Was the power of free the reason Moby's song "Shot in the Back of the Head" was the best-selling track in the debut week of his new album, "Wait For Me"?

As Moby wrote to Bob Lefsetz, "it's the track we've been giving away for free for the last 2 months and that we're still givng (sic) away for free." The comments were re-posted by others, including "The Long Tail" author Chris Anderson. Techdirt thought Moby's comments prove "free music doesn't cannibalize paid music." TorrentFreak declared "Moby is doing very well indeed from that track thank you very much, despite its 'free' status - or maybe because it's free." Music blog Hypebot asked its readers, "Still need proof of the power of free?"

In the social media age, it is natural to expect a free download to go viral, create a buzz and provide a lift to the artist. But Moby's comments resulted in two flawed assumptions: the free download helped sales of the track, and the free download did not cannibalize sales of the track. While it is illogical to conclude that a free download would not cannibalize sales - very few would buy the individual track if they already owned it - it's more reasonable, but not always correct, to expect a free track to influence purchases of that track.

"Shot" is really a tale of old-fashioned marketing and the creation of awareness through multiple channels.

Only one track, "Shot," was given away at Moby.com yet there are a handful of tracks that people are listening to and buying in far greater numbers than all other album tracks. Through the first week of the release of the new album, "Shot" and "Pale Horses" were the bestselling tracks on the album and getting a big marketing push. "Shot" has been streamed about 131,000 times at MySpace as of Thursday, July 8, while "Pale Horses" has been streamed about 65,000 times. Streams of the two other album tracks available at his MySpace page have 8,000 and 6,000 streams each. Other than "Shot," there are four tracks that sold far more than all other album tracks. All four have female vocalists and one of them is "Pale Horses."

"Shot" and "Pale Horses" are also the first two singles. Both have videos. A link to "Pale Horses" is prominently featured at the Moby.com homepage. They are mentioned in articles and interviews. There is an obvious marketing push of these two songs, so it's only natural that the two songs would have greater demand than other album tracks. There is a big name attached to "Shot" that probably played a part in its relative popularity. David Lynch (of "Twin Peaks" and "Blue Velvet" fame) directed the video for "Shot." As of July 8, the video for "Shot" has been viewed 158,000 times on YouTube. David Lynch did not direct a video for the album's other 15 tracks. The video for "Pale Horses" has been streamed about 59,000 times at YouTube while while a fan-uploaded, audio-only version has been viewed 64,000 times. With the exception of "Wait For Me," one of the tracks with a female vocalist, the audio-only YouTube videos for new tracks have been streamed 10,000 of fewer times. "Wait for Me" has been streamed 34,000 times. No free MP3 was offered for "Wait For Me." It is not a single and it has no official video. Obviously there are other factors driving its popularity.

Another important issue here is that venue, not price, and a lack of awareness of the free download are most likely the driving forces for these iTunes purchases. Certainly some fans were aware the track can be downloaded free of charge, but unless one pays close attention to Moby news, Moby's blog posts, a handful of music blogs or the announcement in the news section at Mute Records, you would have missed the news. The link to the free download was given in an April 15th post at Moby.com. If you go to Moby.com today, by the way, there is no trace of the free download and the April 15th post is buried and out of reach to the visitor. And if people tend to buy music at iTunes, they're likely to acquire "Shot" there as opposed to Moby's website. As the paper "In Rainbows, On Torrents" by Will Page and Eric Garland explained, people are more likely to act habitually than acquire music in an unfamiliar venue.

A free download may have sparked conversation and raised some interest, but it is more likely that marketing pushes at a number of channels is what drove people to "Shot." The fact that it is one of the best tracks on the album is a factor as well. This is a common occurrence that often results in an incorrect interpretation of what drives awareness and sales. When a label or artist chooses a song to offer as a free MP3 download, it tends to be the same song being pushed to radio, added to video services and pushed in PR and marketing efforts. Moby's zero-cost download got some attention, and it might have increased album sales, but sales of "Shot" were driven by other, more traditional factors.