Why is the music industry dishing out free downloads?

The American singer Ross Copperman was recently declared an overnight sensation, following the online success of his song "As I Choke", which was chosen to be the iTunes Single of the Week. The track was downloaded 36,457 times in seven days, "a record" according to Copperman's website, and certainly an impressive-sounding statistic. However, amid the ensuing ballyhoo, it was considered indelicate, or perhaps even irrelevant, to mention the fact that the track was being offered for nothing.

It is hard to imagine any other line of business in which the ability simply to give away its core product in such huge quantities would be considered something to trumpet quite so loudly. Copperman, a 24-year-old singer somewhat in the Bryan Adams mould, and from Virginia, is signed to SonyBMG, and the company clearly has big plans for him. It will be hoping that its initial largesse will be repaid when his debut album is released on 14 May, and an army of converts to the cause will be lined up with their wallets open, ready to shell out for the rest of his songs. But if not, the title of Copperman's record - Welcome to Reality - could prove uncomfortably appropriate.

It's not just new acts that are giving their songs away. Manic Street Preachers are offering a free track, complete with artwork, called "Underdogs", to anyone who cares to log on to their website and register on their database. Far from being a live track or a dodgy alternative mix, "Underdogs" is actually the first new music to come from their next album, Send Away the Tigers, slated for release on 7 May. The Manics have described the giveaway track as a thank-you to the loyal fans who have supported the band over the years. "In a Britain dominated by generic, one-diametrical [sic] multi-branding, let us embrace the downtrodden, the losers and the opposition," says their bass player Nicky Wire, in a statement that rather blurs the philosophy of the lyric with that of the marketing gesture. But it seems that the generosity of the Manics towards the poor, downtrodden consumers may be informed by a canny observation of the old maxim that if you can't beat them, it's sometimes best to join them.

"It's partly that," says Jim Fletcher, the product manager at Columbia, the Manics' record company. "But also the way music's always spread has been by people talking about it. So if you let people hear records then they talk about it. If you're confident that it's a good record, then people will spread the news around. Most bands give away some music for free these days, whether it's giving away an MP3 or setting it up with another partner, or putting something in a podcast, or doing a MySpace preview, or making a player that can be embedded in other people's MySpace site or Bebo or whatever social network they're on. You can't really do much to stop people spreading it for you so you might as well make the most of it."

If it makes sense for a group as established as the Manics to give away a new track, the case for giving away songs becomes even more persuasive when you are an act trying to get your first toehold in the marketplace. Story One, a melodic, indie-prog band from Nottingham, have come to the conclusion that, rather than spending vast sums of money on advertising, plugging and promoting their debut album, Disposable, in the conventional way, it makes more sense simply to give it away via their website.

"We asked our record company if we could just give the first one away and move on to the next one," says the group's singer and violinist Tom Evans. "If we can get as many people as possible into the first record, then we can create a story and a legacy, and a market for our second album, which hopefully people will want to buy." Story One are signed to Shy Records, a subsidiary of Simon Fuller's 19 Management, an organisation not renowned primarily for its acts of philanthropy. "He is looking for initiatives that are different and credible and going to create great music, which is what we're trying to do," Evans insists.

So far, 12,500 people have taken Story One up on their offer and downloaded the album for free. "We believe that the word of mouth and publicity that has been generated by doing that makes it a better way of doing things than spending £500,000 on marketing and advertising, because in this day and age, a lot of it gets lost," Evans says. "So many bands have spent so much money on conventional marketing campaigns and they haven't been able to recoup," he says. "If you spend too much money on making and selling an album, and you don't make it back, you will be dropped and your career will be stunted. That's not what we want to do."

The record industry has reached a strange pass when it makes more economic sense to give away an entire album than to spend the money needed to persuade people to buy it. But, when it comes to the process of downloading, it seems that the cost of providing tracks and the profit margins from them are slender enough often to make giving music away the only worthwhile option.

There are now internet sites devoted to giving away full albums legally. At Free Albums Galore ( www.freealbums.blogsome.com), at least one complete album is listed free for download every day. Many are by predictably obscure acts. But there are albums by heavy hitters there too, such as the Smashing Pumpkins' album Machina II/The Friends And Enemies of Modern Music (the sequel to the band's last commercially available album, Machina/The Machines of God), which Virgin Records refused to release at the time.

But the cost of giving away free CDs is still prohibitive unless they are old tracks and the disc is pasted on to the front of a magazine. However Rob McCulloch, a singer-songwriter from Bolton, has cooked up a novel idea, with the help of Pete Bassett, the MD of the Quite Great Publicity company, for circulating his third album, Escaping Times. McCulloch has been sending out copies of his album to fans and even to non-fans, on the understanding that once they have received the CD and listened to it, they send him a cheque for however much they feel the album is worth. "I was curious to see if they would pay for it," McCulloch says with heroic understatement. "I was pretty sure they would and, in fact, 90 per cent of them have paid. The rest say they are just waiting for pay-day. No one's paid under £5 for it. But the feedback I've had from it has been the really great thing."

'Welcome to Reality' by Russ Copperman is out on SonyBMG on 14 May; 'Send Away the Tigers' by Manic Street Preachers is out on Columbia on 7 May; 'Disposable' by Story One is available free at www.storyone.co.uk; 'Escaping Times' by Rob McCulloch is available from www.robmcculloch.com

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