Why Telling Artists To Stop Selling Music & Just Make Money Through Live Shows Is Ridiculous

Give-it-all-awayGiving away all your music for free and trying to make your living via other revenue streams can be a valid approach. Except that I don't know of any musicians actually doing that. The ones who do make all their music available for free are also selling it and some are doing just fine without touring at all. As a one size fits all solution, it still seems to be the fantasy mostly of people in the tech world, which is weird because one size fits all doesn't work in their world either.

There are a lot of reasons it's ridiculous for people in the tech world, in particular, to say that you should just give away all your music for free and make a living through live shows. The reality is that tech business models run the gamut from free with ad support or premium options to straight up selling the core product.

The New Music Industry Is Showing Us How To Sell Music

Though some try to make it sound like it's a new music industry thing to stop selling music, it's actually the new music industry that's showing us how to sell music in today's world.

For example, Alex Day gives all his music away for free on YouTube and makes a living selling the same songs through iTunes. He does not tour at all but he's doing just fine.

Topspin and PledgeMusic have both shown that hardcore fans still want physical product and are willing to pay for it when presented in the right way. They are business leaders in the new music industry.

Pretty Lights, who has long given his music away for free, has also made it available for sale. Because the freebies have been available from his website, he's also asked for donations to cover the expenses of free pricing. And recently he's started offering bundles of music and merch.

Why exactly should they stop doing what's working?

Going On Tour Is Not Always A Great Way To Make Money

If you actually talk to people who tour, you know they don't always do that well and that sometimes it's the CD and merch sales that keep them going. I just saw a Facebook post by a group who was on the road, played an open mic for free and sold out the rest of the CDs they had at the open mic.

Any working musician knows that you've got to do free things to make it but sometimes those free things are the shows and selling the music in a physical format is what helps keep them going.

And any musician that tours will tell you that just because you're a competent performer and have fans doesn't mean that you can get the number of bookings you need at places that pay well enough to earn a living.

One Size Never Fits All

I admit, I haven't constructed the strongest argument here.

I don't have any fancy charts or visions of the future.

But I know a bullshit claim when I see one and they usually include the words "everyone" and "should" with the underlying assumption that one size fits all.

[Thumbnail image: cover of James Powell's Give It All Away.]

Hypebot Senior Contributor Clyde Smith (@fluxresearch/@crowdfundingm) also blogs at Flux Research and Crowdfunding For Musicians. To suggest topics for Hypebot, contact: clyde(at)fluxresearch(dot)com.

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  1. I agree. Relying exclusively on touring to make a living is absurd. A diversified revenue stream is a good one. For those that truly “crush it” through touring, they have built a substantial fanbase that wants more and will pay a premium for it.

  2. What is this piece responding to? Did a tech company actually say “everyone should” give their works away for free and tour? This column is so specific about what it’s arguing against I’m curious who has actually made that argument.

  3. this speaks in part to what we hear from all kinds of musicians. radio, press, and social media help drive people to shows, but at the show is where musicians sell a significant portion of their merch.

  4. Lots of people have said that over the last 5 to 10 years, particularly in the tech world.
    Michael Arrington, most obnoxiously, and Bora Celik, my misguided friend most recently.

  5. It’s not a bullshit claim as you state. It’s a valid claim. Show me an artist making enough money to live off of selling music and you have a magical unicorn. This might be the worst thing I’ve ever read but it was free so no harm no foul.

  6. this post apply more for bands with real instrument (rock, pop etc …) but but when it comes to electronic scenes … younger crowds … younger scenes …

  7. “Show me an artist making enough money to live off of selling music and you have a magical unicorn.”
    I didn’t say anyone is. I’m obviously talking about multiple revenue streams.
    Try reading before critiquing.

  8. Hear, hear.
    Glad to finally see a writer on here with enough balls to stand up and call bullshit on this topic. These days artists asking for money for their art is against the grain (crowd funding aside).
    Read Hypebot much? I can`t throw a cookie without hitting some article about Pretty Lights making all his music free, bundling with BitTorrent, and making millions with his live light show. Fucking amazing! But few are chosen.
    Can I set all my music free and instantly become a national touring act? I got kids on my facebook page asking me for the free download link. I make enough from my music sales to live…..in Mexico or Thailand, maybe.
    Can I support my wife and kid? Forget about it.
    Actors and athletes get paid millions for their art.
    Any of you freemium beta bitches got a problem come at me bro!
    Clyde for president, I`m with you man.

