Indie Promotion and Sales

Getting your first batch of CDs back from the duplicator is a great feeling. You finally can see, hold, and feel the results of all your hard work in the studio and elsewhere. Now your goals and concerns must be focused on getting as many of those shiny discs out of your house and into the homes of your fans. What's that? You don't have any fans? Publicity and promotion go hand in hand into helping you create a fan base from as few as a handful of people to a world wide audience. Once your fan base begins to grow you will be able to sell (i.e.. request money and actually receive it) your CDs and cassettes to your fans through a number of channels.

Publicity And Promotion

Ideally, publicity and promotion begin from the day you conceive of your new CD project, not when the FedEx guy shows up at the door with thousands of shrink wrapped discs. If you haven't release your CD yet but plan to soon, begin the process of promotion and publicity today -- right now if possible. It takes time to plan your promotional strategy, obtain publicity, release promotional material, etc. so you should always be thinking of the best ways to promote your upcoming release.

Promotion in the music business really deals with letting people know who you are, what you have created, where they can buy it, where they can hear it, and why they should care. The end result of promotion is to get people interested enough to buy your records, follow your career, catch your live performances, and wait with great anticipation for your subsequent releases.

Think about how many musicians there are in the world and think about how many are slowly discovering how easy it is to release their own record. With all this music out there now, and with all that's about to be released, how can you get your record noticed? This is the question you should be turning over in your head constantly. Hopefully, answers to this question will be generated from ideas you get from reading this article.

Playing Live And Touring

The longer you spend time in the music business, the more you will hear this said -- the best way to promote your band is through touring, playing gigs, meeting and converting people into your fans. I agree with that. I also agree with the statement that a touring band will almost always make more money than a band that doesn't tour. However, I don't agree that you must tour to have a career as a recording artist in the music business. But that's another article.

It's an interesting phenomenon -- no one will pay twelve bucks for your CD because they've never heard of you. But they'll pay a few bucks cover charge and spend another fifteen bucks on drinks in a club to watch an unknown band. While they are there you have your best chance to impress upon them your name, your music, your showmanship, your new CD, and your merchandise (t-shirts, hats, stickers, etc.). If your show is great, those few new fans you've made will tell their friends, and you have the beginnings of a local following.

Another aspect of touring is the promotion that goes along with the gig (flyers, mailings, stickers, local radio interviews) also helps get your name out there to people who don't even attend the show. They'll see your promotional material around town and it will make an impression on their brain that you exist.

Radio Airplay

Who (except maybe the late Frank Zappa) wouldn't want airplay? Even small radio stations generally have many more listeners than you might reach by playing ten dates in the same town. Getting airplay can also open a lot of other doors for you as well; major labels monitor college charts for example, so if you build a buzz, they may come looking for you.

College and public radio are much more receptive to unknown and up-and-coming musicians and bands than your typical commercial radio station. You should focus your efforts to get played on the hundreds of college radio stations around the country. College stations across the country should be targeted if radio airplay is important to you. Send your release to as many stations as you can that play your style of music. Also include a letter to the program director or other contact at the station, briefly detailing who you are, and the type of music you play. Give them your one or two best tracks as a starting point since they will probably not have time to listen to your entire CD.

If you have any posters or other promotional materials include them as well; they just might get stuck to the wall of the station. I've heard people say you should punch out the bar codes on your CD or cut the jewel box and booklet to prevent radio DJs from selling your release at the local used CD store. I disagree with this because if they like your music they'll either play it or take the disc home and keep it. If they hate it and can't sell it, they'll throw it away! They are not going to warehouse your disc at the station for very long. At least if it's in the used CD store, your record has the possibility of being picked up by a new fan. Sure beats the dumpster!

However, if you ever ship promotional discs to distributors or retailers, be sure to punch out the bar codes or cut the jewel boxes. This is so you know the difference between promo discs and those which were actually purchased. If you don't, they may attempt to return promo discs as unsold merchandise for full credit! You'll never get ahead by buying back your own promos.

If you find it necessary to limit the number of promo discs you can send to college radio (after all, there are a lot of colleges), you can send each station a stamped postcard they can fill out and mail back to you to request a promo copy of your release. This lets you know that someone at the station has at least a passing interest in your music, if they took the time to return the postcard. Make sure the postcard describes the type of music you have recorded in some detail, so that if it doesn't fit their format, you won't waste their time and your money. On the postcard you can request their name, position at the station, phone number, and e-mail address so that you have a contact you can follow up with. When you do mail your release to the station, write (better yet, get a stamp made) on the envelope in big letters, "HERE IS THE RELEASE YOU REQUESTED", and be sure to address it to your contact.

One last point about college radio: plan your mailings to coincide with the class schedule of the university. You'll have a lot less ears listening to your release if all the students are on break.


