Note: The following column is not legal advice, and is not intended as such.
Note: Given the 17+ year age of this column, nearly all of this information is outdated, however, it serves as an insight into how far we've come.
Opportunities for exposure on the Internet continue to keep expanding, month after month. In this column, I'll be exploring several of the latest methods available to independent artists to spread the word about their music and make it available for sale. While these new opportunities do not 'level the playing field' between you and your major label competition, they can be used to extend your 'reach' as a recording artist, putting your music in front of a whole new set of potential fans.
This method of marketing has more to do with the momentum and expanding popularity of the mp3.com company and web site (www.mp3.com) than it has to do with the MP3 computer format and compression algorithm for music files. Mp3.com was started only a few years ago by Michael Robertson, but has subsequently garnered an enormous amount of publicity (they've also been the target of a number of frivolous lawsuits). Many people even think the founders of the web site are the same engineers who invented the MP3 (or MPEG layer 3) format, but they are simply savvy businessmen who recognized the untapped potential of bringing together a number of artists who were searching for a way to publicize their music.
Music fans can browse the mp3.com site, then select and download from the tens of thousands of complete songs in the MP3 format. Since a number of really cool and inexpensive (or free) MP3 players are available to download from the site as well, mp3.com becomes a one-stop, free shopping experience for those with the time and patience to endure downloads averaging 4 megabytes (about 20-25 minutes for me, using a 42K connection).
How does it sound? In a word, excellent. Some fans (and staff) on the mp3.com site even refer to MP3 files as 'CD quality'. If they intend 'CD quality' to mean 'better than a cassette tape' or 'better than FM radio' they would be correct. However, it's impossible, in my opinion, to remove over 90% of the data using a 10:1 compression algorithm and claim that it really sounds as good as a CD. I think since you can download the MP3s for free, what a lot of students and people with limited budgets are really saying is that it's 'good enough', compared with a CD. They can enjoy their listening experience with MP3 files without feeling a strong desire to have the music on a medium that may sound even better, but costs money. If you think back to when you were a kid, there was a time when listening to the radio was good enough too, especially if you had a cheap-sounding record player - after all, the radio was free. In spite of that, a lot of us grew up and built impressive record collections anyway.
Getting your music on mp3.com is free of charge. They have a simple, non-exclusive agreement that can be terminated by you at any time. You do need to invest the time to encode the music from your CD or demo using one of the freeware or shareware MP3 encoders that are available from the mp3.com site. The mp3.site also has extensive help areas, which guide newcomers in the techniques of ripping songs from CDs, encoding the music, and uploading it to the site. I submitted a number of songs from my CD, "Guitar Haus", back in November and mp3.com set up a page with my biographical information and MP3 files. I also promote my CD from that page. Other artists such as Joboj, Neil Zaza and Mark Pattison are doing the same thing.
You might choose a handful of 'singles' from your CD as giveaways to upload, with the idea that you may drum up some additional CD sales from people who would not otherwise be exposed to your music. Think of it as radio play in the new millennium - giving away the singles (on the mp3.com 'radio') to sell the album. The music on the site is categorized in styles such as Instrumental, Dance, Pop, Jazz, etc., so fans of those genres can quickly find the kind of music they most enjoy. They even have 'Top 100' charts for every style of music.
The mp3.com site claims to be getting over six million visitors a month, so on the surface, it seems you'll be getting a lot of new exposure for your music. However, keep in mind a few things. First, a lot of traffic on the site is generated from the artists themselves. There are thousands of artists signed to the site, who frequently visit to check their statistics, check their chart positions, read the bulletin boards, post to the bulletin boards, upload songs, etc. You probably won't sell much to artists in the same position as yourself.
Next, keep in mind that there are thousands and thousands of songs on the site now. When I uploaded the first song from "Guitar Haus" just four months ago, I think it was only the 150th instrumental song on the site. Now there are almost 1000 instrumental songs, and there is no end to how big this site can get. If you put yourself in the position of the music fan, the one who may browse the site looking for some new music, you must realize how much time now needs to be invested before he or she ever gets to number 859 on the instrumental charts!
Finally, consider that a large percentage of the visitors to the site are really attracted to MP3 because it's free. They are not looking to spend money, so they probably won't spend money. These are the people who write notes into the bulletin board talking about how they'll never spend any money on music again, now that it's 'free' on the Internet. Well, in my opinion, this sentiment and expression of direction should be taken with a grain of salt. Refer to your own life's experience to prove this - I'm sure there were many times in your life since the age of eight where, due your financial circumstances, you simply enjoyed the free music that was available around you. You listened to the radio, you borrowed records from friends and family, and you received cassette copies from acquaintances. All this was done without the Internet, so it was possible to enjoy free musical experiences prior to 1993. The only difference now is that you need a good computer, a fast connection, a good set of computer speakers and a lot of available hard drive space. And if you want to experience the music away from your computer, you need to invest another $200 in a portable MP3 player. It seems the price of being poor has gone up considerably since I was a boy!
