Derek Webb wrote on Wednesday of the benefits of giving music away. He is one of the principals at NoiseTrade, a service that does just that, so you would expect that he believes in the concept. Here is a choice quote from the link, which you really should read if you care about the business of music:
If someone buys my music on iTunes, Amazon, or in a record store (remember those?), let alone streams it on Spotify, it’s all short-term money. That might be the last interaction I have with that particular fan. But if I give that fan the same record for free in exchange for a connection (an e-mail and a zip code), I can make that same money, if not double or triple that amount, over time. And “over time” is key, since the ultimate career success is sustainability. Longevity. See, the reality is that out of a $10 iTunes album sale, I probably net around a dollar. So if I give that record away, and as a result am able to get that fan out to a concert (I can use their zip code to specifically promote my shows in their area), I make approximately $10 back, and twice that if they visit the merch table. I can sell them an older/newer album and make approximately $10 back. The point is, if I can find some organic way to creatively engage them in a paid follow-up transaction, I increase my revenue 10 times on any one of these interactions.
As I have watched Derek’s solo career, ((I run derekwebb.net and consider Derek to be a friend. It’s stagnated in the last few years because of the social media tools that make it easy for fans to stay up to date themselves.)) I have watched him gain (and lose) ((Derek is pretty strident in his beliefs, and that has run some of his fans away.)) fans. A lot of Derek’s core fan base comes from his decade in Caedmon’s Call ((I run their fan site, too.)), and they have largely stayed with him. He’s developed quite a following, which is to his credit. He gave away Mockingbird, which I feel was a watershed for his career. It was a new idea at the time for artists of his caliber; sure, Radiohead did it, but a lot of people know Radio head. Relatively far fewer people know of Derek Webb. Giving away a record was a way for him to broaden the fan base because the cost of trying out his music dropped only to the time cost of giving it a listen.
This brings me to my only concern with the NoiseTrade model: findability. There is certainly a case where like-minded artists whose fans are aware of the other artist. As an example, Derek Webb fans generally know who Andrew Osenga is, because they either knew him as the front man for The Normals or knew him as someone who entered Caedmon’s Call as Derek left it. ((I refuse to think of it as a replacement because of the dynamic shift of the band.)) So when Andy put up a sampler on NoiseTrade, it rapidly shot up the charts. I downloaded it because I knew one of the not-so secrets of NoiseTrade, which is that the front page lists artists in order of the number of downloads ((This is the default setting. You can sort by other criteria.)). This is an acceptable measurement of what should be on the front page, but I think that it’s a problem to end there. Back to Derek:
But as it tends to do, the market is adapting. The whole business used to be focused on the head of the sales curve, the handful of artists who were selling records in the millions of copies. But as music sales have sharply declined and fewer artists than ever are winding up at the head of that curve, attention is drifting to the “long tail” of the curve where thousands of niche artists live, none selling more than a few thousand records each. The power of the “long tail” is in the fact that its combined record sales are more than the combined sales of the top-selling artists occupying the steadily narrowing head of the curve. While there will always likely be a “hit” market resulting in a precious few artists moving records in the millions, the business is shifting to service these niches.
NoiseTrade is in the marketplace of ways to acquire new music, right along there with Pandora, Spotify, and the like. While Derek has made an effective case for why the streaming models don’t work in the artist’s favor, I feel that NoiseTrade suffers from the same big head / long tail issue as its own market. While this is to be expected at some level ((Power laws are found in most marketplaces, and even in conversational media. Go look at message board post totals or number of tweets—we all follow that one person who is the chatterbox. In my group of friends, it’s me.)), I think that tools exist for NoiseTrade to fight that dynamic and flatten the marketplace. One of Derek’s kicks is to democratize music, and I think that the way to do this is to put the power in the hands of the people.
I should stop and provide an example here. If Derek or Andy put something up on NoiseTrade, I’m going to say something about it to my friends, most likely via Twitter. My friends know to expect that. I may also become passionate about another artist; as an example, my love for Josh Garrels’s latest record. You can get Love & War & the Sea in Between record on NoiseTrade, too. Given that there are a lot of common themes among the three artists, there’s bound to be some overlap in the fan bases. Do my friends know about Josh Garrels? Yes, because I’ve championed the record endlessly. But my friends are but a small slice of NoiseTrade’s user base. Even moreso, do my friends know of my love for Sloan, Canada’s power pop mainstay? Maybe they do, but with that NT release, I didn’t say anything about it.
So the problem is findability: how do I find stuff on NoiseTrade that I’ll like? I can rely on my friends, especially with friends I trust musically. As an example, if my friend Jeff Holland said something about a band with a NoiseTrade release, I’m going to check them out. But I’m sure that there’s an artist or four on NoiseTrade that I’d champion as strongly as I have Garrels (or Webb or Osenga)—but that my friends don’t know about, either. How do I find them? I can spend time going through a lot of downloads and listen to the previews to find something I like. But that is time-consuming, and there’s a better way—two of them, in my mind.
The first idea is filtering by like taste and/or ranking. This solution would require NoiseTrade to implement a user system, which I know is very complicated. For a regular user, though, this has benefits. The email/ZIP step is gone: noisetrade.com/gfmorris would always know I’m email@example.com and 35758. I give up that for the convenience of the system knowing who I am and giving me good recommendations. If it knows that I like Derek Webb and Andrew Osenga, maybe it recommends Josh Garrels or Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors to me. ((I had a recommendation on them from my friend Michael, who helps run derekwebb.net. He was right.)) Maybe it even recommends the Sloan to me—or maybe my “vote” for Sloan recommends that to someone else who’ve downloaded the same artists that I have.
You can even spice it up further with ranking and similarity scores. If I download an NT release and realize that I don’t like it that much, I should be able to tell the community that with a simple rank. I’d go with a good-okay-bad system; at most, a five-star system. A system where I check out an artist out of curiosity shouldn’t necessarily take my interest as a recommendation. Connection to an extant system like Last.FM would further improve the system.
The other idea that puts the system in the hands of the people involves podcasting. I’m sure that there’s a big head of NT users that has some folks downloading 50% or more of the releases out of sheer curiosity. Those people are going to fancy themselves taste-makers, and they really are. Give them a platform to share their best tracks and releases. You don’t want one official voice. Maybe seek out three podcasters at first, selecting people with auditions of a first cut. You want people who’re going to put out a good product and have strong opinions. Give them the space to have a voice in saying, “This is what’s good on NoiseTrade right now.” People will flock to the podcaster(s) that strike a chord with them.
This is not really a critique of NoiseTrade. I’m just wanting to see the ecosystem be even more awesome than it already is.
So please buy my music. Or take it for free. I’m honestly just grateful to have your attention. But this only works if we work together.
Derek, I want it to be easier for people to pay attention to you and the other NoiseTrade artists. I keep meaning to bring this up to you when I see you at a show, but we always get swept up in some other conversation. So here’s my thoughts—use them as you will.