The idea was, in his own words, "ludicrous."
"Especially in 2006, the idea of giving away your music for free online ran contrary to all the conventional wisdom at the time," Derek Webb told me in a recent Nemo Radio interview.
Webb, a 20 year veteran of the music industry, has sold millions of albums as a founding member of Texas-based folk/rock band Caedmon's Call, and ruffled political & spiritual feathers alike as a solo artist.
He's also a serial entrepreneur, serving as GM of PledgeMusic, Nashville, and as the Co-Founder & President of the revolutionary tribe-building platform, NoiseTrade, which allows authors and musicians to swap free books and songs in exchange for a listener's email address and zip code.
An Online Musical Revolution = Tribe Building Opportunity
These days, it's commonplace to find and listen to music for free online. But more than a decade ago, it was a fight to the death between record companies, individuals and entities like Napster when it came to sharing songs for free on the Internet.
"This was the thing everyone was trying to fight in 2006," Webb recalls. "The record companies were chasing down and suing little kids and grandmothers for piracy ... and you know, the thing is, when you watch an industry suing their customers into 'right behavior' in their eyes, you know you're on the precipice of some major change."
For Webb, whose musical career started pre-Internet, the entrepreneurial and audience-building opportunities the online world presented made perfect sense.
"At the time, I was a small enough artist where I really didn't have a lot to lose (by giving away my music for free," Webb says. "The album (Mockingbird) was my third studio album, and it was the third time I'd been through this entire cycle with the record label I was on at the time."
Content Marketing = Creating Raving Fans
After much consternation, Webb convinced his record label to let him give away his entire studio album for free online.
"So the record came out, it was in the market for about six months, my tribe bought it, we sold what we knew we were going to sell," he says. "Typically, by about six months in, you know your sales are over."
Webb's idea was simple - anyone could download his entire record for free in exchange for sharing his or her email address and zip code.
Remember, this was back in 2006, before social media, content marketing and "going viral" were part of the online lexicon.
"We tried to get the word out, and what happened really blew us away," Webb recalls. "In 90 days, we managed to give away 85,000 digital copies of the record. All of a sudden, I went from having 5,000 email addresses to 90,000 in three months.
Playing the Long Game
By exposing 85,000 new individuals to his music for free, Webb's content marketing sowed the seeds for massive value (and profits) for years to come.
"I could be patient, I'll get your money later," he says. "If you're really a fan, and I can get you on my radar, and I've got your data, I will get your money and you'll want to give it to me. There's no loser in that scenario."
Next, Webb took his show on the road, geo-targeting by zip code his email list to alert fans in cities that he had a show coming up.
"We discovered something fascinating, and that was that in the five cities where I had given away the most records during those three months, two of them I had never played a show in," he says. "And those two cities were New York and Los Angeles, super competitive markets, really far from where I lived, hard to make any money in."
Despite having never played a solo show in LA, and despite getting booked into a tiny, 100 seat venue on a Wednesday night, Webb decided to take a massive risk.
"I got paid zero guarantee, but I'd get 90 percent of the door receipts," he recalls. "So, if people show up, I'm going to make money. But if nobody does, I'm going to lose my shirt."
The Power of Email Marketing
Prior to the show, Webb geo-targeted fans on his email list who lived within 20 miles of the venue.
"I had 2,200 people within 20 miles of that venue who had downloaded that record during those three months," he says. "So I thought, 'You know, I'm going to take a chance that I can get 100 of them to come pay me.'
"I had no idea what was going to happen. So I show up, do my soundcheck, and I'm walking around Hollywood Boulevard. Later on, my buddy and I were walking up to the venue, which had three different rooms - I was playing the smallest one, obviously.
"So we go in to play my set, and there's this huge line of people waiting to get into the venue. I say to my buddy, 'I wonder who is playing the big room tonight - must be somebody really cool. Maybe we'll sneak into that show when I'm done playing downstairs.'
"And we go into the venue, only to find out all those people are waiting to see me."
Webb had been booked into a basement room that only held 100 people, so the venue actually turned away 200 additional customers who had wanted to get in to see him.
"I played the show for 100 people, and then I went out on the sidewalk and played a second show for twice as many people outside, free of charge," he recalls. "The venue people were looking at me like, 'Who the hell are you? Are you famous or something?'"
Webb's eyes were opened, and he repeated the process in other cities (and with similar results) all over the United States.
"The next year, I had the biggest pre-sale of my career with my new record, marketing it to those people who had downloaded my previous album for free," he says. "It changed my career forever."
An Idea (and Business) is Born
Webb took the method and built an entirely new business (NoiseTrade), allowing musicians to replicate the same model with fans eager to discover new artists.
"We launched NoiseTrade in 2008 with about a dozen artists," he says. "Today, we've got about 30,000 to 40,000 artists on the site, and we've given away over 10 million albums."
For anyone who doubts the power of content marketing in 2017, considering Derek Webb's incredible journey that began in 2006 should be proof enough.
(Related: Listen to the entire Nemo Radio Interview with Derek Webb here.)