Are you interested in instant nationwide (or worldwide) distribution? Who isn't? Well if you think nationwide distribution means having five copies of your CD in every CD store in the country, dream on. Besides, you probably don't have 10,000 CDs lying around that you can pump into the distribution channel. But if you think nationwide distribution means every CD store in the country has the ability to order your CD, and the largest Internet retailers can list your CD in their online catalog and order your CD if they actually get an request for it, then read on.
The Orchard takes almost the opposite approach to marketing than the previous two examples. Instead of a new way to market your music, the Orchard offers a bridge to the old way of selling music - through distributors to retail stores, and from retail stores to the consumer. For a one-time $40 fee, and a 30% distribution fee, through a consignment arrangement with Valley Media, the Orchard offers every artist with finished product, worldwide, non-exclusive distribution. Their own press release states, "The Orchard guarantees that its product will be sold at all the major online record stores including Amazon.com, CD Now, Music Boulevard and available on demand in every major chain store."
Well, maybe not sold. A better phrase there might be, "offered for sale." Regardless, by hooking up with Valley Media, the Orchard places your CD in their catalog. So that makes it available to any store that uses Valley as one of their distributors (which seems to be everyone these days, including the big Internet retailers). Since it would be virtually impossible to get Valley to take your independently released product, it would appear to be $40 and 11 CDs well spent (1 for promo, 10 for consignment stock). Additionally, if you reference your CD with the phrase, "Available at all finer CD stores across the United States and the Internet," you would technically be correct. Anyone who walks into any CD store looking for your record, then takes the time to ask the clerk where it is when they can't find it, will be told that it can be ordered.
The deal with Orchard also places your CD on the Orchard web site, which is a non-issue as far as deciding whether this approach is for you. Their main clientele will always be musicians like yourself who are looking for distribution ideas.
The Orchard accounts for CDs sold every quarter and pays by check. You can expect to receive approximately $4.50 to $6.00 for every CD sold, depending on how you price it.
So, if you strongly desire to have your CD available for sale at retail stores across the nation (remember, this is a one line listing in the Valley catalog, which was at least 120,000 CDs strong back in 1992 when I used to buy from them), then $40 may be a small price to pay. If it makes you feel good to know your CD is listed side by side with the big boys in a catalog the size of the Kansas City white pages phone book, then by all means, pursue this opportunity. Just look at any sales that come out of it to be icing on the cake, and you won't be disappointed. I have just recently placed my CD, "Guitar Haus" with the Orchard, so I can't really find any solid reasons not to work with them.
Well, we are going to hit close to home with this one, aren't we? Maybe the oldest approach (in Internet years) to selling your CDs in the new millennium, (pioneered by sites such as IUMA -- Internet Underground Music Archive), is finding a site or sites that have an audience you can tap into who may also find your record appealing. There are literally dozens of sites doing this now, with varying degrees of success, and interestingly, all seem to take a slightly different approach to marketing CDs.
One site you may have heard of, Guitar Nine, takes a focused approach with its concentration on instrumental guitar CDs, and guitar-oriented CDs with vocals (on the Guitar Music 9 site). Our goal was to bring together records from guitarists and bands that were tough to find that would appeal to a certain kind of music fan - the kind that digs instrumental music and had to previously spend more time finding the music than actually listening to it. We felt that instrumental guitar music deserved its own site, where for the first time we wouldn't take a back seat to vocal records. Fans of this style of music want to be able to go right to the good stuff, and don't want to slog through the thousands of vocal records in order to get there. Well, they have a home now. (Cue the "Glory, Glory, Hallelujah" music, maestro.)
Another approach is what I call the 'shogun' approach to web site music marketing - take anything and everything musical, as long as an independent artist created it. IUMA began doing this several years ago, and imitators soon followed, such as CD Baby, Planet CD, Kaleidospace and others. These sites are all similar in one sense, they tend to believe that there are fans of 'independent music' out there (as opposed to fans of major label music, I suppose). I disagree with this approach, because of my experience watching people buy records in a store. I noticed a pre-disposition to buy bands and genres, and not labels. It's difficult to push 'indie' as a theme, because a fan of heavy metal tends to want more heavy metal, no matter where it comes from. Gospel lovers are out looking for more and more gospel, not sampling the ska or punk bands out there. In fact, some of the sites above began with a 'style neutral' approach, but found as they grew larger that it was imperative that they categorize their offerings to appease the somewhat narrower tastes of the visitors to their site.
The other problem with the 'shotgun' approach mentioned above is the difficulty in finding content (articles, columns, news) to augment the CDs available at the site. With such a disparate roster of artists, it's nearly impossible to attract web surfers with any kind of supplemental material, so as a result, most of them simply don't provide any additional content or features. The site exists to make the sales pitch and take the order, which isn't a great environment for attracting visitors on a regular basis. It's critical for any web site to be structured in such a way that you can enjoy a number of activities on the site without opening your wallet.
