Giving It Away

I’m positively stunned at the blowback from business regulars about that chap giving his music away for free.  Oldsters can’t understand the economics!

I’ll clue you in, THERE ARE NONE!

This is your worst nightmare.  People who can follow their dream on sweat equity.  Who with their computer and the money from their day job or mommy and daddy can compete with you.  It’s like the North Vietnamese, all our military might couldn’t defeat individuals who would fight to the death.  Same deal in Iraq.

It’s an eye-opener.  That your model is IRRELEVANT!

YOU need to pay the mortgage.  YOU need to go on vacation to the Caribbean.  But the new musicians?  They’re willing to sleep on the floor and eat ramen.  Hell, they’re in their twenties, they’re not on the corporate track, they’ve got different ambitions!

This flummoxes the old wave.  Especially after the eighties and nineties.  You’re supposed to go through the usual filters.  Get a lawyer and a manager and then shop your demo to labels, who get to not only decide whether to sign you, but what your music should sound like.  But the music coming from said majors…it makes the new music-makers puke.  So they’re doing it their own way.  They care as much about the old system as snowboarders care about skiers.  In other words, NOT AT ALL!  They believe they’ve got a better system.

Popular music wasn’t always such big business.  Go back to the press of the British Invasion acts.  They were doing it on a lark, they didn’t expect it to be a lifelong career.  And they got ripped off and underpaid until they survived long enough to work on THEIR terms.

Don’t forget, the Beatles played multiple sets a night in Hamburg before they had any recorded music success.  They did it to get off the docks, to have some fun, to get high, to get laid.  But they were so good, that they broke through.

How many of the major label acts have paid those kinds of dues?  And are so good that people are clamoring for them?  The majors are looking for putty that they can mold and sell to the usual suspects, lame terrestrial radio and TV.  Whereas the new musician wants no part of that crap.  It used to be the only way to get any exposure, any traction, but no longer.

Yes, as the majors are trying to sustain a business selling discs, new musicians don’t give a shit about discs.  They’ve got an enterprise.  Based on their DEDICATION!  They’re doing it THEIR way, and if they never break through…  Well, they’re not willing to compromise, sell out to the man just to make it.

Come to think of it, that’s why the old music was so successful.  It was uncompromised.  It came directly from the heart of the makers.

You say kids can’t make it giving their music away for free because YOU can’t make it.  But they can outlast you, starve for years all in pursuit of their art.  They don’t want an expensive video, never mind a stylist.  They don’t want to play the game.  And, if you don’t play the game, I hate to tell you, it just doesn’t cost that much.

To believe that the majors will be the logical filters in the future is to be completely ignorant.  They’re only necessary if you want to reach the masses INSTANTLY!  Is that a good thing?  Furthermore, as every day goes by, it’s easier and easier to reach more people for almost free.  Hell, you post your stuff on MySpace, and if you’re any good, your friends will tell EVERYBODY!  You might not sell "Thriller" numbers, but "Thriller" was twenty five years ago, when we were all beholden to the box, to MTV.  Today everybody’s scattered in a million different directions.  The mainstream is the Top Forty joke of the seventies.  It’s a dying vine.  Hell, just look at SoundScan.  The "hit" albums sell ever fewer.  And the problem isn’t piracy, but the fact that so much of the theoretical potential audience has tuned out, isn’t paying attention.  Why listen to crap radio when you’ve got an iPod?

Why make an expensive disc and go on a tour-supported trek that has no traction when you can do it YOUR way, making all of your OWN decisions, and have a chance of making it.

You just can’t beat these kids.  Your only hope is to help them, not decry them or try to reeducate them.  Somebody’s gonna figure this out.  And it won’t be an old fart part of the decrepit system.  Sure, bands need managers, and agents, even labels.  But only if they’re honest, only if they can be trusted to help.  If you’re signed to a major label and you trust it, you’re an idiot.

12 Responses to Giving It Away »»


  1. Comment by Tyson Yerex | 2007/03/29 at 12:09:58

    Just wanted to let you know that I really enjoy your newsletter, and I was especially interested to read your latest ‘Email of the Day’ about Drop Dead Genius giving away cds at shows.

