Many romanticise about the days of people piling into record shops to buy crisp new LPs, but those days are long gone. Although vinyl has recently seen quite a respectable comeback, to many, these dusty venues have lost their charm. It may also seem counterintuitive, after all these years of saving up for that weekly record shop-stop, to say that offering music – a key source of revenue for artists – for free would be a good marketing idea.
We live in very different times now, where free music is easier to access than the local shops, so up-and-coming bands looking to grow a fan base and establish themselves need to play by a different set of rules. This is especially true for artists that operate in genres that, in their purest forms, have fallen by the wayside of the mainstream – such as rock and metal.
So, is there indeed a method to the madness of offering music for free?
The online space has changed the game
Anyone can go online to listen to, stream, or even download music for free – including the biggest bands and musicians that dominate the charts. In fact, it was found that 61 percent of online users don’t think that they should pay for music, while 95 percent of music is downloaded illegally online.
But it’s not just a case of piracy or fans wanting music at the lowest cost possible, as bigger acts seem to pander to these trends. For example, Five Finger Death Punch are known to release tracks from upcoming studio albums for free to streaming platforms. Nine Inch Nails famously released their album ‘The Slip’ as a free download in 2008, and yet doing so didn’t negatively impact CD sales.
Of course, those are much bigger bands with established fan bases, giving back to their fans. For up-and-coming bands, giving away free music can help them grow, which is why businesses deploy the marketing strategy successfully in other industries.
The free giveaway works
If the strategy didn’t work in some way, so many businesses wouldn’t use it to bring in more customers.
You can see it every year with Free Comic Book Day, which is a huge money-maker for comic stores. The annual free giveaway brings in customers and then those customers spend more on other products. In online gaming, it used to be enough that websites would offer a form of bonus, but now the ones that stand out and earn the most new players are the platforms, such as online casinos and gambling sites, that offer free gaming in the form of the no-deposit bonus, free spins and welcome bonuses for new players.
Furthermore, young start-up company Girlfriend Collective took the fashion industry by storm and rocked the social media platform Facebook for a while. The new brand gave away leggings for free on the platform to anyone who would share a link to their website, extending their publicity way beyond their initial outreach.
These are just a few ongoing examples of using the ‘free stuff’ incentive to grow brand awareness, increase customer bases, and accrue subsequent sales. But many, many other companies use the same strategy. It all comes down to becoming a familiar name – through free giveaways, you become known to customers, they then explore what else is on offer, grow to like aspects fuelled by your generosity, then they finish the journey by becoming a customer or fan.
It’s known as the ‘norm of reciprocity,’ a theory which has been given backing from multiple scientific studies. One of these is that of sociologist Phillip Kunz’s 1974 experiment, in which he sent out 600 Christmas cards with a note and a family photograph to strangers and received nearly 200 responses. People felt the need to reciprocate his kindness – neatly a third of them, as it turns out.
When it comes to music, not only giving people free access to tracks but actively putting it in their hands – digitally or physically – greatly helps to grow a fan base. Even if some don’t take to it, others will, and they will share it with people they know and so on, and so on. From there, people become familiar, feel the need to reciprocate, buy merchandise, tickets, or albums, and further promote the artist through word of mouth.
Goodwill and gratitude go a long way these days, and giving out free music is a great way for musicians to get their foot in the door with potential new fans.