Sell or Give Away Your Music?

Written by Wil

So a person I respect dearly tweeted something this evening that I disagreed with. He said he didn’t believe artists should put out free music. I shot him a text and asked if he would debate me on this for the blog.

@essince: I was in the car with @DJ_KiDD_Genius the other day and a mutual friend was in the car who also is managing a few rappers. He said because physical CD sales are down it’s pointless to make CDs and an artist should just make all his/her money off shows and give all music away for free.

I told him that was a terrible idea and I still think so. Though physical “CD sales are down” (in my opinion sales are evening out after a huge spike in sales during our economic surplus in the late 90s when people were going diamond instead of 1-2x platinum, but that’s whole different discussion), an artist can still generate money from music sales.

Say an independent artist has 1,000 loyal fans who would buy a CD at only $5, you just grossed $5,000. If you released that digitally and did everything in house a large portion of that is profit for you to reinvest in yourself. Then use those numbers to negotiate your rate for live shows. I know plenty of rappers in my city with over 10,000 views on youtube and the only shows they do are where they sell tickets to open for somebody and maybe make a few dollars a ticket. So 10,000 views/downloads = $35 a show? You’re right, there’s no need to have music to sell.

@culturevi: First off – Hi Essince. I’m glad we could finally sit down and have this discussion. I have a ton of respect for you as both a person and a musician. I’ve known you a long time and am truly inspired by how you conduct your business.

However, your ideas on this issue have a lot of holes.

Let’s start off with this question – what level of artist are we talking about? You’re already getting into the 1,000 True Fan theory, which we could probably debate the validity of that for hours. You’re assuming an artist can get 1,000 true fans. Do you have any idea how difficult that is (I know you do, I was asking in general)? Where are these thousand people coming from? Building up a fan base of 1,000 can take an artist years, and many will never achieve this.

This leads to a whole other topic. What constitutes a “true fan”? Some believe it’s 1,000 followers on MySpace or 1,000 YouTube view. Clicking a link, pressing a “follow” button – that doesn’t constitute a fan. That’s just window shopping. Besides, between #teamfollowback and “pay $50 for 1,000 YouTube views” – what do those numbers really mean?

A “fan” is someone who is going to support everything you do. Going to attend your shows. Buy your music. Spread the word about you. Gaining even a single fan takes a ton of effort. You can go to any number of sites and download everything from MC Bob’s latest mixtape to “Watch the Throne”. With the overabundance of music that’s available, why is someone going to pay for someone’s music who they’ve never heard?

So, are you saying that it’s okay to give your music away for free to the first 1,000 fans, and then start selling it? If so, why 1,000? Why not 512 or 2,437? Who decides when you stop giving it away for free and start selling it? If you mean that everyone should sell it, then answer me this: when’s the last time you bought some random rapper’s music just because they said they’re dope? And if the goal is to get 1,000 fans and then sell your music, please enlighten me as to where these fans are coming from and how you’re gaining them? Because if you tell me “from giving music away for free”, then you just ended your own debate.

@essince: I’m glad we could have this debate, too. I have always had a lot of respect for you as well and learned a lot about this business from working with you the past decade. I chose 1,000 just as a number because $5 x 1,000 is easy math. lol.

One of my professors once said “once you give something away for free people will expect it to be free every time”, which has some validity. If you give everything away for free then once you sell something, especially online, people will be more tempted to download it illegally. They aren’t used to paying for mixtapes. Even though you spend money on production, features, and a big name DJ to host it, along with paying to have it sponsored on dat piff.

I’ll use real world numbers from my very first CD ever in high school. Some kid put his CD out for $3 senior year. I went home, recorded an intro and an outro and sold mine at school for $2. I sold out every day and in a month I sold over 180 copies out of my backpack during lunch period.

I paid $25 for a pack of 100 slim jewel cases at Office Max and $15 for a spindle of blank CDs. Early on in my career I didn’t know about packaging and just wrote on the CD with a sharpie and recorded myself using free beats from soundclick

$25 for 100 cases = $0.25 each
$15 for 50 CDs = $0.30 each.

In total I spent 55 cents to make each CD. Selling at $2 each minus the $0.55 production cost I made $1.45 profit each CD. Multiplied by 180 CDs that’s $261.