  9. Everyone loves to point fingers and speak of the greener grass elsewhere. When actually, it’s all around them and at all times. There are no magic bullets. Your collective and/or individual success is a combination of many variables.
    What demographics are you marketing to and how/how often/how quirky, relevant and engaging are your interactions? Are you solely attacking the virtual spaces? Do you hate that method and only pavement pound and hand shake? Are you actually putting in the man hours and balancing increasing your music industry book smarts, while getting your self in any odd or amazing musical situation possible? Daily! When you get out of work.. you need to go right back to work and not just shredding on a guitar or pushing lit up buttons.
    Span the gamut and not just what you perceive as a lot of work and knowledge. Meet other people constantly who are also grinding and it’ll help you to refocus and redefine your boundaries for the music landscape.
    I grow tired of always reading and talking about how crappy everything is now, or how different that is now, “things just aren’t the same. These guys get all this, because thy do that” or “ever since that, no artist can to make it now.. it’s just all effed up and the ones who do this, of course get that much attention”, etc.. etc.. etc.. We can honestly go on foe another 24 bars worth of reasons why and excuses for never “making” it. Honestly that string of words holds no relevance these daze. Our communal conscious has shifted and our outlooks are different. Plus, there really aren’t as many pimp as there used to be. We have all be come our own pimps and that goes for anyone with a brand to push. Unless you just happened to be creating that %5 something that is just instant gold (that number came completely out of my rear). Be careful what you wish for.. you might just get it and for sure did we all.
    “I admit, I haven’t constructed the strongest argument here.”
    Anyway.. I liked this read Clyde, but I can see how it teetered between a well thought out rant/vent/tangent. An obvious look into a very foggy un-obvious industry and the majority of consumers, on any given day, need more obviousness and spelled out paths laid before them. Or else brace for the confusion spilling forth in the form of jab poke perspectives and personal attached sentiment why’s and how’s.
    Ehh.. It’s all in what you want and how far you are willing to nurture that plant to fruition.. so it seems.

  10. On certain topics it doesn’t matter what you say, people are going to attack.
    On the other hand, in terms of “more obviousness and spelled out paths laid before them,” everyone’s path is going to be different. That’s part of the argument.
    But I write about very specific services for making money as an artist every week. None of those will ever get as much traffic as a post like this.
    When musicians learn to stop arguing and start learning about what’s available, they’ll start making more money.
    Know what I’m saying?

  11. I agree with everything the author says, but he overlooks the clinching point: there are musicians who simply are not in a position to tour. Like people with disabilities, or family care responsibilities. Like women with young children, or people with disabled parents or partners. OK, that’s not very ‘rock-and-roll’, but should we assume that every musician is a healthy 20-year-old male? The common expectation that musicians should live by ‘tours and t-shirts’ is not only insulting but implicitly ageist and sexist.

  12. Interesting Article and it always made me wonder if both touring and sales just go together now a days considering that cd music sales are down wouldn’t that just balance out the problem of the financial loss in music for the artist? Some articles that I read in the past brag about how digital sales are up but yet those are singles and not 10 song cds so why should artists give any of their music for free especially if they can’t tour always made me wonder.
    It would just be nice to see an article Clyde regarding the actual sales levels most of these indie and unsigned Bands and Artists are reaching considering their demographic audience? (Even those I do realize that most might tweek their sale numbers of cds) but it would still give the rest hope in this fallen music industry we all live in.

  13. As a musician, I tour infrequently these days. Part of it is the cost of touring. I need to save up a bankroll of cash to go out on tour (as I have no record company backing me), and then hopefully recoup that cash plus some extra. Part of that extra profit is from CD sales at live gigs. I count on those sales at the gigs. I also count on CD/download sales throughout the year to add to my income stream.
    But music sales is only part of my revenue stream. Besides live gigs, I produce & record, compose, teach, do workshops, write about music (both books & magazines), and anything else I can do that will bring in some cash. So I don’t count on music sales “to make a living,” but it’s an integral part of everything, and the sales do add up.
    I also give away a lot of my music for FREE. But it’s my choice as to what music, when, and who I give it to. Again, it’s MY CHOICE, not some streaming service or anyone else.
    Devo put it correctly: “Freedom of choice is what you want, freedom from choice is what you got.”

  14. Steve,
    I make my living selling and licensing my music. I have never toured or sold physical merchandise.

  15. I am submitting to hypebot the relative revenues for cd sales, streaming income, royalties, performance, merch and assorted live revenues for both my bands for scrutiny. you will see that revenue from recorded music represents 40-60% of NET INCOME for average touring band. One tours to sell more recorded music and to generate more streams. Anyone doing this professionally for more than a couple of years has discovered this. There are a few exceptional bands at the top of the pyramid that make 90% of their revenues off of live show (think phish). but they are the exception to the rule. they are the 1% of the 1%.

  16. It’s about time Hypebot got with the times and stopped drinking the 20th century Silicon Valley Kool-Aid. I’m encourage by this kind of reporting which is actually honest and reports on what most working musicians actually know. It’s never been harder to make a living making music and the internet thus far, despite the hype and snake oil, is not helping.
    Kudos Hypebot. Take a page from DMN and come to the light and start actually supporting musicians rather than misleading them (cause they already know the truth).

