Anything Free is Worthless

I’ve seen it a million times.  I’m at an open mic, lounging in the back, when a singer/songwriter hands me a loose CD-R of his demo.  He keeps going, putting a copy in the hands of everyone there, then leaves a few extras scattered on the tables.  I toss the CD into my guitar case and forget about it.  Months go by before I dig it out of my case. Most likely I will throw it away unless I expect it to be hilariously horrible, in that case I might play it.  So I’m only listening to his demo if I expect it to be so bad it’s funny.

Most people don’t have my cynical attitude towards being given a free CD.  I’m sure some people listen to them.  But after this poor singer/songwriter packs up his gear and leaves the open mic I stay until the end of the night.  It’s then that the bartender or barista gathers up the dozens of CDs left behind and tosses then into the trash.  The singer/songwriter with the demo has spent $10-$20 and many hours making CDs that were thrown in the garbage without ever being listened to.  Such is the value of free music.

The age of the internet and blank CD’s has ushered in the era of free music.  But it’s not just that people are stealing music from established bands.  There are more unkwnown bands than ever and all of them are giving away music.  So many people are giving away music that nobody cares about free music.

On Friday I posted “I Was Johnny When You Loved Me”, a demo of a new song that my band will start recording soon.  Follow this link and you can download it for free.  So far I’ve sold about 75 copies of our latest EP, not a huge number but I figured a few “fans” would be up for a free song.  In five days I’ve had only one person download the free song. To a struggling musician there is little more discouraging than being unable to even give your music away.  But that’s exactly what happens if a stranger hands me free music: I don’t listen to it.

I’ve noticed this phenomenon with many other records that I get for free.  People burn me a CD they think I’ll like and it sits in my glove box for a year.  I take an interesting-looking record out of the library and it gathers dust on the shelf by my front door until it’s overdue.  I swap CD’s with a band I play a show with and it gets buried in my gig bag for at least a couple of weeks (although I do make a habit of listening to those, probably because I gave my own CD for it).  None of this ever happens when I pay $10 for a CD at a store or on itunes.  That’s because I only associate value with things that I actually pay for.

This is the same lesson parents try to instill in children by making then earn things they want.  The idea that “you’ll never appreciate anything if everything is just given to you” is remarkably true.  We are still capable of appreciating music given to us–like a CD (that we actually want) given as a Christmas present–but we are pretty incapable of appreciating a burned CD from some dude in a bar.

So bands, stop giving your music away.  If somebody sees you at a show and they’re unwilling to plunk down $5 for your CD then they aren’t willing to spend 30 minutes to listen to your free CD.  I’ve experimented with having people pay what they want for a CD and it worked pretty nicely, averaging about $5 per CD.  My band spent hundreds (more likely thousands) of hours and dollars to make our latest EP, I assume anyone who spent $5 on it actually listened to it.  Toss off your CD’s at a show and the crowd assumes the effort in producing the CD was just as easily tossed off.  Attribute value to what you do by charging for it; anything free is worthless.


About ronfreeman42

I'm trustworthy.
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2 Responses to Anything Free is Worthless

  1. Mike Caggeso says:

    Great piece, as always. And all of this is true. But when you change the context, it’s doesn’t hold as well. When things are routinely given away free by a group of people known for giving away things for free, yes, this certainly applies. But it changes when something with an established high value is given away for free by someone with a reputation for high quality. The best example I can think of is Radiohead’s “In Rainbows.” It was given away free and nobody I know thought it was a lesser-quality output because it’s free. Personally, it’s my favorite record of theirs. And it’s an added bonus that I didn’t have to pay for it!

    Also to consider: How much you need whatever is being given away. Do you need a CD from a singer-songwriter who sounds like every other singer-songwriters clamoring for attention? No. But suppose you were totally broke with three kids. Would you need food given for free by the Food Bank? Would you need donated clothes?

    Ron, I want you to want me. I need you to need me. So don’t start charging for it. hahaha

  2. ronfreeman42 says:

    That’s true, Mike. I was mostly referring to little known musicians like myself who are desperately trying to get noticed. Radiohead has millions of passionate fans, thousands of them that are completely obsessive. Those are people hunting down rare bootlegs on torrent sites so of course they will download something free and official. But I’m not much of a Radiohead fan. I was well aware that they had a free CD available and I still didn’t bother getting it.

    And you are right about the “need” point. However, people desperately need the music of Ron Freeman & the Revelators and they still won’t take it. Ha, I’m 45% kidding. Really though, look at how people treat things given by charity and government programs. Just because people are given something that they need doesn’t mean that they become responsible stewards of that food/housing/clothing. People may accept things but I believe they often value things differently when they are free. Thoughtful, personal gifts being an exception.

    There are a few charities out there that share this perspective and I plan on learning more about a few and spotlighting them on the blog eventually. Often that completely different attitude spreads a greater spirit of responsibility.

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