Well my little experiment on releasing music completely outside of the traditional distribution system appears to be working thanks to either initial curiosity or a genuine desire to support me or my label in producing music in the future. For those that don’t know, I’m essentially making my music available as a free download but with encouragement to make a donation toward future production, a bit like an honesty box. So far, after 3 weeks on my last release, roughly 25% of downloaders have donated and all of them giving around £2 or more.

Donations so far equate to having something like a top 5 genre chart position on Traxsource.

Here is what has defined my strategy:

  • Pirate sites intercept music automatically through the distribution system – You can’t stop it and so anyone that’s motivated can find every new release on day one on somewhere like Clapcrate. You can pay a service like Audiolock good money to take it down, but even they can’t touch the FTP sites. In short, it costs you as much to protect a recording as what you save.
  • Distribution takes the best part of 50% of any revenues and while that was fair enough when sales were relatively buoyant, the threshold of financial release viability through stores is now so low as to hardly be worth it, even with substantial feature support. I really feel for these guys at Traxsource because they’re trying bloody hard !
  • In the UK you must be VAT registered to sell anything digitally (even for 1p) – Although it costs nothing to register, the costs of accountancy make this a ridiculous proposition. For this reason, donations appear to be the way to go.
  • Bandcamp still charge and I’m not convinced without an awful lot of work, that people will find your music by accident. I find it clunky.
  • The music released for free MUST be every bit as well produced, engineered and mastered as a ‘commercial’ release.
  • I like being completely in control of the entire process from inception through to artwork, web development and hosting, marketing and final distribution.
  • There is no financial benefit worthy of mention in releasing to streaming services for underground artists in real terms
  • A small, loyal and personal network is infinitely more rewarding to me over a large and fickle crowd of people that will abandon you as quickly as having clicked the like button

One idea which I’ll be piloting is involving other artists to benefit from the U2R reputation whilst retaining 100% of the donations made to them. The way this will work is that the label will provide mastering, artwork and A&R along with calculated social media promotion in return for retaining copyright of the recorded work. The original artist will be paid donations directly to their own paypal account thus eliminating costly accountancy charges. If their track is remixed, the remixer will receive 100% of the donations given for their remix in the same way as the original artist. The remix would however require approval by the original artist (unless I did it !! ).

So how does the label earn out of this ?

Provided the release quality remains high, passing traffic will be assured with other tracks on the label gaining visibility and donations. There is a degree of self interest here of course with plenty of my own work being available.  As the label retains copyright of the recorded work, it reserves an option to monetise that recording under more traditional terms (ie 50:50 artist/label splits) when licensing to third parties, should a lucrative and mutually agreed opportunity arise.

More important however is that this builds a sense of community. With many artists saying they produce music for the love of it, this provides an opportunity to genuinely be part of something.

Surely this can’t be a good deal for the artist?

Well actually, it is a fair deal in the real world. Most releases don’t cover their costs which results in frustration at not meeting payout thresholds. Many labels won’t send out statements showing negative balances either and for good reason. There can be very few things more depressing to an artist than to see they’ve sold no more than 2 copies of something they may have worked on for days or even weeks ! Very few artists see any kind of payout however set up in this manner, a small stream of payments can be seen to come in. This is about as transparent as you can get in this industry. Think of it like Bandcamp but with 100% payout connected to a label with a personal touch.

Of course this is very much a toe in the water based on real world experience from running a digital label for the last 5 years but I do believe this approach has much more to do with the love of music than any other model I’ve come across. It’s very early days, but I’m very encouraged.