  17. Selling music shouldn’t necessarily stops unless it is getting in the way of people listening to it. Many unknown artists give the music away free to get people to hear them. The problem still lies in the fact that even free people don’t want to hear it. Price isn’t the deterring factor, it’s usually is that artist even interesting enough to warrant a click or more. I say sell the music let people know that it holds at least the value of a McDonalds bs cheeseburger….

  18. At the end of the day, the original music you create is the real product. Artists have always had record sales, royalties, live tours and merchandise to sustain them, which is absolutely fair. When they get older and are unable to play live, the royalties will pay for their food. To accept this cuckoo new way of giving away your music which everything else is based upon, seems so unfair. It is very difficult to live when a major portion of your income simply is taken away. Also, if you are a true artist and not just a pop machine, sometimes tours are not even feasible
    because the expenses are too high to make a profit.

  19. If you approach music with a one track philosophy, you’re in trouble. After years of doing what other people wanted, I went solo with my own brand of instrumental music. I still rely on selling a few thousand CDs a year, but my audience is growing on iTunes etc. Do what works for you; if you have the product, it’s just about finding an audience.

  20. Clyde, I tried to read through all of these comments, but completely lost interest about half way through. Did someone say that “EVERYONE” should give their music away free and make their living off alternative rev streams?
    If so who? I want to beat their ass…

  21. LOL!
    It’s not like it’s a “one person said this” or “this was recently in the news” kind of thing.
    It’s been part of the tech world discourse for years and some people in the music industry have taken that stance but nobody can really claim credit for it.
    It also ties into technological determinism and the idea that new tech defines what’s going to happen rather than people doing things with tech that defines what’s going to happen.
    I had an argument with a friend who used to promote club acts and he said “everybody knows” that musicians make 90% of their income off live shows.
    It turned out he took that figure from a one liner by the head of Live Nation quoted in Billboard from a panel or event or something.
    No stats, no corroboration anywhere, just supposed common knowledge.
    It’s the kind of thing that floats around and becomes part of the discourse.
    And it’s hard to kick the ass of “common knowledge.”

  22. Great post Clyde!
    Jumping in quite late on the debate here, but the case of Pretty Lights, I think, is quite a good one to try and bring arguments to the debate. This guy has been releasing all of his music free as early as his first album in 2006, even before Radiohead and Bandcamp made it cool, and made his first dollars from touring. And in 2006, his albums were only downloaded a dozen times a month. That hasn’t stopped him from making decent money out of the music in itself today however; his latest album was #5 on iTunes a week after its release (despite being a free download on his website).
    What’s special about him I find, is how hard he works at making a connection with his fans, and giving them more than just his tracks to understand what he’s doing. For example, if you watch the “making of” documentary of A Colour Map Of The Sun, and then listen to the album, it’s hard not to feel compelled to click “Donate” when you’re downloading, because of how well he communicates on the massive effort he put into it. It’s the same for the artists on his label like Gramatik, who are equally big successes despite their music being free.
    The premise seems to be: free music = most frictionless manner of getting fans’ attention. Once you have the fan’s attention, the more you bring him into your universe, the more he’ll give back. Perhaps it was down to being the right genre, at the right place, at the right time, to the right audience… But still, I believe there are some things he’s fundamentally doing right. Which is why I recently wrote a case study on his career to try and push the argument a bit further : http://digitaledge.official.fm/pretty-lights-music-industry-2-0-does-he-know-the-truth/

  23. He and his label have definitely been doing a lot of things differently. It’s obviously not a one-size-fits-all, but I surely think “EVERYONE” can take bits and pieces from what he’s been doing to move forward 🙂

  24. I very much enjoyed reading this my friend I totally agree with you. I am a Chill Out musician and I’ve never performed live. I compose, produce and release my works by myself. 100% Independent Artist. YouTube in my view is vital tl all musicians. I’ve uploaded my full albums there and monetized them through a partnership. Also ion every YouTube upload I’ve put an Annotation to iTunes where fans can buy the tracks and albums. I think the biggest bucks are in Music Licensing. I wish you friends lots of inspiration and success!

  25. Considering that we still live in a physical world having physical product is kinda key to being part of it. The industry like many others that are highly competitive is hard and folks that say there is away around the hard parts are LYING or totally clueless about what it takes. As for our industry not sure how many times I have to keep pointing out that CDs are still the Majority of goods sold 57.3 percent according to lasts years numbers and digital is 40.7. So while I know that not everyone in music is a math genius I hope that seeing a nearly a sixty % (including vinyl) for physical good makes those of your new to this game stop and do some basic addition.
    PS Digital distro which is 90 % controlled by one company just got harder this year and if you’re not paying attention to what is happening in consolidation
    PSS get a distributor that does venue soundscan sales and then your even that much further along in the game.

  26. Giving away music to survive is a concept mostly promoted by people who do not make a living from it. The fact that some artists completely or partially include this in their strategy is of no consequence in the matter. In today’s Spotify, Deezer and Beats Music world giving away is now almost totally without merit anyway.

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