Should I Give My Music Away For Free?: Popular Reader Question


This is a good question, and one I see with no clear answer, no “yes or no”. I think it depends on the individuals involved and what’s at stake:

I try to stay out of these debates due to the arguments that arise. As with any debate, those who have success are going to be for all for it, and those who don’t are going to be against it.

Let’s look at the popular arguments:

Three Popular Arguments

  1. If you work for free you’ll have a hard time charging people later because you’ve built a following off “freebie seekers”
  2. It’s a great way to build a following, gain experience and build a portfolio.
  3. Giving your music away from free dilutes the market

All are true, but again, depends on the circumstances at hand.

I’m not looking to throw fire on a never-ending debate, I’m just sharing my experience in hopes of helping others who may be in the same boat.

Should Producers Give music away FREE?I started creating music (mainly hip-hop) in 2004, maybe it was 2003 – it was one of those years.
This was easy money for me because I had an ear for re-creating sound (which later turned into a ghost production gigs) and I lived around a lot of aspiring artists; rappers, singers, poets, etc → the market was already there.

It took me 3 years to research and fund my little production setup Korg Triton and an Mpc 3000. It was the most money I had ever spent in my life. I didn’t have monitors, headphones. I didn’t know anything about music production.

Fast forward a little bit, when technology advanced and made it possible to run powerful setups on laptops, artists started creating their own material. It was great, but it also meant less work for me → Artists were walking in with full projects.

Production was iffy, recordings were sloppy, but that didn’t matter to them, they thought mixing and mastering would fix it, and settled for whatever polish job the engineer would do.

That was a big pay cut, but I didn’t care as I had another source of income. I was a semi-professional gamer (sponsored in Call Of Duty2).

Working For Free Isn’t So Bad

Most of the people in my gaming clan (and community) knew that I produced music so I was often asked to create cues for gaming highlight clips and game-casting events (can’t remember the correct lingo for it).

Most of this work was done for free, and I thought nothing of it because I loved video games, and it was something fun to do with my music.

A good % of the people I met while gaming, went on to work for big companies like Midway, TruTv, MTV, others became graphic designers and videographers, etc. Most of them worked with technology in some form – lots of IT dudes.

What I didn’t know at the time was by doing free work I was actually planting seeds, and those gamers with no budget later turned into strong connections to those with good budgets.

We’re now going on 2014 and I’ve been hired numerous times by the same people to handle various tasks:

sound design, foley, composition, editing, beta testing, etc.
This probably would’ve never happened had I not built those relationships early on. Could you imagine if I declined to work with them because of their “lack of” funds?

It’s like the ugly girl in HS people teased/ignored who later becomes drop-dead gorgeous. Ok, not really the same, but in a way it is.

The best part about this is my network expands whenever my friends bounce around to different companies 🙂
I’m not saying that every free project will result in something great, but does outweigh the pros and cons.

Make sure you’re looking at the big picture, and do what’s best for you in the long run.

What Do You Do Think?

Is it a good idea to give your music away for free? I’d like to know your opinion and experiences.


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3 thoughts on “Should I Give My Music Away For Free?: Popular Reader Question

  1. There is a right answer – NO. Do NOT give away your work. Never. EVER. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to charge money for it all the time. Let me explain..
    Time is money – you’ve heard gay phrase. You need to figure out out what an hour/day of your time is worth and don’t be afraid to set that number where it needs to be. Then if you make the conscious decision to give something away, you should be doing so with tha $ amount in mind. Don’t fall for that “exposure” argument. If a company likes your work enough to ask you for it but not enough to pay you, this is an opportunity for you to sharpen your negotiation tactics and remind them why they’re talking to you.
    Next is quality. People who don’t charge anything for their work are usually self conscious about it or afraid that it’s not good enough to charge for. Perfection is never guaranteed, but don’t produce things that are low quality and guess what – you can charge for them! Also, some people think that charging for music or sound especially is somehow egotistical – it’s not. If you’re doing it right, it’s not free for you to make. You should eventually hire a good sound engineer to help, get new microphones, better preamps, rent foley box studio time, market your services, etc. to be a professional, you have act like one. But with this mindset, you’ll be able work and be philanthropic at your choosing.

    1. Hi SJ,
      You make some good points. Let me correct myself → GREAT points. Most people associate “free” when there is no “money” in exchange for services. “Negotiating”, I agree, everyone needs to learn how to do this. I remember starting out I was a horrible negotiator.
      I didn’t even think of “rent” foley box studio time. I’ll have to look for some in my area, thanks for the tip.

  2. After experiencing what many have in the industry in recent years: significantly reduced CD sales, I decided to try the “pay what you will” approach and feel pretty good about it so far. I did a 10 city tour last November in mostly markets I’d never played, and even in the markets I’d played it didnt really matter because I’m doing a drastically different kind of music. I played my show, killed it, had a quiet merch rig set up, but worked the entire room right after the set asking if they wanted a free download of my record. It was quite easy to obtain email addresses after having given some music away. I feel like I could’ve insisted on selling the CDs only and would’ve made a little more money; I likely would’ve sold 2 or 3 for a room of 30 or so. Instead I got 30 email addresses of people who saw and liked my show. I am much more excited to hit those markets again and can likely leverage better pay, venues, and opener slots as a result. Also, I find that sometimes folks buy the cd after i offer the free download card that wouldn’t have bought it (also sometimes after show drinks). There is a lot to this discussion, but one element for me is that the real product is the live performance, not the CD. I’m more consciously working towards selling 200 tickets at $15 than thinkin in terms of making $3000 selling CDs. My suspicion is that when I have bigger crowds at shows, more merch will sell. Time will tell. This is my $.02 based on my recent experience and where I am, it is in no way meant to disrespect or even refute the things that team “never give your shit away” says. The truth is I’m a 40 year old vet in this industry and am writing this reply in my bunk on a tour bus (not doing my own music, but pro work that will fund my trip to the Folk Alliance Conv next onto and a tour in spring) and most of my friends don’t understand why I’m doing it. A final note is that I am a huge fan of music (this is not always the case with pro musicians…) and have always spent a lot of money on recordings. That being said, even I would rarely buy an album of a band ive never heard at all. When I was a kid I mowed lawns/had paper routes etc and spent all of the money of blank cassettes and I checked out 10 records from the library a week (the limit) and taped every single one I liked. Now when I hear hype about an artist or band, I check them out on YouTube or at least listen to the song previews on iTunes. I have friends who always try to give me their CDs. On the real, if their music means something to me and I’ve been given (or otherwise freely obtained) 2 albums, I’ll always give full price for the 3rd one, music unheard. To some extant it becomes a question of whether that’s how human nature is or is that just me? Who could say, but I will say this: my last Cd (Invisible to You) was very good and didn’t sell hardly at all. My new album (Looking for my Zero) has been downloaded by hundreds of folks and I am now keeping in contact with these folks working on selling future product (tickets to shows or merch) and I’m in a markedly better footing as a result of giving the download cards (seriously I can’t afford to give away the physical CDs…) away. Curious about other opinions especially when they are a result of actual experiences rather than fundamental viewpoints.

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