Music superstars like The Weeknd are embracing the 'freemium' model to rule the future

Some of the world’s top music artists are turning to a classic tech startup strategy to find success in the digital age: scale with a compelling free product, and then convert your most passionate users into paying customers.

In a new interview, Abel “the Weeknd” Tesfaye described his initial breakout, which came with a series of mysterious free mixtapes starting around 2011.

“I really wanted people who had no idea who I was to hear my project,” the 27-year-old Toronto native told Forbes. “You don’t do that by asking for money.”

The idea was to get his music into the hands of as many people as possible. That notion was partially driven by the understanding that live concerts is where a big chunk of money is made, and this income stream only comes from passionate fans.

“We live in a world where artists don’t really make the money off the music like we did in the Golden Age,” Tesfaye said. “It’s not really coming in until you hit the stage.”

Tesfaye isn’t the only star who has recognised that the “freemium” model favoured by many tech companies is effective in the new era of music.

“For the artists’ fans and for artists, in terms of exposure, music should be everywhere and as easily accessible as humanly possible … especially for an artist you are still building,” Andrew Gertler, who manages teen singer-songwriter sensation Shawn Mendes, told Business Insider last month.

“The music really is not as much the revenue generator as the marketing tool to then create other income streams,” Gertler explained.

Those other income streams include not only things like live events and brand deals, but also opportunities at the crossroads of music and TV (or video in general), where Gertler said the line is getting more and more blurred. Forbes also notes that Tesfaye has made a bundle on festival and arena concerts, and deals with big names like Apple.

Tesfaye and Mendes have recognised that while the actual recorded music might not be the revenue driver it once was, it is still a way to get a music artist incredible reach. If that artist has a valuable product, this reach will create a subset of loyal fans, who can help drive the real moneymakers.

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