That is barely over 10% of my initial 1,000 fans number but this is as basic as I can make it and these are honest numbers. Obviously $261 isn’t a lot of money but in my last month of high school, I had the whole school talking about me and had some summer pocket money.I learned how to promote myself, I learned about production costs, I learned about selling myself.

I can’t remember ever buying a CD online from someone I never heard of, but if I go to a show and someone’s really good and professional and tells me his CD is $5 I may do it. It’s been a few years since I’ve done it but I’ve done it.

I don’t think people should NEVER give away free music. Most big artists and big companies give away something for free. It’s smart marketing. But to give everything away for free until you feel you’ve generated a name is silly.

Supermarkets give out free samples of their food. Can you imagine if they gave everything away for free then after an item was tried 100,000 times they’d only sell it? Would many people buy it or would they just move on to the next free sample?

@culturevi: Okay, I’ll use some real numbers too. John Regan invested approximately $20,000 in Sorry I’m Late. It took us two years to complete. We sold just over 4,000 copies to date. After Fat Beats and our digital distribution partners took their cut, we averaged about $5 per CD (we retailed the physical CDs at $8 so our profit margin was less than our digital sales).

Let’s do the math:

4,000 copies x $5 net profit = $20,000
$20,000 investment – $20,000 net profit = $0

Those are very round numbers, but it shows we basically sold the album and broke even. That obviously isn’t the makings of a successful business model. Now – if we had given that album away for free, then we’d be negative $20,000 – and that certainly isn’t a successful business model either.
Let’s examine.

Paying for music is a choice. We can get anything free. We buy an artist, we buy a brand. Up until 10 years ago, music was the product. Now, music is marketing for the brand – the brand being you.

Does that mean that your music has no value? No. But there are too many choices out there now for physical music sales being your main source of income. The profit is going to come from the business that your brand generates. It’ll come from shows, features, television placements – these are things that are driven by the success and reputation of your brand.

@Pairadyce said something interesting on twitter earlier. He said he had someone tell him “why would he buy a beat from a known producer when people give em away?”. The answer is simple – it’s the name attached to the beat. That’s part of the allure, part of the marketing.

When we were recording Sorry I’m Late, the formula was quite simple. We built the album together with producer YZ, who – despite many successful achievement – was relatively unknown amongst hip-hop fans and urban media. His production talent, however, far surpassed most “known” producers. I’ll use J. Cardim as an example. And let me preface this by saying I don’t mean any disrepsect to J. Both he and his manager Zack are people who I consider friends and I have the utmost respect for their talent. I think J is a terrific producer. I just happen to feel YZ is better. But I recall, at the outset of the project, I was willing to pay J. Cardim a fee that was much higher than what YZ was getting for a beat that I felt was inferior to what YZ could put together. I explained to him that the reason was simple – if I sent out a song that said “produced by J. Cardim”, people would be more intrigued to hear it, because J was marketed as a producer who has “produced for Ludacris, Styles P, Joe Budden”, etc, whereas YZ didn’t add anything to the record. Fans of J. Cardim would want to hear this record. Blogs who were already posting records from artists that he’s produced would be more inclined to post this record.

After a conversation with @therealskyzoo at Fat Beats in downtown NYC, when he explained his decision to keep “The Salvation” feature-free despite having a rolodex of hip-hop’s elite artists, I decided to change my mode of thinking and focus on the music instead of the names. I am very thankful for that conversation. There were many big named producers and artists who ended up on SIL’s cutting room floor.

However, the fact cannot be denied that because J. Cardim had produced for these big name artists, his value had gone up. His beats were the same, but his brand had increased in value. I don’t know how many of those songs he gave away for free as opposed to how many he sold, but regardless, he was now getting more money per record because of his brand awareness.

The same goes for any other artist. Brand awareness is the key to building value. The cost of your music doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you charge 99 cents or $100. @joebudden charges $20+ for his mixtapes, but his fans will still buy it because they are buying the artist. Making a decision to pay for music is the biggest obstacle. By charging, you are severely cutting down on the amount of people who will hear your music – many who will be listening for the first time. If you promoted your music for free, you might have 1,000 people take a chance and listen. However, if you charge for that same music, the number of people who take the time to listen will decrease drastically, perhaps as much as 99%. Out of the 1,000 people you approach, you might only find 10 who are willing to pay $5 for your CD. Is that $50 worth sacrificing 990 potential listeners? I’ll never forget a guy outside of Fat Beats trying to sell me his handwritten CD-R on the street after learning I worked with a lot of top blogs. The $5 he wanted was so short-sighted, yet he yelled down the street that I was “the reason hip-hop is dead”.

