Some of the best bands I have seen come and go through our studio, you will never have heard of. Amazing talent, great songs, grooves that make you want to jump about but ultimately they fall into the abyss, never to reach the fame and notoriety they deserve. It’s a fairly typical tale unfortunately. The band is often made up of people who have spent their entire time honing their art form and their ability and absolutely no time working on their business. And being in a successful band is indeed a business and it needs to be treated as such lest the music be lost to the ages and the only ones to ever hear it are going to be rehearsal studio owners.
Eventually these bands get bored and they drift away from playing together. Why? Simply because there is no challenge for them anymore. They have made their only challenge playing great music. Once they’ve achieved that, it’s hard for them to go on and on doing it without a new challenge being presented. Don’t get me wrong, playing great music is a worthy thing to be doing but without the drive to change your music from mere art form into a “product”, what is the real incentive to continue playing? Yes, it may give you joy now but perhaps not so much later on down the road.
I know I’m going to get shouted down by the purists among you that feel that what I just described is “selling out”. You are free to feel that way and enjoy your life of obscurity but for those who are keen on getting their music heard by the masses, it’s time to start thinking about how you can get yourself out there and even perhaps monetise your music. A lot of musicians think that’s a dirty word. They’ll say things like “I’m in it for the music, man. Screw the money!” Yeah, I’ve heard that line many times over the years. Most of those guys work day jobs. They’re not living the dream. I have to call bullshit on their statements. Do they really not dare to dream? Can you really tell me that anyone who’s ever picked up an instrument hasn’t thought it would be nice to be a star? I can tell you that it just won’t happen by writing and playing great music alone. It’s a very rare thing to be “discovered” without at least tipping the odds in your direction by getting out there as a product in the marketplace.
In the over sixteen years we’ve run Continuumusic, we’ve never had one record executive come to our door and ask “have you got any good bands I should be signing?” Not one. Maybe they should try doing that and our radio waves wouldn’t be soaked up with the hum-drum of music we hear and instead we’d be turned on to things that were new and exciting. But that isn’t the way it works so, sadly, unless you start to put on your inner businessman, you’re going to find that you just don’t get anywhere.
If you’re like most bands, you can look at your balance sheet and see a whole heap of red ink. Most bands will pay a fortune for their equipment, rehearsal time, recording, travel costs, ongoing consumables such as drum skins, sticks, strings, picks, leads, etc over the period they’re together and then they can look at the income side and see they’ve barely scratched the surface of covering those costs from the rewards they’ve had from playing shows or selling CD’s. I’d bet that most bands out there don’t even have a balance sheet. I suggest you draw one up. You’ll get a big surprise on what it is costing you and it might just shock you out of your “art for art’s sake” mentality. Further, it may inspire you to sit down and work out a plan for how you can turn that red ink into black. You don’t need to feel grubby by doing this. It’s just common sense to at least try and balance those figures.
So you don’t know where to start? It seems all too overwhelming? You’re just a simple muso and know not of such things?
Okay, let’s start with some basics.
What products do you currently have?
You’re a business, start thinking that way. Businesses make and sell products or they provide services. As a band you do all three. What are your products? If they are just songs, you’re already fighting an uphill battle. I hate to tell you (and you won’t think it’s a fair statement) but songs are worth squat as far as most people are concerned. It wasn’t always that way and, if the general public were to go for 24 hours without them the penny might drop for them as to the actual value they have in their lives but with the invention of digital music formats, songs have become virtually valueless in the eye of the consumer. (I will qualify this statement by saying, of course your songs have value. Without them there is no band and therefore no business. In the early days of music though, their value was considerably higher as they weren’t so easy to bootleg and share. You either had to see them performed live or buy recorded versions. Or at least tune into the radio where you would be bombarded with advertising that would pay for the privilege. Thus money was changing hands and musicians were getting paid for their work. Ummm… sometimes.) Which one of you reading this hasn’t copied a piece of music from a friend or at least one format to another or download something from the internet? Did you know you were supposed to pay for doing this? Yeah, you did but very few thought that their minor infraction would be the critical blow delivered to the music industry. No individual feels that they are “the problem”. They think their contribution to the copyright piracy that’s going on in the world is too small to make a difference. Unfortunately those individuals add up. I’ve heard both sides of the argument. The infringers saying that piracy is not theft because it is simply copying something not stealing it and the music makers who are saying they’ve spent fortunes providing the music and deserve recompense. But I digress and that’s a debate for another blog. I don’t want to waste time with arguing it here. Let’s just say that, unless you manage to get your music out on the large scale market (ie: selling millions of copies worldwide or get it in a film/TV show or advertisement/radio/etc,) your precious songs are worth cents at most rather than dollars in most cases. In this day and age, I feel it’s better to consider that your songs are more a marketing tool for your business rather than a product in themselves as such.
