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Do you love going to the CD store and rifling through the stacks trying to find something new that is going to satisfy the $15-$20 you paid for it? Do you enjoy the smell of a freshly cracked CD while you read liner notes end to end? Do you have plans to get together with friends specifically to sit and listen to your favorite artist’s new album? If this sounds like the days gone by, it is. I know...I miss those days too.
But those days have been gone for a while, and you can bemoan the shrinking of that revenue stream, or you can look around and realize that this is actually one of the most exciting times to be a musician. Sure, I'll never sells 75,000 CDs again, but if the industry hadn't changed beforehand, I would never have been able to afford making those CDs. And I would never have been able to share my music, let alone sell it to anyone who hadn't been to my concert. And the new music industry brings with it a tremendous number of new tools and new revenue streams to be able to afford to make art. Now instead of one or two big revenue streams, we may have to piece together a bunch of smaller ones, and CD sales can be one of those. The point is that we musicians, are back at the wheel, and we can do it if we work hard and work smart at this DIY musician revolution.
Before I begin about selling CDs, let me be clear…people are no longer buying CDs. At least not en masse like they used to. If you hadn't noticed, this has been the growing trend for almost two decades and you know what? They’re probably not ever going to again…not enough for artists to make it a major portion of their income anymore. I don't know of any time in human history when people have thought, "Nah, this is too easy. Let's go back to when this was much more inconvenient and more expensive." So if you’re looking for a way to return to the heyday of CDs, you can just go ahead and stop reading…
But if you’re still here, then like me, either you’re still not fully convinced that releasing music strictly digitally is the way to go, and/or like me, you have a large stack of CDs that you bought and paid for and want to turn into something else, preferably dollars.
The truth is, there actually still is a market for CDs. Probably not if your fan base is limited to millennials. But either side of millennials and there's some potential, especially if your fans own cars (that's most of America, with the exception of my hometown of NYC) . People still love listening to CDs in their cars. Even moreso if they have kids. In fact, I think I owe an apology to a good number of parents in America who are upset that they ever put my children’s CDs in the car. I keep hearing that the CDs have been on repeat ever since, and that parents are on strict orders not to ever replace them.
Aside from the car owners there's the audiophiles. For them, the quality of the sound is incredibly important and CD quality is still far superior to the compressed formats currently offered by most of the major streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music. And audiophiles spend MONEY on music listening.
There's two examples of potential buyers. There's more of course. I would guess that, like vinyl, CDs will always have some sort of following. I still have my own collection and occasionally I'll purchase a new one to support an artist, but personally, I don’t really buy them anymore. But I know some people who still do. My dad still does. And so did at least 200 other people from my last summer tour at $10 a pop. Not like the old days, but not bad right?
That could be a nice piece of the financial puzzle, whether that’s a tour expense line, or one of the thirty other annual income lines you need to set up to be a modern DIY musician.
How did I do that, you may wonder? It’s pretty simple and I’ll get to that in a moment, but first I want to explain something about CDs, namely that your fans, your real fans, want to buy your CD. They want to buy it because they want to support you, and because they want a souvenir from the show, and they want an autograph, and they want to get to talk with you at the show, and frankly, because maybe that’s the only way they know how to listen to music. A close friend recently helped me realize that certain "more experienced generations" have dispensable income, are much more likely to become highly devoted lifelong fans, and as lifespans continue to increase, are likely to continue purchasing your music for many decades to come. I’ll take 200 real fans and real CD purchases over 200,000 YouTube views any day. Luckily, you don't have to choose...in fact, if you can get both, that's ideal.
