Note: This post was originally published on LinkedIn.
On Thursday July 16th the Chicago-based alternative rock band ‘Wilco’ surprised fans and non-fans alike by releasing ‘Star Wars’, their ninth studio album.
What was the surprise? They released it for free, without any advance warning.
Releasing free music is nothing new. As far back as 2004, the artist formerly known as Prince was giving away his music when you bought a ticket to one of his gigs. Artists like the Grateful Dead and Pearl Jam have been letting concert-goers record their shows and distribute them without royalties. Many artists have been streaming their songs on MySpace and now Soundcloud at no cost.
Is this music really free? How do artists benefit and what can brands learn from the musicians who are employing these strategies?
1. An Equal Exchange. When Wilco released ‘Star Wars’, they asked only one thing of their fans: provide your email address in exchange for a free download. Wilco is offering something of value to you (new music), in exchange for something they value (your contact information).
2. A Direct Relationship. The simple act of exchanging your email address for Wilco’s new album accomplishes one simple thing but facilitates many more things down the road. In the old days you might have bought the album in a record store. While Wilco would have made maybe $3-4 on the $10 album, they would have had no idea who actually bought it. More recently, when you bought the Album on iTunes, the artist would also not have known anything about you, but they would have gotten 70% of the proceeds, an improvement. By exchanging the new album for the email address, Wilco earns $0, but they know how to reach you.
3. Long-Tail. Now that Wilco knows how to reach you (by your email address) directly, they can begin to find ways to replace the revenue lost by giving away music (Star Wars). Today’s music universe is a long, long way time from when artists made money by releasing albums. Today’s artists make money by performing their music in front of large crowds at ticket prices that are a multiple of the cost of any album you could buy. Did you ever go to a concert in the 1980s? The ticket prices were not much different than the cost of their CDs. Fast forward to today, when the cost of 2 beers at a concert is $20 and the ticket to the show is more than $50 for a cheap seat (except for Kid Rock, who charges $20 to reward casual fans). If free music encourages you to go see a band play live, you will be forking over a lot more than $15. If you become a True Fan, your value to the group is far greater since you will take friends and maybe even buy Vinyl copies of the music that you can listen to on Spotify or Apple Music. Maybe you’ll buy some ‘merch’ at the show.
4. Communicate. Now that Wilco has your email address, expect them to tell you about new releases, new tours, old music and maybe even other artists that they love. They will share directly with you, without an intermediary like Facebook. You’ll be part of the in crowd that hears about shows and songs before almost anyone else, and definitely before the people who just casually listen on streaming services.
True Fans Share Their Enthusiasm and Wear It On Their Sleeves. By the simple and low-tech method of collecting an email address in exchange for a free album, Wilco has shown that you don’t have to devise a complex social media strategy in order to create and nurture a relationship with its fans.
If you are a brand that is trying to find your authentic fan, perhaps it’s time that you gave first. Your True Fans will share with you and both of you will benefit.