The Free Music Phenomenon

One of my Facebook buddies is UncleJamz, a longtime music industry insider and manager of some pretty nifty musicians in Indianapolis, Charlotte, San Diego, Phoenix and Davenport, Iowa. He’s an old friend of my Uncle Bo (of Midnight Star), and he’s a really cool guy. He and I have been disagreeing on some aspects of today’s music industry. Namely, the whole “free album/mixtape” thing that has been going on for the last few years. I (obviously) don’t have a problem with it, but he thinks it is bad for the music industry, comparing it to shopping marts like Kroger and Meijers giving away their wares for free.

I took this as an opportunity to speak on the larger issue. I don’t think the free music thing is really about money, but about power. and my response to him explains why. check it out and let me know what you think…

UncleJamz said:
“The reason free is bad is because you don’t have right to give away someone else’s intellectual property away. If the indie acts wants to give away their own, stuff, well have at it – but makes sure you own every bit of the song, perhaps the music producer or as they call it “the beatmaker” is not in agreement with that. Major record labels gave away free goods to retailers, media and deejays, but not to consumers unless it was contest. The free goods were not charged against the artist’s accounting books. JuQuan Williams ask your uncle if he is happy recorded music is not selling and being given away – IJS If Kroger gave away all their food, Meijers, etc, would have to go out of business. ”

I say:
“but that’s the thing. the music industry is not Kroger or Meijers. you can’t judge it on that merit. Intellectual property has an entirely different set of rules.

I’ll use myself as an example. I honestly don’t care if I don’t make one dime off of my music. I just want people to hear my music, and I don’t mind giving away a bunch of it. I am not beholden to any company. nobody owns the rights to my music. I write, produce, perform, record and promote my own music. so if i decide to offer my album for free on bandcamp (which I do at, or even to sell a 15-song album for a buck (which I have), then I have nobody else to answer to but myself. nobody is in my pocket.

And many independent artists are similar. they might not do everything themselves, but they are paying for everything out of their own pockets, so the product is theirs to determine how they market it. if they want to take a lump sum of money upfront to give the album away for free (like U2 and Jay-Z did), then that is their prerogative. for every $10-$15 CD sold, the artists only get about $1.50, that they have to split with everyone who helped make the music. the guy losing the $1.50 isn’t losing as much as the guy losing the $8.50, but the guy losing the $1.50 is the one who actually created the product the guy losing $8.50 is so worried about. That model works fine in a place like GM, where the average assembly worker is part of a team of hundreds mass-producing a car. but intellectual property is not and should not be mass-produced.

and heck, if you ask Bunny Debarge how much money she made off of “Dream,” she might as well have been giving it away for free. Despite the fact that that song is a Motown classic and has been sampled by the likes of Tupac and Blackstreet, she hasn’t gotten any of the royalties for it. She sells her current single on her website ( for a buck, but if she chose to offer it for free as a way to get you to buy her book (or vice verse, even) then that is her prerogative because nobody is in her pocket anymore making more money off of her music than she is. Ras Kass had to fight Priority tooth and nail for ownership and the right to sell his own music, when all they wanted to do with it was throw it in a vault and let it rot. So who was looking out for the artist then? BTW Ras won, and now sells the album for $9 on bandcamp, right next to his latest single, which he gives away for free.

The music industry is more akin to the book industry. the advent of digital books has made it easier than ever before to get a book published, just like with music, and there are a gaggle of authors giving away free downloads of their books, just like with music. but the authors who give away their books use that as a marketing tool to promote their other projects, like other books they want to sell (Marvel and DC do it all the time), or paid speaking engagements, or merchandise, even just visiting their blog and where they can make money off of the ads.

There are new models of garnering income from your music other than record sales. My uncle…and my mother…made waaaaay more money from publishing than they did from record sales. not every artist is a songwriter, but every artist is a performer. and every independent artist is an entrepreneur. two of the artists I support that give away free music are Run The jewels and Random. Yes, they have music available for sale, but they also offer free music. the free albums are actually a marketing tool to get people to come to their shows and buy their merchandise. In fact, they have both held kickstarter campaigns and raised money directly from their fans in exchange for the free music. Random offered his latest album for free…to everyone who came to his shows. He still makes money off of his music, and the fans who support him get some exclusive music as a bonus. so who gets cheated?
and Run the Jewels just raised $45,000 via kickstarter off of their free album. So who got cheated? a record label that would have taken most of their profits anyway? I’ve seen way too many record labels screw over the artists responsible for their big profits to feel ANY sympathy for them.

for a lot of other artists, offering free albums and mixtapes is no different than shopping a demo – which is also giving away music for free, right? except instead of paying an agent or a lawyer or a manager to do it, they let their fans to the heavy work. Drake, Nikki, Soulja Boy, Iggy, Fiddy, Childish Gambino and KRIT all owe their careers to the free music phenomenon. That was how they all got discovered (or in 50’s case, rediscovered).

You know I got nuthin’ but love for ya, Sid, and as an industry insider I understand and respect your stance, but as an artist and creator I obviously don’t agree with it. It’s not 1984 anymore. the free music issue is only an indicator of the larger truth: Times have changed, and the old mode of doing business has gone the way of the newspaper. the industry has to evolve or die, and right now the power is shifting out of the hands of the record labels and directly into the hands of the artists…which is where it should have been in the first place.”