We’ve all watched and commented on bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails releasing free albums and still profiting by them. Will this model still work for new artists, though?

Trent Reznor posted yesterday that the Beastie Boys’ Ill Communication reissue is “how you sell music today”. As a rebuttal to the usual “that only works for established artists” replies, he’s followed this up with an extended post on what artists who haven’t reached the Beasties or NIN level of profile can do to get established.

Ghosts I-IV by Nick Humphries
NIN’s $300 deluxe edition of Ghosts sold out in under two days, grossing $750,000. The first week combined sales grossed $1.6million, despite being released for free under a Creative Commons license. (Photo CC Nick Humphries)

Having been part of a reasonably high profile band with an album released through the label system, Trent’s post reads like a list of “how I wish it had been”. Every point he makes is absolutely spot on. The article is filled with active verbs. Make. Give. Sell. Share. Release. Start. Engage. Film. This is the crux of how creators succeed in the digital age: They do things. Rather than waiting for someone else to tell them how to make money from a product that can be easily garnered for free, the people who are doing well are making it up as they go along, trying new things. You know… being creative.

As a web developer, director and general creative tech geek, Trent’s closers are especially poignant:

The database you are amassing should not be abused, but used to inform people that are interested in what you do when you have something going on – like a few shows, or a tour, or a new record, or a webcast, etc.
Have your MySpace page, but get a site outside MySpace – it’s dying and reads as cheap / generic. Remove all Flash from your website. Remove all stupid intros and load-times. MAKE IT SIMPLE TO NAVIGATE AND EASY TO FIND AND HEAR MUSIC (but don’t autoplay). Constantly update your site with content – pictures, blogs, whatever. Give people a reason to return to your site all the time. Put up a bulletin board and start a community. Engage your fans (with caution!) Make cheap videos. Film yourself talking. Play shows. Make interesting things. Get a Twitter account. Be interesting. Be real. Submit your music to blogs that may be interested. NEVER CHASE TRENDS. Utilize the multitude of tools available to you for very little cost of any – Flickr / YouTube / Vimeo / SoundCloud / Twitter etc.

Check out the rest of the article.

For digital artists, a lot of the web and technological networking comes easier than to rock bands. When a laptop is part of your rig, hopefully you understand computers better than someone who exclusively hits their instrument with sticks (SPD20s aside), because you use the computer for music regularly. Ed.: This is a simple fact – if you’re a digital artist, regardless of your instrument, you spend more time behind the screen than people who are conventional instruments – so you should have no excuse for making the most of that technology once the production and performance phase are done. -PK We’re also in the middle of a huge mobile web expansion phase. Now that everyone has web enabled computers in their pockets, what you can do while you’re out there playing shows is getting better and better; I just spent the evening configuring an online store which can be administered via its own iPhone app. If this had been available two years ago, a whole lot more CD orders would have been delivered on time.

Giving some solid metrics to bolster Trent’s advice, Michael Masnick’s (founder of Techdirt) recent presentation at the NARM 2009 conference is truly fantastic.

NARM 2009 State Of The Industry: Michael Masnick from NARM on Vimeo.

The presentation is quite long at 31 minutes, but he breaks it up with 515 slides, so it feels punchy. It expands on many of the points Trent makes, and touches on some themes we’ve been interested in here at CDM. Interestingly, he gives some revenue and sales statistics on the Nine Inch Nails “Ghosts” release: $1.6 million gross in the first week, from an album which was released for free under a Creative Commons license.

Having been quite deeply involved in the “old” way of doing things, and having experimented in the last year with faster, cheaper live performance videography and similarly streamlined “studio” production, I feel that I’m replete with the kool aid, and comfortable with a future in which I’m not looking for “a contract”. In fact, this evening I called my bandmate over and convinced him that the album we’re about to record and shoot will be released entirely under a Creative Commons Attribution license. Finished tracks and stems, music videos and source files, animation sprites, live footage, album artwork, and whatever else we create.

I’ve long believed that “free” and “open” is a big part of the future of creative industries. The label system has kept creators and fans at arms length. Last year I was a rightsholder on an album which spent a week in the top 5 sellers on iTunes in Australia. I know nothing about any of the listeners who put it there. Next album release, I want to know all of those fans by name.