One Working Musician Explains How Pay What You Want Works For Him

from the working-it dept

We’re going to try something a bit new here at Techdirt. Usually, we post stories based on some news event or stories elsewhere, but since we talk so often about various business models, and often try to highlight business model experiments that work, I wanted to start a regular series of “case studies,” on content creators doing interesting things. Sometimes it will include success stories. Sometimes, perhaps, failure stories. Sometimes we won’t even know yet. But the goal is to call out examples of the interesting things that have been done, and to dig into them a bit, and hope that we can all learn from them and maybe see if others are inspired by them. We’re looking for content creators (not just musicians, by the way) who might be interested in sharing info with us as a part of this series, so if you are doing something interesting, or know of someone else who is, hit us up at the feedback link above.

The first one in this series of posts is about jazz musician Jason Parker, who also blogs at the site, where he details his various experiments with making a living as, yes, a working musician.

Back when Radiohead did their pay what you want offering a few years ago, one of the widespread critiques of the idea was that it would only work if you already had a huge following. We’ve seen, of course, that isn’t true. Last year, we wrote about a few experiments with bands trying pay what you want CDs at shows and having some success with it. This doesn’t mean, of course, that if you just toss up some music and say “pay what you want,” it will work. But if you really do cultivate a fanbase, and offer them a way to support you, it’s often quite amazing what they will do… and that’s exactly what Jason discovered.

It started with a “weekend experiment,” late last year, where Parker reduced the required price of the download of his albums, to $0 from $5, and tweeted to his followers that they could pay whatever they wanted for it. He had considered setting a minimum of $1, but decided to see what happened if he went totally free. And the results were quite impressive:

Sunday night at midnight I checked my stats and was amazed. The three Jason Parker Quartet CD’s, “No More, No Less”, “Live @ JazzTV”, and “The Jason Parker Quartet” had been downloaded 128 times! That’s more downloads than I’ve received in the last few months combined. Most days I was lucky if a track or two were downloaded, let alone full albums.

And what’s even more impressive to me is that many of the people who downloaded the CD’s actually paid for them, even though they didn’t have to! In fact, I made more money from sales this weekend than in any other three-day period since the days right after the release of our latest CD, “No More, No Less”. All while giving them away for free!

After the weekend, he raised the prices back up to $5… but after thinking through it some more, and seeing these and other results, he’s now permanently set the price at “pay what you want,” with $0 being a perfectly acceptable price. I asked Jason how it’s going, and he says that before, when he had the price at $5, he would sell maybe 3 per month. However, these days, with the price set at $0, he’s averaging 8 sales per week with an average price of $8.50. Yes, his sales have increased from one every ten days or so, to more than one per day, and the amount people pay has gone up. The CDs, by themselves, are obviously not a huge moneymaker, but still, the revenue has gone from about $15/month to around $300/month. By giving it away for free and letting people pay what they want. Not bad.

Jason’s second experiment was with pay what you want at a show. Through a long and not very interesting set of circumstances, he was set to play a gig where the bar didn’t realize that he was supposed to be playing that night, and had no one to watch the door. It was also a bar that has a lot of “regulars.” While he had planned to charge a cover, rather than dealing with that, he decided to just ask people walking in to donate $5 to the musicians’ fund, and he was surprised by the results:

Of course there were people who blew right by, or said “I’m just here for a beer”, or “I’ll get you on the way out” (which is as good as a “no”). But there were also many people who actually paid the $5 even though they didn’t have to! And I can tell you for a fact that the majority of the people at the bar were NOT there to see the music. The bar has a large group of regulars who all seemed to know each other.

Just by asking, I was able to get people to give me $5 of their hard-earned cash when they weren’t expecting to part with it. They had a choice and they chose to support the live music happening in the bar, even though it was completely unfamiliar to them and somewhat out of place. At the end of the night, both bands walked away with money in their pockets, free drinks in their bellies, and new fans. How about that??

Jason’s third experiment was to start exclusively offering CDs at shows using a “pay what you want” scale. He found that he was actually selling more CDs at a higher price that way:

At gigs in my hometown of Seattle I have been averaging $12/CD, which is more than the $10/CD I used to charge, and I have been averaging about twice as many CDs out the door per gig.

And while we were on tour last month all CDs were sold as PWYW and we averaged $14/CD! I sold every disc I brought with me and couldn’t be happier how it turned out.

It’s been very successful for me in many ways, and I’m a huge fan. I have actually started to physically hand CDs to people at shows, and when they ask “how much” I tell them they are welcome to put whatever they think is fair in the tip jar. I can’t tell you how many $20 bills I’ve seen go in the jar for single CDs.

Jason recently did a show where he specifically told the audience from the stage that he wanted everyone to leave with a CD, and that they could pay whatever they wanted:

By the end of the night I had sold 27 CDs with an average price of $11.50.

