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

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'