As CD sales continue to decline, digital downloads are rising sharply. The growth of the iTunes Music Store and similar services points to a paradigm shift in the way that listeners discover, purchase, and play their favorite music. If you're an independent musician, it's now essential to make your music available on the Web. In this column, I'll explore some methods for doing that.
FIG. 1: Although it took effort and persistence to get approval from Apple''s -gatekeepers, Dominique Vouk''s debut CD was accepted on the iTunes Music Store.
Selling physical CDs and downloadable MP3s on the Web makes sense for every musician. Domains, hosting space, page authoring, and payment processing are easily available and managed. The real challenge is driving traffic to your site. Getting your fans and postgig surfers to go there is relatively easy, but the chance of a casual music listener stumbling across your site is rare.
For that reason, being part of a music portal makes sense. These sites are populated by listeners who gather to buy music, and they are crucial places for hooking potential purchasers. If your music is readily available at these sites, you will also have the opportunity to be mentioned in the “listeners also bought” listings, which can spur sales.
MySpace is one such portal. Previously, the site didn't allow artists to sell from it directly, and users had to drive traffic elsewhere for commerce. Recently, however, MySpace announced plans to allow indie artists to sell their music from the site. The artists can set their own rates but will be able to sell only non-copy-protected MP3s. With more than 100 million MySpace members, the popular portal is poised to take on the industry heavy hitters.
I Want My iTunes
Gary Bosko (www.pivotentertainment.com) of Pivot Entertainment has learned much about selling music on the Web. When he embarked on promoting Dominique Vouk's (www.dominiquevouk.com) self-titled debut album (see Fig. 1), he knew that digital distribution was an area worth focusing on. His first stop was CD Baby, the industry stalwart dedicated to indie music. “I submitted Dominique's music to CD Baby,” Bosko says. “Part of that process meant indicating other places I'd like to have consider her music, including iTunes.”
Getting Vouk's album onto CD Baby was easy, but iTunes was trickier because the CD first had to be approved by Apple's staff of music gatekeepers. “I stayed in constant contact with the people at CD Baby, showing how we were out there promoting the CD, both off- and online,” he says.
Bosko even started calling Apple regularly, though he never reached a live person. “I didn't receive any direct feedback from Apple, but I think they took notice of my persistence and how serious I am about promotion. I'd heard that the iTunes office is understaffed and picky about what they accept. We'd put together a slick album with great songs and an interesting artist in Dominique. They must have liked it, because within six months we were on iTunes.”
So far Bosko has been quite excited by his good fortune. “We have had lots of positive reviews, and we see our music purchased right alongside major-label artists. I haven't seen our first earnings report, though.”
According to Bosko, the key to getting accepted on iTunes is being professional and serious. He moved forward with CD release parties, concerts, and other promotions regardless of what happened online. “Getting on iTunes, while a really big thing today, is just another promotional piece. We're also distributing ringtones on phone company sites. You can't sit back and relax just because iTunes picks you up. You have to be out there pushing all the time.”
Like all artists with a CD, Vouk sells her music at gigs. “We've noticed a clear trend,” Bosko observes. “Fans tell us they don't buy physical CDs — just downloads.” To solve that problem, Bosko purchases and resells iTunes gift cards. “We run promotions such as ‘buy a card and get a free T-shirt.’ That way the fan gets a card at the show and can then download the album from iTunes at home. So, we're essentially selling digital distribution at gigs.
“We're looking at putting together a promotional postcard with Dominique's picture on it, which she'll autograph at the gig. On the back of the postcard will be the codes fans need to download her music.”
Burn, Baby, Burn
Scott Liebenow was searching for another grassroots platform for distributing children's and Christian material on his label, Little Man Music. He found it in BurnLounge (www.burnlounge.com/lmmusic).
For a yearly fee, BurnLounge lets you create your own online music store where visitors can browse, sample, and buy music. Downloads sold from your BurnLounge store earn BurnRewards that are redeemable for music and merchandise. Sell a BurnLounge site to other customers, and you earn BurnRewards from their sales too. It functions as a multilevel marketing outlet. For an additional $6.95 per month, you can convert your BurnRewards into cash.