I asked Jason what he thought about the idea that people “just want stuff for free,” as we hear so often, and his general thoughts on the idea of better “connecting with fans,” and he gave quite a nice response about his experiences and his thoughts:

I think it is about continually connecting with your fans and potential fans. For me the best thing has been to reach out to people on Twitter as a person, not as a musician. When they get to know me as a person, they are MUCH more likely to buy the CD. That’s where the majority of my Bandcamp sales are coming from. It does take work to be consistently chatting with folks and finding new folks, but I see a direct correlation between how much I converse on Twitter and how many downloads I sell. It’s a no-brainer.

I disagree that people “just want stuff for free”. The way I see it, people will take for free what they have no connection to. However, if you make a connection, these same people will WANT to give you money. And as I found out at the bar, the connection doesn’t need to be deep or lasting, although that certainly helps. The people who gave money in that instance did so because I appealed to them as a musician and a human being and asked them for their support. They were willing to give even if that’s the last they’ll ever hear from or of me. I think that’s pretty cool and pretty telling. We need to get comfortable making the ask…that’s the only way we’ll get what we need.

Great stuff from Jason, and I appreciate him taking the time to answer my questions. If you want to check out his music, you should head on over to his Bandcamp page. You won’t regret it.

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Comments on “One Working Musician Explains How Pay What You Want Works For Him”

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Dark Helmet (profile) says:


I would think that being a smaller musician would be relatively beneficial to the give away model attempts. People, particularly any that appreciate art, are basically good and caring. Far from the “just want everything for free” types that others like to claim, I’ve found folks to be generally helpful, generous, and interested in helping out others.

The tough part, I think, is actually gauging how large/interested your audience is and, even more so, engaging them properly….

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: Re: Actually...

Sure it is. But, to me at least, one of the greatest benefits for relinquishing any control over sharing or price is to have the work spread, preferably like the proverbial wildfire. I’ve had great comments, participation, and feedback from folks on some of my work for isntance (including many from TechDirt, which I can’t begin to say how much I appreciate), but it’s hard to know how to either personally or through the work connect with people to the point where they become advocates for you. That’s what I struggle with, probably because I’m inherently just not good at it, and probably because I don’t devote the amount of time I should to it.

What I’d be interested in learning as a follow up from Jason is if he was able to see some kind of cumulative effect on interest/sales/whatever based on using this model. I suspect that, at some level or another, that effect is there. Measuring it isn’t so easy, though….

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Actually...

Well, the first group that becomes emotionally invested in your work through this pay what you want type of deal is great. And the second group is great two. And the third. But it seems to me that the key is to get groups one and two coming back along with three, and maybe bringing a friend or two with them as well. Then they do the same. And then the others do the same.

The point, I thought, was to connect and get your fans to be your advocates. At some point you reach critical mass and massive amounts of people know you and your work….

Hephaestus (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Actually...

DH – I have been thinking about the give it away free and pray way of doing the music business. Its truely stupid. Every artist doing this should do the pay what you want model, with a zero price option instead. This way they end up with some revenue coming in off the stuff they would have given away free anyway.

Your thoughts??

Karl (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Actually...

I have not done this for recorded music, but I’ve played several live shows where similar things have been tried.

The “pay what you want” sales model is akin to the “pass the hat” live model. It doesn’t work all that well.

Much more successful is the “suggested donation” model, where you set a specific price (say $10), but make it clear that it’s optional. By giving a suggested price, you give people a goal to shoot for, even if it’s not required.

For me, the “suggested donation” model actually surpasses both the “pass the hat” model, and the “fixed price” (i.e. cover charge) model.

Karl (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Actually...

You’re welcome. (I’d like to say it was my idea, but I’d be lying.)

But, in my experience, it’s not about “guilt” so much as genuine ignorance about what a fair price actually is. Consumers have no idea how much it costs to do things (nor should they need to), so they won’t know unless they’re told.

Now, obviously you can’t just set your own price – people can tell when they’re being gouged. But everyone wants to support the things they like, and if you set a fair price, they’ll voluntarily oblige if they can.

Hephaestus (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Actually...

Think about adding different rewards levels also.

I am finally getting where Mike is coming from on this. It just clicked with your previous comment. Its about the presentation, the access, and the connection. Very cool!

Neat thing is that the record labels can’t do this there is to much animosity towards them. Actually its out right hatred, and people would be spiteful and vindictive towards them. So one less business model for them to use … hoo-ah!!

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Actually...

Actually, i think pay what you want makes sense primarily because of two things that some others have mentioned before:

1. People are generally good. Explain to them what you’re trying to do, and why you’re trying to do it, and they’ll want to help.

