There is any interesting theory going around, and I say theory not because it isn’t confirmed but once was and now not so much. The theory is that the more people talking about something, the more sales that “something” will obtain. This is perfectly in line with the idea that “any publicity is good publicity.” Perhaps this is too strong a generalization. Let’s rephrase- “publicity is pretty much almost always good.” A bit vague, but sure. If you are getting attention, you are obtaining income from said attention. This is the essential purpose of creating something to sell. You want sales of your product or service. Sure, you may not need or want millions, but if it is up sale, your goal is to obtain money from said item.
So applying this to music, any musician/artist what have you that aspires to sell their product, wants to make money off of it. Perhaps their goal is to break even and pay for rent, or perhaps their goal is to collaborative with Bono or Justin Beiber. The point is most musicians want money.
So the idea is that if you offer your music for free, more people will download/obtain it. Obviously this should be the case, considering that something that is free would generally have a wider reach than a paid item. If Radiohead charged a dollar for one song, and nothing for the other, the free song would gain greater sales despite quality (at least initially).
This also helps defend illegal downloading. Sure, the downloader is not paying for the song initially, but if they enjoy it, they will purchase the song, attend a concert, and buy a shirt. They will become a fan. If they don’t like it, well, no loss. They weren’t going to buy your shitty music anyway.
Of course, this idea that tried-and-true exposure results in greater sales is a bit flawed, in this day and age. It works in some mediums, and not others. A “free” sticker for the kids at the grocery store is meant to do one thing- get the kids to ask their parents to go back to that store for a sticker. This free item is an investment that it will, indirectly or directly, persuade a past customer to return.
Music doesn’t have that tangible aspect. Music is intangible. It is liquid. It has no raw form. It’s data. Taking out the aspect of a live concert and merchandise, people won’t buy an album if they downloaded it online. The online additional content is a physical album, perhaps the fun of playing 8it on vinyl or reading the word booklets and images.
As the generation that grew up with accessible free music grows older, they will become resilient to physical purchases- album sales.
Now, it is true that attention and publicity likely results in cross-medium sales (concert tickets, merchandise). But in making a direct correlation to album sales (the same content in the initial free download) it simply no longer applies.
The people who are still buying albums are those who have always bought albums. It’s just their preference. They aren’t downloading an album, and then buying it if it is good. Maybe a few, but the vast majority is buying the damn album anyway. And the vast majority who downloaded the album would have never bought the thing in the first place.
This might be an unfair generalization, but over time, it will make more sense as kids who grew up downloading massive amounts of music for no charge at all, will deter from buying music entirely.
Is it unfair? Sure. Kids are more than willing to pay for the internet, pay for the high-speed computer and monthly music streaming services that are ad-supported, yet are unwilling to pay artists. It is a shame, but it is a way of the culture that is unlikely to reverse.
But the main idea is publicity. A free download and successive exposure is gripping. The more attention, the more potential for sales. This comes in the form of “celebrity.”
The term celebrity is shady and staggering. It can mean multi-billionaire superstar, and it can mean fourth person eliminated in Survivor Season 27. Exposure results in celebrity. THIS is your ticket to sales. People will support you if you are known. Now it is in the hands of you to handle this exposure that can result in massive success for you as an artist.
Releasing free music won’t result in sales, necessarily. But it WILL result in some sort of exposure. If properly managed, you can use this celebrity status, however minute, to channel yourself into a position of making money. People support celebrities. They don’t just support a band because an album is good, and they surely don’t buy random songs. But it is the celebrity status which can gather a massive following, because people will support your endeavors then- and only then.
If you are famous, any endeavor will be at least somewhat successful, more so than if you weren’t famous. The art is in becoming famous. Encourage others to release music for free. Is it liquidating and cheapening the art of music? Yes. Is it an inevitable recourse for the current development of culture? Pretty much. If you want to pursue independence, in music and any medium, venture into the art of becoming famous through the means your intelligence and logic tells you. If you manage and craft this public persona, you will be supported in many ways and in many mediums, simply because people attach to the person you are and not directly to the things you create.
Hence I say logic and intelligence. Do it stupidly, and you end up a figment of a long-gone YouTube video joke or in the vein of those who failed to become famous for any substantial amount of time because they couldn’t balance quality art with celebrity impression.