Managing editor Eric Bangeman barged into my office this morning, looking like a kid who has just been given a puppy for Christmas (and hasn't yet realized that he'll have to walk the stupid thing three times a day in the biting Chicago winter). "Dude," he said, "Marillion's new album will be free to download! F-R-E-E free."
I sipped my coffee. "Who or what is a Marillion?" I asked, "and why is it putting out albums?"
He goggled. "Marillion is quite possibly the awesomest band ever, you little whippersnapper. And their new album will be worthy of the gods."
"Guess I'd better download it then."
"I guess so."
If you're not familiar with Marillion—and it has been made quite clear to me that if you aren't, you're some sort of cultural philistine who had best keep your mouth closed about everything until you have remedied this huge defect in your knowledge and life experience—they're this rock band, see? According to the All Music Guide, the group's name is a shortened form of "Silmarillion," the title of JRR Tolkien's Middle Earth creation/fall/jewel-stealing epic. The group's first lead singer, born Derek Dick (but wisely going by "Fish"), helped propel the band to cult stardom in the 1980s.
The group has continued to put out music through the 1990s and 2000s, but is "willing to try new things and we want to see what happens," as keyboardist Mark Kelly told the BBC today. That means releasing the new album "Happiness is the Road" freely onto P2P sites, then selling a CD at the end of October.
The downloads, while free, will still ask for the listener's e-mail address the first time they're played (no word on quite how this will be accomplished). Marillion members note that Radiohead still managed to move plenty of physical albums after offering its most recent recording at whatever price downloaders wanted to pay—though, to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, "I know Radiohead. Radiohead was a friend of mine. Marillion, you're no Radiohead."
The best thing about these give-it-away-free promotions, at least right now, is the press that they generate. This, in turn, spurs downloads and probably CD sales and concert tickets, though one wonders how beneficial the effect will be once the novelty wears off and free album downloads no longer make the news.
But like other artists who give their music away for free download, Marillion realizes the importance of reaching beyond the base to attract new fans. Though band members admit they are uncomfortable with giving away the recording that they worked so hard to create, they recognize that it has the potential to be even more lucrative by bringing in more listeners.
I would be unwilling to pay for a new Marillion album, for instance, but a free download? Sure, I'll try it out. These tactics (Radiohead aside) probably work best for less-well-known artists to whom exposure and a larger fan base is more important than short term album sales. That may be why we're seeing similar models adopted by people like Derek Webb and Dan-O, though it is true that groups like Nine Inch Nails have still found value in selling premium products, even when the base recording is free.
As free music becomes common, though, the real battle will shift to marketing/press/PR. When a few acts are releasing free albums, it's easy for listeners to sample them; when everyone does it, artists are suddenly competing for people's time and attention, and even free downloads won't be enough to attract listeners without building some buzz.
But for now, kudos to the musicians taking a gamble on something new. There's less personal risk in these projects when you have the bank account of Radiohead; when you're a singer-songwriter struggling to fill 200-seat halls, these decisions feel far more important.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to fire up a P2P client and download some Marillion before my managing editor's head explodes in disbelief at my prog-rock illiteracy.Posted on