2. Pay what you want inherently makes most people think not only about the art, or about money, but about how they’re connected with regard to value and price. Asking someone to pay a price sucks. Asking someone to give in the amount they value what you’ve done creates a bond.

Hephaestus (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Actually...

Yes but Karl made a good point. Setting a suggested price is the better way to do it. If I am remembering correctly the Natural history museum in NYC does the same thing. From a business perspective putting a suggested price on pay what you want ups the money you make. Even if someone can pay nothing.

Its …

Pay what you want with a price of zero as the default


Pay what you want with a non zero price as the default

The second choice is the better option. IMHO

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Actually...

Measure what you can, your own offerings and use google search and statistics to gauge the rest, people will copy the exact same words most of the time and google can find those instances, using that you can get a pretty good idea of how your work that is written is spreading.

The only ones who actually have any idea about how things spread are search engines.

Maybe it is important but if Youtube is any indication of how things work, the original almost always is the one who gets the most views and then others start showing up.

Search baby search.

Anonymous Coward says:

The problem is when I hear that people just want stuff for free is that the same thing is true of the recording companies. I can generate a copy of the music without involving them at all. They want to be paid for something I can do for free.

Of course, I want to support artists, but I cannot give money to an organization that uses it to take my rights away from me. I’m glad to hear about this guy’s success. I’m far more likely to take the music for free and give a $10 tip than buying it for even a dollar.

Wesha (profile) says:

I think it works well because those who donate satisfy the human’s natural urge to “look better than the others”. When you’re *buying* something, it’s nothing special, business as usual. When you’re donating, you’re, well, *doing something good*, that “any reasonable person” won’t do! And, given that just about anyone wants to feel that he’s better than others… more people end up donating than paying.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

My hypothesis is different: each one has their own view on how much a music CD is worth. Some people would pay $10, some people $20… The trick is that, by not stating a price, each person will pay their own optimum value (see to understand why each person paying their optimum price is good).

On the other hand, each person will tend to pay what they view as how much it is worth, instead of just paying nothing, because people are naturally good.

iamtheky (profile) says:

“play a gig where didn’t realize that he was supposed to be playing that night”

“he decided to just ask people walking in to donate to the musicians’ fund”

“We need to get comfortable making the ask…that’s the only way we’ll get what we need.”

Turning Art into vagrancy, beautiful.

RtB is certainly not the whole “no one tell them we will be offering this service, then surprise them and ask for a donation (and a $5 donation is not PWyW, its $5)”

Otherwise the next article should be about the awesome ass window washer who decided to take his skills to the street and offer it for donations, he was connecting more with his customers by showing up places unexpectedly and asking donations of strangers for providing a service that was imposed upon them rather than sought out.

out_of_the_blue says:

"They sit at the bar, and put bread in my jar,

and say, ‘Man, what are you doin’ here?” — Billy Joel.

And once I saw an organ grinder dance while his monkey turned the crank, then both went round with hat out.

Not exactly a new “business model”, now that I think on it.

But I’m afraid it only works where the product is free and value is subjective. Don’t see any migrant workers offering fruit in exchange with a pay-as-you-want model, because there’s an *objective* standard for it.

Patrik (user link) says:

Pass the Bucket

I have (many) a similar story about passing a bucket at shows. Outside of events where we’ve gotten a guarantee, which is rare, my band has made far more money at free shows with a tip bucket than we’ve ever made at your typical $5-$15 door show. So much that these days, we try to play exclusively at clubs that don’t charge a cover. And if they offer a view of the band from the street, all the better.

Similar story with downloads. For ideological reasons I’m not comfortable with charging money for our music, which has tons of samples (we sell physical CDs basically at cost, and the only reason we sell those is that you’re still not considered “legit” in today’s industry without them. Times are changing, though). Instead I use it to promote the things I can make money at in music, and newsflash!: it isn’t merch. My biggest money makers are DJing and guest bartending. Behind that is music production, and as bigger studios have fallen by the wayside I’ve been cleaning up on that end. However, the last few years have seen a downturn on that side of my business, so lately I’ve been trading production work for things like graphic design and PR work for my band, which is kind of creating a “serpent eating its tail” situation. After that is working as a soundguy for live shows, and behind that is mostly free work sequencing/scoring that I do for modern dancers, performance artists, and other various artsy things that catch my interest. But there are other benefits to that work. Mostly networking and venue rental discounts.

Whatever you can do to get by, that’s what counts. Personally, I like it when people are buying other people’s music, because it creates an industry I can sell my “behind-the-scenes” skills to.

Still, I think the most beautiful “business model” I ever witnessed was (literally) perpetrated by a band called The Causey Way. Their gimmick was that they were a cult led by a man named simply “Causey” and in the middle of shows, hell in the middle of songs, he would point at a member of the audience and demand at least 5 dollars. People were so stunned, embarrassed, and scared of not looking cool that they eagerly handed the man money. Keep in mind that the audience had already paid at least $20 apiece to get in the doors. It even worked on me. I mean, this dude on stage is pointing at you, looking you in the eye demanding money, and the whole audience is now focused on you. What else can you do except hand the guy 5 bucks? Absolutely brilliant.

