I am sure you have come across this model recently, artists making their work available for whatever fans want to pay for it. It has been called by many names (pay what you want, pay what you can, pay what you think it’s worth etc), but they all essentially mean the same thing. The artist gives the audience the choice as to how much money they spend on the music.
It is widely used for digital downloads, with sites such as Bandcamp, Noise Trade leading the way for independent artists, but was given wholesale attention when Radiohead employed it for the release of In Rainbows in 2007. They made the digital version of the album available for whatever you wanted to pay, and then the premium box set, they sold for a fixed £50. This was an example of what has come to be commonly known as the ‘freemium’ model. I wrote an article about this in 2010 here.
For some musicians and music marketers it is still being seen as something of a gimmick to be used to harness more fans or even just garner some more attention. But I have personally made all of my releases available on this basis because I think, at a fundamental level it makes more moral sense than putting a price on what is essentially an intangible thing, regardless of the promotional merits of allowing people to download my music for free.
I believe the challenge for artists now (if they want to make a living) is to create something that people will want to part with money for. It is to push forwards with new ideas, concepts and ‘packaging’, rather than pining backwards after the freak blip that was the ludicrously lucrative CD selling industry at the end of the last century. We are in the business of creating, and we are freer to create, both our art and the way we provide it, now than we ever have been. The challenge is essentially to create meaning in what we do because if the audience feels like they have a stake in, and uniquely understand the artist then they will want them to continue doing what they do.
And with this in mind, I come to the main point of this post: using the pay what you want model with merchandise at live shows. I started doing this over two years ago when I toured around the UK. I know of a few musicians who do the same now, but have mainly encountered a response of fear when encouraging others to try it.
I think people believe it wont work because it doesn’t fit with our understanding of day-to-day economics and capitalism. But the results have been unexpected and incredible. I have made so much more money from CD sales since employing this approach, although it has interestingly varied depending on the way I have pitched the idea from the stage. I remember reading this article about it in 2009 which emphasised the importance of talking about it during the set and the unexpected results from expressing how much sharing that particular experience with the audience has meant to you, ergo automatically instilling reciprocal significance in the mind of the onlooker.
I believe there is a great paradox within our minds, that says on the one hand ‘tell me how much you want me to pay for this product’, but on the other hand doesn’t like being told what to do (and is less likely to do it when it is) and embraces the control it possesses when it is allowed to choose (and is more likely to accept this responsibility).
More people started buying my CDs when I said it was up to them what they paid. I would also encourage the idea that my main goal was for anyone who wanted one to have one, even if they couldn’t give me any money for it. Essentially, just pay what you can afford, even if that is nothing. People started giving me lots more money. On three separate occasions people have bought a CD that I would previously had sold for £5, and given me £30. I think the average spent per CD is about £8 – £10.
But they were not giving me £30 for the CD itself, they were giving it for something more, albeit something much less tangible, something you cannot put a price on. The CD merely represented a part of the bigger thing, and the pay what you can model is actually a part of what they are buying into.
It is a model of freedom, and encapsulates the essence of what we should be all about as artists. Fighting against the orthodox rules of business and saying, you know what, art means more than the stuff of the world (commodities). It is about connections that can’t be measured and ideas that can’t be boxed up and sold. Therefore, if I give you the freedom to respond in the way that you want, I am actually achieving my number one goal as an artist, to make you feel free.
If you are a musician and haven’t tried doing this at shows before, I implore you to give it a go. Just for half a dozen gigs, see what happens. I guarantee, if you say the right thing from the stage you will be shocked at how positive the response is.