When we released “Sorry I’m Late”, I never pushed anyone to BUY the music. I’m not naive enough to think that people need to pay for something that’s free. What I did was upload all the music to our personal website and offer the links to people. I would simultaneously have it available on iTunes and offer it as an alternative. I would offer the link to “anyone who would like to support”. That made it a choice. People didn’t think of it as “buying” music. They already owned the song, for the most part. Instead, if they liked what they heard and – more importantly – my approach, they would feel more comfortable spending the money as a way to support the brand.

@jaidenthecure recently released his mixtape “Shades of Grey” and had a brilliant idea. He implemented a “tweet to download” option. Sure, the music was free, but you had to tweet the link out in order to activate the download. Therefore, each person downloading would be adding to the marketing. This is the 2011 version of giving your email address to have a download link emailed to you. This is a way of getting paid without exchanging actual currency.

People don’t buy music, they buy artists – they buy the brand. Music is no longer the product. This is what we have to remember. Case in point – I started following @nightsons because of a very intelligent tweet that someone I follow RT’d. Because of that, I began following him. For the past month, he’s provided some very impressive insight. He promotes his music on his OWN timeline – never once @‘ing me. Those promotional tweets are mixed in between his insightful thoughts. I have no idea what type of music he does, though he has a guitar in his profile pic, but I guarantee when I see him tweet a link to some new album or song he releases, I’ll buy it from iTunes – even though I’ve never heard. Why? Because I’m buying his brand. How did he build this rapport? By not pushing me to buy his music. By investing time into his thoughts.

So as an artist, do you have to give away your music? No. But you’re going to have to make a strong investment somewhere. Nobody wants to intern anymore. College athletes want to be paid. Nobody wants to become an expert at anything. They want to own companies without working in a mailroom. That mentality is what leads aspiring artists, who have no following and haven’t paid any dues, to want to get paid for their work when their work is usually nothing more than a hobby. Gain fans first. To do that, you’re going to have to put yourself out there and invest. Invest money. Invest time. Invest yourself.

We sold Sorry I’m Late on iTunes. We didn’t put out any completely free music. No mixtapes, no leaks. We released singles off the album, all of which were available on iTunes. Then we put out the album. Thousands of people bought it, tens of thousands downloaded it. But we also made an investment. This wasn’t a tape recorded off free beats with features from our friends. We made a serious investment. Not just financially, but I invested time and effort – releasing over two dozen free interviews with successful artists. I provided over 40,000 tweets, many providing free advice, guidance and insight into the industry. We filled the album with established artists and producers, had high quality mixing and had the album mastered by one of urban music’s all-time greats Tony Dawsey. That was our investment. To record an album at your house on a bunch of two-tracked beats and then charging $10 would actually be an insult to the artists who really make an investment.

Also, I think that Apple’s new iCloud service is going to help artists because by paying for the music (either buying from iTunes or paying for iTunes Match), fans will have a benefit to purchasing music, one way or the other.

@Essince Right on I feel you 100%. However, the initial point I had was my disagreement with the comment that my friend made about “giving ALL music away for free” and only making money off of live shows, not that an artist should never give free music.

At this point, Skyzoo is an established artist because he built a name for himself, his brand, on 106&Park. That was his free promotion. This was in a time before the mixtape game exploded the way it did.

I have downloaded a few mixtapes with the “pay with a tweet” feature. I think it’s great. I also like the option on where you can allow people to make donations to download something. If someone wants to donate $0.00 or $5 or whatever; which I believe is the same as your simultaneously offering SIL on iTunes.

It is up to the listener whether or not he wants to pay. It always has been, though. People act like this is a new thing. Labels freaked out when radio was invented because people didn’t have to buy a phonograph to listen. The industry freaked out with cassette recorders, and mini discs, and CD burners, too. People will always find ways to get free music. But with the over-saturation of free music, by not even attempting to profit off of your music you are devaluing your self and your work.

Many artists who are still wet behind the ears do have an undeserved arrogance about them, though. I tried to book a local act in Cleveland for a show I was putting together and his manager told me $750 for him to show up. Having never done anything besides have a song on Cleveland radio and a small buzz. He never paid dues. He didn’t have that many fans. I said no.