One promotional idea as old as time is advertising. Advertising can be extremely important if you plan to sell the majority of your records through mail order or by phone. The fact that your advertising can include a method of ordering your disc from your record label is actually an advantage over radio. On radio, the DJ may play your record, he might remember to mention your band name or the name of the album. But he certainly won't tell someone how they can get their own copy of your record (he probably doesn't know anyway). So unless you have a distribution network in place, a radio listener will go the local CD store only to find your CD is not stocked and the store has no way of ordering your disc.

Any classified or print advertising you do should include one or more methods of ordering your record. You should accept orders through the mail, ideally accepting checks, money orders, or credit cards as payment. If you can afford an 800 number and can have someone take phone orders for you, then that provides another method to sell your release, as well as having the phone representative cross-sell your t-shirts or other merchandise. If you are on the Internet, always include your internet site and your e-mail address in any print advertising you do. If your ad is in a local magazine or newspaper, and your disc can be purchased at a local store, be sure to mention that in the ad copy.

Advertising is expensive, so it's critical to do it correctly to get maximum payback from the dollars you have available to spend. Don't let the fact that it is expensive deter you from considering advertising in your promotional plan. Advertising works great for a lot of businesses; a glance at their astronomical ad budgets should convince you of that. However, if you think placing a single display ad in a magazine is going to send your sales skyrocketing, you are misinformed. If you decide print ads are the method you want to try to attract mail order sales, make sure you run the ads regularly.

For example, if your budget allows you to place a half-page display ad twice over a one year period in a national magazine, consider a one-sixth page ad, six or even eight times during the year. It's important to have your name, band name and/or record label established in the public's eye over and over again. Regular advertising also creates legitimacy in the mind of the public. If people see you advertising regularly, they will know your label is not some fly-by-night outfit.

It also takes time to get people to take action. If they see your ad for the fourth time in as many months, were intrigued, but were previously too lazy to place an order, maybe they'll finally say, "Hey, I remember seeing this CD advertised before. I remember I wanted to order it, but I had to buy tires last month. Maybe I'll get it now..." With a one-time-hit-or-miss ad you will lose a lot of business to fans who just gotta buy tires, shoes, clothes for their kids, etc. Regular advertising will catch them right when their Christmas bonus arrives.

Feel free to use a lot of creativity when you design your ad, but keep in mind your goal -- to get someone interested enough in what they see or read to order your CD, or to go to your web site on the Internet and order your CD. It may not be this month or next, but ultimately they will buy your release if they've gotten interested enough in what you've created.

Remember to ask about special ad rates for independent musicians or record labels. For example, Guitar World magazine has special ad rates for independents only that can save you a huge amount of money over a six to twelve month ad campaign.

The Internet

The Internet is a lot like print advertising for the 90's, but with several key advantages. Number one, it's much cheaper. It may cost $25-50 a month to maintain a web site, compared to $250 a month for a small, heavily discounted ad in a national magazine. Number two, a web site on the Internet can contain a huge amount of information about yourself, your music, and your band. You can have photos, biographies, reviews, sound clips, lyrics, etc. It can almost resemble a fan club newsletter, with anything anyone might want to know about your music. Try doing that with a print ad.

Number three, you can take orders on your web site, which means if you're set up to accept credit cards you save your customers the trouble of finding paper, an envelope and a stamp in order to submit a traditional mail order. Number four, it's easily updated, meaning you can make changes to your web site at any time to reflect touring schedule changes, announce release dates for your CD releases, correct your spelling mistakes, etc. Number five, since most web pages include e-mail addresses of band members, you will stay in direct contact with your fans (wherever they are in the world) at all times. No other promotional medium offers anything close to this.

There are a few disadvantages to be aware of as well. Not everyone has a computer or Internet access (yet!) so if you reject print advertising and touring in favor of an Internet-only promotional effort you will block off a number of people who would possibly be very interested in your music. If you're not technically inclined, you also need someone to help you who is computer literate that can help you get set up. In a national magazine you can reach 250,000 to 500,000 readers a month with a modest display ad; unless you specialize in sex and nudity, it takes a long, long time to get that many web surfers to visit your site.

On balance, I feel it's very important for any musician or band to have a presence on the internet. I think the ability to stay in touch with your fan base and keep them abreast of the latest developments in your career make it worth the small amount of money it takes to get started with a site.

The Press

It's been said often enough that reviews don't sell records, advertising and other promotional activities do. Nevertheless, a good review of your music is certainly a plus, and can be used as leverage to get more radio stations to play your record. More stations playing your music can mean more sales and more interest in what you are doing. Just don't spend all of your promotional effort and dollars into trying to get someone to review your record.