CD’s on the other hand are a product, downloads are a product. Yes, in essence they are “the songs” but if we consider “the songs” as the ethereal part and the actual medium they are carried in as the product, it ends up being more valuable to your business model as far as tracking income is concerned. But CD’s and downloads shouldn’t be your only products. Performing live can also be considered a product as can DVD’s of live performances, T-shirts and even novelty items like keyrings and beer bottle coolers with the band’s name on them. The latter of these also serve as further advertising so they are a win-win. What’s more they are less likely to suffer from the piracy issue (you can’t download a baseball cap… yet).
The more you can expand your product line, the more income streams you can create and the higher the dollar value of each customer you have will increase. McDonalds wouldn’t do so well if they only sold hamburgers. Fries, drinks, sundaes, etc bring in a large proportion of their income. A customer may enter the store just wanting a hamburger but the staff asking the question: “Would you like fries with that?” increases that customer’s spend amount. You should consider how to incorporate this strategy into your sales. If your customer only has the ability to buy one product from you, then you’ll need five times the amount of customers than if you have five times the amount of products available to sell to one customer. Makes sense, right?
There are a number of different merchandise suppliers where you can get good deals on these products. One great resource is a company called Labelstate. They just do T-shirts but the great thing about them is that they won’t cost you any money up front. They work on a system of uploading your artwork online and then you place a link on your website/Facebook/etc. They sell the T-shirts and handle all the accounting and mailing out to customers and send you a proportion of the sale price. You can find them here: www.labelstate.com
Remember that, wherever you get your T-shirts from, they should be of good quality. You want people to wear them as they are walking advertisements for your band.
You must have recorded versions of your songs. And I mean WELL RECORDED versions of your songs! It’s virtually pointless to have something that you are not proud of. If you are going to consider it a product then you need to believe in it. If you don’t, how do you expect to sell it to anybody else? If you are going to turn your recordings into a product line, listen to them closely and be sure that you are happy with the way they represent you and your music. If they don’t, then invest some time and money into creating some that do.
There’s a lot to be said about splitting up recordings into different products. If you have recordings of 15 songs for example, don’t rush out and cut all 15 onto one album. You could create two different products by putting out an album of ten of those songs and also have an E.P. of the other five. Instantly one product becomes two. Similarly, if you can get a decent film (with good audio) of you playing those songs live, you could compile a DVD. Now you’ve been able to turn the same 15 songs into three separate products for people to buy. Add a T-shirt and baseball cap and your average customer could be spending up to a hundred bucks with you rather than ten.
You may spend a lot of money on your recording and then find that you have little left for the physical copies to sell to your clients. I know a lot of bands who have gotten stuck in this situation. The recording is done and sounds great but then they can’t scrape up the bucks to press CDs. Another great resource that can get you your products without outlaying any more cash is www.kunaki.com . Like Labelstate, Kunaki is a company that handles your customers’ purchases and distribution and then on-sends a profit margin to you. You simply upload your music and artwork and then stick a link on your webpage. You can price CD’s at any rate you like and the difference between their cost of manufacture and postage and handling costs and your actual sale price is sent to you. You can also buy small runs of CD’s from them at cost price. This method can be a little more expensive than sourcing CDs from a pressing plant (per CD) and distributing them yourself but, as there’s no money up front for you to pay and you don’t have to handle doing the posting out of CD’s yourself, it’s a valid alternative.
If you’re looking to sell your music through iTunes but you don’t have a record label you are mostly locked out. There are a few “back doors” to getting onto the world’s largest digital music suppliers however. Tunecore is one of them. Tunecore offers a route to getting your music into iTunes and pretty much all the other major online music providers on a yearly subscription. It costs you $30 for the first year and then $50 a year for you to have an album up and $10 per year for a single. That’s how they make their money. The royalties that iTunes and the other stores pay for any sales go to you via the Tunecore accounting system. You’ll want to make sure that you are getting sales though. If the tracks aren’t selling then this just becomes another yearly expense for the band. You can get info and sign up to tunecore here: www.tunecore.com
This is pretty obvious and something that every band will want to do. If you’re an original act, you can rest assured that you’ll be paid little or no money for your live performances though. At least at the beginning. That’s the nature of the business. Venue operators don’t really think that you’re worth paying or their budgets just don’t allow for it. It can mean that your outlay for playing can be higher than your income for the show but you shouldn’t be discouraged. Most bands will just want to play so they’ll put up with the pittance (or lack thereof) that they are given for the show, often whinging about it at the time but accepting it none the less. Instead it should be seen as an investment into marketing for your business. Remember that playing in front of audiences is what increases your following (read as customers) and creates opportunities for product sales. You should be directing the audience to your products continuously throughout your show whether that be on a table at the back of the venue or to your website.
