The blogosphere has recently been alive with chatter about free. From Oprah giving away Suze Orman’s book Women and Money on her website to Chris Anderson’s cover article on ‘freeconomics’ in this month’s issue of Wired, everyone has been talking about free. Even Random House jumped on board, offering Charles Bock’s novel Beautiful Children as a free (and DRM-free) PDF download not just from their own site but also through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other booksellers. All the frenzy must be amusing for Cory Doctorow who has been making his books freely available in various electronic formats for years.

While these discussions have, in the main, been about digital goods, Sydney Festival was putting the concept into practice with the massive Festival First Night – completely free – to open this year’s festival. The festival organisers offered a city-wide menu of top international entertainment and cultural events to kick off the three week program with more than 200 artists across 6 stages around the city, including Brian Wilson, Sufjan Stevens and even three public weddings (!)

It wasn’t too much of a gamble when you consider how much Sydney loves a party. But by all accounts, the free gift to the people of Sydney paid off – big time.

Reports of smashed sales records tumbled in over the three weeks. More importantly, the festival was raised to an unprecedented level of awareness among the residents of the city. The opening night ‘sampler’ created the mood, appetite and appreciation for the rest of the program.

Other examples of free littered the festival offerings. A clever promotional campaign saw the distribution of thousands of Festival Sampler CDs featuring songs from artists including Brian Wilson, Sufjan Stevens, Joanna Newsom, The National, Kev Carmody, The Triffids and Pink Martini. These could be accessed from the same outlets selling tickets to these artists’ events. That’s beautiful strategy – linking the free sample to the distribution point and easing the path to purchase.

The festival even created a whole area of the website called “Free” to highlight the events festival-goers could access for, well, nix.

Most Australian arts festivals have substantial free content in their programs. These are often the components that are heavily subsidised by government funding (and the City of Sydney Council has just increased funding for Sydney Festival’s First Night party by nearly double) In Brisbane, for example, Riverfestival is defined by Riverfire, the biggest annual cultural event in the city’s calendar.

But Sydney Festival elevated ‘free’ to a whole new level of strategy, entwining it in their marketing and programming to create added value that has exploded the festival’s brand in the city’s consciousness.

Hats off to you Sydney, you romped it in. Literally.