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.”

The New Breed

I admit it: I’m an old fuddy-duddy when it comes to music. I have become the guy I hated when I was a teenager: the one who hated the new music and swore that his music from his time was better than the new crap that is popular today. And for the most part that still holds true. I stopped truly paying attention to new rap artists after 2005, mainly because the stuff I had been hearing either on the radio or in the streets has been so bland and disappointing.

But recently I’ve had reason to rethink my position. I still think the vast majority of today’s hip-hop is crap, but I have to acknowledge that there are a few artists in this new generation of MC that interest me. And in my opinion, they’re all pretty darned good at rocking the mic.

So here is my informal, unofficial top ten list in no particular order (except for the #1 guy) of rappers who debuted post-2005 that I’m into. This is not an all-encompassing list, as I might (and probably will) stumble across some new MCs in the future that I want to follow (I’m looking at you, Sammus and Wordburglar), but these are the top guys on my list right now.

  1. Random. When you hear the phrase “Stay humble, stay hungry,” you don’t think that applies to most music stars. This has been the epitome of Mega Ran’s character. This is the reason why he is atop my list of “new” MCs that I follow. The fact that despite his status as a rising star in indie hip-hop, he makes himself VERY accessible to his fans. I feel less like a fan and more like a colleague and a peer: he has been a FB friend of mine (under his government name, no less) for the past 2 years, and I correspond with him regularly like I do with my closet and most trusted friends. I even sent him a link to my latest rap album (you can download it for free at, and he said he liked it. In addition to being a great MC, he also comes off as a likable PERSON, and that’s more important.
    on top of that, he has redefined the game for indie rap artists, proven that rappers can be successful and build careers for themselves by giving out free music, and has become one of the faces and poster children for Nerdcore. He is a master wordsmith, and quite frankly NOBODY is better at putting together a concept album. It’s basically his calling card.
    Every time he releases something new, I’m putting it on my “must grab” list. His song “Doubt Me” is one of my morning anthems to get me ready for my day. And at every opportunity I’m telling people about this guy and even sharing some of my favorite Mega Ran songs with them.
  2. Kendrick Lamar. For the longest time I was trying not to buy into K-Dot’s hype. The whole “New King Of The West” talk must have been hyperbole, right? After all, they said the same thing about Game and we saw how well that panned out. But when one of my kids finally convinced me to give the guy a shot, and I heard of the Grammy nomination, I had to dig deeper into his style. After peeping “Good Kid, mAAdCity” – and looking up the lyrics, I am firmly in the K. Lamar camp. The boy is The Truth.
  3. Childish Gambino. I don’t watch a lot of Television, and I don’t really try to get into this new breed of rapper, so in pretty much every way conceivable I slept on the work of Mr. Donald Glover. But then I hear via the blogvines about how great this “Because The Internet” album is, and I decide to give him a chance via his “Royalty” free album (I refuse to call it a mixtape). To say I was blown away would be an understatement. The dude’s use of wit and clever wordplay coupled with his Gift of Gab-like willingness to change styles and deliveries – oftentimes in midverse – along with his thoughtfulness and honesty, and you get a nice combination of talent. Oh yeah, dude also can sing and he makes his own beats. I finally checked out BTI –mainly because I’m a sucker for a concept album –  and I recommend it to everybody. Finally, unlike 99% of he MCs who claim to be rich, Bino actually has the numbers to back up his boasts. He was a superstar entertainer long before he picked up a mic.
  4. OMG. Ice cube’s youngest son carries his father’s legacy well. He has a voice similar to Cube’s and he has the same amount of confidence on the mic that Cube had, too. He claim’s his dad’s Lench Mob crew and works with Lench Mob member DJ Crazy Tunes? Bonus. I wish he’d deliver a little more social commentary like his father did, but even if he doesn’t, I like him the way he is.
  5. Yelawolf. I didn’t know anything About Yeller until I heard he got signed along with Slaughterhouse to Shady Records. I checked him out on Youtube and was immediately a fan. He has a very unique voice and delivery style, and while everybody nowadays is rapping double-time, few can do it with a style that doesn’t sound carbon copied from other rappers. Yelawolf is one of those few.
  6. Lecrae. Being a Christian fan of hip-hop, I’m actually a bit ashamed that I don’t support Christian Hip-Hop more. Aside from the likes of Da TRUTH and T-Bone, I really couldn’t tell you anything about Christ Rap. Lecrae’s mixtapes really opened my eyes to what could be done with that medium and that message. Dude is honest and insightful, without delving into a lot of the tired clichés that you hear from a lot of gospel rappers.
  7. Jon Connor. I’m not just putting him on this list because he’s from my hometown. Jon is a talented MC who actually knows a few people I’m connected to. He’s a pure MC with awesome punchlines, and a unique story to tell, which is actually a consistent theme among the new rappers I like.
  8. Big Sean. This is another local flavor, as Big Sean hails from Detroit. He’s another one I ignored “just because he’s new,” but like some of the other guys on the list, I gave him a try on his “Detroit” free album, and I was impressed. And his single “Beware” was flat out brilliant. The guy is a very polished lyricist and performer, and has a style similar to Drake’s without copying. I actually think he’s proven himself more clever.
  9. Wale & Big KRITT. The Roots endorsed these two. That’s good enough for me.


When you get a chance, check these guys out. I think you’ll like them as  much as I do.