By all measures Derek Vincent Smith is a successful musician. Also known as Pretty Lights, the artist's latest album, A Color Map of the Sun is nominated for a Grammy, Rick Rubin has called him "the face and voice of the new American electronic music scene," he's got social following approaching a million and since July he's played to more than 350,000 fans across 46 headline and festival shows in five countries. But what he doesn't have is a major record label deal (he is his own label). Or, for many fans, a price tag on his albums.
As the entertainment, arts, and media industries and the talent that drives them continue to tinker with a variety of business models, Smith has found a sweet spot that combines rave-huggy levels of fan engagement with an open enthusiasm for technology and Internet culture to make "free" pay off in a significant way.
Since first releasing music under the Pretty Lights name in 2006, the 32-year-old has remained 100% independent and, up until this latest album, all his music has been available for free on his website or through sharing sites like BitTorrent. In fact, to celebrate his Grammy nomination for Best Electronica/Dance Album, Smith has teamed with BitTorrent to offer fans a bundle of goods including A Color Map of the Sun, its remix album, 16 original videos and another live show video.
Despite his ever-growing popularity, Smith refuses to diverge from his original path of offering all his work for free online. While his work has been available as paid downloads on iTunes and Amazon since 2008, A Color Map of the Sun is the first record he's made commercially available as a physical record, but anyone can still download it for free. Every month, Smith averages about 3,000 paid album downloads, 21,500 single downloads and 3 million paid streams on platforms like Spotify, Rdio, iTunes, and Rhapsody.
"I've never invested this much money on a record, advertising, and trying to get it out to as many people as possible," says Smith. "So I asked people to buy it and spent a lot of time making a physical product, but still offered it as a free download. The vinyl and digital sales were very good—similar to or better than my contemporaries—but at the same time I had 100,000 free downloads in the first week or so."
As an unknown releasing his first record in 2006, Smith thought there was a better chance of building an audience by giving it away. "I knew I'd probably have to support myself and my music through live performance, so I wanted to get it through as many speakers as possible," he says.
When he posted a link to his second record in 2008, Filling Up The City Skies, Smith really began to see his audience numbers grow. "I didn't foresee this type of music (EDM) getting as popular as it did, but around the release of my second record I saw my downloads go from 50 to 100 per month to 10,000 per month over a 30-day period," he says. "That was just from me uploading the album to my ftp server and making a link. It jumped so massively that it was obvious something had happened. When my first out-of-state show offers came in, my first show was a sold-out 1,000-person venue. That was pretty surprising but I was seeing the positive effect free distribution was having on my live show sales. I was selling shows out in places I'd never been before."
This latest BitTorrent bundle is Smith's second with the service. The first was in 2011 and the company says it helped Pretty Lights get more than 6 million downloads, 70,000 emails, and a 700% boost in web traffic. It's that kind of fan interest that helped him book international shows and appearances at high-profile festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo. More than 70% of his earnings now come from touring.
"I got a lot of push back over offering my music as free downloads saying it devalued the music but the fact is that word of mouth helped me sell records, get donations, sell products, and show tickets," he says. "It works. I'm not worried at all that giving away 10 million copies of my album will slow down sales. There's a threshold. If your live shows get to a certain point, all of a sudden you have $100,000 worth of iTunes sales every month even though the record is available for free."
As a brand, Pretty Lights is a massive success, balancing a quality in-demand product with social, live event, and digital engagement. The free distribution model may get the music to the speakers, but Smith works exceptionally hard at keeping fan communication fun, fulfilling, and constant.
Back in 2006, MySpace was the social spot for musicians but too many artists were spamming users with random LOOK AT ME messages. Smith took a different and time consuming tack. "I found a way to search for people who liked artists I liked and I'd go through and check out people's musical interests and if I thought they might like my music I'd write them a full personal letter," he says. "I'd spend an insane amount of time writing letters to random people to get them to maybe listen to my music. But it worked and made people really take notice and know I cared. So I've tried to keep that ideal consistent throughout the brand and business model as it grew. I've tried to keep ticket prices as low as possible, fighting to get a higher percentage of tickets to sell through my fan club, utilizing social media in a way to try and inspire people and not make it all about my own music but move the conversation towards other people's art as well."
He may not be able to shake everyone’s hand at every show anymore but Smith’s adapted his approach to keep it close. "It's taken more effort which has pushed me to come up with new ways to maintain that philosophy and connection," he says. "On this tour I booked several underplays in my biggest markets—two shows at a big venue and one show at a smaller club—and offer all those tickets to my fan club."
Through the Pretty Lights Instagram feed, Smith's reposts fan photos and the album art for a special Record Store Day release will be picked from those submissions.
"All that is combined with how hands on I am with everything—press releases, newsletters, t-shirts, stickers, everything—I need to make sure it's my voice. People can see how consistent it is," he says.
In recent years, as streaming has become more of an issue among artists, namely, the challenge of getting paid for your music, Smith says those artists fighting against services like Spotify are swimming against a massive tide and would be better served using that energy elsewhere.
"It's a very tough issue, but you can't fight progress and consumer behavior," he says. "Get creative in finding ways to make it work best for you. The list of ideas I have about how to rethink what a musician's app can look like and the purpose it can serve gets me very excited."