by Toby Mountain
At the end of a mastering session independent musicians often hit me with this question:
Can you give me some suggestions on how to best market my music?
My clients are not as clueless as the question might suggest. They usually have a marketing plan, but they are hopeful that I might be able to dispense some sort of silver bullet to give them an edge.
As a mastering engineer, I've never pretended to understand the world of marketing. This was a world foreign to me, inhabited by record company moguls, independent promoters, and publicists. So I have generally steered clear of giving anything more than incidental advice and left the rest up to the experts.
Now that the internet has unraveled the conventional guidelines and left us with a spider web of options, yesterday's experts no longer have all the answers. Most innovative marketing ideas seem to be coming from creative individuals and grassroots organizations.
This gives me pretense to take a crack at the marketing question. I may not have a "silver bullet" but I might be able to help the independent musician organize a strategy. In this blog I will outline some ideas that are based on both traditional marketing and the new internet. More detailed blogs will follow.
Marketing circa 1995 vs. today
If we look at marketing almost fifteen years ago when the compact disc was at its height of popularity and compare it to today, we can learn quite a bit.
The few times that I gave advice to independent musicians, I outlined what I considered five important steps in music marketing:
1) look for a record deal using any contacts you may have
2) line up a distributor for placement in record stores
3) send out CDs and press kits to reviewers and radio stations
4) "play out" as much possible
5) build up a fan mailing list.
This sequence would be applied in succession. If one thing failed, you'd go on to the next step. I've actually known a handful of non-performing musicians who succeeded with just step 5.
Now how should we revise these steps for today's marketing?
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Step 1: Record Companies
The landscape has changed so much in the last fifteen years that I rarely encourage musicians to even pursue this step. Good or evil, the record company traditionally provided a paternalistic role for the uninitiated artist. It often took care of the remaining four steps in the marketing program, ensuring a reasonable shot at success. But the number of bands I've seen dropped after their debut album is discouraging.
Now, there are only four major labels (EMI, Sony, Universal and Warner) and a few dozen viable independent labels remaining. For the most part, record labels no longer provide the marketing support they once did. If they find an artist that they deem as having sales potential, they will sign them to a limited deal, handle only the production, distribution and sale of the music, and pray that it catches fire. With idealistic expectations, many deals sour and the artist ends up wondering if they would have been better off if they had promoted the record themselves.
Step 2: Distribution
Traditional distribution means getting your CD into stores. But you've probably noticed that most of the 'mom and pop' stores have vanished with only major chains remaining that don't even specialize in music (Walmart, Best Buy, Barnes and Noble, Borders). These chains rarely take on independent music, and their inventory is shrinking daily because CDs are not selling like they used to. So paying a distributor to place your CDs into one of these stores is probably not money well spent.
Step 3: To CD or not to CD
With thumbs down for steps 1 and 2, you may be wondering if you should even bother to make CDs.
Even though CDs may disappear from the landscape in six years (my official RIP date for CDs is 2015) the short answer is yes. The compact disc is still your calling card - better than any business card or Email attachment because it's a physical thing that you can hand or mail to somebody and in some cases even sell. And it clearly demonstrates your talent. Clubs and venues that hire you are going to want to see/hear a CD. Fans at your gigs are going to want a souvenir from an inspiring evening of live music.
How many CDs should you make? I say 1,000, regardless of how low your ambitions are. Rather than duping, go with real replication because it looks more professional (no green dye on the bottom). Plan to give away at least one third of your discs to venues, promoters, reviewers, and radio stations. With postage that's a $2k investment, but I guarantee it will pay off. Your first 200 CD sales will pay for it.
You should sell your CDs for $10, not $15 or even $12. Get on board with a music marketing service like cdbaby.com or nimbit.com. They can also set you up with Amazon, iTunes and Rhapsody and save you a lot of work. Set up your website so visitors can both sample and purchase CDs and downloads. Get on Facebook and Myspace.com and join the music forums. The internet is a boundless resource, whose possibilities expand and change everyday. I'll have specific details on internet retailing in the subsequent blog.
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Step 4: Playing Out
Playing out is more vital than ever. The record industry has been turned on its head. Concerts used to promote records. Now it's the reverse. Recorded music promotes concerts, which have become the mainstay of the industry.
Here's the stark reality: Music fans can get almost any recorded music they want for free on the internet. They don't need to buy your record but they may be willing to pay to see you live. The "Z" generation that has been reared on iPods and earbuds is easily blown away by a good live performance. Proof of that is that young people continue to support live music in great numbers. And concerts open up many other merchandising options. More on that in the internet retailing blog.
So how do you get gigs? Most of it is good old fashion "pounding the pavement." Find out the person who's responsible for booking at a venue where you want to play (some control multiple venues). Send them an Email, a press kit with CD, and then always follow up with a phone call. Be polite, professional, and persistent. You may even want to show up personally at the venue. You may be required to play for next to nothing on a Monday night, but do it anyway. If you can draw and hold an audience, the promoter/club owner will quickly see that you have some value.
Step 5: Mailing Lists
Let's revise that to "Email lists."
An Email list is perhaps your most valued commodity. It lets you instantaneously connect with present and prospective fans. Obviously you don't have the time to Email people individually. That's why you need to join an emailing service like constantcontact.com. For $99 a year you can send out blanket custom Emails every month to keep in touch with your fan base. You can keep them informed monthly about upcoming gigs and recordings.
Once your Email list reaches 1k, you are in a position to move your marketing to a serious level. You can begin attracting a large audience to your gigs and expect to sell hundreds of CDs.
How do you get there? Start compiling Emails. Begin with friends. Add colleagues. Ask them to encourage other friends to Email you. Always collect Email addresses when making personal contact or during phone conversations. Use Facebook and Myspace.com to allow people to become "fans."
On your website you can "capture" someone's Email address with a submission page, which features special offers and giveaways. Just make sure that you include a disclaimer stating that they knowingly give tacit approval to receiving Emails from you. It's against the law to steal email addresses and use them without someone's permission.
More to Come
So now our five rules of marketing have been reduced to three:
1) send out CDs and press kits to reviewers and radio stations
2) "play out" as much possible
3) build up an Email list.
To which I will add one more
4) create an internet marketing strategy
I will write specifically about that in my next blog.
© 2009 Toby Mountain
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