I Sell Music, Not Weed Grinders… Dammnit.

This post is by Debra of Devi.

image from Ever since Devi released our Get Free album as a free download a couple weeks ago, well-meaning friends have been asking me why on earth we would give away the entire album.

The short answer is: We don’t have a choice.

The long answer is: We have a choice.

We can stand by while people download Get Free from file-sharing networks–people we may never know exist. Or we can encourage them to download it from us, in exchange for their email addresses, which means we get to interact with them, invite them to gigs, become friends and possibly sell them something down the line.

It took me awhile to get here, as Eric Hebert of Evolvor Media, can attest. He advised us to do this months ago. I said, Hell no. He told me about using a free release of an album to build up a decent fanlist. When we talked money, he mentioned a band that made weed grinders made with the band’s logo on them.

They sold 5,000 weed grinders for $10 each.

Selling Tchotchkes

My response was to snap, “I’m not in the business of selling tchotchkes! I’m a musician.” But in my head I was doing the math.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t bring myself to give away my album. It had cost me time, money, blood, sweat and tears to make. Eric was going to have to pry Get Free out of my cold, dead hands if he wanted to release it for free.

See, once upon a time, I was a little punk rocker in a punk rock band. When we made a new album, we would sell a few hundred CDs pretty quickly, and use the money to print some T-shirts, get a van and go on tour, where we’d sell more CDs, plus shirts. We even toured Europe a few times, and came home with enough money to make another album. Ah, those were the days.

I naively thought I could use the same DIY model with Get Free–sell CDs to raise money to tour. But people don’t buy CDs any more; they want downloads.

OK, I figured,we’ll sell downloads. We scored a coveted digital distribution deal from Redeye USA. Had to go through an A&R process and everything. But people don’t buy downloads either, at least people under 30 don’t. My 20-year-old nephew, a music fanatic, has never bought a download. He looked at me like I was crazy when I asked him if he buys downloads.

“Why would I do that?” he said.

Meeting Dave

Even though reality was staring me in the face, I wouldn’t look it in the eye. And then I encountered Dave, one of the most obnoxious guys I’ve ever met.

I was having a drink at LITM here in Jersey City when a chunky guy in a baseball cap slid onto the next bar stool and insisted on telling me all about himself. Dave was the marketing guy for a smallish video game company. And all the company’s video game designers would come drooping by his desk with the same complaint: My game’s been pirated! My game’s been pirated!

“What a bunch of whiners,” Dave sneered. “They should be so lucky that someone likes their games enough to pirate them.”

“Why,” I replied acidly, “should they be glad to have their work stolen?”

“Hey man,” Dave snorted, “that’s capitalism!”

“Dude,” I said, becoming rapidly incensed, “what is the fucking foundation of capitalism?”

“Err,” Dave said.

“Property rights!” I sputtered. “Property! Rights!”

I told him I was a musician pissed that my music was being pirated because now I couldn’t raise any money to tour. “Helloooo,” I said, “Why do you think it’s called pirating? Because it’s the same thing pirates did in the 1800s…steal!”

This launched Dave into a soliloquy that ranged from the pointlessness of thinking one could ever make a living as an artist to waving his Droid in my face while declaring, “I don’t want to hear some stupid album made in a fancy studio. Make an album on THIS, and I’ll listen to it! Lo fi, all the way!”

What paycheck?

As he ranted, he made a valid point. No one owed me or the game designers a living just because we couldn’t keep the horse in the barn.

The only way to talk with Dave was to interrupt him, forcibly. So I poked him in the shoulder and yelled, “Hey! How would you feel if you went into work one morning and your boss said, ‘Dave, go home and relax, our new device sucked up your brainwaves last night while you were sleeping and extracted all the data we need to program our new Dave-Robot. He’ll do your job this week. Paycheck? What paycheck?”

Ha ha, Dave laughed, that’ll never happen. I tried to explain to him that that’s kind of how I felt; like I had encoded the music in my brain onto these silver discs I had hoped to sell. Only somebody had broken the code and now the contents of my brain were out there circulating for anyone to have.

“Oh c’mon!” Dave scoffed, “It’s not like you’ve ever starved!”

I thought about the week I’d lived on polenta and pinto beans, for breakfast, lunch and dinner, because I’d had just enough money to buy a bag of polenta, a bag of beans, some green peppers and a Metrocard.

“Fuck you, man,” I muttered, as I grabbed my purse and stalked toward the door. “Fuck YOU!”

