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Can NoiseTrade's Free Downloads Still Save Music?

In the spring of 2006, singer/songwriter Derek Webb was just wrapping up the promotion cycle for his third record, Mockingbird, but he wasn't ready to move on. The album sold similarly to his first two releases, but this time around, the former Caedmon's Call lead singer had hoped the record would be heard by more than his usual fan base. However, his record label, Sony Columbia, had spent the marketing budget for the record and didn't plan to spend any more.

"They said, 'If you guys could come up with something to push the record further without any additional spending, then we are all ears.' I think they thought that was the end of the conversation, but my manager and I took that pretty seriously," said Webb. "We somehow convinced Sony Columbia to let us take the current record sitting on the shelves and give it away for free for three months."

The experiment was to give away digital copies of Mockingbird in exchange for e-mail addresses and zip codes—and for people to share it through email with five friends. The sharing requirement caused the e-mail to be viral from the very first download, though it's something that Webb admits wouldn't work today since music is now easy to stream or download illegally in an instant without having a sharing requirement. This free music experiment was done over a year before Radiohead, Prince, and Nine Inch Nails did pay-what-you-want or free music releases, which all saw much more media attention than Webb's.

In three months, Webb gave away 85,000 digital copies of Mockingbird, more than three times what Webb had sold of any previous record. But those weren't the numbers that ended up mattering. When Webb looked at the zip codes, he found that the most downloads were from two cities he had never played as a solo artist: New York and Los Angeles. In one sense, it's no surprise; almost any internet-based effort gets big hits from America's two largest cities—it's where the people are. But Webb wanted to put the numbers to the test. He asked his booking agent to "book any venue on any night for any pay in Los Angeles." He got the smallest room at the Knitting Factory (which has since closed) on a weeknight, getting zero money guaranteed but a 90% portion of the door cover, a very modest deal for an established artist like Webb. A week before the show, Derek e-mailed everyone who had downloaded Mockingbird who lived within 15 miles of the venue. When he arrived, there was a line down the street—eventually running three times the room's capacity. When Webb returned to the Knitting Factory, this time playing a larger room, he again had to turn away fans. The same thing happened in New York at the Bitter End.

Webb's career changed immediately. "Now I can look at these zip codes and find out what are my top markets. I can book shows and make my whole career in 20 markets. I stopped playing for 10 people in the wrong cities and started playing for 200 in the right ones."

And Webb knew the approach would work for other bands and what he calls "blue collar artists" fighting for an ever-dwindling slice of music label pie. So in May 2007—five months before Radiohead made its headlines for giving away its album for free and the RIAA won its first case against a file sharer—he and four friends launched NoiseTrade, a site that exchanges MP3s for e-mail addresses and zip codes.

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Can NoiseTrade's Free Downloads Still Save Music?