On Making Money as a New Band

The record industry has changed – gone are the days where bands make money off of their music solely.   It is very easy for fans to copy music and share it with their friends.  While illegal, it is so rampant and sadly, the ‘norm’, so bands have to be more clever with how they share their music and how they make money.

Trent Reznor, from Nine Inch Nails, spoke up in the NIN forum about good ways new or un-established bands can generate income, because, basically, whether bands like it or not, “music is free”.

For beginners, Reznor suggests that it’s smart to start by building a fan base, and the best way to do that is to give away your music, and become accessible to your fans.

As a consumer, I love getting free music, and it’s easy to keep track of bands if I get reminders (or Facebook status updates) from them.  When I love a band, I’m extremely loyal and want to buy their cool swag, and I like to know when they are in town.   Reznor advises that the band should use TopSpin or a similar company that builds websites for bands–or a band should create their own user-friendly, easy to navigate website–and then give away their album for free-in exchange for the fan’s email address.  When a fan is able to get your album for free, they can spread the word to more friends who can download the album – and easily spread the fan base.   He also advises that even if you are giving your album away on your website, don’t give up selling on iTunes, plenty of fans still want to buy music the “old-fashioned” way.  Unlike the Beastie Boys who can sell many expensive products and boxed sets, a new artist will not be able to sell merchandise at those price points.  However, once you have fan’s email address, you are golden.  You can keep fans up-to-date on your new albums, shows and tour dates .   Reznor suggests that you should regularly update your website with new videos, pictures, posts, whatever creative, interesting thing you can come up with, so that you will remain fresh and relevant in your fans’ minds.  I would also add that a band should build relationships with fans (with caution), for instance, it’s impressive to get Twitter retweets or even “likes” on Facebook or Instagram back from a band when you mention them in a post.

I was surprised that Reznor stated that he did not like the user “pay-what-you-want model” as tested by Radiohead when they released In Rainbows.  He explains that by letting a fan choose what to pay, it “devalues” your  music, and you as an artist.  “Trust me on this one – you will be disappointed, disheartened and find yourself resenting a faction of your audience. This is your art! This is your life! It has a value and you the artist are not putting that power in the hands of the audience – doing so creates a dangerous perception issue.”  He explains that when your fee is free, it takes this negativity away.  Radiohead could get away with it because they are Radiohead.  They are huge and besides, even if fans didn’t pay much for the album, Radiohead could make a lot of money off of the superfans who wanted and could afford the big special box sets they offered at the same time.

Once you have a fan base, your fans want to support you, so they will buy products and merchandise (even CDs at shows!) from you, especially if it’s packaged in a unique way.  Along with the regular posters and t-shirts you sell at the merch table, good ideas are limited edition anything, such as boxed sets.  Fans want to feel special.  Even if they don’t want to buy music that they can get for free, if they have a great experience at a show, they still want something tangible to remember the night by, and digital download cards do not fulfill that.  Recently, an indie-pop band, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin released a new album and as a pre-order special, they sold limited edition vinyl albums, that were dipped half white and half red:

SSLYBY Fly By Wire

It’s definitely not something that a fan needs, and it would be half as expensive to buy the album digitally on iTunes, but it looks cool and it’s fun to offer something tangible for fans who not only want to hear the music but want to share in the experience of being a fan.  I tend to be a sucker for the novel, and I wanted to support the band, so I bought the vinyl album, which came with a free digital download and a band poster.  A couple of days before the album was shipped, I received an email with the free digital download code.  With the album, their record label, Polyvinyl, also included some candy, a free promotional CD, and a free vinyl EP from two other bands.  So now as an indie band fan, I can try out two other bands for free, and I will not only want to order more merch from the band I already love, but also check out more bands from their label.

What do you think?  Should bands give away their albums for free, or try a “pay-as-you-want” system?  How are you building up your fan base?