Formed a band? Made a record? Now what?

Every starting band knows the situation: you record something, spend more than you can afford on getting a few hundred professionally-printed copies made, and then you spend ages wait for sales that never come. As someone who's seen it all before, Alex Andrews shares top 5 tips on how to sell your record the clever way.

Features, Ideas, Music & Dance - Posted on Sunday, August 29, 2010 23:54 - 7 Comments

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By Alex Andrews

Every starting band knows the situation: you record something (major dollar, even with’ mates rates’), you get 300 professionally printed copies at large outlay. The vast majority of these will end up at the bottom of your wardrobe, or in a spare room in boxes, unsold for years, despite your best efforts. These unsold copies are plainly overstocking, which as any retailer will tell you, is one route to never making any money.

For those who want some useful guidance, these are my top 5 tips on how to get your record out there:

1. Give Your Music Away For Free

Let’s face it, splashing out on those CDs betrays a failure to understand the basic ideas of stock control and the disadvantages of too much stock. Overall, it is a huge outlay which confers, unlike spending money on a decent recording of your music which might lead to many opportunities (gigs, more records), no real benefit to your band other than the pleasing sensation of having a ‘real record’. If you are releasing something off your own back and get signed for it, the first thing the record company will likely do is get you back in the studio again to re-record everything (ultimately, at your own cost – again!), your self-released stuff going in the bin all the same.

The reason why these CDs don’t sell is simple: people have no idea what your band sound like and aren’t going to buy something they haven’t listened to. More accurately, they will rarely buy something without press coverage confirming it is worth buying – to state the obvious, big record companies don’t spend thousands on marketing their music because stuff sells on its merits, they do so because stuff doesn’t sell until people have been told it is worth buying.

With zero marketing budget and no access to the press, letting your free music market itself is your best option in reaching people. If you are already streaming most of your recorded material on, say, MySpace, is it really that much of a mental leap to allow, say, low quality downloads of your music gratis? Yes, this means whole tracks, or (remembering that you made this beautiful consistent record you wanted people to appreciate) whole records.

What seems like a loss is in fact of enormous benefit – both in getting people out to your gigs and making them aware of your work, with no additional cost added to that of recording. As far as my own label, Records on Ribs, goes, we would never have had the funds to make the 100,000+ records people have already downloaded for free from us (or, indeed, have sold this many). Yet, in terms of ‘reach’, our artists have now been listened to by many, many more ears than have listened to those CDs you are eventually going to be flogging for next to nothing in desperation. All The Empires of The World, our brilliant but largely unknown doom contingent, have had 17,571 downloads over two records. Even if they had invested hundreds of pounds on 600 CD versions, most of those would still be unsold today, cluttering the bottom of a wardrobe.

2. Go DIY With The Physical Releases

At the same time as offering downloads of your music, you probably want to offer a physical product as well, because people do still like this a lot. Rather than outlaying hundreds of pounds on boring jewel cases, go DIY and make a limited edition, made-to-order, run of your release. This is called, in business studies parlance, just in time production and by making sure your wardrobe is not burdened, it prevents overstocking. Set either an arbitrary or a costed definition of how ‘limited’ the edition is going to be. Then offer it for pre-order (probably with some incentives for early purchasers), then available for general sale. From that point on, simply make them after, not before, they are ordered, in a ‘one in, one out’ methodology.

If you have a band then you already have a ‘crew’ who can be used if orders become too overwhelming (a ‘supply shock’). Personalisation, artistic flair and attention to detail can create things of real artistic value, but which entail little financial cost (though potentially time-consuming). Modern printers make this very easy. The release of Les Étoiles – To Leave A Markswiftly sold all of its 70-copies run, and those who bought it thought the packaging really improved the listening experience – it was a carefully wrapped package containing photographs, lyric sheets and a meditation on the album and its themes by author Dominic Fox. Many wrotebeautiful reviews of it as a result, scanning in the photos to illustrate their thoughts!

3. Use Free Online Tools And Use Them Well

We all know (probably) that bands should have an online presence in the shape of aFacebook pageMySpace and, these days, aTwitter feed and a Last.fm. The most important thing here is to actually be activeon them, responding to other people who are interested in your music and generally being personable. But there are even better tools out there for bands.

