Mixtapes or Mistakes: The Free Music Debate

Some have said it’s the best way for unknown artists to start a buzz. Others have said that it devalues the music. Whichever the case, mixtapes and free albums have become a heated debate in the music industry over the last few years. SoulTrain.com breaks down the pros and cons of releasing free music.

Pro 1

For many unsigned artists, giving away free music is a way for fans to familiarize themselves with your music and you as an artist. There are many classic albums on countless store shelves, but because consumers didn’t want to take a chance on an unknown act, they continue to sit there until they’re placed in the 99 cent bin. Indie artists like Grammy-nominated songwriter Stacy Barthe and music group KING both used free downloadable albums to kick start a buzz for themselves online. Unlike the traditional format of using other artists’ music, aka “track jacking,” both Barthe and the ladies of KING took a gamble that paid off and used all original music.

Con 1

Most unsigned artists do not have a solid plan for rolling out a new project. Because of that, added to the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of unsigned bands, it becomes easy to get lost in the shuffle. Many unsigned acts regulate their “marketing plan” to sending out hundreds of tweets per day, asking people to download their new project. There’s nothing wrong with self-promotion, but after awhile it gets annoying to some and results in the artist getting unfollowed or blocked.

Pro 2

For more established artists, mixtapes and free albums can serve as an appetizer before their actual albums to keep themselves fresh on the fans minds. Soul crooner Raheem DeVaughn was one of the few R&B artists to successfully pull this effort off. Since his signing to Jive Records in 2002, DeVaughn has released nearly 20 projects (albums and mixtapes).  His 2008 mixtape Street Experience Melodies served as the setup for his successful second album Love Behind The Melody, which spawned two Grammy-nominated songs, “Woman” and “Customer.”

Con 2

Unlike DeVaughn, who actually sold his mixtapes, most artists have made their mixtapes a free download or CD. The problem is that in today’s times a lot of fans are conditioned to get free music. Gone are the days when fans anticipated Tuesdays to be first in line at the local mom and pop to buy the newest “hot fiyah” (in my best Dylan voice). Trey Songz is undoubtedly one of the most popular R&B singers on the scene right now. He is also an artist known for his mixtapes. In late 2011, Songz released two mixtapes on the same day (Anticipation II and #LemmeHoldDatBeat II). Each mixtape boasted 20 songs. A month later Songz released his EP Inevitable, which featured the top ten R&B hit “Sex Ain’t Better Than Love.” As popular as the song was, the EP as of this date has sold fewer than 100,000 units. That’s a far cry from his nearly platinum two prior releases.

To put things into perspective, let’s use this analogy. You own a gas station, and you know without a shadow of a doubt that you have great quality gas. You go in one day to open your store and you look across the street to see that Texaco has put up a sign saying “FREE GAS.” You don’t let it bother you, because you know that you have good quality gas for sale. Then you look down the street to see that BP, Shell, Exxon, and Chevron, have all put up signs that say “FREE GAS.” Now you absolutely know that you have great quality gas for sale, but you notice that no one is coming into your store. The consumers are going to the other stations because despite the fact that you have great quality gas, they don’t know it, because all they can see are “FREE GAS” signs. So the question is do you follow the trend to stay competitive? Make no mistake about it, the fans can always get your music for free. Anyone from the lowest level independent to the highest Grammy winner can get bootlegged. To go the easy route and say that fans don’t buy music anymore is no excuse. R&B artist Kem has released 3 gold records in the height of a recession, and amassed a heavy touring base. The question is do you condition your fans to only expect free music from you, or do you want them to buy into your brand?

-Nick Eden

Nick Eden is a songwriter/blogger/R&B junkie based out of Atlanta, GA. Experience his love for Rhythm and Blues at http://www.RnBLova.com, and follow him on Twitter @nickeden.

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