One simple formula applies to all business. It's true whether you have a multinational oil company, a taco stand, or a band:
How Much You Make - How Much You Spend = How Much You Keep
Most musicians focus on simply increasing the amount that they make. Yet, most businesses fail because they simply spend too much of the income they take in. The good news is that just about every core part of the music business today—music distribution, merchandising, marketing, even CD and DVD manufacturing—can be done for free. You don’t have to lay out any money to get your music business started.
Below, we tackle seven business areas that will help you get your music out there and generate revenue for a cost of $0. So, grab your recorded music, carve out some time, and let’s get started.
RouteNote, a digital aggregator, will put your music into digital stores such as iTunes for free.
How to get worldwide digital music distribution on iTunes and other digital distributors for $0
Digital aggregators are companies that handle the relationship between you, the musician, and digital distributors like iTunes. While most aggregators charge an up-front fee, digital aggregators such as RouteNote (routenote.com) will put your music into digital stores like iTunes for free. Instead of charging you up front, RouteNote takes a percentage of any sale you make, on top of the amount the digital distributors like iTunes keep. Even better, if your album starts making consistent sales, RouteNote lets you switch to a subscription fee so you cut out their percentage. This option allows you to find out which songs or albums have enough sales to justify the fee, and after that, you'll get a much higher percentage (and you can even pay the fee with the successful sales, so you won't have to spend anything out of your own wallet.)
How to get CD and DVD manufacturing, sales, and fulfillment for $0
One of the bigger expenses for musicians is shelling out money to build an inventory of CDs or DVDs to sell. Today, however, musicians can simply create a free account and upload their music, videos, and cover art to services like CreateSpace (createspace.com) or Lulu (lulu.com) and these services will take care of the rest. They’ll handle manufacturing, take orders from customers, and even ship the product. All you need to do is set the price for the item. When you generate a sale, you’ll keep the difference between the price you set and the cost to manufacture and handle the sale. In addition to selling through their site, these services will sell through Amazon as well as give you a sales widget so you can sell the product online through your website or web presences.
Keep in mind that most of these services have affiliate programs, so if you sign up for those, you can make money on the front end as well as the back end for sending sales to their websites. It doesn't matter that you are linking to your own items—they just want the sales and will reward you for any purchases you generate. Sign up for affiliate programs on every site where you sell your music or merch.
SpreadShirt is one of many free print-on-demand sites.
How to make, sell, and ship CDs/DVDs, t-shirts, merchandise, and more for $0
Print-on-demand sites like DistrictLines (districtlines.com), SpreadShirt (spreadshirt.com), Zazzle (zazzle.com), and Cafepress (cafepress.com) allow you to create and sell all types of merchandise—t-shirts, wall clocks, mugs, stickers, posters, Christmas ornaments, and more—for free. All you need to do is create a free account, upload an image such as your logo or artist photo, and pick the merchandise you want it to appear on. Once you’ve got an item you’re happy with, these services let you set a price (at or above a minimum amount they’ve set) and will take it from there. They’ll handle the online store, manufacturing, sales, tax, and shipping. There is no money up front and you will make money on every sale. While your margins may be slim, using print-on-demand services let you try out new merchandise designs at no cost and see which ones sell.
Note that the payment terms vary among these stores. Some of them set income minimums before they pay you and may keep the money if you don't reach their minimum in a certain amount of time. Also, the base prices for merch items are wildly different depending on the print-on-demand service. It's well worth your time to shop for the best prices for the items that you plan on selling.
As with tip 2, many of these stores have affiliate programs. Sign up for those so you can make money on both the front and back end.
How to get video licensing income for $0
Actively trying to get your music used in films and video so it can generate royalties can be time consuming and costly. However, with YouTube, the largest video site in the world, you can collect sync-licensing revenue for free. Doing this lets you get a share of the advertising revenue that your music/video content generates on their site. See our recent article “Monetizing YouTube: Making Money From The Most Popular Music Search Engine In The World,” (Electronic Musician, October 2013) to learn how to use YouTube’s ContentID to make income from your audio and video content.
How to get music royalty income for $0
Whenever your music is streamed online through services like Pandora, Last.FM, or other webcasters, U.S. law states you’re owed money. Money for your streaming music is collected on behalf of musicians and labels by an organization called SoundExchange (soundexchange.com). Signing up for this organization is free. Once you’ve registered your sound recordings with them, they’ll know who to write a check to if services that report to SoundExchange stream your music. Also, sites such as Last.FM and Reverb Nation have their own royalty programs that you can join for free for when your music is played on their sites. Don’t leave this money sitting on the table.
The Free Press Release site can help you get noticed by the media.
How to get the press and media to notice you for $0
For the press and media to cover you, they need to discover you. Blogs, podcasts, and the new media that write about music are a great start and well within reach of every musician. To generate awareness, it’s as simple as sending emails to those sites telling them about your new release so you can get coverage. That initial new-media coverage gives you the credibility you can use later to reach bigger, more established press and media outlets. But emailing sites directly isn’t the only way to reach the media; check out the free newswires that the media scour for news and ideas that you can use. Try sites like Mi2N (mi2n.com), Rock and Metal (RockandMetal.com), and Free Press Release (Free-Press-Release.com) to help you get your music and message noticed by the press.
Be sure to sign up for Soundcloud and other audio-hosting sites.
How to Get Promotion for $0
Your music and merchandise won't sell unless you promote it. Thanks to social networking, you can reach fans directly through any number of ways. Sign up for free social sites like Facebook (facebook.com) and Twitter (twitter.com) so you can promote your music and merchandise directly to fans and followers. Create free accounts on video sites like YouTube (youtube.com), Ustream (ustream.tv), or Livestream (livestream.com) so you can use their video services to build an audience. Sign up on audio hosting sites like Soundcloud (soundcloud.com) and Reverbnation (reverbnation.com) as well as gigging calendars and demand sites like Eventful (eventful.com), too. All of these sites help you get your music and merchandise out there, connect directly with fans, and build awareness. They are all free, and signing up just takes a few minutes each.
Pros and Cons Although there are plenty of good reasons to choose these free options, there are some downsides as well. The best part is there’s very little risk—you can get things rolling right away, generate revenue immediately, and you won’t have to spend any money to make it happen. After all, a box of t-shirts sitting in your basement is money you’ve locked up in inventory and can’t spend elsewhere. So avoiding that problem while making some money at the same time is a good thing. But because these services require no up-front fees, the margins for their products or services can be very thin. Even though you’ll make money on each sale, it may not be much. And if you get very successful, the services will take higher sales percentages, which add up.
Because of this, we recommend using these no-cost options as a low-risk way to start your music business; a free trial to see what actually works in the real world. For instance, using on-demand t-shirt options lets you try out a lot of designs at no cost and see which ones fans actually like and buy. Once you know which designs are actually selling, it's not as big a risk to manufacture an inventory with a proven design so you can make a much higher margin on each sale.
Finally, keep in mind that business has only one mark of success: whether it's profitable or not. If you use these techniques, you can create a music business that is profitable from the very first sale that you make—profits that can fund future opportunities as you grow your music business.
Randy Chertkow and Jason Feehan are authors of The Indie Band Survival Guide (St. Martin’s Griffin), now in its second edition.