But here's the thing, you can’t autograph a YouTube view. And fans can't hold a Spotify stream, or put it on their desk or in their car, like a little billboard reminding them about you every day. And that’s important because, if you’re like me, you’re listening to new music all the time. But even if you take the time to figure out who it was you were listening to, and even if you listen to their music for a few weeks, chances are it’s not long before you’re on to the next and you’ve forgotten what you were listening to previously. Music actually IS my life and still I don’t geek out on new music like I used to…mostly, I would say because of streaming. Yes, I’m older and there’s much more music out there, and there’s so much more accessibility, but I think that the devaluing of music (from $20 CDs to $10 album downloads to $10/month streaming) has also led us to devalue music even more. If we have something for free or near free, we treat it less nice. On the other hand, if we pay for it, sacrifice for it, we're more invested in it and we pay it more attention. And I think that without something to physically hold, something with artwork and lyrics and songwriters, the names of the artists and the music itself just doesn’t stick as much. So the CD is your business card, and your daily reminder to your fans about the amazing concert you put on and the personal authentic connection they made with you when you signed their CD. It’s like a Facebook ad, but much much MUCH better.
Ok, I know it's not rocket science to say that you want to sell CDs. I'm just trying to point out how you should be thinking about your CDs. It's no longer about getting the music itself to your fans or targeting the bulk of your fans. (In fact, it's in your best interest that they buy the CD but actually listen on a revenue generating and view/stream counting service.) The CD is now the specialty product for special fans, like the fans who always purchased the special edition, or the vinyl version of your album. Your job is to figure out how to reciprocate the adoration and support from your fans right back to them when they purchase your CD. For me, part of that is the autograph, the conversation, and the photo opportunity at the merch table after the show. For Taylor Swift it was some faux polaroids in her release of 1989. Maybe it's an extra track only available on the CD. I'm just riffing here but you get the idea. (Of course, be smart. Don't design a CD that costs $9 to manufacture unless you're independently wealthy or certain you can sell it for enough that it actually pays for you to be able to do your art.)
So how did I manage to sell 200 CDs over 8 weeks in 2017? Well, it’s pretty simple. I put on the best show I could, reminded people a few times during the concert that afterward I’d like to meet them at the merch table, and had a nicely designed merch table set up near the exit. Nothing you didn’t already know, right? Well, if you didn’t know that, you’re welcome. (I can get into some of those ideas like merch, and merch table design, and who and what to announce in the concert in future blogs…if you’re interested, just leave a comment below).
Ok, in fairness, those 200 CD sales were from my "We Are The Northern Lights" project, which is folk music, and the overwhelming majority of our shows were house concerts. (Interested in hearing more about how to book and run house concerts? Let me know in the comments!) So yes, your fans may not have the same purchasing/listening habits as folk music fans, and you may not be able to get to experience the incredible magic of performing a house concert and its subsequent merch sales. This may not work for everyone.
But I do have one idea that might help. I can’t really say whether or not it helps with sales, but it helps me bridge one particular gap. Painting with broad strokes, younger people (I’d guess anyone born after 1975 or so) generally are done purchasing CDs and even if they wanted to, don’t have a CD player anymore. So for them, buying a CD is literally buying a paperweight or a trivet. For the really young crowd, (let’s say anyone born after 1995), CDs might seem ancient, thereby making you look ancient. Then again, if you have early childhood aged fans, you can get that CD-in-the-car market.
So in thinking about these fans who would like to support me and get a souvenir from the show, but literally don't have the hardware to play a CD, I’ve decided that any fan who purchases a CD, gets a free download of the CD. I know, I know, downloads are on there way out too. You’re right, they are. And they don't make good souvenirs and I've never been asked to sign one. I'm not purchasing download cards anymore. If your fans want to download your music, they're gonna use iTunes, not buy a code on a piece of soon-to-be garbage. But they might be willing to buy a CD, even if they don't have a CD player, if you can give them something else, like a download, especially if it also comes with an autograph, artwork, liner notes, lyrics, a chance to meet you, and any other creative added value you come up with and include. And for what it's worth, I’m always incredibly thankful for iTunes when I forget to download something onto Spotify and I get on a plane or am driving through spotty cell service.
If you like the idea of giving out a free downloads of the album with every CD sale, you have a few ways to go about it. But it took me this long just to convince you to keep CDs on your merch table so stayed tuned for Part 2, where I'll tell you all about how I do it.
Disagree with me? Have some better ideas? Leave a comment below!!!