Okay, so you have some products and at least one method of finding customers (we’ll discuss more methods for attracting customers in a later blog.), now how do you carry out the transaction?
First and foremost you should have a website. Everybody is online and you’re shooting yourself in the foot if you don’t have one. It is the modern equivalent of having a shopfront. It’s all well and good to have a merch table at your gig (if the venue will allow it) but it is even better to add the ability for people to buy your product and keep up to date with future events when they are not right in front of you at the venue. You should also have a Facebook page but you shouldn’t have that as your sole online presence. It should be used for pulling people to your main website. A quality site where you can give people information and they can buy your products directly is of supreme importance. You can build one yourself easily enough but if you don’t know what you’re doing and don’t have a flair for it, this can be time consuming, tedious and has the ability to drive customers away as easily as attract them if you do a crap job on it. It’s worth spending some money on getting a professional do the job. My recommendation is www.esensewebdesign.com They aren’t necessarily the cheapest but they are very good and they can tailor something to fit your budget. That is important too. If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys and monkeys won’t get you a site that will make you money.
As I just mentioned, you should have a Facebook page. A Twitter account is also a good idea. But neither of these will do you any good unless you post and update them regularly. If you don’t engage with your audience, they won’t bother with you. Post often but not too often that it gets you “un-liked” because people get bored of you. It is also important that your posts have something worthwhile in them. I read something recently about things that “go viral”. The most important factor in order to experience anything being viral is to be “remarkable”. That is that whatever you wish to get out there must have content that is worth “remarking on”. One experience I had with this recently had me getting tonnes of likes on a post I put on my personal page that just had a picture of me in my new reading glasses. Strangely, that was considered remarkable by a long list of my friends. (Sadly similar responses haven’t been had over my blog posts!!) It’s pretty difficult to know what people will remark upon and what they won’t and you can only use the old trial and error method for finding what posts will spark people’s interest. Before you post, ask yourself whether you would remark upon whatever it is that you’re posting if you saw it on someone else’s feed? If the answer is “no”, then maybe think twice about using up people’s attention span with it. If you’re not posting very often then go ahead and stick it up there but if you’ve posted eight times already today, best leave it off. Remember too that Facebook and Twitter feeds move quickly and, if people have a lot of friends or things they follow, they could miss your post entirely so don’t be afraid to repeat yourself. Just don’t do it too often or too soon after the original post.
A good band can look like crap with bad photos. Remember that if people see you before they hear you they have possibly already made up their mind about you. The old saying about first impressions applies. Once again, a professional will generally do a much better job than an amateur. If you’re uploading shots from someone’s iPhone to your Facebook page or to a photos page on your website, that’s fine but if your main page photo or a photo you use in any form of media advertising looks like crap, less people are going to be interested in finding out more about you or buying your products. The more professional you look, the more people will feel that you are professional. There are tonnes of great and reasonably priced photographers out there. I’m not going to make any personal recommendations here. Google them and set something up. One great shot can do wonders for your appeal.
Okay, so now you have products and a good looking online store to sell them on as well as selling them at live shows. You’re encouraging people to sign up to your Facebook and Twitter, you’re connecting with your audience regularly and suddenly you’ll start to see the income column of your band’s balance sheet start to have some entries and maybe even begin to even out with the outgoings. It won’t take long until you’ll get addicted to the process of growing your sales figures, looking to incorporate new products and broaden your customer base… just like real businessmen! You’ll feel challenged again and you’ll be looking for new opportunities for the band/business to grow and you will be in control. What’s more, you will be showing yourself as a marketable business that will attract larger marketable businesses to align with you (ie: record companies. They don’t want to discover you by finding you in a rehearsal studio, they want to see that you’re already moving and shaking before they’ll want you.) You’ll also stop feeling the pinch when it’s time to change those guitar strings or put petrol in your van to get to the next gig. You might even drop the “I’m selling out” attitude in favour of considering yourself an “entrepreneur”. Which, in my opinion, has a much better ring to it.