Digital Noise | Music & Tech
CD Baby remains an essential part of any independent musician's toolbox, offering musicians an easy and relatively inexpensive way to sell CDs and MP3 downloads from a personalized Web page. It's not necessarily the cheapest way to sell music online, but its long track record and wide variety of services, including digital distribution through iTunes and other stores, and short-run CD manufacturing (provided by Discmakers, which bought the company last August), still make it my top recommendation for independent artists.
This July, the site will relaunch with several significant improvements, including more attractive artist pages, the ability to sell single-song downloads, and customizable download cards--great as a promotional tool, or as another way to sell your music at shows.
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Pandora is a great music-discovery service, so it's only natural that independent bands would hope to get their music placed on it. Unfortunately for them, Pandora just made that a little harder--and a little more expensive.
As I first saw on the Digital Audio Insider blog a couple weeks ago, Pandora recently changed its music submission process, and is now accepting solicitations only from bands who have a physical CD for sale through Amazon.com. That requires the artist to manufacture a CD with proper album art and bar code, which is much more expensive than creating a bunch of MP3s, and to pay Amazon $29.95 a year to participate in the Amazon Advantage program; Amazon then takes a 55 percent cut of the list price of the CD.
This shouldn't hurt too many artists--serious musicians want their CDs to turn up in a search on the world's largest retailer, and probably have a relationship with Amazon anyway. But you were planning on using CD Baby or another site exclusively, or hoping to save money with an online-only release, don't count on Pandora as a marketing mechanism for your music.
Talk about a race to the bottom: a week after I pondered which digital music distribution service was cheapest, WaTunes made the question irrelevant by offering digital distribution for free. That's right--for no money down and no cut of the royalties, WaTunes promises to distribute your digital downloads to iTunes, Amazon's MP3 store, Rhapsody, eMusic, and Rhapsody.
So how does the company expect to make money? The answer became clear this week when WaTunes launched its premium-priced service, WaTunes VIP. For $29.95 a year, artists and labels will get distribution to more stores (including the Zune Marketplace), the ability to upload videos, unlimited weekly trend reports from iTunes, and a number of other perks outlined on the WaTunes blog.
Just remember: there's more to consider than price. Of the big distributors I've covered, only CD Baby offers you an online storefront for physical CDs as well as digital distribution, and The Orchard is more of a full-service digital record label, handling tasks such as marketing and licensing in addition to distribution.
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Don't take my word for it that the major labels and the system that propped them up for so many years are dead. John Mellencamp, who sang a string of rock hits back in the 1980s and '90s, thinks the business is dead as well. In an articulate and passionate essay on the Huffington Post, he argues that the long slide started well before the rise of file sharing, back to when the business started relying on SoundScan and Broadcast Data Systems (BDS).
With SoundScan, instead of relying on surveys from record stores, the labels could see exactly how many units were being moved in any given week, and where those sales were happening. With BDS, instead of relying on phone calls to radio program directors, the labels knew exactly how many spins a song was receiving in each city. Shortly thereafter, the Billboard charts began relying on these automated systems as well. The result: labels ignored the vast majority of the country and focused on a few hits that were getting airplay in the largest cities, and allocated their A&R and marketing budgets accordingly. We ended up, according to Mellencamp, with No. 1 hits that most of the country had never heard, and the rest was a long downhill slide to today's hyperfragmented and piracy-ridden market.
It's a great essay, and I particularly like his side note that the CD was created out of pure greed, as a way to get users to replace their collections of perfectly good vinyl records. (Remember how CDs were supposed to offer clear sound forever? Funny, my CDs from the early 1990s are already wearing out and skipping, but I have records from the 1950s that still play adequately.)
But like the folks at Idolator, who called Mellencamp old and dumb, I completely disagree with his conclusion. Mellencamp says that the irrelevance of radio and fragmentation of the market means there's no organic way for music to find an audience and grow. That's completely wrong--there's more opportunity for smaller bands today than there's ever been. Yes, beginning artists might have to do more work themselves, but recording, manufacturing, and distributing an album has never been cheaper or easier. From ProTools to Disc Makers to CD Baby and Tunecore, and more recent competitors like Routenote and Audiolife, these are tools that anybody can use and master. Sure, online marketing through vehicles like MySpace can't compete with mass radio play in 100 cities, but it's available to anybody--not just the companies' chosen few. When you get a bit bigger, you can enlist services like Topspin to hype your product in the digital realm, for far cheaper than an old-fashioned media blitz. Even getting gigs no longer requires a booking agent, thanks to services like Sonicbids.