    My band (Moneyshot) has also been doing a similar thing for the past two years with CDs at shows and we also have our entire discography available for free download from our website.

    We haven’t completely abandoned trying to get a little money to cover our CD manufacturing costs because after all we’re not independently wealthy, but here’s what we do…

    At the beginning of each show well put a box of cds at the foot of the stage and let the crowd know that they are free for the taking. The only suggestion being that if they enjoyed the show and feel that the want to support the band that they can throw a dollar or two in the CD box if they can afford it (to help cover our pressing costs) but that’s always their choice.

    You’d be amazed at how much money the CD box ends up having in it at the end of the night. I’d say the average is about $2 per CD which is slightly more than what it costs us to press them!! Sure some people pay nothing, but then some people throw in ten bucks! or better yet some people might even buy me a beer!

    Even if we end up with no money in the box, we can walk aways from the show knowing that 50 or 100 people are now listening to our music, ripping it onto their computers, emailing it to their friends, putting it up on peer to peer networks, and helping us get the music out there!

    Plus if people liked our CD then hopefully the next time we come to their town those 100 people might have grown to 200. Then we’ll make more money at the door, sell a couple more t-shirts and hopefully give away even more cds!!

    And the same thing goes for our website. We want people to listen to our music so it’s all up there for free. This costs us virtually nothing, so why wouldn’t we??

    If they like an album they can mail order a cd directly from us for $5, so I think having the ability to download a whole album front to back has gotten us more mail-order sales than if we only had a song or two available to hear.

    We also recently added a paypal donation option if people are happy to just keep the mp3s they’ve downloaded but just want to throw a dollar or two towards helping us continue to make music.

    Of course we haven’t completely abandoned the traditional sales models: we have our albums in regional record stores as well as being available on iTunes, eMusic, Rhapsody, etc; but the number of albums we move via those methods pails in comparison to the number of albums we distribute at shows and via downloads off our website.

    Like Drop Dead Genius said there’s no point in making music if people aren’t gonna hear it. Although as you say, it’s a lot easier to pull off this model when we have day jobs to pay the rent!

    Anyways, if you care to check us out the address is:

    Take care,
    Tyson / MONEYSHOT

  2. Comment by Ed Majewski | 2007/03/29 at 12:10:14

    In Hank Bordowitz’s book "Dirty Little secrets of the Music Industry" I am quoted saying that we (An act I Manage) are close to letting the kids have the music for free. 2 days ago we gave in and finally did it. So far, we have had over 1700 downloads in 36 hours! Over 100 new sign ups to our e-mail list.


    Let’s discuss shall we?
    The total cost of the Cd has been met. That is, Mastering, Manufacturing, and design. We broke even and broke ground with a new fan base world wide. What has greater importantance? Music sitting on a shelf somewhere gathering dust or music stored in kids Ipods? While it is true music that has been paid for sitting in that Ipod is the greatest (In a Biz sense) it is also equally as great that the free tune(s) are there as well. I could have a 50 to 100k ad campaign to get the people to the music. But at no cost to me I could say take the music. Ten times as many will download the music because it is free anyway. That is 10 X’s as many potential future fan’s. Fans will spend money. Ok, maybe not $10 on that stupid little silver disc. Maybe $30 to $50 in merch. You can’t download a T-shirt.

    So for me what has a better return a 10k ad campaign or a "Hey Kids our music is free" campaign?

    W. Edward Majewski
    Majic Management

  3. Comment by David Choi | 2007/03/29 at 12:10:32

    I’ve been reading your blogs for a while now and thought I should probably email you. I’ve really been taking into account what you said about connecting with your fans before making money. I find it true…

    I’ve actually done a little experiment with your idea and it’s actually working. About a month ago, I was featured on the homepage of YouTube with a song I wrote for fun about YouTube (over a million views now)…instantly, I got a huge list of subscribers (10,000 as of now and growing everyday)…it got me thinking the day my song got featured…I know I’m not trying to become an artist (I’m a signed writer/producer to Warner Chappell), but why not see if this method works…sounds reasonable.

