Prince and the Art of Monetizing Free Stuff

Alyson Stanfield, the Art Biz Coach, had an interesting post on her blog today about Prince. She points to an online article from the New York times titled, The Once and Future Prince. The article points out how he changed his name to an unpronounceable glyph and set up his own music club to circumvent the restrictions of his label. This before Napster and iPods, when broadband was strictly a business application. It was an interesting and brave choice. But then those are hallmarks of his career, which now in its third decade shows no signs of slowing down or relying on replaying oldies to pad his retirement. The article details how Prince has been giving his music away and using the exposure to make money, (in his case millions) in other areas.

I often refer to Prince when speaking about POD (Print On Demand) technology because as with so many other things in his career, as the NY Times article indicates, he was well ahead of the curve in seeing how new developments become the norm. Inarguably, POD technology is revolutionizing nearly all of the arts. These days, musicians, artists and writers can all self-publish and with the available help of e-commerce and Internet marketing, they can create a previously unavailable profit stream. Only a few years back, I would have had to shop my book to publishers and hope one would want to take a  chance on the very narrow interest title, How to Profit from the Art Print Market.

Of course, artists could always print a car load of books, prints or record albums. The problem was the upfront expense on an unproven product and then the additional  expense of trying to get it noticed in the mainstream media, etc. For most, the costs and risks were too high. And having sunk the mortgage on production costs, for most it left precious little in the bank or credit line to adequately market the work.

Wayne Dyer, who fathered the self-help movement with his seminal book, Your Erroneous Zones, initially did self-publish a car load of that book. He literally got started by driving from town to town, calling ahead to radio stations to arrange interviews. He sold his books from the trunk along the way. That’s a tough determined way to gain notoriety. For him, it worked out. Doubtless, he oratory skills helped him succeed at a rate where others might not. Fortunately, today’s artists aren’t stuck with such arcane means of generating publicity. POD means they don’t have to used such dogged and away from home techniques to make things happen. With POD, everything has changed and Prince in his inimitable style helped blaze the way. 

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As for giving the product away and monetizing the effort in other ways, The Grateful Dead were the pioneers of the concept. They were the first to freely allow recordings of their marathon concerts. Eventually, they created a taping and recording area where those interested could set up their equipment to get the best reproduction. The Dead’s incessant touring and merchandising paid off in the millions for them as it has for Prince. They created more good will with their fans by giving away the concert recordings than any amount of paid advertising and publicity could ever generate for them.

Giving stuff away does not always sit well with every faction. Changing times cause upheavals in the business models of established companies. In London in advance of his the release of his newest CD, Prince recently gave away free CD’s via a daily newspaper. A recent BBC news item, Anger at Prince free CD giveaway, typifies the wronged’s sentiment towards this type of marketing. No matter how large a company might be, it still smarts when the cheese gets moved.

I agree with Alyson and am not naive in thinking emerging artists ought to or can afford to give away that which they struggle to make and sell in the first place. But, I’m betting there are some who will read this and already are creatively thinking about how to do this on a scale that fits their means and budget. That doesn’t mean doing silly things that just put one in the hole. The adage, "You can’t lose money on every deal and make it up in volume." will always apply.

Here’s just one idea. (If anyone reading this has others to share, please send them to me to be published with full credit in this blog.) Should an artist be printing giclees that don’t run to the margins of the printer, then mini-prints could be produced on the roll at no or slight additional charge. Those prints could then creatively be given away. If a clever publicity campaign surrounded the giveaway, much acclaim and notoriety could be generated for a pittance of expense as compared to buying media…and with greater results for the implied third party endorsement of publicity carries more value, creates more awareness and generates more response than bought media.

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If you want an example of how one recording artist has used giving free stuff away to the benefit of all, you be hard pressed to find a better one than Christine Kane. She is no music powerhouse like Prince, but nevertheless is a tour de force of nature in her own right. I learned of Christine reading another of Alyson’s posts a while back and became an immediate fan of her work and her blog. Her blog is an inspiration for anyone considering getting into blogging. Rather than using it it just talk about her music, it embodies her interests in living well, spirituality, business, music, touring and much more. Her blog subtitle tells it all…Be Creative, Be Conscious, Be Courageous…indeed!

Christine recently gave away 13 CD. She tells why and how in her, 13 CDs to Give Away for Thursday Thirteen blog post. It illustrates how she is using the power of giving away her art to generate great publicity for it and herself in the process. Not surprisingly, you can download a free song from her blog and watch her perform several of her song on You Tube. You can learn a lot from Alyson and from Christine. If you are not subscribing to their blog posts, you’re missing out on great inspiring informative information. Christine’s music is as uplifting and fun as her personality which shines straight through her blog.

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Barney Davey

I help artists and photographers find buyers, sell more art and operate profitably.

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