“Hey, this was nice!” Dave said, as he twirled around in his seat, looking genuinely perplexed. “We should do it again sometime.”

Getting Free

Out on the street I burst into tears, moaning “I don’t wanna sell weed grinders! I don’t wanna!” By the time I’d walked the three blocks home, I was a tear-streaked, heartbroken mess. I’d poured my guts into making this album, and now what?

Iimage from walked into my apartment and came face to face with the huge Maha Kala drawing hanging in my living room. Maha Kala is a fierce Tibetan deity who stands in your way shaking his six arms and the various props and weapons they carry.

Although he’s scary, his purpose is actually benevolent. When you’re headed down the wrong path, he jumps onto it and does his thing until you get the hint: this path is not yours. I smiled; Dave was Maha Kala waving a Droid.

I can bitch and moan about file sharing, but that’s a pointless path to take. Or I can accept file sharing and all its implications, and get excited about it, even. Yes, I have a problem, I’ve created two products (CDs and downloads) that a large number of music fans don’t buy anymore. But that’s all it is, a problem, not the end of the world.

In the two weeks since releasing Get Free as a free download, we’ve signed up about four hundred people, who have in turn received our auto response email thanking them and encouraging them to come say hello on Facebook et al. We’ve corresponded with some enthusiastic new fans and can’t wait to get out there and play for them in person.

We’ll figure out how. In the meantime, feel free to download our album, only coincidently entitled "Get Free"!

Share on:


  1. Arguing against digital piracy is like arguing against gravity, someone said. Better to focus your energy elsewhere—as you have discovered.
    And the issue here is not property rights, but copy rights. But I quibble perhaps.

  2. An interesting take on a too common problem for artists… although I appreciate the humour of selling grinders, pretty much everyone in a consumables market ends up pairing their offering with *something* to make it more attractive. The purists may find a way to make the tchotchke make sense, but ultimately its an add on to the real offering – the music.

  3. Hey thanks for this awesome post! very inspiring, although i still buy CD’s (of selective bands i.e) but thanks for the free download and all the best !
    Much love from a new fan from India

  4. simple rules of marketing.. market ur product=make more fans
    every game fanatics have an og cd of halflife..

  5. Hey, I’d like to thank Hypebot for publishing my post…now the whole world knows how I was dragged kicking and screaming into reality LOL!
    Second, I’ve just got to mention that the stunning drawing of Maha Kala in the post is by Meryl Hurwich, owner of Inkwitch Tattoo in Stroudsburg, PA.
    Finally, thanks to everyone who is commenting, and downloading our album. I hope you love it!

  6. the old model is pretty much dead – which is why there is so much more music around now and more accessible to more people than there ever was
    embrace the culture – dont fight it
    i bought a t-shirt and downloaded the album today – purely on this article and about 10 mins more looking at diva and bandcamp 🙂

  7. i stick to buy it or fuck free downloads.and if some kid comes up to a gig and i get to know that he got to listen to my music for free i will make sure he sucks an old man’s cock.
    common,we go for every new movie after we buy the tickets,not after watching it or not paying at all.we waste money on useless shit like booze and smoke for pleasure,online porn,driving for fun,bla bla.we can save enough amount to buy the music it appreciates.we pay for everything that gives us pleasure and happiness or whatever but not for the music.i mean a husband who is infedel will anyway have to PAY for his wrongdoings,aint it?
    so why not for music?
    whether my cd sells or not,i am not up for free downloads.the 21 year old in this article can take his anal fuck himself._|_ _|_ we even pay for our daily newspaper motherfuckers!!!

