The Charlatans are the latest in the line of well-known acts (including Radiohead and the Nine Inch Nails) to release their album for free on the internet. It's downloading on my PC as I type. Following on from my recent post about 'the future of rock and roll', it seems as though that future - where musicians do not make money from recorded music but use it as a stepping stone to sell other stuff - is moving a step closer.
What confuses me about the Charlatans' move is that they seem to be ignoring the 'sell other stuff' bit of the free album approach, because they are not capturing data during the exercise. In other words, they haven't asked fans to submit an email address in order to access the download. You just click the link and it starts downloading.
This means the band have lost the opportunity to email tour dates or merchandise offers to the people who have downloaded the album for free. They haven't even done an honesty box thing, so that they can generate income from people who want to donate what they think the album is "worth".
Either the Charlatans are being very clever or very stupid - and I'm trying to work out which. There is a big upside to making the album available without any strings attached: they'll definitely get far more downloads of it. I know from looking at the statistics from my own free album offer that of the people who go to www.singletonmusic.com/freealbum/, one third download the album; I'm fairly sure that my asking for an email address is putting the other two-thirds off.
If more people download The Charlatans' album, there's more scope for a big "word-of-mouth" effect about the band. I can see why this could be extremely useful in attempts to increase awareness of up-and-coming acts...but the Charlatans are, if not necessarily a household name, a well-known band who have had several number one albums.
The best explanation I can think of for their approach to this free release is that the band are aiming to get the largest number of people possible downloading the album, generating as much positive word of mouth about it, before doing away with the free download and making only a paid-for release available. The hope being that the bigger word of mouth effect generated by the 'no strings' free release will boost sales of the paid-for copy. The wished-for scenario being something like:
Mr A: "Oh have you heard The Charlatans' new album, it's great."
Mr B: "Cool - must go and grab the free download."
Mr A: "Actually it's not available for free anymore - you have to get it in the shops or on iTunes."
Mr B: "Ok I'll do that."
This is fine, assuming the album is very good; if not, the band risk bad word-of-mouth publicity which could actually impact negatively on sales: if it's crap, and it's free, why on earth would you pay for it? There is also the possibility of their core fanbase, who typically propel The Charlatans to the top of the charts every time they put an album out, not being quite so energised to go out and buy the cd if they already have the free download. And the thing most likely to happen during Mr A and Mr B's exchange is that Mr A will offer to send or burn Mr B the album for free anyway.
Another interesting aspect of this free release is that it is being done conjunction with the popular indie station XFM - you have to go to their XFM website to download it. This makes me wonder if XFM paid the band to release the album "catch-free" on their site. I'm puzzled though as to why this would be the case - if I was an XFM marketeer I would have viewed this as an opportunity to capture email addresses not only for the Charlatans but the radio station too.
There is one final possibility: that The Charlatans are simply being altruistic. After all, they must have a bob or two after all these years, and they may honestly be interested in giving their music away for free (although I doubt it). That's fine for established bands, but this approach poses problems for up-and-coming acts.
I still feel that new bands need to get something when they release their music: if not income, then the possibility of future income, via an agreement between the act and the downloader to swap the music for the opportunity to communicate about live performances, merchandise and so on. Speaking as a musician, when you attempt to forge a career out of it, music is simply too time, energy and money consuming to be given away for absolutely nothing. If recorded music is good, then it does have a value, and even if that's no longer going to be measured in immediate financial terms, we've got to remember - particularly in the dawn of this free-album era - that this value does exist.
Right. Moralising done - now go get my album for free at www.singletonmusic.com/freealbum/. The Charlatans' record is available at http://www.xfm.co.uk/news/2008/download-charlatans-new-album-for-free?&DCMP=EMC-EMR2007 //