Up to a certain point, the internet makes it possible for an independent artist to sell music directly to fans. Past that point, some help (a label, probably) is necessary.
For new artists, or established artists who think they will never get to the big time, direct internet sales makes a great deal of sense.
The biggest problem facing an unknown artist is obscurity. Getting your work in front of your potential audience is crucial and difficult.
One part of the challenge is getting potential fans who find you to get your music. You want as few obstacles between a fan and your music as possible. Digital downloads help avoid sending a fan to a third party (a physical store, or online reseller like Amazon or iTunes). But giving your music away for free helps avoid the potential buyer from having to parse the “how much is this worth to me” question.
Even when you’re not really giving it away for free.
The other part of the challenge is getting to potential fans who don’t already know about you. Advertising and promotion are a big part of what a label can offer to an artist. Giving your music away for free can help generate advertising as fans head to Twitter and Facebook to tell everyone about the album they just got for free.
Even when they didn’t really get it for free.
How To Destroy Angels is a band I had never heard of before one of my Facebook friends talked about their self-titled debut EP that he got after buying a T-shirt for $50. Don’t want to spend $50? There are other options. You can get the 320 kbps MP3s for free. If you want 24 bit lossless files (FLAC or Apple Lossless), you can “upgrade” for $2. If you want a t-shirt, there are several options that get you either the regular of “upgrade” version, running between $10 and $50 (a limited edition which is sold out). There are also posters and stickers costing between $6 and $25. And everything comes with the EP.
I paid the $2 for the FLAC version. And I had never heard of them before. I’m probably not their target audience, and I don’t love the album. But if I did, I’d be telling all my friends about it. (If it were released under Creative Commons, I’d be giving copies of it away, too.)
Mates Of State is a band I adore and they are self-releasing their new album of covers called “Crushes”. It’s available for pre-order now. Their offering is simpler – download the album as 320 kbps MP3 files for $5, or buy a t-shirt (three styles) or a poster for $20 and get the digital download in your choice of formats (320 kbps MP3, FLAC, or Apple Lossless). And even though it’s just a pre-order, you get to download the MP3s right away.
In most cases, you end up with something tangible for your money, which is helpful because the music itself has been divorce from a physical medium.
This is a clever way of avoiding the basic problem of giving your music away for free – you don’t make any money doing it. You can’t sell something at a loss and make up for it on volume.