  8. Your first reaction was the right one. Your second reaction, as inspired by your interpretation of a poster, was not. I doubt there is any deity, Tibetan or otherwise, whose message is to suck the bad things up, roll over, quit fighting and give up. Fight this – that’s what punk is about. RESIST. Punk was all about fighting the Man, it still should be, only the Man is now the multitudes of kids who decide that they want to impose THEIR way onto YOUR art. You don’t HAVE to put your records onto the web. You don’t have to make your music into the equivalent of a paper flyer advertising your hashgrinder business. It’s what everyone’s doing, sure, it’s what the kids expect, sure. Does that mean you have to give it to them? No. This whole thing is an imposition by the masses onto your art. If what you’re doing is in any way art, the worst thing you can possibly do is allow it to be shaped by your intended audience. Artists LEAD, artists do not FOLLOW society, or even aspire to be INCLUDED in society. It’s not democratic, and never was. That’s why Music 2.0 sucks, why auctioning off the opportunity to contribute in any way to the art being created does nothing but reduce your output to a dross, diluted and dull expression of the society that you set yourself up to SERVE. And believe me, that service an artist provides for its community does not include anything comfortable or cosy either for artist or community. This is the road musicians are being led down, bit by bit – ‘accept the reality of the situation, give them what they want’. The problem is that if artists ive society what it wants, everything comes down to a dull, fits-all level of inspiration and relevance. NOT what creatives should be using as their end-goal. That applies to making albums free because everyone’s doing it. The whole free, or below-cost price economic sweetener model was based upon supermarket loss-leader economics was based upon supermarkets getting you through their doors to buy a cheap product, knowing that you’d stay to buy the rest of your groceries once you’d gotten there. Completely innapplicable to online music sales.
    Anyway, apart from anything else, it doesn’t work. All that publicity generates is a desire to own your music for nothing, and creates that expectation. Anyone who believes that filesharing and free music increase sales might want to figure out why Sweden and South Korea’s music markets INCREASED by 10-11% the year after they introduced anti-filesharing laws. The majority of fileshareers never really believed they were helping the artist or sticking it to the man – they were just helping themselves to something they wanted for as long as they felt they could do so without consequence.
    Dig deep into that old punk ethic of yours. Dare to be unpopular but free. Dare to say ‘Fuck you, I’m not giving my music away to be stuck on some iPod shuffle and listened to at random, completely passively and without passion. I’m not even going to put it onto the internet at all, because frankly, even busking on the street brings in more money. Even busking has more liklihood of genuinely blowing someone’s mind wit your music and having them rave to their friends about this amazing act they saw. And THAT is worth a thousand FaceBook ‘likes’.
    That’s why BlancoMusic just shut down our FaceBook site, took all our music off Spotify, is in the process of killing our MySpace pages and won’t be putting any more music on iTunes. Yeah, people think we’re out of our minds, but frankly, we don’t want to sell our music to those people anyway. Make music special again, something to search out and cherish – not this friggin’ e-spam that it’s been forced into being. It might mean another few months of polenta and pinto beans, but it will feed your dignity and self-worth a thousand times more than that poster of yours will.

  9. Hear, hear, BlancoMusic. One of the internet’s least attractive attributes is its potential for sanctioning mob behavior. Plunder is an atavistic reflex; there’s nothing enlightened about it. “Everyone is doing it” is besides the point. And there’s no historical reason to assume that where we are now is the endpoint of the discussion. I return as always to the Wild West analogy. It began with brawls in bars and gunfights in the streets. That’s not where it ends up. But those doing the brawling and shooting aren’t usually the ones who see the way out.

  10. Why are you taking your music off iTunes? That is anathema to what you claim to want: people actually paying for the music. I mean, you get that it is getting harder and harder to find CDs out there in the real world, right? PAYING customers need to be able to find the records on iTunes & Amazon.
    I agree with you on Facebook and spamming music to the wrong audience, but completely disagree that people can’t even HEAR the music before purchase. Sound booths have been around for years, and that is what the internet is for me. For the record, MY computer is hooked up to an excellent stereo.

  11. Srijit and BlancoMusic, I respect your fire and BlancoMusic I think your approach is strong and interesting, but I’ll never consider the people who listen to my music “The Man,” even if they get it for free.
    Once a punk, always a punk–I don’t give a flying F about being popular or I’d be out there shooting fireworks out of my ass. I do give an F about being able to put my band on the road. We are simply exploring a new way to make that happen. I feel good now about giving away the album, really good, or I wouldn’t be doing it.
    Even in my punk touring days, if a kid came up to us and really couldn’t afford the CD, we gave it to him. The people who support the scene and the bands will always find a way to do so. I’ve seen my nephew spend $60 on a ticket to see some obscure Norwegian death metal band he discovered on some file sharing network. And buy the T-shirt.
    The horse is out of the barn, I’m interested in the ride.

