Damon Albarn wrapped up a rather lovely Christmas present this year. Members of the Gorillaz fan club eagerly opened the final door to their virtual advent calendars and found hiding behind it the fourth album from the cartoon supergroup, available to download absolutely free. It meant Albarn joined an ever-growing phalanx of multi-million selling artists who give away their music. But are these genuine acts of generosity, or a means to foist half-finished songs on blinkered fans?
The Gorillaz album, The Fall, certainly meets one of the criteria for a free record: it's unlikely that Albarn's record company would have been too pleased if he'd delivered an album with so few potential hits and asked them to sell it. Admittedly, it is one of Albarn's many experiments: he recorded it using an iPad during the American section of the Gorillaz world tour late last year.
"I suddenly found myself in a position where I could make quite a sonically sophisticated record in my hotel room," he told a New Zealand television station. "I just did it day by day as a kind of diary of my experience in America."
In the light of that knowledge, The Fall is an interesting record - appearing to mirror the melancholy of the faceless, hotel-bound touring existence. It's slow, almost entirely electronic (although Bobby Womack and the ex-Clash members Mick Jones and Paul Simonon do lend some guitar lines) and far more instrumental than other Gorillaz albums. But in essence, it's a curio - if you were to rush out and hand over cash for The Fall, you might well be entitled to ask where the tunes are.
And free albums do often have that dashed-off feel. In 2000, the Smashing Pumpkins gave away Machina II/The Friends & Enemies Of Modern Music in protest, after their record company refused to release it. And one might say Virgin had good reason: whether a double concept album telling the story of a rock star gone mad was autobiographical or not, it smacked of a vanity project. There were some reminders that the Smashing Pumpkins had once been a major - and entertaining - rock band, but they were wrapped around so much filler it was actually a relief that no money had been wasted in adding it to your collection. Although in the days before widespread broadband, it felt a bit like you'd paid in a more valuable commodity - time.
The frontman Billy Corgan, indeed, is still at it - releasing new tracks for free as part of a proposed, ahem, 44-track album. But for a proper pop-star flounce at the iniquity of the record labels, Prince is your man. In 2007, he gave away Planet Earth free in the UK with the Mail On Sunday, and last year 20Ten was packaged with the Daily Mirror and a variety of other news outlets. The general consensus was that these were two of the worst albums in his 32-year career - although it might not have had anything to do with the fact they were free. Poor old Prince may have just lost his mojo.
Such tactics are, of course, the preserve of artists who can afford to give away their music in the first place: one wonders whether Trent Reznor's Nine Inch Nails would have made The Slip available for free download in 2008 if he hadn't already sold more than 20 million albums of his industrial metal. But, once again, it was telling that reviews at the time largely mirrored this early appraisal from the Los Angeles Times: "The Slip is murkier and less catchy than the last couple of regular NIN albums."
So why are free albums often so disappointing? Possibly, the artist's relationship to the music changes when they're recording an album with the express intention of giving it away. After all, how can fans complain if the record hasn't cost anything? The free album becomes a get-out clause.
But there is a notable exception; the magnificent In Rainbows by Radiohead. When the Oxford band were recording their seventh album in 2007, how they might release it was in the back of their minds (they had fulfilled their six-album deal with EMI) but it wasn't the motivation behind making the music. So it was only after finishing a quite incredible album full of drama, emotion and, crucially, tunes, that they hit upon an innovative "pay what you want" model for the digital download. Many chose to put "$0" in the box - but even that didn't prevent spectacular pre-release sales of the physical album. The experiment had worked, then, but it worked for a reason. In Rainbows was brilliant, career-defining stuff.
But in 2011, the notion of a "free album" is more complicated than it was even four years ago. It's hardly controversial to suggest that the vast majority of music fans have illegally downloaded at least one album in their lifetimes. The music industry is changing so rapidly that, in the future - maybe sooner than we all think - the notion of purchasing an individual album will be laughably outdated: you'll just subscribe to a music service bundled in with, say, your broadband or satellite television provider, and download what you want.
Which might look like a bleak prospect for any artists out there who still believe they can make money from selling their albums. But they're in the minority, anyway. As the frontman of the indie band OK Go, Damian Kulash, wrote in the Wall Street Journal last month, "We're just moving out of the brief period - a flash in history's pan - when an artist could expect to make a living selling records alone." And doesn't Albarn know it. The Gorillaz album isn't, if you split hairs, completely free to download: you have to pay to be a member of their fanclub to enjoy it on your iPod. Yearly fee? $45 (Dh165).