Music » Feature

Free love

More and more bands are giving away their music for free. Tara Thorne asks why.


Free local music is easy on the wallet, but how is it on the musicians?
  • Free local music is easy on the wallet, but how is it on the musicians?

"If The Beatles were around today, and they said, 'We're not gonna play anymore, we're just gonna record CDs,' they'd be a bunch of broke people living in their mothers' basements," says Richard Lann.

Lann is one of many Halifax musicians who has free music available on Bandcamp, the simple, elegant streaming site that has replaced MySpace as the online go-to. It allows the artist to choose a payment structure by setting a price, allowing the listener to set one or making it all a free download.

Though it's easy to implement, say, an iTunes structure of $1 a song, a lot of artists go with free. "With the pay what you want," says Lann, who released All the Time You Left Behind in May, "you're telling people 'Hey, it's free, but I still want your money.'"

"In Lake Names we were lucky enough to have Kirstan Moore, a recording engineer, in the band," says Adam Hartling, who's also in Long Weekends; both released their debut EPs on Bandcamp. "Recording was extremely inexpensive, so we didn't have any costs to regain. We wanted as many people to hear it as possible. That and I still have boxes of CDs and vinyl that my old band put out."

A month ago, Cailean Lewis released Dream of a Rarebit Fiend, a country-folk full-length, for free. His sentiments echo Hartling's and Lann's---it was recorded for nothing by his friend Gabriel Wallot-Beale of Bloodhouse. "It was a matter of more people hearing it---it's not this huge personal endeavour for me anymore, this specific album," he says, "and I'd rather have it have some kind of life."

Some bands, like Cold Warps and Bloodhouse, make the download free or PWYC but charge for the cassette or vinyl. "People generally wanna support artists, but when it comes to movies, TV shows and CDs, people download them for free," says Lann. "They want to support you so they'll buy a shirt."

"CDs are kind of dead," notes Lewis.

"I think I'm rebelling against my teenage years and how angry I was for spending $30 for every CD and then you get them home," says Lann, a New Glasgow native, "and it's like that Blink-182 CD Buddha---'This is horrible!' Kids today don't know how good they have it---if they don't like something, they can delete it. I can't delete losing my $30."

In-Flight Safety has made three records, toured North America and Europe, won awards and snagged management, booking agents and film and TV placements but is still trying to make its way. The band has not released any free records.

"People try to contrive this thing that they care. They might care if you can strike a chord---look at what Rich Aucoin has done, or Classified," says IFS's John Mullane. "Halifax pumps out bands every two weeks and no one cares. Our friends come see us at the Seahorse and that's cool, but you can only sustain for that so long. Free EPs are a great idea for bands trying to build value."

"There was always that stigma of if your music is being given away for free, it's crap, but that's gone away recently," says Lann, citing Radiohead's 2007 experiment of letting fans choose their price for In Rainbows as a catalyst.

"I think people are devaluing the music by giving it away for free, but they're testing the market," says Mullane. "It's all very corporate, very strategic---market research. Punk rock bands don't want to think that, but that's what they're doing. You have to have a hit song out of the gate nowadays, and you're finding out what your best songs are and how they stack up."

Everyone admits free EPs aren't sustainable, and none are committed to releasing future records in the format, but see no downside to using the model for now.

"On our first day releasing Long Weekends, we had more downloads than any albums bought at any release show any of us had ever," says Hartling. "Who doesn't like free stuff?"


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