It's amazing how quickly radical change becomes the new normal. If even two years ago you said that two of the biggest stars in music, Drake and Beyoncé, would release albums completely without physical versions (yet), it would have felt like stop-the-presses news. Yet when Views and Lemonade dropped as digital-only releases, it seemed so natural that to point it out would have felt like stating the obvious.
And now we're only a couple days away from one of the year's other most highly anticipated releases from Chance the Rapper, which will assuredly be completely free, as his last two projects (three including Surf) have been. It wasn't that long ago when I was listening to labels and artists vow to never release free music, now never releasing free music would seem revolutionary.
As always, Killer Mike puts things in perspective nicely:
We put 'em all [the albums] out for free. Why not? Why pretend like this is the Puffy era and you're gonna sell a million and shine? Fuck outta here. The truth of it all is, if kids really love your stuff, they're going to find a way to support it. Why try to trick them into first week sales and shit like that when we can say here, take the album? If you like it, dope. If you like it enough, buy it. If you don't want to buy an album, buy a t-shirt. If you buy an album and a t-shirt and want to see this crazy shit live, come out to a show."
The revenue stream he lays out is now well-traveled. When sales are dead and you're getting fractions of a penny per stream, the smart money is on using music to drive merchandise and tour sales, a strategy that even those aforementioned superstars now apply. You can listen to Lemonade for free with a TIDAL trial if it gets you to put down $300 on a Formation Tour ticket.
The fine print though is that the free music strategy only works if you can make music people truly care about. You don't have to give a shit to download something for free, as those of us who grew up in the CD era know you didn't even have to particularly give a shit to buy an album, but no one fights traffic, buys a ticket and puts their body in a venue unless they care. Free music incentivizes real connections with fans, and that's a good thing for music.
Artists used to argue with me that releasing free music meant devaluing their art and their career, but in 2016 it's increasingly clear that only those who truly care about making their art will attempt to build a career out of free music.