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What I learned from making The Sandinista Project free for a day

with 4 comments

When I’m not working or blogging or trying to live my life, I steal some time to work on my fiction. I use a fine program called WriteRoom that makes a computer writing environment much less distracting than the Microsoft Word norm.

The developer of WriteRoom has written an iPhone version of the program. I don’t use it as much, but it has been the subject of an fascinating price experiment. I bought WriteRoom.iPhone soon after it came out, for $4.99, but since then the developer has been testing different price points, with conclusive results:

08/20/2009 9 @ $4.99
08/21/2009 4280 @ Free
08/22/2009 7166 @ Free
08/23/2009 4901 @ Free
08/24/2009 88 @ $0.99
08/25/2009 56 @ $0.99
08/26/2009 119 @ $0.99

Looks like strong evidence for Chris Anderson’s contention that there is an enormous difference between almost free and free, even as Joshua Benton has noted that anyone who can afford an iPhone or an iPod Touch likely can risk 99 cents on an app without falling into a lower tax bracket.

I’ve got my own story to tell about free. As regular readers of this space know, last week I made The Sandinista Project available for free for roughly one day. The record went up at 12.01am on Friday and came down around 9am on Saturday. Here are the stats:

Total number of views of the page with the download link: 17,664 (13,834 Friday, 3,830 Saturday)
Total number of completed album downloads: 7,577 (6,772 Friday, 805 Saturday)

This is not what traffic is usually like on my blog, as this traffic report from WordPress makes embarrasingly clear:


The day of making The Sandinista Project free flattened my traffic for every other day this month. (Thanks to boing boing and others for pointing to it, by the way.) Indeed, the 7,577 free album downloads exceeded the number of physical albums we sold in the two years since the record came out. I’m not sure how many legit digital albums we sold via iTunes, Amazon, etc., but much of that business is in single tracks so I suspect the digital full-album sales were negligible. It’s hard to figure out how many unauthorized copies are out on the Net, but the week before the download experiment, I checked the numbers on Pirate Bay and two other prominent torrent sites and extrapolated at the very least 6,000 torrented copies. So, between the free authorized download last week and the free unauthorized downloads of the previous 28 months, most of the copies of The Sandinista Project that people are listening to weren’t paid for.

Yet people are listening to it. In the week since the free download, more than 300 of them wrote me to either thank me or complement the work. The trolls came out, too, but we all know what to do about them. So … there is some audience of people who want this music. They just don’t want to pay for it. For this project, that was not a big problem. We weren’t expecting to get paid, and what little we did make we intended to give away. It was, I guess, an art project. We weren’t doing it to make a living. We were doing it to get heard. Mission accomplished.

But what if The Sandinista Project was intended as a money-maker? The success of the free download suggests that there is an audience interested in the work. A popular policy nowadays is to give away something of value in the hope that it will serve as persuasive marketing for something that is for sale. A free download of this record could have been a come-on for a concert, associated merch, or some high-end physical version of the same product. Not sure how well that would work. Let’s use the WriteRoom.iphone example: when the price rose from zero to 99 cents, downloads all but stopped: the worst day at the free price was 4,280 downloads, the best day at the cheap price was 119 downloads, and let’s not forget that a typical day at the original price of $4.99 was 9 downloads. There is no substantial business there.

Thanks to the lethal combination of breakthrough technology, changes in consumer expectations, and industry-wide incompetence so overwhelming that a business school could build an entire degree program around it, I suspect the existing music industry is too far gone to build a business out of a we’ll-give-you-something-for-free-and-then-sell-something-else-to-you model. The attitude at traditional entertainment companies, that we’re the geniuses and the tastemakers and you’ll buy what we tell you is good, is nearly the opposite of the Net’s relatively bottom-up approach to popularity. There will still be some very popular performers who can sell more than a million copies of a traditional album in physical or virtual form, and there will be many, many indie performers who can garner a devoted audience on the Net while covering some subset of their expenses. But for those in the middle, neither superstars or hobbyists, people who want to make a living as musicians, the current model offers little. Giving something away and hoping someone will pay for something else somewhere down the road looks more and more like a business model that’s both cynical and hopeless. The fat, spent music industry needs a punk rock of business models the same way it needed punk rock in the mid-1970s. And, as with punk, none of the incumbent powers will be the ones who figure it out.

Written by guterman

August 28, 2009 at 2:57 pm

Posted in music, publishing, wordpress

4 Responses

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  1. One thing I think comes into play is “free” is a price point that encourages experimentation (maybe the ONLY price point that encourages experimentation for most folks). If I I download “Sandinista Project” (or anything else) and I don’t like it, my only expense is time (and a little bit of bandwidth & I suspect most people value the time less than I do).

    If I download SP for free and I only like (say) 4 of the songs the value equation is 4/0 = infinite … pretty good! If I buy SP and I only like 4 songs, the value equation is 4/$16.99, not nearly so favorable. If I don’t know whether I’m going to like more than 4 songs but I can try the other 32 for free, that’s a no-brainer, but the risk of 4/$16.99 could be a bit of a deterrent.

    I don’t know how many other people function vis a vis this, but these days I hear a lot of music illegally. Most of it goes in one ear and out the other … but if something really sticks, I make an effort to send some money the artist’s way (especially indie label folks) — either by buying a legit download or physical copy of the release I’ve been enjoying, or sometimes buying another release.

    Yesterday for instance, I decided that I’d got way too much pleasure from The Broken Family Band’s “Please and Thank You” (think a slightly mellower The Godfathers with incisive relationship lyrics of at least Louise Wener caliber if not Elvis Costello caliber). Admittedly, I chose to buy it from amiestreet.com, where it was crazy cheap.


    August 29, 2009 at 7:36 am

  2. […] leave a comment » A few years ago, I produced The Sandinista Project, in which 36 performers each covered one song from The Clash’s Sandinista! It was a fun and crazy project. Last summer, on Joe Strummer’s birthday, I made the record free for a day. The free download was a great success although what I learned from the experiment was more mixed. […]

  3. […] A few years ago, I produced The Sandinista Project, in which 36 performers each covered one song from The Clash’s Sandinista! It was a fun and crazy project. Last summer, on Joe Strummer’s birthday, as reported by Mark, I made the record free for a day. The free download was a great success although what I learned from the experiment was more mixed. […]

  4. […] • Micah Jackson (whose doppelganger I saw in a coffeeshop on Byres Road last week) sent me to Jimmy Guterman’s perceptive column about giving digital products away as part of marketing. • And finally, a whole crowd of […]

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