Why free music at all?
This year marks my tenth anniversary as a self-publishing composer. While I was writing music before that point, 2006 was the year I started my first music website. I posted a few PDFs of original hymns with no price tag attached. I had no idea what I was doing.
Since then, I’ve spent a lot of my musical life creating, promoting, and benefiting from free music. I love that free distribution methods allow composers to build strong connections with performers. I love that performers with limited means can access good scores. Free music can build great relationships.
Also, in certain religious contexts, I think it’s admirable for talented composers to give a portion of their work freely as a gift to God and those who worship. I would be quite uncomfortable if my spiritual life was directly tied to my business model.
A gradual change
Those who have followed my work over the past few years have surely noticed a shift. I still publish several small pieces each year for free – usually children’s songs and hymns. Sometimes I’ll also publish something larger without asking for compensation. But most of my new choral arrangements and larger works are published or distributed by methods that have a definite price tag.
Why? Have I abandoned free music? Am I just another sellout who started with generous intentions, but somehow became ensnared by capitalist greed?
Not exactly. Here are my big three reasons for limiting (not eliminating) what I give away for free:
First, “free” isn’t free.
It’s easy to extol the virtues of free music, but it is only free for the consumer. In order to produce and distribute it, I still get to pay for instruments, recording equipment, computer hardware, software, web hosting . . . plus the education that helped me learn to compose was certainly not free, either.
I’ve accepted donations since I started publishing, and I’ve had several very generous donors. But those donations don’t cover half of the expenses I just listed.
In essence, I pay to give stuff away. I do it gladly, because I like it. But over time, it’s not a sustainable model. I want to be generous, not stupid.
Second, my time is worth more now.
I’m not talking about professional billable time here, although my value has risen in that way as well.
When I started publishing free music online, I was an unmarried college student. I could spend hours and hours composing for the fun of it, and the worst consequence was usually a headache the next day.
Now I have a beautiful wife and four kids, and a pretty demanding full-time job. If I want to compose for six hours, I either take that time away from my family (not good) or away from sleep (better, but tough).
I still make it a priority to compose, because it’s not just something I enjoy doing; it’s a big part of who I am. But the time I spend to compose is not trivial. I don’t do it because I’m bored.
Third, people value things with a price tag.
Right or wrong, to many serious musicians, the fact that a composition is offered for free implies that it has little musical value.
If I’m honest, I have to admit some snobbishness in this area myself: I’ve discovered that many of the free scores I have tried with my choirs are free because they are unsellable. Bad writing and editing are common in the free music world, partly because the internet has made it so easy for anyone to publish anything.
Of course, that criticism is not true of every free score or every composer of free scores. Some I like very much. But mining through the reams of mediocre free music to find a rare gem is not a time investment most experienced directors will make.
Good musicians expect good music to have a cost. Right or wrong, it’s a cultural expectation. And I take it personally. If I am going to sell something, I work hard to make sure it’s truly good.
Of course, I don’t sabotage my free works so my paid pieces look good. I just make sure that I give extra thought, care, and attention to detail when I’m writing something I expect others to purchase. And it seems to work. I have received some great positive feedback about my paid scores.
So am I done with free music?
Of course not. What I’ve published as free will remain free, and I’ll regularly add to that collection. But alongside them are some great compositions that are worth the price of admission.
Whether you’re a paying customer, a donor, or just a fan of the free stuff, thanks for your support. It’s been a great ten years.