Facebook/Twitter reach is and let them know that by being part of that they will help you become even more awesome. Don’t forget to use strong call to action state­ments. I know this is cheesy sales stuff but it works, “Download now”, “Join our awesome mailing list” and “share our awesomeness”, all help. If you are getting low conver­sions from visitors to this page try changing the content.

Make your newsletter wonderful

Send your fans a brilliant newsletter regularly. Both these points are important, brilliant or they will stop reading it and regularly so that they remember you. You don’t want to inundate them with bulletins but you want to stay in touch. If you say it’s going to be monthly make sure it is. A long stream of, “Whoops! Sorry for the late newsletter,” just makes me think you don’t care and if you don’t care about your band why should I?

Make referral path specific landing pages

The people who follow a Twitter or Facebook link are likely to not know how incredible you are yet. So tell them, quickly and compre­hens­ively in one page with a download link and newsletter signup on it. Think of it as a condensed version of your site. If the conver­sions from this page are low change it.

Evaluate the strategy

If this strategy isn’t working for you after six months or a year then stop it and do something else. If you hate the work it takes to keep this strategy going then stop and do something else. This isn’t a one size fits all solution but there can be value in it if you put in the work. Review your performance regularly and look to improve the system. Talking with the people who download your music is a great way to do this. You have their emails and Twitter IDs don’t you?

The image Andy Budd promoting Silverback is by Danny Hope and made available under a Creative Commons license

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Ruben Kenig

I used to play punk, then jazz. Somehow I went to music school to study composition. I wrote music and made sound design for theatre and studied film music. In the interstitial spaces of this I made websites as a content manager and project manager. I sometimes publish articles at