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?