Major record labels spend millions of dollars a year promoting and marketing their acts. As an independent artist, you're lucky if you have any money left to promote your album after paying your recording, mastering, and manufacturing costs. But don't even think about trying to distribute your product without planning a promotional strategy and a budget to go along with it. You need a killer campaign, and you don't have to spend a lot to make it happen. In this article we offer eight proven promotional gimmicks that will help you be seen and heard-and, hopefully, make sales-without costing you an arm and a leg.
Before you try these tricks, your album must be completed, shrink-wrapped, and ready for sale. Be sure to allow for delays in manufacturing so that you don't waste thousands of dollars on a poorly timed promotion. A campaign budget of $10,000 is realistic, even though that may sound like a lot of money. (For a sample breakdown of what you can do with this sum, see the table "The Budget Laid Bare.") Some people believe that any noteworthy promotion can't be done for less than $20,000, while others have marketed creatively and successfully for around $5,000. Count on campaigning for a minimum of six months; this should be an ample period of time to find out if people are biting. Concentrate on promoting regionally, such as within your state or urban area; targeting a specific location lets you use your limited funds most effectively. Finally, you, or one of your bandmates, must own a computer. You'll need one for everything from tracking sales to printing out consignment contracts to getting online.
SLINGING SAMPLESGiving away cassette tapes containing two complete songs that represent your musical style gives people a chance to check out your music without making a cash commitment. Distribute the tapes in places where your potential audience might congregate, such as in cafes, bookstores, or movie theaters, or at venues where artists with similar styles to yours perform. Hand out 1,000 to 2,000 tapes to anybody who will take one. If people like what they hear, great. If they don't, ask them to pass the tape along to somebody who might enjoy it. You really can't go wrong.
Promo tapes don't have to be fancy. A clear cassette stuffed into a blank "O-card" (the cardboard holders that cassette singles often come in) will do the job. You'll save a few cents per unit by not shrink-wrapping, and it will allow you to update information directly on the O-card. The tapes should be just long enough for two songs, one per side. They can be run at high speed (double time); this produces lower quality than real- time duplication, but it costs less and is just fine for sample tapes. Also, have the duplication house print your song titles and contact information directly onto the cassette. This looks more professional than using adhesive labels.
Buy blank O-cards in bulk; if you can't buy them from your duplication house, order them directly through Rainbo Records. (Contact information for resources mentioned in this article is listed in the sidebar "Promotional Resources.") Buy inexpensive inkjet labels at an office-supply store and use your desktop printer to make stickers for the O-cards. Include information about upcoming shows and special offers-for example, "Bring this tape to our next show and get $1 off admission or $2 off our CD" (this way you can recycle your tapes, too). Make another sticker that includes your band's name, the song titles, and your contact information. Figure on spending 70 to 80 cents per cassette. (Prices vary according to tape length and quantity ordered; the more you order at once, the lower the cost per unit.)
YANKING YOUR CABLEWhat if I told you that you could get your mug on MTV for less than $100? Local cable companies pipe MTV (as well as other syndicated television programming, such as VH1, BET, Lifetime, and E) into homes throughout the United States. The cable companies sell advertising time to local businesses whose ads then run alongside the syndicated programming. As an independent label, you are a local business and have the right to buy this advertising time, giving you the means to run an ad that appears to be part of MTV programming. (Hint: make your spot look like a music video so that it really fits in.)
Begin by calling your cable-service provider (generally listed under "Cable Television Services" in the local phone directory). Speak with an advertising account representative about buying ad time. A 30- second spot should run between $20 and $75-although depending on the time slot (prime time versus off- peak) and coverage (say, Brooklyn versus small-town Nebraska), you might hear of prices as high as $125 or as low as $15. Keep the demographics of your intended audience in mind. If you're an adult-alternative artist, for example, a spot on VH1 would be better than one on BET. Verify with the account rep that you will reach your target market; if not, try a different cable company or a different region.
