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 OneWorkingMusician.com, 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 Bandcamp.com 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.