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Master Class: Easy as MP3

12/1/2011

So you’ve just made the next OK Computer—Now What? Here's how to get your feet wet in the digital music marketplace

 
The good news is, with so many options now available for getting your music to the people who want it, it's a great time to be an artist. You don't need a label deal to be able to sell your album on iTunes, Amazon, or eMusic, or to stream it on Rhapsody, Spotify, or MOG—in fact, you don''t even need a physical album. What''s more, if you''ve already done the legwork to build a fanbase for yourself on Facebook, Twitter, SoundCloud, YouTube, and other social media platforms, then it''s just a quick leap to selling your music through those nodes, as well as your own website.

If you''re new to the game and all this sounds like an endless slog of mind-numbing grunt work, fear not. With a little patience and a modest budget to get started, you too can end up at an online retailer, rubbing shoulders with everyone from the Beastie Boys to Flying Lotus. The first order of business: Find yourself a digital distributor.

Grabbing the tiger by the (long) tail
First, a little history. In the past decade alone, the music scene has gone through an explosive expansion on almost every level, even as total CD sales have declined steadily. It began with new developments in the production process itself. As more affordable versions of Pro Tools, Logic, and other recording platforms came to market, suddenly anyone could make an album that sounded good. (Granted, we''re tempted to argue that a lot of them could have sounded even better with the help of a professional mastering engineer, but that''s beside the point.)

Pretty soon, with independent labels sprouting like mushrooms and reissue labels scarfing up lost gems and rarities from all over the globe, it all went digital. Anything you wanted, no matter how odd or obscure, you could dig it up on the web. “There is real demand for niche fare found only online,” editor Chris Anderson said in 2004, referring to the phenomenon he later documented in his book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More. And this is where digital distributors like TuneCore, CD Baby, and ReverbNation come in.


Jeff Price

Jeff Price

 

 “When digital distribution popped up, it created this whole level of efficiencies,” Jeff Price explains. A music industry veteran with 17 years at the helm of the venerable indie label spinART Records, Price is co-founder and CEO of TuneCore. “All of a sudden, you didn't have to manufacture anything, you didn't have to fight for shelf space, and you didn't have to buy your way into advertising programs. Digital music stores like iTunes or Amazon have unlimited shelf space, so everything can be in stock at no detriment to anything else.”

What that means is that TuneCore, with its more than 670,000 registered artists (among them Nine Inch Nails and Jay-Z), has the negotiating power to secure that piece of the long tail that you wouldn't be able to get on your own. (iTunes won''t negotiate directly with artists unless they have at least 20 albums in their catalog.) Like CD Baby and Reverb Nation, TuneCore has deals with all the top online retailers, and its registration and upload process is fairly straightforward. (For starters, see tunecore.com/tutorial/upload_itunes.)

Of course, there are differences between the three services—and these are just the top three; there are plenty more, including RouteNote, Catapult, and BelieveDigital, which screens its applicants in the same way a record label does A&R. Most notable is the fee structure. CD Baby charges a one-time fee of $39 up front to distribute your album ($9.95 for a single), and takes 9 percent of your sales royalties. Tunecore and ReverbNation charge a flat fee per album—$49.99 ($9.99/single) and $34.95 (same price for a single) respectively, renewable annually—and let you keep 100 percent of your royalties.

TuneCore's current rates were announced earlier this year, and comprised a substantial increase that irked many of its customers. Price insists the hike was necessary to cover the cost of initiating new services, such as strategic marketing and brand partnering tools for TuneCore artists. As a regular fixture on the company's message boards and one of the more hands-on and approachable CEOs in the game, Price can sound almost evangelical in his zeal.

“You've got people going, ‘Well, you don't have any incentive to market and promote us, because you don't make any money off the back end.'' You know what? Maybe we're not all a bunch of dicks. Maybe we actually care, and I don't need the incentive to grab more of your money to get you placed in a store. This is my job, and we're the best in the world at what we do. I want people to get what they paid for, and then the other stuff is the added bonus.”

Competition among digital distributors is fierce, so their perks are constantly changing. If you want a rich social media component and the ability to build out your own store, integrate it with Facebook, and sell physical merch, ReverbNation has a leg up, with CD Baby not far behind. If you want access to experienced executives and a full-time staff with connections to all kinds of licensing opportunities, TuneCore may be for you. Research your options carefully, and read the comments sections of sites like Hypebot for opinions and testimonials.