You should design a press release or one-sheet that you can use to send to newspapers, music magazines, record stores, etc. to announce your record, ideally in advance of the record's release. A one-sheet should contain biographical data, other reviews, general information, release information, and anything else you can think of to generate interest. You should send out your CD to any press contacts you feel may actually result in a review. Make sure you let them know you are available for interviews, and provide them with plenty of information about your band and your music they can use in their review. I've known bands to literally send their own, self-penned reviews to newspapers, and see the actual review come out written with many lines quoted verbatim. A writer facing a deadline may be inclined to use some of your promotional text out of necessity. Make it easy for them and tell a great story, your way!

Don't neglect local press; frequently a local band seeking national attention is just the kind of story a feature writer can get interested in, especially if he or she can see you perform live. Use any free passes you have to your gigs wisely; put them in the hands of people who can do something for you.

Mailing Lists

An important part of any promotional campaign will be the ability to make repeated contact with your fans, people who have bought records, t-shirts, or other merchandise from you in the past. If you offer your records for sale via mail order, you can save everyone's address who orders from you and begin building a mailing list of fans. When you release a new record, book a tour, or have any other significant news, you can mail to everyone or selected groups of people on your list to make them aware of your activities.

With the Internet, an e-mailing list is even better, because communication is much faster, not to mention much more inexpensive. Keep a regular mailing list and an e-mail list of all your fans and you will have the best of both worlds. Just do your best to try and keep it as up to date as possible (it will be tough). And if you ever have the opportunity to exchange mailing lists with another band who plays music similar to yours, by all means do it.


Now that we've covered several ideas in the area of promotion and publicity, let's look at four methods of selling your records to the public. Over time you should be selling using all possible means; however initially, due to budget realities or your promotional strategy, you may wish to focus on only one or two sales methods.

Gig Sales

I mentioned earlier about the benefits of touring and playing live. This may be one of your best opportunities to sell your record to a brand new fan. This is especially true if you don't have any distribution in place yet, so your record cannot be bought in local stores. Announce that you are selling your record and if it cannot be purchased anywhere else, mention that as well. You can make several of these announcements during the show so that people entering later will also get the message.

Any other merchandise you have should also be available at your gigs. Many national acts have claimed that merchandise sales on the road are really what pays the bills and allows them to show a decent profit for all their hard work. When you have passionate fans, they usually want more than just the record. Fans love the idea of wearing a t-shirt or hat to show their support for your music. In addition, a fan wearing your t-shirt is a walking billboard for your band.

You can either sell your records from the stage (between sets or after the show), or from a table set up in the club. If you set up a table you just need someone to work it all evening and push your merchandise. If you can, also try to get people to sign up to your mailing list, so they can be contacted about future events.

Another promotional idea to tie in with your gig sales, if you can afford it, is to have some small item with your band's name on it, that can be given away for free. Stickers are great, since they'll pop up around town in more places than you'd expect. If you can announce that you've got stickers free for the asking at the table where you are selling CDs and other merchandise, they'll have to walk back and see what else you have for sale.

Mail Order Sales

If you have chosen the print advertising and/or Internet site promotional approaches, you will definitely want to be able to fulfill orders through the mail. Mail order is a big business, which often times is slighted by artists and small labels who find it hard to figure out. Well, Columbia House and BMG have figured it out and they sell millions of records through the mail. They are not your business model by any means, but if someone tells you that you can't sell records by mail because fans need instant gratification, ask them to please explain the success of the record clubs.

There are a few mail-order distributors (Parasol, Ajax, Ladyslipper, Alternative Tentacles, K, to name a few) in the United States that you can contact about having your release in their catalog. Since they sell records directly to the public (unlike a regular distributor who sells to stores), when they sell, you get paid faster. You should investigate this option if you do not plan to offer your records through mail order by any other means.

My advice on pricing records sold through the mail is two-fold. First, you may be tempted to offer the records at a much lower price than say the $12-15 dollars someone might have to pay at a store. You may reason that if you shipped the records to a distributor, you might make $7 a disc, so why not charge $8 and still come out ahead?

It's possible (though difficult to prove) in the eyes of a consumer, if you charge much less than the going rate for a CD, that you are implying it's not worth as much as a release that sells for the regular price. They might speculate that perhaps the sound quality is not that great or you are trying to unload as many records as possible as quickly as possible. The idea that you are trying to pass on some of your cost savings will escape them, especially in a one-sixth page display ad. You should be proud of your work and I don't think you want to unintentionally send signals that your CD is somehow inferior to all the other music on the market.

Also, advertising is expensive, and the money to pay for it must come out of the money you make selling your records. If you don't charge enough, you will be paying for the advertising out of what should be your compensation as artist and/or label owner.

