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 ...1
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