    So I personally thanked each person who emailed or messaged me from then on, and also created "vlogs" or video blogs mentioning subscribers by name, holding a contest where I give away money, even had a day where I offered 4 free song downloads from my myspace page (which I got around 30-40k downloads that day).

    The cool thing is, I started to notice people kept coming back for more…sure, for the music, but I think it’s because I actually respond to each email….yeah it’s hard as hell to keep up with all of them, but I think it lets the people know I’m "real" and I got more to offer than just music.

    And people actually ask me all the time if I’ve come out with a CD. They actually want to BUY my music…

    Now one of the downsides I discovered about YouTube is that a lot of the viewers are younger kids who don’t have credit cards…well maybe because of the content of my music.

    Anyways, I’m looking forward to see how this YouTube thing will unfold…yes, there’s the Internet Marketing side of the music biz (Ryan Leslie for example broke Cassie through YouTube), but the fan bonding thing is what I’m trying to figure out.


  4. Comment by Al Kooper | 2007/03/29 at 12:10:51


    Like yourself, I have never given up the FAN part of my brain. If I hear something I like I STILL obsess on it. I list what I think is all the GOOD new music on my website every month, so that people who have close to the same taste as I do (I said CLOSE TO) can check out great sounds they may not have heard. Hell, I know more about relevant NEW music than I’ve ever known in my whole career. Bands send me emails and thank me for listing them on my site. How did they find out an old man did that? Word of mouth, dudes. This proves it to me. When these bands pass through Boston, I check ’em out live, take ’em to dinner, and invite them to the house for a hang. That’s THE FAN that still lives in me. And, so far, they are wonderful people. They are deeply passionate about their music and
    so am I. That’s what we have in common. They have a grizzled 63 year old music veteran that GETS WHAT THEY’RE DOING but doesn’t wanna sign ‘ em, produce ’em (hell there’s nothing WRONG with the music they’ve recorded – that’s what got me in the first place) or change ’em. THERE’S NEVER ANYONE FROM RECORD COMPANIES OR MANAGEMENT TO ASSIST THEM AT GIGS. They don’t have tour managers. Sometimes a friend will accompany them and drive and set up gear because they are friends. Anybody remember THAT state of mind ???

    Deerhoof, Hella, Field Music, Willy Porter, Von Frickle, Shimmer, The Teeth, The Honeydogs – I’ve corresponded/visited with them and hugged them goodbye til next time. And ya know what ? I’m sure they’d all appreciate the same thing from each of YOU. START OUT being a fan with no OTHER motive and see what happens – it worked pretty well for Ahmet & Nesuhi.

    I think this is just my version of Bob’s Giving It Away column.

    Rock ON at all ages,

    Al Kooper

  5. Comment by Richard Pachter | 2007/03/29 at 12:11:07

    Seth Godin advises would-be authors to write their first book and give it away for free, Bob. He said as much in the piece I did on author promotions a few months back in the Herald

    For authors, writing’s just half the job

    He repeats it today in his blog And I think it’s terrific way to create a demand, establish credibility, legitimacy and expertise. It’s a model that could work in other areas of art or intellectual property imho.

  6. Comment by Nikhil Korula | 2007/03/29 at 12:11:29

    After reading this email, I feel like I have to say something. On one hand, I totally agree with you, get the music out there any way you can, but on the other hand, most bands that give their CDs out for free are doing so b/c no one will buy them. When I first started my band 5 years ago, I was really torn between selling our first CD or giving it away for nothing. After paying for all of the costs, I wanted to make my money back but not compromise the chance of people hearing the music. Then I read a quote from Albert Einstein (he wasn’t such a slacker, rt?) that put everything in perspective for me.