In one sense, Mellencamp's right: if you're in music to become a rock star, now's a bad time to be a musician. But if you want to have your music heard as broadly as possible, there's never been a better time.
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What should bands pay for? Can art and marketing coexist? Has the digital world made do-it-yourself recording, marketing, and distribution easier, or do musicians still need the old-fashioned triumvirate of booking agent, record label, and radio airplay to thrive?
If you're interested in such questions, and you're heading to the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, this year, check out a panel discussion in which I'll be participating called The Artist as Entrepreneur at 1:30 p.m Wednesday. Most of the people on the panel are in the business of helping musicians use the Web and other digital tools to turn their music from hobby into career--or at least sell a few CDs and get some decent gigs.
Not me! I'm a mere blogger, trying to report as objectively as possible on all these different businesses. I've got a well-developed sense of skepticism, honed by my somewhat-schizoid existence over the last 15 years as a writer and analyst covering the world of high tech (all day, every day), and playing bass in half a dozen gigging and recording bands (from which I've been on hiatus for the last year or so). I hope to provide some balance, or at least the occasional arched eyebrow, if anybody gets too self-promotional.
From the artist's perspective, Sonicbids charges subscription fees for creating and maintaining an electronic press kit, then provides an automated system for submitting that presskit to get gigs--including some pretty big ones, including SXSW, Seattle's Bumbershoot, and the Vans Warped Tour. (Full disclosure: Panos invited me to be on the panel, for which I get a free badge to the show. I'm covering travel and all other expenses out of pocket.)
Also on the panel are Derek Sivers, who founded online music marketplace CD Baby (which I write about all the time) and left last year to form a new business, MuckWork. I've also blogged about TuneCore, an online marketplace for digital downloads from independent artists, whose CEO, Jeff Price, is on the panel. I'm looking forward to meeting the other folks on the panel and hearing their stories.
Apart from that, I'll be meeting with a bunch of other companies that straddle the edge of music and technology, catching as much music as I possibly can, and if all goes according to current plan, I'll be talking to Metallica for about five minutes on Friday about its upcoming Guitar Hero game.
I'll blog as much as I can, and you can always follow me on Twitter.
Jango CEO Dan Kaufman posted a long response to my post criticizing Jango Artist Airplay as a pay-for-play scheme that artists should avoid. (He also e-mailed me with contact info, so I'm fairly sure it's him, although the usual caveats apply.) It's a thoughtful comment, and Dan comes across as a serious businessperson, not a fly-by-night scam artist.
To summarize, Jango is trying to maintain a quality experience for listeners by making sure they're not inundated with Airplay artists they're not going to like. Rather than playing Airplay artists based strictly on how much money they contribute, Jango screens them all to make sure they meet some sort of quality bar. A similarity algorithm is applied, so you won't be hearing some random rap artist between The Cure and The Smiths. If a listener hates a particular song, he'll never hear it again. Artists who score poorly across the board are removed from rotation entirely and their money is refunded. Perhaps most important, Jango will only play an Airplay artist no more than once every 20 songs, so at least 95 percent of the music you hear will be music you explicitly want to hear.
All good for listeners. But from an artist's perspective, it still smells like pay-for-play. If Jango is screening Airplay entrants anyway, why make them pay? Why not just open Jango radio to emerging artists who the editors think are good enough? And how does Jango decide who needs to pay and who gets in for free? Do you have to be signed to a record label to get on Jango for free? What about independent artists who are suddenly the subject of a lot of searches at the Jango home page? (Probably not--too easy to game.) Where's the line?
I understand that every company needs revenue, but there's a difference between companies that charge a flat fee for a particular service, and a company that discriminates downward by charging only those artists who can least afford it. CD Baby, TuneCore, and nearly every other company that caters to independent artists has a standard price list--if you're going through them, you're paying the same fee or percentage, no matter who you are or how popular you become. They have enough faith in the value of their service that they can set a universal price and watch the money roll in (or not).
The biggest red flag for me comes when Dan mentions artists who are "serious enough about their career to spend money on promotion." As a musician, I heard variations on this theme all the time and it drove me nuts: "You've got to spend money to make money"; "You've got to invest in your career."
No kidding? Ask any musician how much money they've spent over the years on musical gear, rehearsal space, recording equipment, studio time, CD manufacturing, mailing envelopes to radio stations and labels, building Web sites, registering domain names, printing fliers, paying people to hang those fliers, paying club fees (sound guy, security) out of their take of the door, and on and on and on. We all spend plenty of money, thanks. The trick is spending it wisely. While still spending most of your time and energy making music that doesn't suck.