Making your TV ad doesn't have to be a big production. There are myriad ways to get a spot produced inexpensively: film schools are filled with students looking for exciting projects who will work for free or cost; consumer digital video cameras start at around $900 and give high-quality results; with the right software and hardware, you can now produce video on home computers; and small cable stations might be willing to assemble a spot for you from previous footage (news stories, interviews, live shows, and so on). Using your imagination, you should be able to muster a quality 30-second spot without breaking the bank.
WORTH A THOUSAND WORDSBillboards are great, but wow, are they expensive. You may be able to get a billboard ad for around $1,000 a month, but in this price range it won't be in a high-traffic area. When pricing billboard ads, ask about "daily effect circulation," or DEC-a figure calculated by a city's Traffic Audit Bureau that reflects the average number of cars passing a particular location each day. If you decide your chosen site has enough traffic to warrant the expense for a month, go for it. But before you do, double-check the area's demographics: it won't help to plaster a country singer's image in a neighborhood where the residents tend to prefer rap music.
Bus-stop ads get you the same kind of exposure as billboards, for a fraction of the cost: about $110 per bench per month. However, bus-stop ad space is usually rented in six-month increments, five benches at a time, bringing the total to about $3,300 for six months. These ads can be a wonderful marketing tool, but again, consider your audience. A rap musician would get more useful publicity from an urban bus-stop campaign than a new-age artist would.
As always, the cost of an ad varies with location. Look in your phone directory under "Advertising/Outdoor" for companies that handle billboards and bus stops in your area. Ask retail stores in the neighborhood if they'll allow you to put up a poster or two in their windows. (Don't consider gluing them up without asking-a vandalism conviction isn't fun.) Once you've created the artwork for your larger-than-life ads, have a print shop turn it into posters. Three hundred full-color 18 5 24-inch posters will usually cost you around $700; two-color 11 5 17-inch posters may run about $400.
ETCH YOUR NAME IN INKEvery major label will tell you that print ads in newspapers and magazines are important promotional vehicles: the amount of money that they spend annually on print campaigns proves this. You probably can't afford to advertise in the same high-profile publications as a major label, but the alternative news weeklies found in coffee shops and on college campuses will serve your needs nicely. Most of these papers have a decent readership and are regional in scope-just the kind of publicity you're looking for. You can get a directory of these publications from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies for $15; it covers all the alternative weeklies in North America and includes contact information and demographics for every periodical listed.
A half-page ad in a major alternative paper, such as California's LA Weekly or New York's Village Voice, will cost around $1,400 a week. Rates are more reasonable for college periodicals (for example, Cornell University's The Cornell Daily Sun, which has a readership of almost 19,000). Some college-oriented weeklies, such as Southern California's Campus Circle, cover several campuses in a particular region and are even distributed to retail stores and cafes. These publications often offer special discounts for independent vendors. Depending on target readership and region, an ad in a college periodical generally costs about half that of a major alternative weekly. American Passage Media publishes the College Media Directory, which lists every college in the country along with its associated periodical and some demographics (but no contact information-you'll have to call the campus directly for that).
BE COOPERATIVEDevelop a good rapport with radio stations, clubs, and retail stores-and then milk those relationships for all they're worth. A great way to do this is through cooperative advertising. If your music is getting regular rotation on a radio station, ask them if they'll split the price of a print ad with you. The ad can advertise your release and the radio station simultaneously, and will cost you each half the usual price. Splitting costs can also translate into longer running times and bigger ads-benefits for all parties involved. With clubs and retail stores, you might even go beyond print ads and split the cost of cable and radio spots. Cooperative advertising often shows you which entities are just talk and which ones actually put their money where their mouths are.
CHECK ENDORSEMENTSArtist endorsements are not something that only big stars get. The key is to know which people to approach and how to approach them. Don't even try to get an endorsement deal from a large and well-established manufacturer such as Alesis, Digidesign, or Yamaha. These companies already have endorsees and are inundated with musicians looking for handouts. It's best to approach up-and-coming companies that are hungry for publicity. They want their products to be seen and heard, and that's where you come in. If they like your music, there's no telling what you can accomplish together-from cooperative advertising to product demonstrations featuring your project.