BECAUSE people think they need to give music away and make all money from shows they charge a ridiculous amount of money to make up for it. No offense to Mac Miller. I have his mixtapes. I like him a lot. I’ve posted his work on a few blogs I run, but his manager told the same friend whose comment sparked this debate that his rate to perform was $12,000 + travel/accommodation (I read the email). I assume he’s doing this because his music is all free.

When I pay for something, with time or money, I expect it to be good quality. I have a 4-year BA in Audio Engineering and have professional equipment in my home-studio and over 10 years engineering experience and I personally don’t care who produces something as long as it sounds good (except maybe Dr. Dre or DJ Quik). So if I were to spend my time, money, and effort and just hope enough people like the free stuff they’ll maybe pay to see me live is an insult to my time and effort, too. There are so many mixtape sites and so many rappers that I could spend days going thru free stuff, listen to the first 9 seconds, and move on. If I pay for something, I’m going to give it a little longer. lol.

I love free music. My next EP will be free, but if someone wants to give you money for your work and dedication why tell the person no and give it all away? This is, after all, the music business.

I am not against free music. I think it’s imperative to give people a sample of what you can do to establish yourself. But, again, to make ALL music free and only live off of tour money is silly to me.



You can check out Brian’s website at

Brian “Essince” Collins is everything that’s right with independent musicians. He’s been a fan and supporter of my music for about a decade (wow Brian, I can’t believe it’s been that long), buying albums, spreading the word and contributing to our brand. He’s been involved with our work, always offering help, be it sending emails, doing research or transcribing interviews. He’s someone I truly consider a friend and would give anything to help without hesitation.

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  • Incredible debate lots of good points on both sides…as an artist..if we don’t make your blogs apart of what we do…there is no hope lol Thank You!

  • this is very interesting i still cannot see how then an artist would , especially if you are independent , justify spending 20 000 bucks on a project you are going to give away for free….by this i mean the quality of music becomes secondary to someone if they actually do not see it as a primary source of revenue , on numerous occasions ive seen culture vi talk about the quality of joe buddens music and this i think largely is as a result of what he does with the music after he is done recording it , he releases it for free to what is usually just a response on the internet , which largely is not very lucrative….. the quality of what you do becomes just another mixtape or just another free ep/album when you market music in this way , i honestly dont believe that this , in the age of so many avenues of communicaton can be a vital part of a marketing strategy …..

    • i agree – there’s a balance between quality and quantity. if you’re investing in making one great project? sure, i get why you’d wnat to sell it. but – just because you’re spending it doesnt mean its being spent wisely. ive seen plenty of people blow money on nonsense. spending 20k on features doesnt mean you got a great album.

      when you’re releasing that album, nobody knows how much you spent on it or how good the quality will be. that’s why we put out the album free AND had it available for sale. we hoped that the people who were impressed with the project would support it – which for the most part, they did.

      i disagree with joe buddens tho. his problem is he has a horrible team around him. they dont understand quality music. and he doesnt give his music away. his mixtapes sell for nearly $20.

  • I really feel like people that make the “All music should be free” argument is just someone thats want and excuses to steal and not be held accountable as a fan I buy and download music. If I’m new to a certain artist I like to hear a couple mixtapes before I invest in purchasing music, if that Album turns out to be dope that artist has a lifetime fan in me so long as they keep realising quality music I’ve done this with newer genration artist such as Lupe Fiasco.

    As a artist I’m a fan of selling music but now I understand that you have to give away music to build your brand had I learned that lesson 3 years ago my group would probably be on a major right now it took me going solo to understand the change in music in the last 6 years. I recorded and released my first mixtape back in 2005 it was mostly freestyles off of industry beats it had a basic mix and I was labeling them with sharpies. I payed my dude out of the chi $25 to photoshop me a cover I bought a jewel cases and cd’s I spent about $500 on recording and maybe about $150 on other materials. I used to hit the strip and pump every club night most of the cats wouldn’t cop because I was a nobody so I would either banged my shit out the truck or I spit for them on the spot I sold 250 copies at $5 each that’s how I got my start people started talking after that I have fans till this days off of that tape.

    I think a comfortable medium between both is neccessary to break in todays business you just have to decide what you want out of this business and build a plan towards getting their.