At the moment, bandcamp.com is by far and away the best outlet through which bands can allow downloads, allow purchases of their music (physical/digital) and do almost everything a band would require without the need for a record company at any stage. Amazon S3 alongside Cloudfront is a significantly better way of hosting your music, at low cost, than the mess of the likes of MediafireSoundcloud (whichDrowned in Sound uses) is excellent. WordPress.com makes it easy to have a blog. For creating a database of contacts, an absolute must for any band, Highrise from 37Signals is invaluable (grab their free plan). Not only can it record the basic details of contact you have made, it can also record what you said to them last, and even do so by recording the e-mails you are sending by copying a certain e-mail address into the bcc line.

4. Contact The Right People To Get Reviews

Sending unsolicited copies of your music either to reviewers or record companies is a huge waste of time and money, and always has been. Only send out copies to reviewers you know, or who you have made contact with and have expressed a liking for your music or an interest in reviewing it.

Instead, contact the bloggers who might like your stuff and give them free copies of your music even, if you can afford it, ‘proper’ versions before general release, and ask them to review it (but don’t pester them like a rabid PR man).

In tracking down blogs, the usual suspects, HypeMachine, are useful, but do call in any favours from friends. Also, track down users who have been vocal about liking music, whether on last.fm or Facebook, anybody! Record all of this (in your brand new Highrise account) diligently and always (always!) follow up leads (but never pester!).

While the online platform is amazing, keep in mind that sometimes getting someone on the phone or seeing them face to face, though much more embarrassing than dropping an e-mail, might be the better way to getting things done.

5. Build Networks With Other Bands

When you are in a band you do this intuitively anyway – find bands from the same geographical area who are doing similar things to you (though maybe not the same genre) and set up your own support structures – club nights, gigs, events, record launches that mutually support one another.

When “offline”, be creative in using these structures – get a band to DJ at your gig, set up a collective gig-loyalty scheme, bake cakes, pool resources. Manage these kind of things online – for instance, by using a private forum for local bands to swap tips, link websites and MySpaces to one another, promote each others’ gigs,  and share webhosting costs (Dreamhost allows unlimited hosting of domains for very little – split between four bands this would be trivial), not forgetting cross-promotion of records and events.

Also, it would be quite helpful if the music you make is any good.

Alex Andrews is a freelance journalist, academic and activist. His main interests are neoliberalism, economics and the interaction of politics and religion. He is also involved in a number of music projects and is a founding member of Records on Ribs

Records on Ribs is an independent record label which gives away all its music for free download under a Creative Commons license, as well a providing beautifully made and fairly priced physical releases. (http://recordsonribs.com)

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Dave
Aug 30, 2010 12:00

Good piece. Interestingly, although I run Records on Ribs with Alex, I both agree and disagree with him here.

1. Making your music available for free is a good way to get it heard by a lot of people, although no guarantee that it will be. You either need a lot of friends who’re interested in hearing your music, or a decent platform (like Records on Ribs) to get it out there. It’s unlikely to be heard amidst the hubbub of myspace et al otherwise.

2. There is still a lack of kudos which comes with releasing music for free. A lot of people will download as much as they can, and I’m quite certain a lot of it’s never listened to. They’re then likely give preference to bands they’ve read about on Pitchfork, or wherever. The last.fm stats for RoR artists tentatively support this- given atEotW’s 17,000+ downloads I’d expect them to have more than 6,100 plays (from 576 unique listeners) (though of course many people don’t have last.fm, and when they do it doesn’t always work!).

3. I’m much more ambivalent about social networking. If being in a band is about creating your own universe, I tend to think they shouldn’t be involved too much in this one. For some bands, a twitter feed is a great way of getting across what makes you unique (Andrew WK does it well); but a stream that consists of nothing more than ‘Tonight we’re playing in Oxford’ makes you sound phenomenally dull. And if your whole band is built around an aura, then talking to your fans may not be a good idea. If Joy Division were around today, I rather doubt they’d cheerfully converse with their fans on facebook- and nor would I want them to.

