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.