How much should I pay for a “pay-what-you-want” album?

Bandcamp has this feature called “pay what you want” which gives the opportunity for bands to put an album, or a track, for free, and to accept donations. That is great for artists because it gives their music a higher probability of being downloaded, thus listened to, and possibly creating new fans! It’s also great for music fans because it lowers the financial burden of being a melomaniac, and allows everyone to listen to more artists they like.

When one wants to support an artist they like, however, there are no guidelines about how much to give! “Am I giving too little?”, “Am I giving too much?”, “How much should I give?” are all questions I’m sure everyone of you asked yourselves at least once. Here, I’m going to try and answer some of these questions, and provide some sort of “guideline” as to how much you should pay for music. Now, be aware that these are only opinions coming from me, and in the end you are free to do whatever you want; it’s only the way I chose to see it because I think it’s fair for everyone.

First off, are you giving too little? No. There’s no such thing as “too little”. If the artist put their album for “pay what you want” (PWYW), they do this, most of the time, for one reason: getting heard! It’s true that an upfront price for a digital album might turn off some listeners, but not all. If you decide to give $1 for a fully-fledged 80 minute album that went for PWYW, it’s perfect! The artist will be notified they’ve received payment for their music, and they’ll be glad about it because they’ve basically put it for free. Any amount of money higher than 0 is a gift for them, and it supports them in making more music. Every penny counts. Moreover, you probably have a reason to give, or not, the amount you choose to give: it can be that you’ve lost your job and don’t want to spend on “luxury items” such as music, and it’s perfectly understandable; it can be that you don’t have a credit card, or paypal; it can be that you don’t feel you like the album quite enough to justify donating more… all these, reasons, and more, are all justified, and I don’t think there’s any reason that wouldn’t be justified.

Secondly, are you giving too much? Well, it depends. Firstly on your own personal fortune, or lack of thereof. If you’re abundantly rich and really like one’s music, nobody’s going to object if you want to give $1,000 for an album you can’t get enough of. The artist might have quite a surprise and contact you to make sure it wasn’t an error, but trust me that will give him a good hand for making more music. On the other hand, if you’re like most music fanatics, you’re quite broke, and if you’re not broke you certainly don’t want to overspend on music; for example paying $20 for a 3-song EP lasting less than 10 minutes. That’s definitely too much. Of course, it’s a case to case kind of thing, and every album is unique, but for the most part that is too expensive.

How much should you give? This is a tricky question, and it will be different for everyone. With time, I’ve regretted donations, either because I gave too little or too much, and I’ve build some sort of time-to-dollar ratio that I felt comfortable with. Keep in mind that this is only my opinion, based on my experiences, and at a certain point in life; this can vary from person to person, and I suggest you craft your own via experience. Also if, at any point, you feel like you’re giving too much or too little, trust your own guts, and don’t feel bad about it: the artist has put the album for free, and any money you give them is considered a donation based on your own good will! Here we go: I feel it’s reasonable and fair to give $1 for every 5 full minutes of an album; a 60-minute album will thus cost you $12. That’s approximately the price you’d pay for a CD, except with bandcamp most of the money goes to the artist directly (instead of the label, the publisher, the shipping costs, the seller, etc.).

With that 1:5 ratio, it’s also easy to quickly approximate how much you should donate for music, to satisfy your conscience while not setting your wallet on fire. Let’s take a few examples: the new Zachary Huff album, Laniakea, which is gorgeous in every way and really good, has 6 songs. You can approximate to the minute every song’s length and get a result pretty close to the exact answer, without the complications of actually calculating. For example, the first track clocks in at 4:51, which we can approximate at 5 minutes, and the second one lasts 6:11, which we will round to 6 minutes flat. With that kind of mental calculation, the album lasts around 39 minutes, which is pretty close to the exact running time of the album, 38:21. So, let’s round that up to the lesser multiple of 5, and you’ve got 35 minutes to pay for. With the 1:5 ratio I put earlier, I would pay $7 for the album, which I did. With that little trick in mind, it’s really easy to approximate how much you should donate to an artist without ruining yourselves. Like I said before, it’s up to everyone to choose to follow that ratio or create a new one, like 1:4 (one $ for every 4 minutes), 1:3, or 1:6 or 1:7!

In the end, there is no good answer: every penny donated is greatly appreciated, and if you don’t want to, or can’t, donate any amount, don’t feel bad: listen the album, enjoy it yourself, and if you want to share it with your friends or with other people, it’s an even greater gift you can make the artist! Pay what you want albums are just that: you pay what you want for them, and if you don’t want to pay anything, it’s perfectly fine too! However, for those who want to donate a reasonable amount, I hope I showed you a way so you can find what your perfect time-to-money ratio is, and be able to give an amount of money you feel comfortable with.

That’s it! I hope you liked it, and continue enjoying free music!