Free competes with paid and abundant competes with scarce

Facebook recently launched a sound library including tracks you can use for free on videos. People criticized the concept in a music business discussion group (also on Facebook, ironically). I would hear the same rhetoric that people have when they say bands shouldn’t perform for free, because it’s not just a bad practice, it is also bad for your peers.

But let’s look at the reality that people in music are complaining about.

1. There are many different types of artists

There are always going to be people who find it awesome to see their music used by other people: even if they don’t get any money for it. They may be college students who are just happy to see their music travel. They may be people working full time jobs who do a little music on the side and don’t depend on the income. They may be professional producers who put out these tracks to libraries as a type of calling card.

Either way: there is always going to be free music and you will always have to compete with it.

2. Giving your music away for free can actually work

You have to have a monetization strategy at the end of this, but the easiest way to win attention online is to make great ‘content’ (in this case music). This content should be available with as few barriers as possible: which means making sure it’s available for free. The second part of your strategy should include steps on 1) how to hold people’s attention after you capture it, and 2) how to identify opportunities to monetize your fanbase (I wrote about it in detail in this thesis).

But sometimes you don’t need a strategy for monetization. It’s not easy to get signed to big labels nowadays and it usually requires you to show that you can build up your own audience. One of my favourite examples of someone who successfully leveraged free is Alan Walker. An EDM artist with tracks that have more plays than some of the most popular tracks from stars like Kendrick Lamar. How? He released his somewhat odd music through NoCopyrightSounds, which specialised in providing YouTubers and Twitch streamers with music they could use for free, without fear that their videos would get taken down. Eventually, they soundtracked the whole subculture and put a new sound in EDM on the map (read more).

3. AI is going to one up everyone

We are seeing amazing developments in AI. The most recent example is Google DeepMind‘s AlphaZero, which beat the world’s best bot in chess after spending just 4 hours practicing. Startups from Jukedeck, to Amper, to Popgun, to Scored are all trying to make music generation easier.

We already see more music being released than ever before, but so far it has still depended on human output. Through AI, music is already being untethered from human productivity. Standing out in abundance is a minuscule problem compared to what it will be 5 years from now.

Free music libraries are the least of your problem

There is no singular music business or industry. Everyone is playing by different rules and all those rules will be upended every time there’s a big shift in technology. From the record player, to the music video, to the internet, to AI and blockchain, music is the canary in the coal mine and you have to have a pioneer mentality or else you are falling behind every day.

The people who are one step ahead may be underground today, but some are the stars of tomorrow.

By all means, let us discuss the ethics. But be careful not to let your opposition blind you to the point where you cannot see how a new generation of music is thriving and leaving you behind. Because then it’s too late. For you.