Can NoiseTrade's Free Downloads Still Save Music?
"We thought we would be out-developed in a year, but those [other music download startups] are all gone now. Here we are five years later, and we have 15,000 artists giving music away. We give away almost three-quarters of a million albums a month, have 4 million visitors to the site, and a million people on our email list."
While it started primarily packed full of music from Webb's Nashville musician friends, NoiseTrade has since evolved and established a very unique platform: a place where traditional CCM powerhouses like Jars of Clay or worship acts like Indelible Grace can co-exist with mainstream and indie acts like Brandi Carlile, Young the Giant, and Matisyahu who don't identify as Christian. The site has included music from everyone from last year's Grammy's Best New Artist fun. to Reformed rapper Propaganda. This is profound since, in the past, the "Christian" label or even association with a CCM/worship product has been the death knell for any possibility of long-term mainstream success, but the founding of a place like NoiseTrade that puts those identities and labels aside marks a wonderful step toward cooperation across traditional genre boundaries.
What distinguishes NoiseTrade from the hundreds of other music sites that have crumbled since its launch is Webb himself. He's tried to build a site not around what would seem cool to listeners, but around what would actually help musicians. "I think having a subversive, radically minded artist at the helm is definitely a key ingredient. This model would be too risky for Big Business music industry … too many lost sales for those guys I suppose," said Portland singer/songwriter Josh Garrels, a definite success story of NoiseTrade's model.
The site has undergone several iterations, with probably the two largest additions being search functions and the ability to tip. Wait—the site didn't have search capabilities when it launched? "We didn't see ourselves as a music destination site where fans would come looking for music," Webb confesses. "We thought we were going to be essentially a site where artists would come and upload their music and we would give them a line of code that they could put on their MySpace or blog and create a widget in which they could give away their music for free." But today NoiseTrade stands as a curator of music which has its own trusted editorial voice, sending newsletters twice a week recommending to its subscribers what they believe to be the best music currently on the site. The addition of being able to tip the artists gives fans the ability to show immediate gratitude and appreciation of the record without it feeling obligatory.
While NoiseTrade has elevated the profile of numerous artists, Webb points to folk duo the Civil Wars and Portland singer/songwriter Josh Garrels as two artists for whom NoiseTrade played an important role in their success stories. For the Civil Wars, CCM veteran singer Joy Williams was friends with Webb, and she and bandmate John Paul White had recorded a live show at Eddie's Attic in Decatur, GA, nearly two full years before their debut album. The Civil Wars gave away the recording on their own site for just a click, but this was only creating buzz, not giving them email information and a connection to fans. So Joy got with Derek and began giving the live recording away in exchange for emails, and by the time the band began to break big in 2011, they already had a huge list of emails and zip codes, a connection to their fans through which they could give fans real ways to jump on and promote them.