How Much Is a Song Worth? To One Music Label, Nothing

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NNXT via DigSin

How much is a song worth? It’s a question that’s often been discussed since the internet got involved in the music industry. Is it 99 cents, as iTunes, Amazon and other digital retailers believe? Is it some minuscule percentage of a monthly subscription fee, a la Spotify and online radio stations? Or is it free?

The music industry has previously shied away from that last option for obvious reasons, believing that giving music away outside of special offers is the work of pirates and those who want to see the industry fall apart. So what to make, then, of a new label that has made free music the center of its business model?

(MORE: What ‘Ownership’ Means for Digital Media (Hint: Not Much))

The label’s name is DigSin (short for “digital single”) and it launched yesterday with its first free download, “Drnk Txtng” by NNXT — one of three acts signed to the label currently, with the other two being Connie Lim and Bronze Radio Return.

NNXT is described on the label’s site as “a rare one-woman electropop powerhouse,” and has obviously found her vowels stolen by the same thief behind Primal Scream’s 2000 album XTRMNTR. Like future DigSin releases, “Drnk Txtng” is a free download — the first in a series of tracks the label will release to subscribers for no money whatsoever, even as it charges for the same tracks on services such as iTunes and Spotify. Aside from potentially cannibalizing sales of tracks offered at those services, what’s actually going on here?

According to DigSin founder Jay Frank, the secret is that the music isn’t necessarily the money-making product of the label. Instead, the label’s revenue will come from eyeballs and information. Following an appearance at the Midem conference, Frank told the Next Web:

What we came to realize is that, most people when they download a song for free, they’re only listening to that song once, and so the value of that download is not the $0.99 that you’d pay on iTunes, but is closer to [a] quarter of a cent, more akin to what you’d get from a listen on Spotify. So, when I realized that I could put advertising around there and make more money from one listen than I would make on Spotify, and actually have a mailing list to be able to continually market to that person, I realized there was a great chance for monetization of these downloads.

There’s a lot to unpick there, not least of which is that Frank seems to be simultaneously undervaluing (subscribers are likely to only listen to these songs once) and overvaluing  (subscribers will want these songs so much they’ll be willing to agree to be on a mailing list to get them) his label’s music in the process.

But Frank’s logic is essentially taking the Spotify business model to an extreme: People won’t pay money for music because they don’t want a particular song. They just want songs, his argument seems to be going, so if he can provide a constant stream of new songs and use that as a vehicle for advertising and the procurement of information, everything will be fine.

(I wonder, too, whether the opt-out-of-the-mailing-list option — which is mandatory in this kind of thing, isn’t it? — doesn’t capsize the plans somewhat. If every DigSin subscriber opts out, then there’s no mailing list to continually market to, which undermines that revenue stream entirely. Unlikely, yes, but not impossible).

As much as I like the idea of regular free new music — because, hey, regular free new music — there’s something depressing about the fact that DigSin is pretty much based around the idea that music itself is essentially worthless except as a McGuffin to get the real stuff. I’m torn as to whether or not I want this effort to succeed.

As much as I want to see new evolutions of the music industry — and especially the distribution/monetization aspects therein — there seems something weirdly disrespectful to the music in the DigSin model as it currently stands, not to mention something that isn’t sustainable in the long term. At what point have so many people signed up that there aren’t enough new subscribers with information to sell to remain profitable? [Update: DigSin will not resell subscriber info, I have since been told; see below.] Or conversely, how few subscribers have to sign up before DigSin profits in the first place? With only three artists, all of whom are newcomers without a sizable audience already established, just getting the word out about DigSin feels like it could be an uphill battle. For some reason, I can see this turning into a paid monthly subscription service within a few years — essentially a download-to-own Spotify.

But in the ongoing conversation about how much a song is worth, it does offer a whole new answer: No money whatsoever, but in order for the system to work properly, you’ll find yourself giving up a little bit of your privacy in return. Is that choice really worth it?

UPDATE: DigSin has been in touch to clarify that email addresses will be kept confidential, and not sold to third parties. “They will only be used internally by DigSin to further market the artists,” I was told.

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Graeme McMillan is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @Graemem or on Facebook at Facebook/Graeme.McMillan. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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