There are also some nice genre-specific sites now opening up that have realized the importance of serving their specific genre's fans with more and more information, features and news, and they stand a much better chance of winning a regular audience.
What should you look for when you decide to hook up with an Internet-based music site? Make sure the site is brand-aware, meaning they are building the site to mean something permanent and identifiable in the minds of the people that visit on a regular basis. If the meaning of their brand makes sense, and your music fits in with the brand, then that's a good sign.
Make sure the site is set up to handle credit card orders securely and that they recognize the importance of good customer service. Since you are not going to be shipping the orders yourself, you need to find someone who is set up to do a better job than you ever could hope to do, both in processing the orders and dealing with customers on an ongoing basis.
Make sure the site offers something to the casual visitor -- the guy that didn't come to buy anything and most likely won't buy anything. There are people out there that have to be exposed to a site over a period of months before they ever trust it enough to send their credit card number over the phone lines. Does the site offer enough content to bring that potentially great customer back, over and over, until trust is established and the products suddenly seem highly desirable?
Lastly, make sure the site appears to put the customers first, with the artists an extremely close second (almost a photo finish). The site should have their act together technically as well. There is no reason in 1999 why you need to wonder how many CDs are still unsold in the warehouse. That information should be readily available to you, as well as the customer's names who are buying your music. After all, you would have that information if you sold direct.
There are several new companies that have sprung up over the past year or so offering music fans the ability to customize their own personal CD compilations. One such company I've signed up with recently is called CustomDisc. Music fans can go to CustomDisc web site and select from over 175,000 songs to create a customized CD to fit your exact tastes. They even get to create their own title for their CustomDisc and choose their own full color cover for the jewel case. All for about $.99 per song, which makes the average custom CD cost between $15 and $25.
CustomDisc licenses the right to include songs on their compilation discs directly from the artists or labels that own the duplication rights to the songs. As you might imagine, the early licensees of the company were independent labels and bands, as major labels didn't (and still don't) know what to make of this new delivery method. Independent musicians were quick to recognize that if it was difficult to get potential new fans to pay for a complete CD from an unknown artist, then perhaps the fans might be open to previewing their songs on the CustomDisc site and ordering one or two of their favorites to include on a custom compilation.
CustomDisc does not charge the artists to submit their CDs to the CustomDisc site. They have a standard contract that must be signed and submitted, giving them the right to include songs from the artist's CD on custom compilations. The contract specifies the royalty rate - the amount of money you will receive for each song sold, and the term, essentially a one-year renewable agreement. Of course it takes about twelve pages to say those two things in legal terms, so you may need to devote an afternoon to reading the entire contract.
One bit of advice: the first contract I received via e-mail from CustomDisc had an exclusivity clause in it, meaning that I could only license my songs to CustomDisc, but not to any other company that offered custom compilation CDs to the public. I felt this clause was unfair, contributed to restraint of trade, and that it would be in my best interests to forgo signing the contract if the clause couldn't be removed. However, one brief e-mail to the folks at CustomDisc, and the problem was resolved - I was quickly sent a new contract with the clause omitted. DO NOT SIGN A CONTRACT OF THIS NATURE IF YOU SUSPECT THAT THE AGREEMENT IS EXCLUSIVE. Many times it is very simple to get clauses like this removed, especially when the company you are doing business with does not have a substantial financial stake in your recording project. Just ask ahead of time. If you sign first, then figure out that the agreement is exclusive, it's a little too late to do anything about it.
Also, don't plan on getting your music listed quickly on the CustomDisc site. It takes a good three to four months for the company to receive your contract, digitize your music and update their online database so that your music appears on their web site, ready to be purchased by your legions of fans.
The CustomDisc roster of artists expands daily, and does include names you've heard of, such as John Mayall Bluesbreakers, Marshall Tucker Band, David T. Chastain, Robert Cray and many others. This form of selling music is very convenient for the customers too - with only a web browser (and no additional hardware) they can have a custom CD made and delivered to their door within days. And since the format of their product is a standard CD, it works in the millions of home and portable CD players currently in use. So if the companies involved in offering these custom compilations can manage their businesses well, this form of marketing should be with us for a long time. As long as you remember not to sign any exclusive deals, you should be able to enter into agreements with any number of custom CD businesses - at no cost to you.
This is one column I hope to be able to revisit in three years, with four brand new methods of marketing your music. With the pace of change on the Internet, this seems entirely possible. Remember, to protect your long term interests the most important thing to look for in any marketing, promotion or distribution agreement is non-exclusivity. Anytime you see the word 'exclusive' in anything but a standard recording contract with a quarter-million dollar advance, tear it to bits and run the other way. And don't forget to tell all your friends about your experience.
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.
His 1997 CD release on Guitar Nine was entitled "Guitar Haus".
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