Waiting to be Picked: When Making Good Stuff Isn’t Enough

17 Jan

“I’m good so I shouldn’t have to give my work away for free”


“I’m good so I should probably be giving my work away for free.”

It’s a bummer, because it’s not even a question of wether you give your songs away for free or sell them.  Selling songs doesn’t even make much money, as we’ve come to know.  Albums used to make money.

The problem that exists with music today is that you as the artist have no hand in how your value is determined.  Aside from setting your own price on Bandcamp.  Your value, though, is still based on your commodity, which is still songs.

By just relying on selling songs as products, the value of what you create is being determined by systems of distribution like iTunes, Spotify & Bandcamp..  You’re putting it out there in hopes that someday you will be “picked.”

Art by Hajime Sorayama


 Picked by a label that hopefully can sell enough of your songs to earn you a living (while they take their significant cut)


“I’m good so I shouldn’t give my work away for free” 

Chances are, once you’re good at something, this thought might form in your head when you encounter the idea of giving your work away for free.  You might feel arrogant actually saying it.  But it’s not arrogance, perhaps, so much as short-sightedness.

Actually I agree more with the above, because it means taking a stance and asserting your value.  Artists are so bad at saying what their work is worth.  But we don’t live in the world where we can let others determine our value.


“I’m good so I should give my work away for free.”

The second quote just makes me sad.  The assumptions of the second sound something like this:

“People will naturally find me because on the internet what’s good always floats to the top, and sometimes even goes viral, and when people really start to find me, the money will follow.  Something will happen.”

The assumption that “just making good stuff is enough” and that everything will work itself out is the problematic part.

Both of the above mentalities, I think, have been influenced by a few things.  They seem based on unspoken notions about virality on the internet, and something going viral being correlated with popularity and subsequent success as well as the idea that file sharing will somehow make your stuff spread around naturally and very organically it’ll find it’s way to the right ears.


Giving all your work away for free isn’t a good approach to getting new fans.

Try to realize that your giving stuff away for free may seem like a new idea, but it’s still in the old mentality of “more”.  More fans = more money, right?  But your free song is fighting for the same attention as millions of other free songs.  72 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute.  Soundcloud just announced that ten hours of audio is uploaded every minute to their servers.  How many songs is that?  It’s a fact that your song is a pin in a needlestack  that keeps doubling in size.


You upload a song and it gets wooshed away in a stream of one hundred twenty which doubles each minute thereafter.

So why are you trying to appeal to everybody?  Because that’s what the mentality of ‘get more fans’ is doing.  Everybody has more than they can handle!  And how many fans do you need to fish your song out of that overwhelming waterfall of content on a regular basis?

Things that are really good still so rarely ‘go viral’, and more often if anything, like Seth Godin said, things go ‘fungal.’  They catch on after a long time of having been kicked around the internet, just like a lot of records before the internet.

That shows that it’s clearly not about how good your music is, or how much of it is out there, but how you will find the ears of the right people, the ones who think you’re great.  You’re fighting a losing battle if all you’re doing is waiting on good and more for someone to come find you.


What does ‘good’ mean anyway?

Assuming we can all agree on a standard of good.  Which, even if we could, does it matter?

We live in a divided world of subgroups and silos of interest.  Or call them tribes.  There are too many definitions of “good” and they no longer need to mean “a lot of people like it”.  What was good has now been partitioned into specific values of good.

It means there is no excuse for you to be waiting around for everyone to catch on to the stuff you make.  Waiting to be picked by a record label or culture blog.

If enough people think it’s good, then it’s good.  Good now means “valuable in relation to this or that certain group of people.”

The only thing you need to wonder is “Where are my people and how do I engage them?”

And then:

How much money do I need to keep doing this thing I love?


…And for that you need to know concretely how much money you need to live off of.  And for that you need to set a price on something, and then figure out how many people are willing to pay that price for that thing.


What does me making a living on my work look like?

If you can answer these in realistic terms, you can then stop dreaming of fame or even small time fame with a small time label and get on with the part of figuring out how to make a living.

Of course, I hope you’re reading this because you want your work to turn into a way of making a living, where you’re just living doing what you do.

And maybe you already know all of this stuff, maybe you’re networking and getting your stuff out there, but how much of it is hitting the wrong ears?


And would it help if you found the right ears by also finding the right eyes, hearts and minds?  Those are your people.  It’s really a matter of finding them and turning them into your best fans, so they’re in it for the long haul.


How do I find my people? 

How do I find the people who love my work?  

How do I make them my community?

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