My second point on pricing is to consider rolling the cost of shipping and taxes into the price of the record. So instead of charging $13 and asking for an additional $1.50 for shipping (N.C. residents add appropriate local sales tax, etc.), just price the disc at $14 or $14.50, with all shipping and taxes included. It gives the consumer the impression that you are not nickel-and-diming them to death. The main complaint I have heard almost everyone make about Columbia House and BMG is the high shipping costs, even though everyone knows it must cost something to mail a CD. And obviously you will make a little less money on in-state sales because you will have to compute the state tax and deduct it from the $14. It won't break you.

The exception to including shipping costs in the price are for an international sale. It costs a lot more to send stuff overseas; I have seen most mail-order vendors asking for another $2-3 for foreign orders to cover the shipping.

Local 'Mom-And-Pop' Store Sales

Most towns have one or more 'cool' record stores, usually independently run and locally owned who usually are happy to stock releases by local artists. There is an even split between stores that will pay you on delivery and those that will take a few pieces on consignment, then pay you after the records are sold. Some stores don't like the paperwork associated with consignment sales, but they will still want assurances from you that they can return unsold CDs to you for full credit.

If you encounter resistance from local stores to accepting your music on any terms, you might just give them two copies for free, and tell them to put them in the bin and see what happens. Have a verbal agreement with them that if they do sell they will call you and reopen the negotiations. Leave your business card. Send two of your friends in the store on different days (let a few days go by first) to buy your CD. Amazing but true, you will receive a call. Hey, business is business. If you are convinced that your record will sell in that store you should be more than happy to eat the cost of two CDs at retail to get your foot in the door. You can always sell them the same CDs again at wholesale to recover part of the cost.

Bottom line: if your records don't sell in any store for any reason, they will come back to you, guaranteed. But use whatever means necessary to get them into stores if you are sure your record will sell once it's stocked.

Sales Through Distributors

Distributors are the middlemen between record labels and record stores. Small labels are forever searching for and hoping to get, distribution by a reputable business. Even independent artists with one release hope to persuade a distributor to take their music, convinced that the road to riches is through nationwide distribution. And in many ways, they'd be right. However to get maximum benefit from national or even regional distribution you must already have built up a demand for your music. Getting your record or your label's records to be carried by a distributor will not create demand or generate any publicity. You are still 100% responsible for promotion and marketing, only now when you sell something you only profit half as much as when you sell a record yourself. That's when (or if) you get paid for the records in the first place.

Why don't distributors pay you up front? Their position is that you being an independent label or artist means you may not be in business long enough to accept their return of unsold discs.

Why don't distributors pay you promptly when the discs do sell? Distributors have cash flow problems like any other business and if they can hold on to your money an extra two or three months, then they will. As a small label you are not in the position to demand payment and expect to get immediate action.

Why might distributors not accept your record in the first place? If you do not convince them they can sell anywhere from 10 to 100 of your records fairly quickly, they will not consider taking your release at all. Distributors will be looking at you to prove you have a promotion plan in place to ensure retailers will order the discs from them and that they will sell. Pursuing distribution is almost like trying to get signed by a record label. Their question will be, "Why you? What have you got that's so special that I should carry your release in my inventory?" Distributors will also shy away from single artist labels and labels with only a few releases so you may need to achieve a certain size before even trying to pursue distribution.

Are you still considering pursuing national or regional distribution? Keep in mind you are effectively acting as a banker to the distributor. You are 'loaning' them money (the cost of the records you ship to them) and they likely will not pay you back until:

  • The records are ordered by the retailers
  • The records are sold by the retailers
  • The records are paid for by the retailers
  • Sufficient time elapses that the distributor believes future returns will be minimal.

There could be a very long time between the moment they agree to take one or two hundred discs from you and the day you actually receive your six or seven dollars per disc from them. When you are first starting your label, you may not be able to afford to finance your distributors and wait that long to get paid. Remember we're still making the assumption there is already demand for your records and that they are selling. At any time, boxes of records already paid for (in advance, what a concept) could come back to you, with a request for money.

If you can afford to put a lot of records in the distribution pipeline and wait as long as it takes to get paid, then go after it. Look for distributors whose reputation can be validated by other labels or artists your size. Some reputable smaller distributors (as of December 1996) include Mordam Records, in San Francisco, Revolver, also in San Francisco, and Cargo Records in Chicago. Caroline Distribution seems to distrubute quite a few small labels these days as well. These distributors will not wait six to nine months to pay you; just keep in mind if you receive payment in full, returns may be possible and could take you by surprise.

Ya gotta love this business! If it sounds like a game, it is. It's a game where patience, persistence, flexibility, creativity and longevity are rewarded in the end. It's a game where anyone hoping to enter on a small scale and get rich quick is playing the wrong game (try the N.B.A.). If you devote yourself to promotion and sales with the same passion that you've given to your music, you'll succeed. Just do not give up, notice what works and what isn't working, and don't be afraid to change your approach in order to achieve your goals. Good luck!

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.

Guitar Haus