    "If there is nothing to be paid, then it is not of value. " – Albert Einstein

    I couldn’t agree more. So I decided to sell our record. It was a 5 song EP that we sold for $10 and guess what?? People came running to buy our album after every show and we sold out of 1200 CDs in no time. That propelled us to record another CD, this time at Ocean Way Studios, one of the best studios in the world. We have since sold 2500 CDs of our latest album (PLUS we have a new CD to be released at the House of Blues on Apr 9) and still counting. That may not be a lot to people, but one thing is for sure, this band sells CDs at every show without major distribution, no marketing plan whatsoever, no booking agent, management, major label backing or even a street team and now we are packing the House of Blues every 3 months with 1000 people on a Monday night. You do the math. We are all able to make a living now playing colleges around the country and selling out clubs all over. Some nights are rough, some nights are incredible, but that’s the life we chose and that’s where we are on this wonderful journey.

    I know the type of bands who are giving out their CDs for free. Believe me, they are the same kids that sit on myspace for 6 hrs a day adding people hoping that more people will come to their shows. Myspace is a force, but it has also lost a lot of validity b/c any jackass can just sit on his computer and add random people and claim they are fans. Do you really think any independent artist that has 80,000 friends can sell even 500 tix to one of their shows. Not likely. The problem with both the industry and the artists of today is the industry has no idea how to fix the problem with their lack of ability to sell records and most artists are basically lazy to do most of the groundwork themselves. Record labels don’t have their finger to the pulse and are forgetting about so many consumers that would buy records if labels were releasing legitimate artists that were aimed towards ALL consumers, not just 14yr old girls waiting for the next big thing. Artists are waiting for that big record deal to fall from the sky and land in their laps so they can be rich and famous. Not gonna happen. This is a do it yourself market now. Things have changed. The format for listening to music alone is ever changing almost monthly.

    If those artists want to hand out their CDs for free then that is fine by me. Honestly, I see what the businessman’s point was in saying what he did. If artists are ever going to be able to quit their day jobs then they are going to have to start learning that merchandise, other than the guarantees most clubs or festivals will give them, is what’s going to help them make a living. However, most bands today are just happy with getting their music out to the public which is fine, but short sighted. What they don’t realize is if they give their CDs out for free, no one will really take them seriously. It all comes back to that Einstein quote. If people are not paying anything for it, how much do you REALLY think they are valuing it? And besides, what do you think these kids are passing out their music for in the first place?? They want a major label deal so they can be the next band on the cover of Rolling Stone.

    All those ideals have changed for me. To me, its always going to be about the music. Having so many fans that are excited about your music has inspired me to keep writing good, solid songs that are never contrived or manufactured. They are real songs that are written like the artists of old. Some of the musicians in my band, the Nikhil Korula Band, are some of the most talented jazz musicians and session players I have ever seen in LA. Some of these guys play world tours for a month or so in stadiums in front of 100,000 people and come back to tour with the NK Band in a van on its way to a college venue or club. Why? Its because of the music. That’s what everyone in this industy forgets. Its always about the music. People aren’t buying records b/c most of the music that is out today sucks. There are some great artists and bands though that are succeeding on their own and those are the ones people will still be seeing live in 20 years. People aren’t stupid. We all know who those artists are. Sure, there will be some surprises, but in the end, it will always come down to artistic integrity. It always does.

    Yours in Music,

    Nikhi Korula
    "Music that makes your soul groove…"

  7. Comment by Matthew Maslar | 2007/03/29 at 12:11:48

    Subject: The Long Tail Blog References Mr. Lefsetz

Trackbacks & Pingbacks »»

  1. Pingback by MiFi · Bob Lefsetz | 2007/03/29 at 17:36:01

    […] couldn’t defeat individuals who would fight to the death. Same deal in Iraq. link: full article Check our Bob on CBC’s The Hour: full interview […]

  2. […] had to be a hit! How did they predict whether something would sell? They had filters. As Bob Lefsetz puts it: “You’re supposed to go th […]

  3. […] nTracker (‘/outgoing/’);” href=””>interesting piece by Bob Lefsetz. He writes about giving music away f […]

  4. […] /plane. I’m willing to be wrong about this, but I’m pretty certain I’m right. Others agree with me. People who currently listen to Triple J, but not as oft […]

  5. […] train/bus/plane. I’m willing to be wrong about this, but I’m pretty certain I’m right. Others agree with […]

This is a read-only blog. E-mail comments directly to Bob.