Have a Great Song, a Great Film? Give it Away for Free

In the old days (say five years ago), if you had a great song or a great film you needed to promote and sell it to an audience through a skilled distributor.  

This is no longer the only route.  Success has now added a new business plan.

When Lorde and Joel Little won Song of the Year for Royals at the Grammies this past Sunday, Little said,  “We made this song originally to give away for free…”

I was reminded of Lewis Hyde’s book, The Gift, in which he argues that even though many forms of art (books, paintings, movies or music) are sold as commodities in our transactional economy they can still function as gifts.

He quotes Joseph Conrad, “The artist appeals to that part of our being…which is a gift and not acquisition—and, therefore, more permanently enduring.”

In today’s always connected world, where any artist and any audience can interact 24/7 the interplay between art as commerce and art as gift becomes even more important.  Artists need to find their audience by first creating something that emotionally appeals to them. Then the artist needs to treat that art as a gift and give it away.

The audience then feels that the art is truly its own and feels gratitude towards the artist.  The audience becomes the marketing engine, the distribution pipeline and the passionate community that fuels the artist’s work.  The gift can lead to monetary success.

Royals was originally released on YouTube on May 12, 2013 for free, with no ads.  You can still see it here.  It currently has over 42 million views.

The song was later sold on iTunes, on VEVO, (with ads) and put on CDs.  But it started out as a pure gift, because in Conrad’s words—it “appealed to that part of our being—which is a gift and not acquisition”.  It connected with an audience.

This initial audience used YouTube’s platform to bring an even larger audience because they wanted to share the gift they had received with others.

The interplay between the gift economy, (often called the sharing economy) and commercial economy in the 21st century is very new and still not completely understood.

We are so used to believing that when you create a book, a song, a film, a TV series, you turn it over to mass media middlemen who sell it to an audience—because these middlemen know where to find your audience.   But this is becoming just one business model among many.

New business models are emerging that challenge this old mass media model. They rely on platforms that can take a song performed by an unknown 16 year old from New Zealand from nothing to 42 million views and onto the Grammy stage in less than a year.

They start with thinking about art as a gift–with the crazy idea that,

“We made this song originally to give away for free…”

All artists should give away some of their work as part of their business model.  By doing so, they create the opportunity to make money. So every artist, be they a singer or filmmaker has to think in a new way.

What am I creating that I can give away for free?

About Chris Dorr

I consult with companies on digital media strategy and business development. Clients include Samsung, MTV Networks, Tribeca Film Festival, Shaw Media and Canadian Film Center. I created the Future of Film blog for Tribeca. I have worked in the movie business for Disney Studios, Universal Pictures, Scott Free and in the digital media business for Intertainer, Sony and Nokia. Contact me at chris@digitaldorr.com or follow me at @chrisdorr
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  • SCandler

    Also, perhaps when artists first start out, their work should be given away for free. It doesn’t have value to an audience yet. Just because you make something doesn’t mean it is worth paying for.

    Lorde is an example, as is Atlas Genius (released “Trojans” for free online leading to a showcase on an influential music blog that resulted in over 45,000 downloads in the US alone and led to a deal with Warner Bros Records) and Lily Allen (who started a MySpace account to showcase her music in 2005 and eventually the audience grew enough that it was covered in the press and led to a label deal). In most cases, these musicians worked in obscurity for years before their “break.”

    You could also call the every day connections that artists make with an audience via social channels a form of art. Godin would say “Art is anything that’s creative, passionate, and personal. And great art resonates with the viewer, not only with the creator.” Filmmakers can be artists every day, not just through making feature films!

    If you truly have talent, your art all accumulates to pay dividends later.

    • chrisdorr

      Sheri, great examples and eloquently stated–thanks.

  • Good idea and no worse than getting a typical distribution deal that pays nothing anyway.

    • chrisdorr

      Yes, you hit on a very good point, most traditional distribution deals benefit the distributor–but not the filmmaker.

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  • Marc Schiller

    The issue as I see it is that for a music artist, they can give away a single to gain a fanbase and then make money from live concerts, as well as merch from these concerts. Filmmakers currently don’t have an equivalent of touring and playing live concerts. If they give away their films for free as a “lost leader” what is their version of a concert tour? There isn’t one today. Personally, I do think that there’s a role for “free” in the film industry, but I think we’re conditioned to give things away for free to the point that we’re not creating any value in our content. People like to buy things. We need to make sure that there is a strategy that is sustainable and integrates free but doesn’t erode a business before we have new revenue streams open to us at scale.

    • chrisdorr

      Marc, thanks for your comment. You are right that musical artists have the ability to make money by touring and selling merchandise–that filmmakers do not have. And yes we need to find a balance between free and paid, a balance that is not all together clear. I think in general filmmakers have to work on developing their “voice”–some would call it their “brand”. I have a friend that became an expert in an area because of a doc he made–he began to be offered speaking engagements at 10K a pop when he would appear with his film- the film was free to the organization, he was paid to speak–he made more money speaking than from film purchases. An educational film distributor told me that she had a doc that made over a million dollars in the US market–much of that was in direct speaker fees to the filmmaker–again not in film rentals. In both cases the film was free–but the filmmaker got paid to show up and connected with an audience by literally using their voices. It is a little like touring is for a musical artist. In addition, I think filmmakers can make short films–think Vine even that get their voice out to their fans on a regular basis for free, while they charge for their film. Like Lorde, filmmakers can make their work free sometimes, and in other situations charge for it. They just need to think about ways they can do that, that are not simply charging for access to their film. By doing so, they can find ways to get paid as well.