As much as the major record labels (and quite a few big indies) would love to see it happen, digital file-sharing isn't going away any time soon. It's the genie that Napster let out of the bottle more than a decade ago, and since then, labels and artists have been locked in a struggle—some might even call it a dance—to monetize the technology to their advantage. Meanwhile, literally hundreds of boutique start-ups have been jockeying for a piece of the pie. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, whoever controls the medium controls the message, and in the music industry, the key medium is distribution.
 
 
rjd2 (left) with Icebird partner Aaron Livingston.

rjd2 (left) with Icebird partner Aaron Livingston

 

Control mechanisms
Beyond getting your music on iTunes, there's plenty you can do to reach your fans directly, and this is where managing your social media connections—and, ideally, your own website—comes into play. For an artist with an established fanbase like rjd2—who broke heavy on the experimental hip-hop scene back in 2002 with his Defintive Jux debut Deadringer, and now has his own imprint staked out with RJ''s Electrical Connections—the web is certainly a tool for interaction, but he's diligent about avoiding social media fatigue.

“In terms of the online interaction, I chose to not do a message board when I built out my site,” he says. “I've seen that devolve into a complete time-suck. You can find yourself in these really antagonized scenarios, where people are just completely trying to push your buttons. In my experience, Twitter is the best way to interact with fans because it's a proactive relationship. You have to physically go out and follow someone. I know that sounds like it only takes two seconds—you search for a name, you find it and you hit ‘follow’—but psychologically, I think that barrier is huge.”

rj has a number of assets in play at rjd2.net that help him connect to his fanbase and build on it. Along with his embedded Twitter feed, he posts regular blog updates to the site's “News” section. A SoundCloud player is in the “Music” section, with buy links to iTunes for each of his albums. And finally, a streaming MP3 from his latest project (Icebird's The Abandoned Lullaby) is part of a Topspin Media widget that allows new fans to download the track in exchange for a valid email address. (Since opening up its marketing, ticketing, fanbase management, analytics and online store platforms to all artists earlier this year, Topspin has become a leader in the digital space, starting at a rate of $99.99/year or $9.99/month. When added to your other expenses for maintaining a website and distributing your music, it may swell your budget, but if you have a lot of data to manage, it's worth it.)

If you have a website, it's a good idea to set it up with a store component so you can sell directly to your fans; besides Topspin, a number of other companies provide this service (including ReverbNation, which offers free widgets; as well as BandCamp and Nimbit), and in most cases offer proprietary or third-party Facebook and mobile apps. And if you don't have a website, make one. You can start with blogger-friendly freeware (Tumblr, Wordpress, etc.), or check out companies like BandZoogle, which can build you an e-commerce-ready website from scratch, with tiered pricing starting at $9.95/month.

 
Peanut Butter Wolf strikes a pose with a pal.

Peanut Butter Wolf strikes a pose with a pal

 

Minding the store
When DJ, hip-hop impresario, and producer Peanut Butter Wolf (a.k.a. Chris Manak) founded the L.A.-based Stones Throw label back in 1996, he had no idea that an imprint rooted in vinyl culture would ever become a powerhouse presence online (stonesthrow.com). “I brought in a friend of mine I'd known since the '80s,” Wolf says, referring to Stones Throw's in-house web guru, Jeff Jank, “and you gotta remember, he had no computer experience, but he's always been a quick learner. The site's pretty clean, layout-wise, and I notice a lot of other labels have followed Jeff''s lead. We also realize that it's key to have a Stones Throw online store, because people are buying so much online nowadays. We did that a few years ago, and it's been a big source of income for us.”

According to Jank, the Stones Throw store had a shaky start. “It seems like the Dark Ages already,” he says, “but the store began as an afterthought to building a custom content management system. Once we started, it dawned on us how important our own self-managed store might be. Everything was custom-made by Covelop, an independent company like ours, guys who understand our label. We learned along the way and made a lot of mistakes, but I'm still happy we went the custom route.

With a catalog that includes modern hip-hop and breakbeat classics by Madlib, J Dilla, MF Doom, J Rocc, Dam-Funk, and more, Stones Throw has one foot firmly planted in the analog realm, with a devoted fanbase that craves vinyl almost as a life-giving elixir. Digital sales account for a significant chunk of the label's online business, but Wolf is always looking for new hooks to pursue in the real world. “I'm a record collector, for God's sake,” he quips. “We all have huge record collections of every type of music that you can think of. So when we do things like throw an invite-only party around a live show that's mixed and cut direct-to-disc, with a vinyl cutter on-site, that's not anything new, but right now, no one else is doing it.”

Given that BandCamp has just started a side business called BCWax, which presses and ships vinyl packages for specially selected BandCamp artists, should digital distributors be worried? Not likely, but according to Jeff Price, eventually they''ll have to adjust to another development in music distribution—one that''s already making waves.

“With Spotify's launch and the forthcoming Apple iMatch, everything is going to wired-in connectivity,” Price observes. “Apple's whole strategy is to sell its hardware by allowing you to have access to every piece of media in the world, including your own documents, without needing a hard drive. The future of this music industry is streaming, and you're gonna see a shift again.”

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