Monday, August 25, 2008

Physical Formats: General Thoughts

When I signed up my first album through CD Baby in 2004, they were just beginning to distribute to digital service providers. Even though selling digital formats was very new and basically untested, it seemed like a great opportunity for independent artists. Manufacturing physical copies is expensive, and nobody sells as many as they order (see the unopened boxes of CDs in my closet. And bedroom, and I think there's one at my parents house). And since we're all used to barely selling anything, why not barely sell any downloads too? CD Baby even explained how you could create a digital only album to sell through them but warned that 90% of album sales are via physical formats, so do you really want to pass up those sales? Over a couple years though, it became clear that indie artists generally sell much more music digitally. It's a combination of having a greater reach through the internet and the shifting trend of people buying more music as downloads. I also believe that the type of person that goes exploring for good music by relatively unknown artists is the same type of forward thinking individual that would consume music in digital formats (such as the a la carte or subscription services that were starting to pop up at the time). Fast forward to today, and many popular acts sell more than 30% of their total sales via digital formats, and iTunes is arguably the largest music retailer in the US.

But despite the growing digital trend, there is still a lack of credibility surrounding a digital only release, or perhaps it just doesn't have the same amount of respect as something critics or customers or radio progammers that want to hold a tangible CD, even though they will likely rip it to their computer and transfer it to their MP3 player with the rest of their collection. It's also harder to sell downloads directly at a show, when the crowd is high on your music and their wallets are open (in theory). Even so, indie artists are highly unlikely to get a decent physical distribution deal to sell any meaningful amount of product through mainstream, national retail. In the end, how many physical CDs will you actually sell? Does that make it worth the cost to produce them?

I say it depends heavily on the act and their audience. Clearly a younger crowd probably cares less about a CD and just wants a few of your songs. Older audiences and niche oriented music might be more inclined to buy a CD either out of habit or because the full album is best experienced as a whole. The music and artists I tend to listen to usually don't shoot for the hit single, and I much prefer an entire album (keep in mind, I'm 27 and Napster was in it's heyday while I was in college). In high school I used to buy jazz albums and comb through the liner notes and pictures to learn as much as I could about everyone on the album. When I bought rock albums, it would be to learn every song on guitar, and this ranged from Hendix to Alice In Chains to Led Zeppelin and back again. I'd like to believe there are plenty of people that look at music the same way I do, and so as long as I want to buy full albums, somebody else will, too. I write this knowing fully well many people I know probably haven't bought music since 1999, and to people under 20, spending money on music is unheard of.

Even so, I've been able to create some profit from the music I sell. In fact, that's the bulk of my income. The vast majority (I'd guess 90%, but I don't have figures in front of me) is from digital sales, and almost exclusively iTunes. I've only manufactured CDs for two albums. I'm now sure what I'm going to do for the next album with my trio--maybe a short run of CDs and some vinyl. CDs are good for mailing to press or for the few people that still want CDs. Vinyl is gaining in popularity again but is still a tiny slice in the pie. However, I think a big chunk of that slice is made up of people that could be fans of my music. But the bulk of my focus will be on the digital release because I know that's how I make my money back so I can record more music, pay my band, and ultimately make some kind of living. The physical formats are simply for credibility. Perhaps this is a new form of paying your dues.

1 comment:

Dave said...

I've been surprised at how much I've sold on iTunes in the past year without advertising the album at all. But there is definitely a credibility gap with digital releases. The gap is ridiculous for exactly the reason you sited - people are just going to rip your CD to their computer and throw it out anyway! (Or rip it, then give it to their friends for free).

I found the gap was most detrimental with family and friends. They wouldn't take the album seriously unless it was physical.

There's got to be a way around this credibility thing. People want something physical, but CD pressing has become impractical - what about putting your album on a USB memory stick and selling that? You can get a short run of those for cheap and even slap on a small logo sticker.