Free downloads: detrimental or beneficial? #DB8

Almost gone are the days of sifting through records in your local, dilapidated record shop searching for a rare find. Now you can find the bulk of your music neatly tucked away in a folder on your PC or Mac, as opposed to a dedicated room in your house. But with the vast technological changes to the way in which we consume our music and the various ways artists choose to distribute it, how has this effected the value we place on it?

It wasn’t so long ago that if you posed the question “would you consider releasing your music for free,” to an up-and-coming artist, you’d be met with either hysterical laughter or a cold, blank stare. Fast forward to the present day and, well, frankly; everyone and their Grandma has a free mixtape they’re trying to push. But why has this phenomenon became such a large fabric of the hip hop/grime scene, as opposed to other popular genres of music? Is the music worth less? Of course not. However, we think it’s safe to say that Cliff Richard or Elton John wouldn’t be as forthcoming in releasing a free EP or mixtape in the run up to their next release, right? So why has it been predominantly this community which has chosen to use it as the default setting when going about distributing it’s music?

Early successes in free music such as that of Drake‘s So Far Gone, really began to set the trend for what was to come. Here you had a young, clearly talented artist, offering you high quality music for the price of a simple click – no guilt trip to support the single or buy some merch (although, we’re sure it didn’t do any damage to sales in those areas) – just an opportunity to enjoy the music. Naturally, this was a huge success and, subsequently, the project was repackaged and fully released for sale a few months after it’s online release. After managing to shift 500,000+ copies — whilst still available to download online for free – the industry began to take notice and the formula was soon to be replicated the world over.

Before this wave of free music arrived in its entirety, the consumer was made to feel as if they should be in some kind of eternal debt for downloading a low-quality album throwaway from their favourite artist. However, it wasn’t until top tier icons such as Kanye West and his G.O.O.D Friday free downloads were introduced – and proved to be a highly successful tool in drumming up hype for the release of his album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — that the flood gates truly opened to the possibility that an artist could legitimately give away perfectly saleable music for free. Of course, those pesky artists weren’t doing it completely out of the kindness of their own hearts, after all, kindness doesn’t pay the rent (nor does it keep the tank full in the G6, for that matter). So, it was in the hope of long-term financial gain and/or consumer loyalty, nonetheless; we were more than happy to oblige to that, weren’t we? We definitely weren’t complaining whilst dancing around the living room to that brand new Kanye West download, that’s for sure.

Anyway, enough of the history lesson – at what point did all of this start messing with the value of the music? Well, once the high calibre artists began giving their music away for free on an almost weekly basis, it was always going to be tough on your local MC to try and give you the hard sell on their costly eight-track mixtape, wasn’t it? So, of course, almost everyone had to partake in the free music game and, alas, the value of which we all collectively placed on an artist’s blood, sweat and tears was reduced to the mercy of us being kind enough to join their mailing list or send out a Tweet, at the very most.

However, Wiley is a prime example of someone which has used the method of distributing free music to his advantage. His remarkable run of free music and ‘Step‘ freestyles taken from recent mixtape, It’s All Fun and Games ‘Til Vol. 1, demonstrate that an artist can go straight to the studio, create a track and then release the music straight online via Twitter and be able to drum up some phenomenal momentum in the process. In this instance, the momentum gained through using this model was mostly down to the availabilty of the tracks. Had they been placed on iTunes, many consumers may have opted to give the Step freestyles a miss, however; as they were released online, the listener was more willing to get involved and become engaged in the movement as it picked up speed — proving that free downloads do often offer a valuable alternative to the sometimes lengthy method of releasing music for sale, regardless of the wider implications.

All is not lost, though, and, if anything, it could be argued that the desperation of some artists dying to be heard has almost strengthened the loyalty to be gained by an artist which bravely dares to put a mark up on their work. Take an artist like Akala, for example; his latest mixtape, Knowledge Is Power Vol. 1, was released for sale recently and his core support base didn’t bat an eyelid. And why should they? They had already bought in to the artist as an individual and, therefore, were more than happy to pay a small fee for a body of work which was essentially much deeper (and more ‘expensive’ to them) than the retail price placed on it. So, with that in mind; shouldn’t artists spend more time nurturing the group of people which are willing to spend their hard-earned cash on them – however small that group may be — or continue to chase the group which may be able to ensure a number one single, but, ultimately, will cease to invest another penny the minute the hype surrounding them dies down?

Have YOUR say – we’d love for you to join in with the debate. Drop us a line in the comments section below or use the #DB8 hash tag on Twitter and fill us in on exactly how YOU feel about this topic.


Written by Ash Houghton