Jason Parker (profile) says:

DH…I see what you mean.

And I can tell you that it is definitely a cumulative effect so far. What Mike didn’t talk about was my Micropatronage (fan-funding) programs that have helped me raise fund for my last album and my tour. About 85% of the people who gave to my first program (CD) also gave to my second program (tour). They were also my biggest advocates in getting the word out the 2nd time around. So far so good!

And I think the key is that PWYW allows the consumer to decide what the product/service is worth TO THEM. The CD may be worth $1 to one person and $50 to another. I’m just giving them the opportunity (and the prodding) to make that decision. As you say, people generally do want to support things they like and will do so if asked.

Thanks for all the great comments folks!

LC (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I think this is an important detail because it shows that you DO need to have a somewhat solid fan base before something like this will work. It’s a great tool, but you probably need to have the numbers for it. And I only say this because I think we need to keep in mind that timing is an important success factor of PWYW.

Also, congratulations Jason!

Paul Stout (profile) says:

Great Article

Since I live in the Seattle area and like Jazz (well, old fashioned Dave Brubeck/Ramsey Lewis style jazz that is) I used the link to look at his site, played the sample track and loved it, so I bought the CD.

This is a good example of how reaching out, even it’s only by way of an interview, can expand your possibilities (both his and mine). I didn’t even know this local jazz quartet existed until I read this article!!!

I find out more stuff this way than I ever did before I dumped my subscription to the Seattle Times!!

Anonymous Coward says:

The greatest testament to this model is the catholic church, which is currently the biggest real state owner in the world, they make billions in donations alone.

How do they do that? they engage the communities they are in.

I’m an atheist by the way.

The oldest trick in the world is doing some sort of public event to raise funds, for musicians they can partner together to make such events like the Brazilians “aparelhagems” that are trucks full of equipment to make parties like circus, where you put up a show and on the side you have merch being pushed to customers like drinks, food, apparel, memorabilia.

Today you can find used busses and trucks for less than 10 grand, remodeling them would cost 3 thousand each or less depending on if you want to have electricity and shower inside.

I can see the possibilities.

Karl E. Taylor says:

It's really a very old model

We’ve actually known that “pay what you want” is a valid model for a very long time.

When I was stationed in Boston, I use to ride the T to the office very day. At the orange/blue line interchange, there was a young man who played the violin. He could have easily been in the Boston Pops, but he chose to play in the subway. Every day he played, he left with a violin case full of money. He made his own hours, and lived life on his terms, and no one told him what to play. Every day I saw him, I dropped a least a fiver into that case.

On my last day in Boston, just before my transfer, I dropped a $100 bill in his case, and thanked him for making my commute more enjoyable.

Sander Bol says:

Happy customer :)

After reading the article here, I clicked through to Jason’s page just to have a listen. Figured that in the worst case I’d spend a few minutes listening to awful music, and in the best case I’d get some awesome albums totally free.

Somehow between that decision and me writing this post, Jason now has twentyfive bucks, I have a personal email from him replying to a comment I made in the payment, and will definitely be keeping an eye on future releases. Funny how that goes 🙂

He asked me if he could put a comment I made on here, so I figured I’d do so myself:

This take it for free if you like attitude gives me much more satisfaction as a listener than ripping something from Limewire… and actually compels me to pay up, just because you’ve placed some trust in me to do the right thing. Weird reverse-psychology thing 🙂

Jason Parker (profile) says:

Sander’s comment above makes me happy and encouraged about the state of things. It’s precisely this kind of connect that I’m after as an artist and a human being. It’s a bit sad that he was so surprised by my email response to him. That just speaks to the fact that we’ve gotten SO far away from personal connection that it is now the exception, not the rule. I hope that will change and am doing my part!

And LC…I don’t think it’s so much that you need to have a solid fan base as that you need to have the willingness to search out your would-be fans. The internet makes that so much easier. Artists willing to put some time into it are reaping the benefits!

Cheers all.

Derek Gripper (user link) says:

Same Here

I had similar fabulous results which showed me that people who want to listen to music are very happy to pay the musician who makes it. My downloads increased by 500 percent and revenue by 1500 percent. PLus there were loads of people out there listening to my music – even if they hadn’t paid for it. Who could ask for more? Onlu other option is to pay a marketer loads of money to try to get people to hear you on radio etc. Why not use digital files for what they are – a free way to get your music heard WITH an option to pay. It’s a bit like expecting somebody to pay to listen to you speaking. Its just rude and won;t make you many friends… : )

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