Industry Insider: Q&A: Derek Sivers

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FIG. 1: Derek Sivers is the founder and president of the independent music site CD Baby.

Courtesy Derek Sivers

When it comes to the independent music scene, few people are more knowledgeable than Derek Sivers (see Fig. 1). He began his music career as a guitarist and later founded CD Baby (, which quickly became one of the most high-profile independent music sites on the Web. The site offers musicians both an inexpensive way to sell their music (physical CDs and digital downloads) and a large community to market it to.

Sivers, whose career is now focused on running CD Baby, is a frequent speaker at music conferences and has firm opinions on how to achieve success as an independent. He shares many of them in this interview.

Tell me how you came to found CD Baby.
In 1997, I was selling my own CD at live shows. I sold about 1,500 copies, and I set up a Web site with a credit card merchant account to sell it online, which back in '97 was incredibly hard to do. There was no PayPal, no Amazon. None of the stuff that people have now existed then, so it was really like the wild frontier. And there were no sites that would sell your CD at all, so I had to make one myself. Because I did, a bunch of my musician friends came to me and said, “Dude, how did you do that?” When I told them, they said, “Sounds like a bitch; is there any way I could use yours?” So I said, “Okay.” Pretty soon my Web site — it was actually my band's Web site — was selling my CD and a few friends' CDs. Then I started to get calls from strangers, like, “Hey man, my friend Dave said you could sell my CD?” I was like, “Yeah, okay, no problem.” And this was still all happening on my band's Web site. It was never meant to be a business, but then after my band's site got cluttered up with about 20 [CDs from] various friends of friends, I pulled those 20 albums off of my band's site, put them on a different site, called it CD Baby, and that was the reluctant beginning of this. The only reason that's important to mention when telling the story of CD Baby is that this whole thing was never meant to be a business. I'm just a musician who was doing something to help out myself and then my friends as a side effect, and it just grew from there.

How has CD Baby changed in over ten years of existence?
In most ways it's hardly changed at all. We're doing exactly what we've been doing for ten years in a good way. For example, I've never raised the price; it's always been $35. It's always kept that same core focus on helping musicians sell their music.

What about the whole issue of physical product versus downloadable product? You had to change because of that, right?
Not really. We added digital, but honestly, our physical CD sales are still up. Physical CD sales are up 35 percent from last year, despite what you hear. Yeah, the majors are plummeting, but on the indie level, it's part of a bigger trend of the long tail thing that everybody talks about far too much. I think that whenever you hear that Eminem and Beyoncé are selling millions less than they used to, that it's [because] all those musicians — that are honestly like your types of readers — are actually selling way more than they used to in all formats. Whether it's digital downloads or physical CD sales, it really is becoming more of a level playing field. It's like TV going from 3 networks to 200 cable channels. It's kind of like the world is going from FM radio and MTV and Wal-Mart for sales to having hundreds of places where you can find, discover, and browse new music. I think that a lot of independent musicians are really on an equal [level of] public perception with major-label-signed artists. I find that all across the board, even in physical CDs, the independent artists are doing better than ever.

What about the argument that now that everyone is putting out their own CDs or digital downloads, the haystack has gotten way bigger but the needle is still the same size? Do you think that there's now so much noise down there, so much competition among independents, that you still need the backing of a major entity in order to get noticed?
No. The incorrect preconception in your question is that there's just one big haystack. There are hundreds of little haystacks now. We're in a niche culture where because there are hundreds of ways for a music fan to get turned on to music that they'll like, there's actually more of a chance than ever for musicians to be the top of their little haystacks.

If you don't mind, let me use this metaphor I've been using lately to explain it. Up until recently, success in the music industry or success as a musician was like an archery range where 100 feet away is like a tiny little 1-inch target. And you're at the other end of the archery range, you can just fire a bunch of arrows, and all of them fall onto the ground — unless by some amazing chance you are able to hit that 1-inch target dead in the center, and then you have a major hit. But now it's like the target is 50 feet across, and it's really easy to hit anywhere inside it. But the trick is that somebody cut out the middle. It's like there is no middle anymore.

Let's get more specific for EM readers. Although plenty of them are songwriters, there are also many who are composers and are looking for a way to market their instrumental music. Do you have advice for them?
Oh, absolutely. Instrumental music does surprisingly well on CD Baby for the artists who tie it into a lifestyle purpose. So instead of just saying, “Here's some great music with wonderful harmony and interesting production,” you say, “Here is some music for massage.” Or you say, “Here is some music for computer programmers to listen to while working and without being distracted,” or “Here is some music for candlelight dinners,” or meditation — wherever. I find that the instrumental musicians who specifically market their music as a purpose or to go along with somebody's lifestyle end up selling infinitely better than ones who say, “Hey, my name is Mark, I'm making some good music, check it out.”

From your experience, do these people go into their recording project with that in mind or do they think after it's done, “Hey, this music is pretty spacey and mellow, it could be good for massage” or whatever?
I think it can come after. The marketing niche can come after the fact. The reason that can get pretty interesting is that you can take the same dozen pieces of music and rename it and repackage it a few different times, especially if you're doing purely digital distribution; why not? You can take the same songs and call them music for massage, take the same songs and call them music for dinner, and then put it all out there to see what works best.

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FIG. 2: In the Flavor section of the CD Baby site, music is categorized for a variety of purposes.

Within CD Baby, are there any kind of marketing techniques beyond just being in the catalog to get site visitors to notice you?
Go to the home page at CD Baby and look at the right side, at that link called Flavor. Look at these, by the way, because they're sorted in order of popularity [see Fig. 2]. Notice, for the fun of it, that the most popular one on the right is called Depressed? Stay Depressed. It's funny, so much music is marketed in such an upbeat kind of way that people are drawn to the fact that this is about staying depressed. This is our way of trying to help the artist; we're almost playing editor by saying, for example, “Here are some albums we've found that help you sleep,” or “Here are some albums we've found that make you want to smash things.” So artists can do this themselves. There are tools on the site that allow you to create a group. For example, you can spend a little effort finding a few other artists who are in a similar vein to yours, and say, “Okay, why don't we make a gallery now and say this is good music for cooking.” And this is not just CD Baby; I don't want to make this one of those boring things where I'm just telling you the features of my Web site. I think this applies to anywhere. Whether you're getting together with other artists or doing it yourself, you can make it a little mini-movement somewhere. You could say, “Here's a Web site we're setting up just for instrumental bubblegum music,” and make a little movement and say, “These five artists are all the tops in their field of instrumental bubblegum [laughs].”

I can't wait to check that one out[laughs].>BR>So it's easier to market a lifestyle genre or a little movement like that than, again, it is to say, “My name is Jeff and I'm making music, I hope you like it.” Instead, get together with a few people and say, “Hey, this is a collective of instrumental bubblegum artists.” You find it's easier to get press and attention that way, too, because it seems less self-centered. Everybody else is saying, “Hey, check me out, check me out.” But you come along and say, “Hey, check out this new genre of music.” [For more of this interview, see Web Clip 1.]

Mike Levine is EM's executive editor and senior media producer and the host of the twice-monthly Podcast “EM Cast” (

[Online Links]

CD Baby site