The True Cost of Free Music [CASE STUDY]

While it’s damn near impossible to calculate the life-time value of a fan for an up and coming independent band, the short term gains and costs are easily available. Below, I’ve run through what it looks like to be in an indie band and how free downloads both benefit and hurt our bottom line while trying to make a break in the industry.

I see all too often people thinking that independent bands are somehow making huge amounts of money playing live shows and by distributing their music independently. I’m here to show you that we don’t make as much as you think.

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Fix Your Bandcamp Tags Now!

I see it all too often on Bandcamp; unoptimized music tagging. What do I mean? Well, when you upload an album or a song to Bandcamp, you have the ability to “tag” it with different genres and cities to help other users find the tags. You’re allowed to add 10 tags per song/album that you post to the site. Unfortunately, bands either don’t take advantage of the ability to post 10 tags, or they don’t post the RIGHT tags to describe their music.

Actual Tags vs. Made-Up Tags

Alright, so there’s going to be a bit of flack thrown in my direction for this one trying to distinguish between actual tags and ones that are entirely made up, but hopefully the point makes it across anyway. “Actual” tags are ones that are commonly accepted within the music community to help identify certain sounds. Duh. Things like folk, rock, folk-rock, indie, hip-hop, etc. are all legitimate tags.

“Made up” tags are ones that look like “rockin bluegrass” or “crunk.” Although you can have a good laugh with your friends about these genre descriptions, if they’re not something you’d find in a record store to differentiate between sounds, there’s a good chance that you shouldn’t be using them.

ONLY use actual genre descriptions and tags to characterize your music and leave the fun at home. The more actual tags on your music, the better chance someone will find it. Very rarely do people search for “crunk” in the Bandcamp discover feature. Hip-hop on the other hand is searched for every day.

Tag Benefits

Tags help people find your music on the site. Many music seekers use the “Discover” feature of the site to actively look for new music ( But if your music doesn’t fall into one or more of the tags that Bandcamp has deemed “actual” tags, there’s no hope in it ever being found.

Use All 10 Tags

If Bandcamp gives you the ability to post up to 10 different tags to describe your music, you should use them all. The more categories you’re in, the better chances you have at being found in one of them when people are browsing.


Here’s a band I found that has a mixture of useful tags and some not so useful tags.

Before: hardcore, hip hop, hip hop/rap, hiphop, ill bill rap, goon musick, sicknature, underground,

After (A Recommendation): hardcore, hip hop, hip-hop/rap, underground, [their city name], [their state], rap, indie, r&b, beats

Best-Selling (Popularity)

Bandcamp keeps its cards close to its chest on how it calculates the best-selling albums and the “most-popular” albums for each tag page.

A tag page is like this:

From what I’ve been able to tell over the past few years, popularity is calculated by a mixture of two things. If you’re only getting free downloads, each of these downloads DOES NOT count towards the popularity of the album. If however you make money from some of these downloads, the monetary amount PER ALBUM seems to carry weight in terms of what Bandcamp deems “popular.”

That means that having $10 in revenue for 10 album downloads ($1/album average) would be consider a less popular album than one that gets $10 in revenue for 5 album downloads ($2/album average). That means that although you may have more downloads of your album overall (via free or pay what you want downloads), if the per album rate is lower than that of the competition, you’ll be placed lower on the popularity scale.

You should take this into consideration when trying to determine what you should charge for your music.