Focussing more on ‘offline’ stuff, I’d add the following:

1. Be nice! There are a phenomenal number of bands who have a reputation for being moody with promoters and soundmen, and they struggle to get gigs. In the DIY world, where people will often be putting you up on their floor, it should be pretty obvious- but being fun and sociable helps a lot. And people talk: get a bad reputation and it soon spreads.

2. Tour. Gigging is still the best way to get fans, and the most economical way of playing gigs is to tour.

3. Be flexible with promoters. Say how much you need to break even, but be prepared to knock a bit off if they’ll feed you (food for 5 people will save you a fair bit).

Alex
Aug 30, 2010 13:26

Thanks Dave. All these things are true. Trouble is the biggest lie of our current music business is that there is a definite levelling of the playing field due to the internet. However, if you look at HypeMachine et al the artists that are at the top are not small obscure ones plucked from SoundCloud but the same ones promoted by large-scale PR. Things, for the most part, don’t appear on Pitchfork’s radar as a result of just releasing things, but hardcore a) hype related to a particular scene or existing band which provides an ‘in’ b) PR companies. I don’t really trust the Last.fm stats, coz it is such a tiny percentage of music listeners in total, but I agree there is a ratio between what is downloaded and what is listened to which is not good.

Rob
Aug 30, 2010 14:38

Dave,

Good point about using websites – it’s now tremendously hard to maintain any control over how your band is presented. Once released, your music can be rapidly disseminated any which way. That’s great from the point of view of being heard (although as ever, you wonder how many people are listening to all of the endless messages being broadcast online) but a band like Joy Division would struggle hugely to convey the same surrounding aesthetics with their music in 2010.

More likely, your music becomes merely another .zip file that’s listened to and liked or disliked as with anything else. So a lot gets stripped from the traditional ideas about being a band (not just a band), presenting music in a particular way… The bands that currently avoid that appear to be skipping over the online haze somewhat, through more traditional channels! Once they get to a level where they’re featured in magazines, generate headlines on Pitchfork and so forth, then they get to define the tone the publicity takes. Getting to this stage seems to require as much traditional thinking as ever.

I think the obvious exceptions are bands who build their long-term credentials on touring and playing live, and produce tangible DIY releases people can relate to (Alex’s point 2) in addition to free releases. It’s not going to get you onto the blogs as quickly, but if you believe in the music you’re making and you’re more concerned with retaining some semblance of control over your presentation (and this isn’t quite as vain as it seems – have a think about the bands you find yourself developing attachments to) it may be your best shot at getting to listeners with a semblance of your original personality within.

This said, I do believe in what Records on Ribs are doing – music packaged as comprehensible ‘releases’, nice physical copies, this is still a nice model. It helps to be releasing good music in the first place indeed!

Anders
Aug 30, 2010 21:35

Good points well made.

One of the most relevant for me after being involved with bands, gigs and promotion for years is Dave’s point. Be nice! It’s definitely helped me as a promoter build relationships with bands. It’s also led to nights, bands and labels I’ve been involved with getting more attention. We’ve been remembered and built up a reputation as being friendly, honest and reliable. If the people you’re dealing with (whether it be musicians, PR people, journalists, DJs or promoters) love music and are genuine, decent people that’s one of the best ways to get ahead.

Over the years, I’ve asked lots of people honestly for help and advice and more often than not gotten a straight answer and plenty of generous support in return.

Interesting article – more please Alex!

Alex
Aug 31, 2010 11:22

Thanks Anders, we love your work at Hello Thor! Being nice is paramount!

Mid-week round up «
Sep 1, 2010 13:12

[…] us know. Hipster puppies. Does exactly what it says on the tin. My lover wrote an article giving advice for aspiring musicians in this internet age. (you should hire him to write for you. […]

Deserter’s Songs Free Music: A Price Worth Paying? – Ceasefire Magazine
Nov 13, 2010 21:17

[…] powerful pragmatic responses to this argument (which my Records on Ribs co-founder Alex wrote about here- although there are significant disagreements between us), but it is with ethics I am concerning […]

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