Pay what you want: how this model showed itself in music, and who tried to make money like that

    Last year, music industry revenues hit a 10-year high. However, far from all this money goes to musicians (in fact, they receive a little more than 10%).

    In an attempt to make money "bypassing" not particularly generous streaming services , artists resort to alternative monetization options. One of them is the pay what you want model, which implies the sale of an album or track without intermediaries at a price chosen by the listener. We will tell you who has already used the PWYW approach.

    Photo Thomas Le / Unsplash

    First experiments: on the verge of charity

    One of the first musicians to test the model was Christian rock performer and preacher Keith Green. He was a prominent member of the Jesus People movement, a symbiosis of Christian fundamentalism and hippie culture that flourished in America in the 70s.

    The first albums of the musician were distributed in religious literature stores, and buyers received an additional copy of the album - to give to a friend. But Keith wanted to reach out to poor listeners, and therefore decided to sell his third album on the principle of "pay what you want."

    At that time, the Green family released a free weekly newspaper with an audience of one hundred thousand subscribers. When work on the album was over, the next issue of the newspaper included information on how this album can be ordered. The recordings were attended by stars of the Christian scene and family friend Bob Dylan, so it is not surprising that in the first three years, Keith sold more than 200 thousand copies of the album. Of these, only 61 thousand were sent free of charge.

    It is not known how much this move paid off. The musician’s motivation was mostly ideological. In the end, in order to record an album, the Green family had to re-mortgage their house. But Green also distributed all subsequent works according to the “pay what you want” scheme - until his death in 1982. Other musicians of a similar caliber did not seem to use the system.

    Digital revolution and pay what you want

    With the advent of broadband internet, the model has become much more attractive. Digital distribution minimized the cost of distributing music, prompting a number of musicians to resume experimentation in this field.

    In 2005, punk artist Jeff Rosenstock released a digital album under the pseudonym “Bomb The Music Industry!”. This project was an expression of the musician’s dislike for the established order in the industry.

    The album was recorded on a home computer using trial versions of the software - which damaged the sound quality, but sharply reduced costs. It could be downloaded for free, and visitors were offered to donate money through PayPal.

    The artist’s radical DIY ethics has spread beyond album sales. Instead of recruiting a full-fledged group, he performed to the accompaniment of the iPod, and sometimes invited members of the public who learned songs at home to the stage. Its popularity is largely the result of a reluctance to follow "standards." Therefore, the musician still continues this practice and even sells vinyl records according to the pay what you want scheme.

    In Rainbows and wide interest

    The general public got acquainted with the “pay-what-you-want” model in 2007, when Radiohead shocked the press, thus releasing the album In Rainbows . He became the band's first work on an independent label - Radiohead's contract with EMI expired back in 2003.

    Therefore, such behavior could be regarded as a public gesture. Despite the fact that the file with the album contains mp3-files of low quality , the group earned on donations larger than their previous sales records. The album is still considered one of the best work of the team.

    Photo by Kevin Dooley / CC BY-SA / Nine Inch Nails at a concert in Phoenix, USA / Photo cropped

    In the footsteps of Radiohead, industrial giants Nine Inch Nails followed. They released two albums in this way - Ghosts I-IV and The Slip , and even put them on BitTorrent themselves. Like Radiohead, NIN perceived their project primarily as a public statement and a way to surprise the public.

    In the same year, platforms appeared that allowed musicians to sell albums at no fixed price. The main one - Bandcamp - quickly attracted stars such as Amanda Palmer and Sufyan Stevens. Also, influential independent labels migrated to the platform. But a significant part of the "large" Bandcamp releases can still not be downloaded for free. As a rule, performers set the minimum cost of loading.

    Reverse side of PWYW

    Does the pay what you want model work financially? The answer depends on how popular the musician or group is.

    Nine Inch Nails uploaded their album to BitTorrent, because that's exactly what In Rainbows listeners downloaded, even with official channels. Moreover, these two groups were popular from the very beginning, and such a marketing move aroused the interest of even more people.

    Now you won’t surprise anyone with such monetization, therefore if the performer is not a superstar, the approach is not perceived as an “auction of unheard of generosity”. However, amateur musicians and adherents of the DIY philosophy still often use this format.

    They do so sooner because it is still difficult for them to turn music into a full-fledged income. It’s easier to let people download their product for free or almost free than to opt out of these listeners.

    The same model (sometimes somewhat modified) also works during public performances of such groups. Fans of open culture, hippies and “socially charged” teams often hold concerts, which are paid at will. Small concert venues and bars where such performances are held make money by selling alcohol rather than entry tickets.

    A good example of this: Russian rock singer Umka is an old-fashioned hippie. She gives over a hundred concerts a year, most of which are conducted on the principle of "admission is free, donation is welcome."

    If for collectives with a worldwide reputation, the pay what you want model is an occasion for public expression and, to some extent, additional PR, for less popular musicians it is rather a necessary measure: it is better to get a fan or at least an interested listener than immediately scare it off with a high price tag.

    Photo by Paulette Wooten / Unsplash

    And in some cases, this approach is a reflection of the worldview of a performer who does not want to turn creativity into a business. It is unlikely that the pay what you want model will exhaust itself in the near future - but it is also unlikely to be the mainstream among musicians.

    What else to read on the topic on our Hi-Fi World blog:

    Shine and poverty: how the digital revolution made musicians poorer
    Why is music no longer being recorded as before?
    One of the streaming giants launched in India and attracted a million users in a week
    What is 8D audio - discussing a new trend
    Situation: meditation applications are becoming more successful than podcasts
    Popularity jumps, or where modern pop stars earn

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