Music for Nothing and the Fans for Free

Consumers won’t pay for recorded music in the future — but fans will pay for music experiences.

When the dust finally settles between the artists, labels, and distribution companies, everyone will finally realize fans are more valuable than recorded music. As traditional monetization models for recorded music sales slowly fade away, new monetization methods centered on the fan will emerge.

How do we know music will become free? The stats point to this trajectory. Total revenues for CDs, vinyl, cassettes, and digital downloads worldwide dropped 25 percent from $38.6 billion in 1999 to $27.5 billion in 2008, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI). The same revenues in the U.S. dropped from a high of $14.6 billion in 1999 to $10.4 billion in 2008.

As the stats show, sales of recorded music are headed one way — down. Sure, digital music sales have been on the rise in recent years, but they have only partially replaced physical sales, so the overall sales figures are still headed south. And it surely isn’t because people are listening to less music. It’s simply because the old adage holds true: why pay for something that you can get for free? In addition, artists, the ones with the talent, aren’t making money off digital sales. Artists get about $0.09 per song sold digitally on iTunes or Amazon. So for a million downloaded hits, an artist earns $90K. Subtract manager, lawyer, agent and other “fees”, and an artist selling one million downloads would barely make minimum wage off of the recording.

Source: CNN, Forrester

Already, there is a deluge of great (and legal!) sites providing free music — including Pandora, YouTube, Spotify, Grooveshark, MOG, Rdio, and other online destinations. This is a big change from the early days of online music, when free meant illegal. Today, music start-ups have caught on to the profit potential in “giving it away.” Companies like Pandora, which generated $67M of revenue in 2011 Q2, and Spotify with over two million paying users, don’t charge for entry-level service. Instead, these music innovators found a way to monetize music indirectly through advertising and other means. Music still comes at great cost — start-ups still pay high licensing fees to labels — but as the economics shift, licensing fees are likely to decline. (Yes, labels will do a lot of kicking and screaming.)

So how will labels offset the decline in recorded music revenue? How will artists capture more value for their creative work? The clear answer is from their fans. Musicians have really never engaged their fans, maybe every three years while they were on tour, but otherwise they just released albums and expected fans to buy them. Myspace was the first experiment with direct musician-fan engagement, and it started a trend that has continued. Now, over 300,000 musicians have BandPages on Facebook. Just about every musician has a Web site, e-commerce site, and a web strategy. Many are putting their music “out there” for discovery and promotion before it’s ever part of an album. Soundcloud has seven million users who upload their music and recordings, for example. YouTube’s most popular videos are music-related. Bands, managers, and labels understand this trend and are finding new and innovative means to monetize fans.

We anticipate a lot of “creative destruction” and changes to the value model based on fan-driven music marketing models. There are ways to make money from the music experience, and those channels — new and old, low- and high-tech — are creating opportunities for artists, labels, and music start-ups.

Here are some of the ways the music industry will make money going forward.

  • Live Music
    While recorded music sales continue to decline, live music revenue has increased in the past few years. The industry has been following this trend closely and focusing more and more on live tours and events. There really isn’t a way to replicate or pirate the live experience. As cellist Zoe Keating joked about piracy at the recent SFMusicTech conference: “Go ahead, try copying me! Just try!”

  • Source: CNN, Forrester as above

  • Patronage
    In the Elizabethan era, artists were supported by wealthy patrons; we’re headed back toward that world. Two models are possible here, and will probably coexist as supplements to the live music monetization. The first is corporate sponsorship, which is already used widely. Take the OK GO music video “This Too Shall Pass,” in which the band discreetly thanks State Farm for making it possible, or the somewhat distasteful product placements ($500K worth) in Britney Spears’s “Hold it Against Me” video. The Black Eyed Peas have become so intertwined with brands that The Wall Street Journal dubbed them the “Most Corporate Band.”

    The other sponsorship model is direct fundraising from fans – also known as crowdsourcing. In 2007, Radiohead released its album “In Rainbows” for free, asking fans to pay as much or little as they pleased. And more recently, Nataly Dawn from Pomplamoose used a Kickstarter campaign to fund her forthcoming solo album. She set out to raise $20,000 but fans overfunded her project by $104,788. This may not seem like a huge sum, but crowdsourcing will make all the difference for indie artists worrying how to pay their rent.

  • Curation, Discovery and Network effect
    MP3 players were around for years before the iPod took them from the technophiles to the masses. Likewise, music services spread when they are easy to use and approachable. Pandora has managed to attract tens of millions of users to its radio service because of the KISS principal (keep it simple, stupid). While this sounds easy, it took them years to develop the music genome and “taste” algorithms that analyze billions of thumbs up/down votes to offer effortless music curation.

    Upstart Spotify made access and friends the top priority for its music service, and has unseated Rhapsody as the top dog in on-demand listening. Others like Turntable let listeners do the heavy lifting — letting anyone be a DJ and mix tracks via a competitive, social, cartoony environment. And still others, such as the Hype Machine, rely on the old-school expertise of hardcore music junkies, letting bloggers curate their own selections. The ad-supported model is all about building audiences, and it’s an ongoing cat-and-mouse game where new methods continue to emerge.

  • Whales
    One dirty little secret in the free-to-play online gaming world is that “whales” — to use a Las Vegas term for big spenders — often account for a significant portion of the revenue. In many examples in the free-to-play world, the top 10 percent often contribute 50 percent or more of the revenue for virtual goods, game play, tokens, premium versions and more. In one recent example, one happy gamer spent more than $76K on a single social game buying the accessories he needed to build his fortress. Would “whale” fans of Arcade Fire spend tens of thousands of dollars to sit in on a studio recording session? Yes, and I’m offering!

    And beneath the mega-whales, there is a larger base of dedicated fans willing to pay to be a part of the experience, even if they don’t have thousands to spend. “Baby whales” mostly tend to buy merchandise: T-shirts, caps, branded toys, etc. These baby whales are still a small share of any overall fan base, but collectively, an extra $50 each from a small percentage of fans can really add up.

  • Unique Experiences
    People love to engage with unique experiences — things you just can’t replicate — and will often pay top dollar for them. Concerts are one kind of unique music experience, but there are others. Nataly Dawn’s Kickstarter campaign offered big donors rewards, like their choice of a song for her to cover, early prerelease access to her album, and even a private in-house concert. In addition, there are now countless apps that let you be a part of the music, from the T-Pain auto tune app to ShapeMix’s tool that lets you remix songs yourself with isolated melody/bass/drums/vocal stems and post those to your friends. While, selling these extra experiences may not be a major monetization method, such methods do allow indie artists to generate income, and top artists to experiment with new avenues to engage and grow their fan bases.
  • The Bottom Line
    Music is getting closer and closer to free. Distribution is becoming commoditized, so monetization must change. To this end, artists will have to pull out the stops to engage with fans more directly, and actively seek out fans and benefactors willing to pay more than usual for their work. The music startups that will make money over the long term are those that will connect artists with fans, help people filter and discover new music they love, and offer unique experiences. People will never stop listening to music — they’ll just change how they find it, hear it, and pay for it.

Hany Nada is a founding partner of GGV Capital (, a $1B venture capital firm with a dual focus on China and the U.S. Some of GGV’s investments include Alibaba Group, Pandora Media, YY, RootMusic, Buddy Media, Tudou, SuccessFactors, Square, and 21ViaNet.

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