Digital Audio Insider -- the economics of music and other digital content

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Digital Audio Insider is David Harrell's blog about the economics of music and other digital content. I write from the perspective of a musican who has self-released four albums with the indie rock band the Layaways.

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June 27, 2007

To Free or Not to Free
by David Harrell
That's the question we're trying to answer as we finish our third album -- should we give away a few songs as mp3s (as we did with the first two discs and a freebie Christmas EP) or should we post free mp3 files for all of the tracks on the disc?

While I often write here about how much we make from different download and streaming services, it's pretty much an academic discussion as the numbers involved are relatively small. Our total revenue from digital downloads and CD sales has yet to eclipse our total costs for recording, mixing, mastering, and the manufacturing costs of CDs. (Though that's probably the case for the vast majority of self-released musicians, and -- when you add in promotional costs -- a good number of acts on indie and major labels.)

Which is fine. The main reason we write and record music is that we enjoy doing it. As a self-released, non-touring band, our expectations are modest and I'm basically thrilled to see ANY sales.

However, if we're primarily doing all of this for the enjoyment of the creative process -- and we're not making much money from it -- would we be better off giving the music away?

The worst-case scenario that is we'd forgo the modest sales that currently trickle in. The upside would be that greater exposure and attention might actually increase sales and/or lead to licensing opportunities for the music.

It's a strategy that gets a lot of attention when employed by a band that is already relatively well known (see the Format). Yet the "give the music away" tactic is usually coupled with the idea of making money from touring (which is difficult for us because of real day jobs, family obligations, etc.) and the associated merchandising sales.

Here's my current list of pro's and con's:


We don't make any real money from selling it anyway, so why not give it away?

People already buy the tracks we give away. "Silence," "The Long Night," and "Ocean Blue" are usually our top tracks at iTunes, even though we offer free 192k mp3 versions of those songs on our website.

The increased exposure might lead to licensing opportunities -- ads, film, or TV, which is probably our best shot at breaking even or making a modest income from the music.

More attention from bloggers, etc. We've gotten a fair amount of attention in the past from music bloggers, but they might be more interested in spreading the word about a "free album" as opposed to a few free tracks.

Ego boost: If we're unlikely to make money from our music, having more people hear it is something of a consolation, might get us on more iPods, total number of listeners on, iLike, etc.


Would it make us seem desperate or less "real?"

You get what you pay for. Do people appreciate it less if they don't have to pay for it?

We wouldn't be the first to do it, so it might not get us that much attention anyway.

Bloggers, reviewers, and radio might take us less seriously: "not a real band, just another group giving away mp3s..."

At this point, I'm leaning toward giving it away, at least as 128k mp3 files. If you have any thoughts, pro or con, please comment away! I wrote the above about my own specific situation, but comments about free music in general are, of course, welcome as well.


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    Out Now -- "Maybe Next Year" -- The New Holiday Album:

    <a href="">Joy To The World by The Layaways</a>

    "This is a sweet treat, deliciously musical without being overbaked for mass media consumption." -- Hyperbolium

    "Perfect listening to accompany whatever holiday preparations you may be making today." -- Bag of Songs

    O Christmas Tree - free mp3 lyrics and song details
    Away In A Manger - free mp3

    Download from eMusic, iTunes, Amazon MP3, or Bandcamp. Listen to free streams at

    album cover art from The Space Between

    <a href="">Keep It To Yourself by The Layaways</a>

    "...about as melodic and hooky as indie pop can get." -- Absolute Powerpop

    "Their laid-back, '60s era sounds are absolutely delightening." -- 3hive

    "...melodic, garage-influenced shoegaze." -- RCRD LBL

    Where The Conversation Ends - free mp3
    January - free mp3
    Keep It To Yourself - free mp3

    Download from eMusic, iTunes, Amazon MP3, or CD Baby, stream it at or Napster.

    album cover art from We've Been Lost

    <a href="">Silence by The Layaways</a>

    "The Layaways make fine indie pop. Hushed vocals interweave with understated buzzing guitars. The whole LP is a revelation from the start." -- Lost Music

    "Catchy Guided by Voices-like rockers who lay it on sweetly and sincerely, just like Lionel Richie." -- WRUV Radio

    Silence - free mp3 lyrics and song details
    The Long Night - free mp3

    Download from eMusic, Amazon MP3, or iTunes, stream it at, Napster, or Rhapsody.

    album cover art from More Than Happy

    "These are songs that you want to take home with you, curl up with, hold them close -- and pray that they are still with you when you wake up." -- The Big Takeover

    Let Me In - free mp3
    Ocean Blue - free mp3

    Download from eMusic, Amazon MP3, or iTunes, stream it at, Napster, or Rhapsody.

    More Layaways downloads:

    download the Layaways at eMusic download the Layaways at iTunes

    the layaways website