Again: marketing is important. Marketing isn't free. But I still think a musician's best bet is to use time-tested services that charge the same amount for everybody, and then let your music sink or swim on its own. If nobody's buying, and nobody's offering you gigs, then accept that you're playing music for your own personal benefit, not as a career. And maybe in another year or another band, you'll find that the situation has changed.
Perhaps Jango will prove me wrong and manage to grow user traffic and unlock a great new revenue stream at the same time. I'll look forward to hearing updates as the program continues.
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I've been invited by Sonicbids CEO Panos Panay to speak on a panel at SXSW later this month entitled "Artist as Entrepreneur," and as I've been thinking about the subject, my attention was drawn to this recent post on CD Baby's bulletin boards (it was first posted elsewhere). Katie Taylor, the artistic director of Opera Theater Oregon, is worried about the rising perception that art--particularly music--should be available for a very low price or free.
To change this perception, she argues, artists need to convince the general public that there's a fundamental difference between a casual hobby, like a basement-band jam session, and actual art. As she explains, putting on a high quality show for the public is more like planning a wedding. It takes tons of time, talent, and preparation. This kind of art can't continue unless the people putting it on can earn a living wage. And the only way for them to earn a living wage is for consumers to be willing to pay, either through taxes and public funding or directly out of their pocket. If the general public continues to view art as a low-value option that should be available for free, then all art will descend to the level of basement-band jams, and society will be the worse for it.
I've been in both basement bands and "real" bands that are trying to sell recordings and charge for gigs, and there is a hundredfold difference in the amount of effort musicians put into each kind of band. Unfortunately, most listeners are completely unaware of the difference. (It's probably the same for all kinds of art.)
In the case of music, there's a core audience--I'll be generous and say it's around 1%--who understand and care deeply about music, who use their ears more than their other senses, and who couldn't live without it. The other 99% attend shows and buy CDs for other reasons--to fit into a peer group, to stave off the boredom of another evening at home watching TV, to attract a mate, and so on. This isn't conjecture--a Columbia University study I've cited several times strongly suggests that a particular song's popularity is influenced primarily by the opinions of others, and has no relationship to its objective quality (as measured by a control group where listeners voted without being able to see how their peers were voting).
Art's not food. It's a luxury, not a necessity. Which means that the only way for an artist to make money is to draw some of that 99% who feel they don't need it. Somehow, you have to convince them that your art is different, and is worth paying for. And the only way to reach that tipping point is--here's an evil word--marketing.
There are many ways to market your music, including some that seem more organic or "honest" to some artists because they rely primarily on word of mouth. The Internet and the rise of digital music has made it easier than ever to get the word out--MySpace and CD Baby are the bare-bones minimum for starting bands, and there are dozens of other online services that help accomplish specific tasks, from licensing your music for commercial use in film and TV to helping you get gigs.
Or, if you're still too lazy or pure to market yourself, there are plenty of organizations that will help you. Just the other day, I talked to a new company called The Republic Project that will create a digital marketing and distribution plan for semi-established bands in exchange for a cut of pre-release sales. The highlight: they're giving artists handheld digital video cameras so they can create videos of their recording sessions. Then Republic will post these videos online in hopes of building fan anticipation for a new album. It may not work, but making this kind of marketing effort is vital.
My point: the inherent value of art to the creator is very high--I value the experiences I've had playing music more than many other things in my life. But the inherent value of art to the consumer is almost zero. This is jarring to a lot of artists, but must be acknowledged if you expect to make money with your art in this cold commercial world.
If you build it, they won't come. If you build and market it, you have a chance.
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Last week, I blogged about digital distributor RouteNote and did a brief comparison with CD Baby and Tunecore, two better-known services that help independent artists place their songs in online music stores such as iTunes and Amazon MP3.
You can check out a direct comparison of up-front charges and ongoing revenue splits, as well as a chart showing how much money the artist will earn after selling specific numbers of songs.
RouteNote acknowledges when its service might not be the best deal--basically, when you get up to about 5,000 track sales, TuneCore and Musicadium offer more money to the artist, and at 30,000, CD Baby begins to show a slight advantage.
I found this to be a pleasant change from the usual marketingese that populates corporate blogs, in which competitors are rarely acknowledged except to be criticized. Of course, RouteNote can't resist tooting its own horn a little bit, noting that its small size makes it more invested in the success of its artists.
