Who Sells Your Record?

I'm going to give you the answer to this question right off the bat.

Question: Who sells your record?
Answer: You do!

Surprised? Probably not, but I'll bet you thought there are a lot more good answers. Here are a few answers that might have crossed your mind:

  • "My distributor is supposed to sell my records."
  • "Retail stores are supposed to sell my records."
  • If you are signed, "My record label is supposed to sell my records."
  • If you are on the Internet, "My web site is supposed to sell my records."
  • "Amazon (CD Universe, the Orchard) is supposed to sell my records."
  • "My mail-order catalog merchant is supposed to sell my records."
  • Lastly, "The Home Shopping Network, infomercials, late-night advertising, 'tiny classified ads' (love that Don Lepre), et al are supposed to sell my records."

Now take a good look at this list. This list of answers consists primarily of businesses that make money when a music consumer purchases a CD. Doesn't that mean they are selling CDs? Yes, it does. Does it mean they are selling your CD? No, it doesn't, unfortunately for you.

All retail outlets sell a number of CDs to consumers. All distributors sell a number of CDs to retail outlets. All record labels sell to (hopefully) a number of distributors and retail outlets. All these business have one thing in common-many, many products. It matters greatly if, for example, they sell 50,000 units in March and only sell 40,000 units in April. However, if they sell 100 copies of your CD in March and zero copies in April does it affect their bottom line? Probably not. What all these business have going for them is that when a couple of releases start selling more slowly, some other releases may suddenly catch fire. And, it doesn't really matter to them which ones succeed and which ones fail. In fact, most CDs released by major record labels are failures, economically speaking, meaning that they don't sell enough to cover the cost of making them. What every big label hopes for is a "Thriller", "Frampton Comes Alive", or other blockbuster which will make more than enough money to cover the losses of the majority of records. Similarly, each distributor or retail outlet needs large aggregate sales, but the success or failure of individual titles means nothing to them.

So you can see that it's not in the interests of retail or distribution to sell your record. The responsibility for selling your record falls back to you (or your promotion company, if you can afford it). Think about that fact the next time you claim you need distribution in order for your record to succeed. If you get a distributor, great! But don't make the mistake of assuming that once a record is available through a distributor, it will sell. The consumer still has to want (or demand) it. Creating that demand is your job.

Selling anything from CDs to coffee to automobiles means that the customer ultimately has to want the product more than they want the money it costs to buy it. For openers, the customer needs two things in order to want your CD more than their money:

  • Reasons to buy
  • Excuses for buying

Reasons to buy something are logical and material. Examples might be, "This CD is manufactured at a top-quality duplicator, the CD graphics are original, detailed and professional. The musicianship throughout the CD is top-notch, and the principal songwriter/guitarist has attended Berkeley, G.I.T. and has won several songwriting contests. The drummer has appeared in the studio with Diana Ross, Jimi Hendrix and Robert Johnson. The album has been nominated for a Grammy. Guitar World gives the record 4 out of 5 stars."

You can see that the reasons to buy are factual statements. Now let's look at the emotional or intangible excuses for buying something. "This CD contains high-octane, blistering fretwork with powerhouse drumming by a master percussionist. Jacked-up tones color this amazing blend of hard rock, fusion, metal, salsa and Irish folk. Be the first on your block to recognize this band's astonishing potential. Incredible sounds abound, yet unbelievably the entire album was produced on a four-track cassette recorder powered by a Honda portable generator. Yes, it's true this band goes to any length to provide their fans with well-crafted, beautifully distorted songs, perfect for cruising down America's interstate highway system at 20 MPH over the posted speed. Have a good ride!"

Imagine if you knew nothing about the above CD, but you had read only the logical reasons to buy. Will you buy it? Well, there are some interesting facts there, but nothing to really get your juices going. What if you had read only the emotional excuses for buying? You might be charged up about the record this time (imagining yourself speeding down the turnpike in a red Ferrari at 90 MPH listening to your new CD), but the emotional narrative might also strike you as, at best, an exaggeration, or at worst, simply promotional hype. Now you can appreciate the importance of the fact that the potential customer needs both reasons to buy and excuses for buying.

Let's look at this in a live situation. You are playing in front of an audience and your technique, personality, stage presence and talent are enough to cause a good number of people in the crowd to think to themselves, "This guy is pretty good. Too bad he doesn't have a record out." By the end of the night you have whipped the crowd into a frenzy, and several encores follow. By this point, you've got them emotionally hooked; and if they only knew you had a CD out, they'd have more than enough excuses for buying it. At the end of the set you announce that you, in fact, do have a CD out and it's available right now at the stage and not only do they get a special show price of $10 but you will autograph it as well. Bang! You've hit them with the reasons to buy your CD right now, today. If they wait until tomorrow they might not find it in the store, they won't get the great price and it won't have your signature on it. Result? A rush of stage sales, and another successful live gig has paid off.

From the last example you can see why most labels are ready to shove their bands out the door onto the next available tour. It's a truism that playing live is one of your best promotional vehicles when you have a CD or two to sell. But what if you can't tour or won't tour? How can a 'group' like Enigma rack up worldwide record sales of 30 million without ever having set foot on a stage? How do people who never attend concerts or go to clubs select the records they buy?

The answer to these questions is that touring is not the only method of promoting and publicizing your CD. In some of my previous columns I've talked about using the Internet as a promotional tool. In addition, there are college radio stations, indie radio programs, and cable access TV stations that are open to new artists and new music. There are hundreds of fanzines and entertainment papers that happily review albums that their readers might find interesting and offer affordable advertising rates. There is direct mail that can be used to bombard a mailing list with information about your career and upcoming recordings. The focus of this column is not to go into detail about the various promotional methods you might choose to employ, rather to clearly establish the responsibility for getting the job done-it's your responsibility! You need to make sure that any and all of the promotional tactics you use are establishing the value of your product, giving both reasons to buy your CD and excuses for buying your CD.

