May 11 2008

Free Music Boosts Web Traffic

In a “wow, that didn’t take much brain power to figure out” moment, it seems that giving away free music via the Web boosts hits to a band’s website.

According to Hitwise, when Radiohead released their “pay what you want” album, In Rainbows, their website became the number one most visited site for all music sites. Since the promotion, the site has stayed within the top 100 sites, and shows no signs of slowing down. However, it seems Radiohead feels their work is done, and has stated that they will not be doing anything similar again.

“It was one of those things where we were in the position of everyone asking us what we were going to do,” he said. “I don’t think it would have the same significance now anyway, if we chose to give something away again. It was a moment in time.”

Radiohead ranking

That is all well and good, and certainly their choice, but I think they are missing the promotional

opportunities, and the potential after sales of such a situation. The proof, of course, is in the actual pudding, and when you look at the actual chart of their site traffic, it is beyond obvious that the album boosted their visitors tremendously.

The spike of when they released the album is obvious in the October range, and while visits did drop off, they are still well above what they were pre-album.

I am certainly not suggesting that artists should give away everything, but this chart shows that it is a fairly effective tool for getting more people to visit your site, which will allow you to sell them more direct sales, cutting out all of the middle men.

When Radiohead first did this, they did have physical editions of the album, as well as a super boxed set limited edition for $150, and it sold out. That would seem to indicate to me that there seems to be some lucrative money to be made by going to the fans directly, so it seems a bit premature to me to say that you’re never going to do this again. Even if you sell less copies than you would through traditional channels, your profit margins are going to be higher for a laundry list of reasons, meaning you can sell less albums to bring in the same amount.

However, is it all about direct sales? Coldplay experimented recently with a completely free single, and they saw their site traffic jump to a whole new level. Nine Inch Nails has released multiple albums via their site in the span of two months, Ghosts I and The Slip, both as promotional tools for other projects. In the case of Ghosts I, it was part of a four album set, so by giving away the first, Trent Reznor, founder of the band sold a lot of additional II – IV copies. The Slip was released the same day tickets went on sale for his new concert tour, where a band makes their real money on tickets and merchandise sales.

Radiohead NIN ColdplayAs you can see from this chart, Nine Inch Nails and Coldplay didn’t experience the massive surge Radiohead did, but Coldplay only released a single, and NIN does not enjoy the wide appeal of the other two bands, but still did well.

So, what’s the solution? What does a band do to continue to bring in more traffic to their site, and allow them to sell extra items, monetizing these surges in traffic? Well, what they have been doing is great, but I think I have hit on an even wackier idea that might bring them a lot more money.


B-sides is an old term from the time of 45 RPM records. On the A-side you would have the hit song everyone was buying the single for, and the flip side, the B-side, would be another track from the album or a previously unreleased song. The unreleased song got really popular with the release of singles on CD, where you would get remixes, demo versions, alternate takes, or totally new songs. Tori Amos really mastered the unreleased song tact in-between her albums Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink, with some singles having 2 – 3 unreleased songs. She did so many of these that she eventually released the equivalent of an entire album in that time span. Sure, she sold a lot more singles than she probably would have albums, but it was still a lot of material that could have been used dozens of ways.

Now in the time of the Internet, imagine if an artist released a new “unreleased” track every 4 – 6 weeks via their website? At the end of the preset cycle they could then sell a limited edition CD with all of those tracks with a bonus like a booklet or, my least favorite idea, more tracks. They wouldn’t cannibalize their main album sales, they would keep a sustained amount of traffic with surges, they would increase the loyalty of their fans as well as possibly gain new ones… I really can’t see how this is anything other than a win-win situation for a band.

Maybe Radiohead is right in that they shouldn’t release another full album in the manner they did, but that doesn’t mean that the Internet as a promotional tool should be dead to any band. As I said earlier, I certainly don’t think a band should just give and give, but in this time of high rates of Internet piracy, they are going to have to find a way to make people want to continue to come to the “source”, and not just run off to their closest BitTorrent tracker. If you give the fans something for free, and they’re not going to have a reason to “pirate” it, and you may just pick up some direct sales out of it.

Now is an exciting time for the music industry, the entire game could change, but lets just see what they do with it. Will they make it worth everyone’s time, or will they squander it?

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