When approaching companies for an endorsement, be persistent, but not a pest. Let them know that you're for real and not just a fly-by-night act. Be patient; they need to feel confident that you're somebody they want to be associated with. (One deal I witnessed was two years in the making, but when the endorsement product was finally handed to the artist, it was worth several thousand dollars.) It also helps to build personal relationships with individuals in the company. Lastly, broaden your efforts beyond just music companies: try clothing designers, shoe manufacturers, cosmetics companies, and jewelry makers. Think like an entrepreneur. After all, you might at least score some products at cost.
STICK 'EM UPStickers are inexpensive and can be wonderful promotional tools. Make a sticker that's as much a work of art as it is an advertisement. Nice-looking stickers with a cool design, neat logo, flashy colors, and catchy wording will inspire folks to put them in prominent places. Hand them out everywhere: at gigs, with sample tapes, at parties. You get publicity wherever your sticker gets stuck.
Stickers come in many shapes-from circles and ovals to stars and rectangles-and in a range of sizes and colors, including metallic foils. Visit your local print shop to see what is available. There is even a line of restickable stock that adheres to car windows, mirrors, and just about anything else and can be peeled off without leaving any residue.
Create inexpensive photo-ready art for your sticker by using a graphics software package, such as Adobe Photoshop or Freehand, or QuarkXPress, on your personal computer. Costs vary depending on how many colors you use, your ink type, and your sticker stock. Making 1,000 two-color foil stickers, for instance, will cost you around $250.
Create a design for your sticker that you can use for other objects, such as hats, pens, mouse pads, and tattoos. Ellen's Silkscreening and Promotional Products offers to "print your logo on anything"-check out its informative catalogs. Look under "Advertising/Specialties" in your phone directory to find other companies like Ellen's in your immediate area.
THOSE FABULOUS T-SHIRTSFor some reason, T-shirts are heralded as an indicator of how noteworthy a band is. More than one A&R person has commented that receiving a T-shirt from a band makes a good first impression. Most independent artists, however, find it hard enough passing out free tapes, much less free T-shirts. The trick is to give out a few free shirts to influence and impress, and as fodder to sell the rest. Give them away to radio program directors, A&R reps, club owners, and press people. Hand out five to ten T-shirts at a live show; when folks see others wearing the shirts, they'll consider purchasing one.
The clincher is having a T-shirt design that people like. It should be as artistic as possible while still advertising your album clearly. The same rule applies as to stickers: a cool logo and design, eye-catching colors, and memorable wording will inspire people to wear your shirts, or at least give them to friends. Either way, they won't be stuffed in a drawer and forgotten.
Look under "T-shirts" in the yellow pages to find silk-screening companies in your area. Prices for silk- screened T-shirts vary greatly depending on the quality of the shirts and the complexity of your design. For example, four-color screening is notoriously expensive, as are designs with lots of fine lines or overlapping colors. Standard crew-neck shirts run from $4 to $8 each, including printing; women's U-neck and V-neck cap-sleeve shirts cost a little more. The more you order at once, the lower the price per unit. For a six- month promotional campaign, 300 shirts is sufficient and cost-effective. Work with the silk-screener to learn what is practical with your design and budget; it's possible to come up with very creative designs using just one or two colors.
STAY TUNEDThese eight tips should inspire you to get your promotion plan started. In a future "Working Musician" column, we'll offer other cost-effective ideas for getting independent musicians seen and heard. Until next time, remember: it's not the size of your budget that matters-it's what you can do with it.
Lygia Ferra is a songwriter/producer whose first independent release as a solo artist, Strange Peculiar, is slated to hit retail stores by the end of the year. For more information, visit www.lygiaferra.com. Erik Hawkins is a musician/producer working in Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area. He recently started his own indie label, MuziCali Intertainment (www.muzicali.com).