Monday, June 2, 2008

The Free Music Success Research Project

This post initiates a research project to analyze the success of "free music" artists in the marketplace. As such, I need your help. I am interested in capturing a list of artist that give away their music but make money on tour. Below is a form for capturing information about such artists (not visible in feed readers). My intent is to analyze the marketplace hopefully with the help of other interested parties.

This is an ongoing project, and as such, I will be posting regularly about it. The live version of the list is here.


Last week I wrote that I disagreed with Michael Arrington’s perspective on copyright, which, to summarize, is that music will be all eventually be free, and that this is a good thing, and that artist can make money from touring, merchandise, etc. He also believes in light of this we need to rethink copyright, though he does not specify exactly what he thinks this “rethinking” means.

There were comments and some responsive blog posts, which disagreed with my statement that there are no artists giving away their music on the Internet and making money. Specifically what I said is as follows:

Second, there is no evidence *at all* that free music on the Internet is an effective (i.e. successful career building) marketing tool. There have been no blockbuster successes that have come from, for example Garageband availability. I don't think you could even count more than a handful – if that – Internet-based artists making a living from music.

To clarify, one point in that statement, I do believe that free music has helped bands get signed by record labels. What I was referring to was free music as a successful means of making an ongoing living, not of getting the attention of a record label.

While I am confident about my position, I must admit it is very difficult to prove, on an absolute basis, a negative. Nevertheless I am very interested in getting to a consensus on this issue. To that end, I am initiating the Free Music Success Project. The goal of the project is to find all artists that are giving away their music free on the internet, who are not and have never been signed to a label, and who are making enough money to support themselves in some reasonable way via touring and merchandise. Note that I do not consider living with family and making lunch money or in a van without a home to suffice for "making a reasonable living."

The Process

The first task in this project is to find artists/bands that might meet the criteria. To make this a bit easier I have defined some criteria for inclusion in the list which are as follows:

  • Must have page on MySpace where they give away their music (i.e. mp3 downloads)
  • Must have page somewhere on the Internet where the artist publishes a touring schedule that includes dates, location, and venue names.
  • Must not be a cover band or wedding/event band. In other words the artist must primarily be in the business of creating and performing their own music.
  • Must be a U.S. Based band (makes verification and research of venues easier)

Once the potential bands have been collected, we should be able, in most cases, to determine the maximum gross revenue of these bands by multiplying the venue size by the ticket price, and adding those together for each appearance on the tour. More rigorous analysis of real contenders will probably require exploring actually attendance and typical venue payment models. Of course this research is not statistically meaningful since it is voluntary and not a survey, but as a first step, particularly for defining the universe I think it should prove valuable.

Note that there are two reasons I am specifying Myspace pages as a requirement. First, I am not looking for artist that have given away one song as a promotion at some time. The idea is to find artists that, as a career choice, are not selling their music, but are giving it away and making money on tour. This is significant because it is the premise of the "free" movement that artists should be able to survive on just touring. So if you have chosen to give away your music, there is precious little reason not to do it on the biggest site, which is Myspace. Additionally, specifying one website makes it easier to manage the process and investigate artists.

I fully recognize that doing things this way is not necessarily the best way to prove my point since my opponents will be able to put forth one band and those who are intellectually dishonest will present this one band as proof of their point. But I do believe that it is entirely possible that there are no artists that meet the criteria, and that at best there are a statistically insignificant number of such artists. By doing this in public, I am totally willing to be proven wrong. As such, I hope my opponents will contribute aggressively since it should be easy to prove that there are lots of such successful bands.

This questionnaire is the first step at understanding, in a serious way, the scope of the issue. So for now it would be great to just collect a list of bands that could at least *potentially* meet the criteria, and to get a sense of their earning potential. From there, we can introduce more rigorous processes.

This is just a first step in a project which I hope will evolve. As such, please leave any suggestions regarding methodology in the comments or send them to


  1. While I don't disagree with your premise, I would like to point out that "giving away MP3s on MySpace" is far from the only avenue of distributing fere music. Case in point - I'm a member of the free music service Goombah ( They regularly give away free tracks. I've taken advantage of this. In more than one case, I've followed up my free download by visiting iTunes and downloading entire albums.

    I can't tell you whether or not these bands are making a profit, but it is one case where free music directly to revenue, and it did not certainly didn't involve a MySpace page.

    I look forward to the outcome of this survey...