“BurnLounge lets me create a business that sells my own and other people's music, and I get paid for doing it,” reports Liebenow. “They have a lot of tools and offer support for building a viable retail site.”
Liebenow uses MySpace and a similar Christian site (www.coolchristianfriends.com) to connect with buyers. “I use both of these sites to promote my artists, report news, highlight events and gigs, and then send people to my BurnLounge store to buy music.” Liebenow advertises his store on his physical CDs and on other promotions.
“I also market through BurnLounge by sending email blasts encouraging people to preview and download from my site. Called Bonfire, you can create music playlists and email them to people, saying something like ‘Here are ten great songs you can preview, buy, and download.’ And if they decide to buy something, I get a piece of that pie too.”
What Liebenow likes most about being on BurnLounge is how he can feature his own music first, and then choose complementary music as well. “I can display my music next to the big stuff. It's a great way to digitally distribute for indie artists.”
Bosko uses BurnLounge as a way of involving other people in the distribution of his music. “It's the ultimate street team where other people can help you promote — and they actually make money doing it. On iTunes, you can't change anything on your page. BurnLounge gives you some control of the store, the look, the featured material, and more. That makes it worthwhile to be there.”
“All these alternative music-distribution outlets are essentially the same,” says Bosko. “If you aren't promoting, generating buzz, or sending people to the sites, nobody will buy your music. People either surf the Net to get something specific or for general entertainment. You have to make sure you are their destination in either case.”
Jeffrey P. Fisher's best-selling book Ruthless Self-Promotion in the Music Industry (Artistpro, 2005) now has a new second edition. Get more information atwww.jeffreypfisher.com.
MORE CHOICES FOR DISTRIBUTION
ACIDplanet (www.acidplanet.com) offers musicians a ProZone Account ($49.95 per year), which lets you promote yourself and your music to the ACIDplanet community. You get special promotions, Web pages, Podcast (audio and video) hosting, forums, and Buy Now links.
Blish (www.blish.com) specializes in selling digital content of all types. It handles all the technical integration (getting your music onto its site) and search-engine marketing, but it takes a 50 percent cut of all sales. Most of the music it has handled has been of the royalty-free production variety, but it's now seeking more indie CD material. Its agreement is nonexclusive, so you can sell your music in other places as well.
Broadjam (www.broadjam.com) provides Web-site hosting and music-distribution services, with the lion's share of money earned going directly to the artists. It has several tiers of membership options that offer a bevy of services to indie musicians.
CD Baby (www.cdbaby.com) sells physical CDs and is the largest Web retailer of independent music. After a $35 setup fee, CD Baby works to sell your music on its own site and offers digital distribution services to places such as iTunes, Yahoo Music, Napster, and more. CD Baby can make your CD available to more than 2,400 traditional U.S. CD retail stores. The site keeps $4 per CD sold and 9 percent of the proceeds of tracks sold through digital distribution. Artists get the rest.
GarageBand (www.garageband.com) has a novel twist on its catalog: it relies on listeners to pick the best emerging music. Its vision is to redefine how music is discovered and promoted.
Groovegate (www.groovegate.com) is open to existing labels and unsigned artists, with an emphasis on club, dance, and DJ content.
The Independent Artists Company (http://iacmusic.com) offers free Web pages to musicians, with additional perks for those who take out a paid membership. It uses a radio station motif in which artists and listeners build playlists as a way to share and promote music.
OmStream (www.omstream.com) focuses on finding music that “elevates consciousness amid the clutter of songs available [from] other download services.” It emphasizes world and new-age music.
Pump Audio (www.pumpaudio.com) provides indie music to clients who need tracks for use in their radio, TV, advertising, games, and other off- and online media projects. Independent artists and labels can submit music for consideration and possibly earn income from commercial uses of their compositions.
SoundClick (www.soundclick.com) is a music Web site that features signed and unsigned bands. It offers Web pages, MP3 sales, message boards, and more. Labels can even broadcast videos in broadband quality and sponsor sweepstakes for artist promotions.