  12. This is from my perspective – a musician’s forte is to get out there and play live and build up a strong audience that follows you. If people don’t know of you, they can’t come to see you except by chance. By giving free downloads, people will listen to them because people like “free”. Some of those people will like what they hear and will pay to come and see you live. That’s where the money is these days – just like it was in all the centuries before recording. When recording became available, record companies ripped off the artist; nowadays, if the artist IS “ripped off” at least it’s by a person who is a potential fan and audience member. I think giving recordings away is the correct idea if you wish to build an audience/fan base and a potential music career. I am unlikely to have heard of you if it wasn’t for the free download that attracted my attention to “give you a listen”. Now, if I see that you are playing here in the UK, I will come to see you – paying for the privilege. Your time and money spent making the album will pay off in that you will already have a basic audience when you travel further afield. I have done this a few times already with British bands who I first heard through free give-aways. I’ve bought their subsequent cd’s and even pre-order a special ‘pre-order only’ edition well in advance which gives the band the cashflow to complete the album. If you think of giving something away now as a longterm strategy, you’re possibly on the right track to an extended career in music. In the past if I heard the name of an artist I wanted to investigate, I’d download a few tracks from Limewire and if I liked them, I’d buy an album. Recently, I was hearing the name of an artist and wanted to see if what I was hearing about him carried through. Now, with Spotify free, I found both his albums were on there, listened to them a few times, decided I had to own them, bought both and then went to see him live a couple of weeks ago. I couldn’t have afforded to take the chance of just buying an album blind when there are others I already know I want. If the big acts don’t like their music being downloaded free, tough; they’re financially secure anyway and if they want more money they should get off their arses and go out and play live for the people who put them there in the first place. The internet has opened music up to the everyday person, put musician’s back in charge of themselves without record company interference and gives real musicians (ie. those that can play) an incentive to go out and play to earn a living. The internet is as big a radicalisation to music as Punk was here in the UK to the overblown, self-absorbed megaliths that the superbands had become by the mid 70’s. If I were still able to play (a medical condition prevents me) I’d relish the potential of getting my ideas heard by giving them away and heard by a potentially mass audience. Thanks for the chance to have this heard and thank you very much for the free album – it’s on my ipod. I look forward to seeing you live in London (the Borderline perhaps?). KEEP MUSIC LIVE!

  13. very cool post and good points, but will disagree with one point. yes you do have to put your albums on the web, because if you don’t do it, someone else will. many hundreds of times.

  14. I record as a one-man group called BurningWycke through which I write the material and play all of the instruments. I also have invested in some recording equipment and have built my own studio, Renaissance AudioArts, which is flexible and nimble enough to be at its third address in 12 years. Is the sound quality as good as the most deluxe studio in New York or Nashville? No, it is not. Is it of high enough quality to highlight the music produced in it? Absolutely- and as technology advances, the gap between the home studio and the “Big Boys” narrows further. My studio fits in a 12’ X 12’ space in my basement. A very small “footprint” indeed!
    Additionally, by sharing audio files over the internet I can collaborate globally. I have worked with artists from all over the world with no one needing to leave home. Again, a very “green” way of working.
    By using TuneCore to distribute my album under my own Namaste Media label through iTunes I get get my music out there and with a 70% royalty rate it only takes 3 albums to make back the annual twenty dollar fee TuneCore charges to keep my album on their server.
    My overhead is very low, so I can afford not to give my work away. If I gave my first album away and six months later I release another one for ten or fifteen dollars- people are going to be confused. The price iTunes charges for my album ($9.90) is set by them, not me. Now it has a set ‘value’. People will have to decide for themselves if it’s worth it.
    My music is way off the beaten path and I harbor no illusions about being a ‘rock star’. The fact that I do sell enough albums to make it worthwhile tells me I don’t have to panic and start giving things away.
    The reason I haven’t gotten into merchandising is because I haven’t gotten floods of e-mail asking ‘hey dude, when are you going to start selling t-shirts and stuff?’ I’m not spending money I’ve yet to earn for products folks aren’t asking for. They do ask for new music, however, and I’m happy to provide it- through proper (in a business sense) channels at a fair and equitable price.

