i-710781422680a5904326563b3893e9ff-SellaBand logo.jpg
“If you love somebody, set them free.” It’s an old adage that Sting eventually made popular set to music, but it also applies to recorded music these days. More and more artists are giving away some tracks to help market themselves, either by selling other tracks, going on tour or hawking merchandise. As CD sales go down, and digital downloads and file-sharing become the norm, artists must rethink business as usual.

“If someone can download a song, and hear it in any format and they can give it to their friends, you’re giving your fans a marketing tool,” said online music marketer Jason Feinberg, in an interview with MediaShift. “You let your strongest asset do the work instead of trying to force people to want the music without having it. You don’t want to give it all away.”

So I wondered, in this post-CD era, how can musicians make money? MediaShift readers largely said that artists need to be creative, and think outside the record label. Anderson Costa pointed to an innovative service called SellaBand, where fans help fund an artist’s CD recording, and then share the proceeds of future sales with the site. Fans can buy a share of the recording for $10, and when the artist accumulates 5,000 fans or $50,000, then it goes into the studio with a producer provided by SellaBand.

These kinds of experimental services might not all pan out — but they provide a new, more direct business model for artists working with their fans. Of course there are many other ways that musicians can make money. Here’s a selection of your ideas:

> “Perhaps an annual membership to access all of the band’s songs for the year (with authenticated but otherwise unmetered downloads). The yearly membership could yield significant rebates on various band products and show tickets (or live online events). The paying members should be given an opportunity to chat with the band members at least once.” — Claude Gelinas

> “Touring and merchandising are the two obvious options, and the increased acceptability of licensing music for advertisements in recent years has also opened up new profit opportunities for bands.” — Paul M. Davis

> “With the explosion of video content (and great cameras at cheap prices) I think music will find a whole new revenue and audience channel in advertising, entertainment, advocacy, community, and whatever other channels the artists allow their work to grace.” — EverySandwich

The point is that artists have always had other outlets to make money, whether by scoring movies or videogames, selling music into advertisements, or just gigging and selling T-shirts. While many of these avenues might not be a road to riches, it could well provide a good living for the hustling artist.

The Future of Labels

One question that hangs over any discussion of new ecomonic models for musicians is the future of record labels. They used to be the kings for getting recorded, getting distribution, and often getting exploited. Now that bands can record albums on the cheap, burn CDs for pennies, and upload their music all over the Net, do they really need record labels anymore? Both Prince and Radiohead have put serious question marks into the future of labels after going their own way with innovative CD giveaways and name-your-price gambits, respectively.

“Pretty soon artists won’t need ‘record’ companies, they will only need sponsors for their tours,” wrote Mr. C. “Music will go 100% digital and they will only need recording studios — and even that will be done by freelancers, not corporate drones.”

Ben Riseling, from the band The Wigg Report, has first-hand knowledge of working outside of the label system.

“[In my experience] the only model that worked was to produce, record, promote and distribute music personally and out of pocket,” he wrote. “This was before MySpace, LastFM, etc. which only make self-sufficiency ‘easier.’ Sell merch at shows and hopefully get a few minor guarantees for gas money and you may break even enough to get that coveted TV ad — mailbox money. Commercial radio and label management are certainly dead ends for the majority of bands.”

But before we write the obituary for record labels, Paul M. Davis thinks we should consider how bands will be able to do all the work that labels have traditionally done.

“Just because MP3s and file sharing have ‘solved’ the distribution problem and turned it into a direct band-fan relationship doesn’t mean that other essential roles in a band’s development are being served,” he wrote. “Artist development, retail and radio promotion, and press and new media publicity are all things that a label typically handles for a band, in addition to pressing plastic discs and getting them in stores. Who will do that for bands less established than Radiohead, who do not have the resources to hire expensive freelancers who provide those services? It’s the question that nobody is asking or answering, but is an essential one to address.”

No doubt. And just because everyone can build a MySpace page for their band and upload music to the Net doesn’t mean they will get noticed above the very noisy fray online. Perhaps now isn’t the time to declare just what will work economically for artists in this time of transition in the music biz.

“It’s difficult to know what will work given continued innovation and evolution in the media market, but it is important to converse about it and try to establish new, appropriate models for exchange that incorporate, rather than fight, continued innovation,” wrote GJ.

What do you think? Should artists try giving away a few tracks online for promotional purposes? What business model do you see working for bands in the future? Will they need record labels? Share your thoughts in the comments below.