Free by Itself Is Not Enough

In a recent article entitled Too Much Free, marketing guru Seth Godin suggests that “free by itself is no longer enough to guarantee much of anything”. Godin distinguishes between “breakthrough free”, which is interesting precisely because it hasn’t been done before, and “sample-this free”, which leads to diminishing returns for content providers as people are increasingly inundated with free stuff.

Clay Shirky wrote about this subject in 2003. Here is an excerpt from an influential article entitled Fame vs Fortune:

Free content is thus what biologists call an evolutionarily stable strategy. It is a strategy that works well when no one else is using it–it’s good to be the only person offering free content. It’s also a strategy that continues to work if everyone is using it, because in such an environment, anyone who begins charging for their work will be at a disadvantage.

The issue here is whether free content providers continue to benefit when it is no longer revolutionary. If everyone is giving their stuff away for free how do you stand out from the crowd? The answer: offer something of greater quality. Free content is not created equal!

Consider the music industry. It is now common for labels and artists to offer single MP3s for free download, often as a means to sample a commercially-available release. Some of these free offers aren’t really free at all—for instance, when prospective listeners are required to divulge personal details or register to access downloads. Not everyone is willing to go to all that trouble just to download an MP3. Reducing barriers to entry will immediately increase the reach of free content.

Presentation quality is another way to gain an edge. When everyone else is offering junk MP3s you can tap into the “breakthrough free” effect by going lossless (as long as lossless downloads remain uncommon, anyhow). There is a huge quality difference between single low-bitrate MP3s and a complete release package featuring properly tagged and professionally mastered lossless-quality audio files and a full set of high-resolution cover images ready for printing! Lossless audio attracts discerning listeners who appreciate quality—and aren’t those the sort of listeners labels and artists are seeking?

The intrinsic quality of the music is inescapable. Free or not, the music has to be good. I will be the first to admit that a lot of free stuff is given away simply because it can’t be sold. Of course, a lot of commercially-available music is not remarkable either! The key is to provide something of substantial value, whatever that means to you and your audience. Don’t expect vast returns on your free content if it lacks an essential spark of creativity and vision.

Ultimately, labels and artists need to consider how free music fits into their overall strategy. For some, free music is little more than a promotional gimmick, a way to up-sell recorded music by giving away an MP3 to sell an album. This is not such a bad idea but it is not likely to be effective simply because many labels and artists are already doing it. Godin was very astute in using the phrase “free by itself” in his original post. People are increasingly immune to offers of free stuff precisely because we recognize these offers for the hollow gestures that they are.

On the other hand, those of us who have embraced the idea of cross-subsidies (give the music away and hope for more gigs and merchandise sales) would do well too emphasize the quality of our free content, both in terms of overall presentation and intrinsic value. Free by itself is not enough; you have to be sharing something of quality to really interest people nowadays.