  15. @Debra Devi
    I don’t know any musician who wouldn’t give a kid an album for free if it was obvious the kid really wanted it, and really couldn’t afford it. I will say for sure that I would not work with a musician who wouldn’t do so.
    But two observations come up at this point.
    1) We’ve been squeezed and squeezed by public expectation to the point where, if a fan makes the eccentric decision to actually buy an album, it’ll have to be priced at less than ten dollars. That’s the price that has been decided by music ‘fans’ for a product that took months to record, took a lifetime of practise and will be owned by the buyer forever. In some venues, that’s the price of a SINGLE beer. A single-download costs less than a twinkie bar. But instead of giving someone the responsibility to decide that, instead of a twinkie bar, they’ll buy that tune they really like – and opening them up to the whole wonderful world of having a music collection in which they’ve made and emotional and financial investment – you’re just reinforcing the idea in their minds that twinkie bars cost money, but music does not.
    2) The other part about giving a CD to a kid who couldn’t afford it is something you mentioned yourself – they have to really want it. Not want it because it’s free, but because they really care about the music on the cd. Putting your music onto social networks and distributing it for free isn’t getting your music to the kid that really wants your music but can’t afford it, it’s just adding your music to the pile of free spam music that they get in their inboxes day in, day out. It’s adding your music to a big pile of music that can be chosen and played, at will, for free, at any moment of the day or night by anyone with an internet connection. The first reaction to receiving an album for free is ‘what’s this dross? Am I even interested enough in this to open the file?’ If that’s how you want your music to be perceived, go right ahead. You have your views, I have mine. I’m sure the scattergun effect is enough to have small numbers of people, scattered across the globe, interested enough to come to a gig. Whether it creates enough of them in any one town or city to make it worth your while to travel there, do a show, and pay for your time, I really don’t know. If it works, it will probably be as much due to the profile you already had previous to the giveaway. To make it worthwhile you’ll have to charge admission. Will the devotion you hope to generate for your band with the free album really be enough to push a listener into paying for a show? Might they not be more tempted to go to the free gig across the street being put on by a local band who don’t have to cover travel costs and have also given their album away free?
    I’m not saying there aren’t success stories, you linked to OK Go above, they are one of them (although their record label considers them anything but). They made themselves a lot of publicity through their videos and created a level of profile that brought them what they wanted. So they made more money from sponsored videos than record sales – I’m sure they aren’t disturbed by that. A a self-described punk, you might have more qualms. Also remember – OK Go, Amanda Palmer, Radiohead et al. These are the
    exceptions who made it work, which is why they get so much press coverage. None of them are examples of a sustainable business model for musicians who wish to make a living from their work. Never mind, perhaps it will work for you. At some point though, we will all have to accept that the mere servicing of the musician’s desire for attention and recognition is not payment enough for the work and effort that go into getting a record made (even if it’s enough for the musician, it’s not enough for the engineers, mixers, studio techs etc). Everything that is available on the open market has a price, whether it be chocolate or cabriolets. Without exception, the buyer would prefer that price to be lower, or null. As far as I can see, it is only musicians who are willing to submit to that buyer’s wish and give their work away for nothing.

  16. And if you want to take music advice from someone who can say:
    ‘Jimi Hendrix’s lighter fluid is as memorable as any of his riffs’
    (Quote taken from Damien Kulash’s article cited above)
    then you’d better drop any pretense at punk credibility. That is an attitude that I wouldn’t even expect from the most superannuated fatcat at the top of the most bloated major label in the world. Even the ACCOUNTANTS at major labels don’t think like that.

  17. The sad thing is…. our culture doesn’t value music anymore. A man named Gurdjieff once said “People don’t value what they don’t pay for” and “payment is a principle around which the universe revolves”……
    Things of value need to be paid for in one way or another…..

  18. I buy a lot of CD’s and download a lot from iTUNES.I also download from blogs mainly when I can’t obtain the music anymore if its out of print, stock, or only available on vinyl.I suppose blogs are like pariahs to the likes of yourself,but if this particular blog hadn’t mentioned your name I would have been blissfully unaware of you.As far as I’m concerned a lot of up and coming artists don’t distribute their ‘product’ or promote themselves well enough.For example I contacted a Danish band after hearing their music on Myspace to try and buy their album.It was only available from a shop in Copenhagen (I don’t like giving my money to people I don’t know) and the shipping costs were prohibitive anyway, so guess what….no sale.

  19. Steve makes a good point…I just had a fan contact me on YouTube saying “I don’t want your album for free, I want to buy it.” I was able to tell him where to do that. We use Bandcamp, which rocks.
    I love blogs! We send blogs our free download link all the time. Like you said, without this blog, we wouldn’t be talking.
    I think things have simply shifted…I’m not making as much money from album/download sales…but we’re reaching so many more people and having a great time connecting with people all over the world. I have a feeling we will come out ahead in the long run with making money touring and selling merch.
    My friend Michael W. Dean says: “My goal is to make a plumber’s wage at art.” I think that’s do-able within this new paradigm, and that would be more than fine with me.

Comments are closed.