How Much Does Free Music Cost?

Free, easily available music is a powerful tool. Once the financial barrier against entry has been removed it’s much easier to justify spending time discovering unproven acts, either through listening to streaming services or going to free gigs at venues like The Old Blue Last. But while this is a boon for the obsessives who are always hunting for something new, the rise of streaming has created an ever more competitive environment for upcoming bands seeking to make enough money to make music their full time occupation.

The largest legal streaming service is probably Spotify, which has previously advertised itself as an alternative to piracy. Why steal from your favourite artists when you can listen to an unlimited amount of music for less than half the price of an album a month? But back in July Thom Yorke pulled his solo work and recent Atoms For Peace album from the service, arguing that it was designed to line the pockets of record conglomegrates with extensive catalogues rather than support new artists and citing Spotify’s tiny rates.

Forbes writer Tim Worstall retorted that they are comparable with radio rates[1], but that doesn’t change the fact that an upcoming band doesn’t have a hope of getting any more than an occasional beer from the service. This problem is pretty much systemic to the service as well, I can’t see how Spotify could extract any more money through increasing the number of adverts on the free service or raising subscription prices without losing a sizable portion of its userbase.

While it is arguable that Spotify is a promotional device rather than a revenue stream, Bandcamp is a site designed to offer independent bands a place to sell their music. Bands that use this service don’t have to compete with much larger, better funded groups like they would on iTunes, but they do have to struggle with the established norm of making their whole album available to stream for free and purchase prices being set at pay-what-you-want (including nothing). If they don’t fulfil both these criteria, then bands that don’t have the kind of publicity that a record deal can provide pretty much price themselves out of a saturated market.

The idea that downloadable music doesn’t have inherent value that justifies a set price is in part Radiohead’s fault for releasing In Rainbows this way. Just like Spotify’s model, pay-what-you-want relies on high numbers of sales at relatively low prices to make up for the value lost per sale when compared with a more traditional model. A band the size of Radiohead can easily absorb the many one penny sales, but bands without their following can’t afford to practically give away their music if they want to recoup the costs of recording it.

Between the many different methods of online distribution that are available, it has never been easier to get your music heard. However, it seems like it is harder than ever to convince people that new music is worth spending money on. Dedicate yourself to your art if you can afford to; but if you actually want to make a living as a musician your band’s t-shirt designer may well have a greater impact than your songwriter…


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