In the interest of fairness, I'd add one caveat: while The Orchard looks like a crummy deal for artists on a straight dollars-to-dollars comparison, it's more like a full digital record label. It handles digital distribution, as well as marketing and licensing (like getting your song on a TV show), and it works with video as well as audio.
Cheap tools to help independent musicians sell their music online are proliferating like mushrooms after a rainstorm: last month I wrote about Audiolife, which gives bands an online store to sell CDs and merchandise with absolutely no up-front costs (they take a cut of sales as you make them). Since then, Audiolife was kind enough to send me a sample CD and t-shirts, and they look and sound adequately professional--certainly fine for independent musicians on a limited budget, although nobody's going to confuse them with the deluxe version of the latest U2 album.
But Audiolife's download store is a little weak: instead of placing your songs in Apple's iTunes store--which accounts for more than 80 percent of online music sales--and other high-profile venues like Amazon's MP3 store, Audiolife creates a widget that you can place on your own Web page or social-networking site. That's fine if you've got a lot of fans already visiting your Web site. But what about more general music fans who often shop for music online, but wouldn't go out of their way to go to your Web site--think friends of friends, or music lovers who read about new bands online or in a paper. Do you really want them to come up blank when they run a search on iTunes?
CD Baby and Tunecore already offer digital distribution through iTunes and other stores, but both of them charge you money whether you make a sale or not. In contrast, U.K.-based RouteNote charges you nothing until you make a sale, at which point they take a 10 percent cut of whatever the store pays out.
Specifics: CDBaby charges you a one-time set-up fee of $35 (which covers setting up a store for physical CDs as well), then takes 9 percent of digital download revenues. TuneCore, which does digital distribution only (no CDs) charges you $20 a year for each album they stock, but takes no cut. So on a straight numbers basis, RouteNote's a better deal than CD Baby for digital-only distribution, and a better deal than TuneCore if you expect to sell low volumes of downloads. Of course, there are a lot of other factors to consider, like customer service and speed of submission to iTunes and the other stores, but RouteNote looks like it's worth checking out.
Update, Thursday 1/30: Today, I received a followup e-mail from Audiolife CEO and co-founder Brandon Hance. Audiolife has changed its cut on digital album downloads from $3.50 to $3.00, and on digital singles from $0.35 to $0.30. The company has also posted a detailed price list, including prices for different configurations of t-shirts. I've modified the original post accordingly.I stumbled across a new service on Wednesday that, at first glance, seems to trump CD Baby for selling CDs online.
Audiolife not only lets you create an online store to sell CDs and digital downloads, but it will actually manufacture the CDs for you, on-demand, as customers buy them. The up-front cost? Nothing. Zero dollars and zero cents.
This is a big deal. As any self-financed musician knows, CD manufacturing is a big investment. Print runs for CDs with a jewel case and nice color insert generally start at 1,000 for close to $1,000, though you can get away with spending a few hundred bucks for a short run, if you're willing to pay quite a bit more per disc. This is all well and good, if you sell all of the CDs you print. If not, you're left with some expensive drink coasters.
Instead of charging you up front, Audiolife takes $5.49 from the sale of each physical CD. That's slightly more than CD Baby, which charges a $35 one-time fee, plus $4 per CD sold. But, of course, CD Baby assumes that you've already paid to manufacture CDs.
Audiofile will also let you design and sell T-shirts (they keep at least $4.82 per shirt, depending on the type of shirt) with no minimum purchase, and create and sell ringtones either from MIDI files or samples of the actual song (they'll pass along 50 cents per download, but the phone company sets prices). The online store isn't a static Web site, but rather a widget that you can place on your band's home page, or on social-networking sites like MySpace, which is still a necessity for musicians (though it's been surpassed in total users by Facebook).
If you're only interested in digital distribution, Audiolife may not be the best deal. They take a cut of $3.00 of each album download and $0.30 of each single-song download sold through your online store, and don't distribute them to third-party stores like iTunes. In contrast, CD Baby lets you keep 91% of all revenues from downloads, minus its one-time up-front payment of $35 and any fees from third-party stores, and Tunecore takes no cut but forces you to pay an annual fee of $10 per song or $20 per album. Both of these services will redistribute your songs through major stores such as iTunes.
I've read through the Audiolife FAQ, and I can't find any obvious gotchas--artists retain the rights to their music, deals are nonexclusive with other distribution sites, and their bulk price list looks pretty competitive with Disc Makers, if you want to buy a bunch of CDs to sell at shows, give away in press kits, or send to radio stations.
With no up-front costs or exclusivity contracts, there's not much to lose--if you find out that Audiolife isn't serving you well, you're free to move on.