You spent years honing your skills. Countless hours putting together your latest song or album. You value your work immensely, so you decide to give this valuable thing away to your fans. Maybe it will even get you some new fans.
But they don’t care.
In the age of constant connectivity, free downloads have lost their value.
Music has become ephemeral
People jump from playlist to playlist, see music shared in their social media feeds, and are presented with a radio station button on each page of the streaming service they use. Research done by Nielsen asked people what they do when the music they want to access can’t be streamed: most people just move on. There is so much music one can access, immediately… a free download won’t make your music stand out.
There are certain use cases for downloads, and I’ve written about them below, but if it’s easy to retrieve tracks on YouTube, Soundcloud, or Bandcamp and stream them… then why would you bother with downloading? Especially when the user flow often looks something like:
- Click download
- Get sent to another site
- Click download again
- Prompted to connect to Facebook
- Prompted to like the page of the band, label and lead singer
- Prompted to share the track on Facebook
- Prompted to do the same things on Soundcloud
- *curl up in a ball and cry a little*
- Download starting
- Select location for your file
Is that worth it? How many times do you expect people to listen to your download?
Free downloads have become such a standard part of the strategy of artists, that it’s actually not that special anymore. Think about it: seeing FREE DOWNLOAD next to a track used to pique our interest to give it a listen. No more. Now, the only ones who get excited by seeing that are dedicated fans of the artist, label or genre.
Nobody cares about your free download
Or at least less than you’d think.
But free downloads still work in certain cases.
Free downloads can be a good way to please fans
Fans will care about your free download. Make sure it fits into a broader strategy, like I’ve shown with Yellow Claw. For instance, you can use mixtapes to hype an upcoming release and a tour you’re doing. Definitely offer those mixtapes for free.
Know your audience
There are some easily identified types of audiences that would actually care about a free download, other than hardcore fans. For instance:
- Very young teens who can’t afford a streaming subscription. This may be changing due to Spotify pushing family plans.
- Audiophiles. They often complain that streaming audio quality is not good enough and they want higher definition sound, typically best offered by downloaded files.
- (Bedroom) DJs. If you’re making electronic music, chances are a lot of your fans are also aspiring producers or DJs. Most DJing requires files, whether you use software on your laptop, a USB drive, or burn tracks to CD.
- Older audiences. Many people in the older demographics want to be able to listen to ‘owned music’. They care less about music discovery – making music less ephemeral for them.
Audience first, strategy second
I wouldn’t want the elderly to get bombarded by trap producers. So, to avoid people thinking “so THAT’S who I need to target with my free downloads”, let’s get your strategy sorted first. I wouldn’t want the elderly to get bombarded by trap producers.
Look into the data you have on Facebook and Twitter. Look at the faces you see when performing live. Research the audiences of other artists who make similar music. Understand how they use the web, what they do, what they like, whether they’re streaming subscribers or not.
This is your point of departure.
Then set goals: what do you want to achieve? A bigger fanbase? More people at your shows? Make it tangible if you can. Now, free downloads become a method to achieve something. A tactic, rather than just something you do.
Free downloads should be something that makes people excited.
Make it so.