Selling doesn't only involve reasons and excuses. Convenience is critical to the sales process in two areas:

  • In attracting customers to your product in the first place
  • In closing the sale

How convenient is it for customers to find your CD in order to learn of the benefits of ownership? How convenient can you make it for them to buy your CD today, or better, immediately? Let's take a look at the live gig situation as one example.

If you play a club uptown because it's closer to your apartment, but your fans would find it more convenient to see you in a club that's downtown, maybe you should consider changing clubs. Why? It's your fan's convenience that should take priority over your personal preferences. If a large segment of your fan base doesn't like attending concerts in smoky bars, yet you find the atmosphere more to your own personal taste, maybe you should think about expanding your gigs to locations that can support an all-ages, smoke-free audience. Make it convenient for your fans to attend your shows in order to have the best shot at selling the most CDs.

At the time when you've actually opened up your CD 'store' at the front of the stage, how many ways can the customer pay you? How easy can you make it for them to buy your CD when they already have reasons and excuses to buy right now? If you insist on only unmarked $10 bills as payment, or if you can't accept credit cards or make change and refuse to take personal checks, you will most likely be losing sales. If you can only sell the CDs yourself, and you can't find someone to help sell them, then you are limiting the customers to buying from you for as long as your break between sets, which may not be long enough. You don't want to lose sales just because someone had to go to the restroom. Think about it, why do retailers who have mastered selling, such as Wal-Mart and Toys-R-Us stay open for long hours and accept every form of payment ever invented? Convenience, convenience, convenience! Closing the sale without blowing the sale means making sure you are doing whatever you can to make sure it's easy to buy your CD.

If you sell on the Internet or through mail order, the rules of convenience also apply. Make it easy to be found in the first place. Not everybody knows how to use a search engine, so your URL has to be blasted to the four corners of the earth and back again. You need to make deals wherever possible to get your CD (its image, its graphics, its sound clips, it's liner notes, its track listings, its story, etc.) and your name (your biography, your resume, your reputation, your inspirations, your motivations, your goals, etc.) out there in front of as many people as possible. Then, if they happen to find you and see that you have a CD or two for sale, make sure it is convenient (and secure) for them to buy it immediately. If they leave, they might not return. If they have to find an envelope, a pen, a check and a stamp, they might just change their mind in the time it takes to gather all that paraphernalia. Find out what the payment options of choice are and see if you can affordably offer those options to your customers.

The last, and probably most important factor in selling is trust. Customers have to trust you. In a live, one-on-one selling situation where the customer hands you $10 and you hand them a CD, trust is less of a factor. This is because they've just heard you play, they feel like they know what the music is like, they can touch and feel the product, and they can see what an honest person you are. With Internet and mail order sales, the customer has to trust your company (not just the artist, even if you are the company) to deliver on the promises they make. They need to feel that your company is solid and will be around next week, next month or next year. They need to feel that if they send you a check or credit card order that you will quickly and efficiently deliver their order.

What promotes this kind of trust? Professionalism, both in presentation and in service, promotes trust. A quick look around at a lot of indie web sites will give you some great examples of what not to do. You might find enough information on the site to offer plenty of reasons and excuses for buying. The site may have been easy to locate and the artist may have offered to ship orders via next day FedEx. But all will be wasted if the customer does not trust you enough to make a purchase (maybe it was the line, "Send cash, or make out checks to Joe Rockstar and send your order to my P.O. box in East Egypt. Allow four to six weeks for personal checks to clear the bank before we process your order.") In a sense, if you've decided to sell your CD yourself you are expected to operate as any other business would, maintaining a professional attitude in the way you handle money, customer concerns, order fulfillment and so forth.

I'd like to wind up this column on selling with a quote from Thomas Dolby that appeared in "The Music Technology Magazine," a British publication), Feb 1994, from the article HYPERinterACTIVE:

"Given that artists are already designing their own record covers, doing their own music videos, marketing themselves and making the music, why do we need record companies? We've got machines at home capable of making master recordings, and having finished a master I can telephone it into a central server and my fans can have access to it by dialing it up on their interactive TV screens. What exactly is the record company's contribution, other than being a bank stupid enough to loan money to musicians?"

If you've ever been signed to a record label of any kind, you probably expected the label to sell your records for you. You didn't expect to have to go door-to-door or record-store-to-record-store with your CD in a briefcase selling the product. To answer Dolby's question, you expected that one of the record company's contributions should have been their ability to put your CD into their incredible distribution network, to buy advertising and radio spots, to give you tour support, and to create and implement a custom marketing plan to help sell your record. Most artists that have had bad experiences with record labels after being signed have most of their problems in the area of marketing, promotion and publicity. The label, "...didn't get behind the band...", "...they didn't understand how to market us...", "...they never spent the amount of money on advertising that I expected..." and so on. If you are signed to a label, you know who should be selling it-the label! Whether the label is motivated and competent enough to do so is a completely different issue.

Dolby is right on one point. It has never been easier (and as a result, more common) to create, record and duplicate your own CD. But how many indie artists do you know that really market themselves effectively, or that know how to efficiently promote themselves? Since it is easy for anyone to make a CD, guess what? Everyone is making a CD! That means the promotion and publicity aspect of the project is even more important, because it is now harder to distinguish your CD from the thousands and thousands of similar CDs out there today. Selling music today (not just 'getting exposure') is tougher than it's ever been before. The key to selling successfully is to realize you've got to be the one to do it.

Dan McAvinchey is a guitarist and composer living in Raleigh, NC.

He believes every musician or composer has the power to write, record and release their own music.

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