  2. I would second removing the MySpace-only restriction as you'd be in danger of only proving your point relative to MySpace and not in the general sense.

    Not sure if this meets your criteria, given that there's self-determined pricing involved, but you might be interested in checking out Issa who tours and whose fans sponsor album recordings as I understand the model.

  3. Thanks Mike.

    I just added an answer to this question because I realized I had thought about it but not addressed it. My goal is to find artist that give away their music as a career choice and not as a one time promotion.

  4. Justin,

    regarding myspace, from a statistical perspective that would be a stellar sample size.

    regarding issa, I think they would qualify, but they do not have a tour schedule up so no way to measure them.

  5. Sure. I think that's because recording is underway. Anyway, thought it was an interesting twist on the non-label approach (or, an alternate self-made label) that you might find interesting since you're in to this line of thought.

    One possible middle ground that could develop over time is this cycle of:

    - Start out independent.
    - Hit a threshold and sign with a label to take it to the next level.
    - Outgrow the label (or desire to "return to the roots") and strike out on your own.
    - Optionally, produce free content funded by your earlier wealth and recoup the cost by touring, etc.

    I think the possibilities for hybrid models are pretty neat. I'm also intrigued by the groups who generally sell their music but also offer creative-commons licenses on some tracks to allow for large scale remixing, variants, etc. in a community of musicians.

    In this sense, I also find Jonathan Coulton interesting.

  6. Hank, this blog is plain super. I really am very curious about your data / web development project that will change humanity as we know it. :) Would you please tell us every little detail about it?

    I do not qualify for your research project, but I'd like to comment on a few things.

    I work with a new age pianist. We don't exactly give away his music free (like a CC mp3 download), but all his music is available as a 320Kbit/sec stream from his own website. Our business model doesn't count with traditional CD sales any more.

    People download (steal) music, but they cannot steal a live show. So we decided to reserve all rights, but don't care about piracy too much either (we have no choice really). We reserve all his rights to his compositions, performances - but we also let anybody listen to them without any limitations.

    It works, he does make a decent living. How?

    1. concert tickets
    2. people DO buy CD's after concerts, and then, they're not price sensitive.
    3. sponsorship, corporate events

    Now, having said this - I totally agree with you. Stealing is not ok. *Something* must be done. Web 3.0 (whatever) must be different. Something totally new must come, and it must come soon.


    I think, that the key to this huge problem is to create a very good alternative to stealing - in parallel with all that we have now.

    The disaster is, that legally buying content sucks. It's much *easier* to steal. If I want to watch Dr. House, season 2 will (probably) be available on DVD here at a Media Markt. But I can p2p season 4 on 720p HD easily. This leaves me with no other option really. If I want to legally buy some content, it will be much more *difficult* if possible. I can watch 2 seasons fresher content on HD if I steal, I can watch 2 seasons older stuff on SD if I pay a LOT of money. Now this sucks almost as much as going server error 500. :) I know, it's Google's fault, that's why it sucks so much.

    It turned out a long time ago, that micropayment style business models don't work. Nobody wants to pay for a piece of content. Advertising doesn't work alone either. Subscription to a whole lot of content does work.

    I pay 50 euros for a fast DSL connection, and another 25 for HSDPA mobile access. Why? Not because I fancy these beautiful geek acronyms. Because of all this fantastic content on the web. Like this blog.

    Cable TV works, with all the packages.

    The solution could be something above www. Let the www stay whatever it is today and will be later on, but I can't see why another layer for premium content would hurt anybody. Let's say, there's that I would only have access to if I subscribe to it at my ISP.

    People could still steal anything from it, and play this silly torrent game, whatever. But I would have another option. Subscribe to legal content, without viruses, without slow downloads, with perfect quality.

    I know, net neutrality hippies freak out, but I still think this would be a good thing - if it's done right. I am optimistic. I don't think people *want* to steal, if they're given a better, a reasonable option.

    I can imagine, there are tons of questions as to how exactly this should happen. I'm sure it will suck big time, but within 5-20 years something new, and working must work out.

    Because what we have now is just plain silly, and it cannot hold forever.

  7. Kevin Kelly has does some very similar anecdotal research on this subject.

    Here are some of the posts on it - he calls it the "1000 True Fans" model. he might have some data that could help you out.

  8. Giving away your music is certainly a good way to start out, and seems to be a popular new route for big bands too and why not?


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