I want to start some discussion here, and I welcome thoughts from all, especially newer artists who are really trying to make a dent in the commercial world. I am here for free consulting as it were. I certainly don't have all the answers (who does right now?) but as one who is somewhat entrenched in the commercial record-selling world, I have some ideas I would like to share. So please, step up, hit me with some specific questions and perhaps we can get a good dialogue going here. Perhaps I can start things rolling with an article I wrote some time ago....
Give Your Fans What They Want - Free!
By Chris Standring
I'm having a little hit record right now. Well at least at radio, time will tell whether this song will really translate into sales. But at radio right now, as I write this, "Love & Paragraphs", my 5th solo album is at #2 with a bullet on the Radio & Records national contemporary jazz chart and #7 at Billboard. I am particularly chuffed (as we say in the UK) because as you might know, I started my own independent record label "Ultimate Vibe Recordings" (and no we are not looking to sign artists right now!) and to have some success whilst competing with major labels and established labels is quite an encouraging thing.
I set up the label wanting to play the radio and retail game, and frankly I didn't want to be relegated to selling five CDs on MySpace. I always say, you bat in the game you are comfortable playing. So it was important for me and my career to stay in the big leagues if I wanted to continue being taken seriously at festival shows and so on.
Because this was now my own label, I figured I should really get inventive marketing-wise and try to dream up something that hadn't been done before. After all, I had all this internet marketing experience and now was the time to cross pollinate, as it were. You know, capitalize on both the online and offline thing. So I put my thinking cap on....
I came to the conclusion some time ago that if an independent label is to exist, it cannot be the victim of the traditional marketing machine. That is to say, if retail programs and advertising programs prioritize major labels, that shouldn't be a reason for an independent label NOT to exist. The secret is in niche marketing. Now having said that, you get out what you put in, but profits can be realized if you invest money wisely. But more importantly, building a community to market to for future releases is THE thing to take seriously and put into momentum right now.
I have talked probably way too much in the past about growing your subscriber database. And I'm going to do it again today because I have never been more convinced that the future for independent artists is to market to their own growing database of fans.
So the question I asked myself was this:
"If someone finds my CD in a store, say Borders or Barnes & Noble, how on earth can I get their personal contact info so when my next CD comes out, I can offer them an incentive to buy from me?"
Any customers who buy from my personal website, I instantly have their info. I can market to them, offer them additional CDs and so on. But those others that go through the distribution pipeline, how do I get to them?
And I came up with the answer...
In 1989, when I was living in the UK, I recorded an album called "Main Course". I financed it myself and hired all the best studio players in London. I was into the fusion guitar thing at the time so it came out a little self indulgent, but those were the times. I came over to LA to try to get it released. I was all excited to get over here but when I arrived I met with a luke warm industry response. "It's good Chris but I don't know what to do with it" A lovely yet typical A&R response. "It's OK Chris but nothing to get in bed about", was another. And so I went back to London feeling a little dejected. And the master tapes sat in my little London flat for some time.
20 years later, the digital revolution shows up and I decide to make this old album downloadable. Why not offer it as a free bonus? I thought. So I had my graphic designer do a little baseball style card and when I manufactured the Love & Paragraphs CD, I included this little baseball card in every jewel case. This is how it looked:
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I figured, if someone went to a store and purchased this album, provided they actually liked it, why would they not go to the URL and download this free CD? It was clearly just a numbers game I thought. Now, in order for someone to download this album, they have to input their email address and when they do, they get an autoresponder email giving them the link to download the album along with a username and password to access the page. Giving up an email address, I figured, was a small price to pay to get a whole album free of charge.
Each email address is then neatly stored in a database which I can access online to see how well it is working.
And I am glad to say this has probably turned out to be one of the best marketing ideas I have dreamed up so far. Every day I get notified of several new signups and it is fun to watch the list grow.
We all know that at live shows, getting fans to write down their email address on a sign up sheet is painful because even if they do, half of those addresses are completely unreadable and end up bouncing back. This new method is a 'pull' marketing tactic where each email address has to be valid in order to get access to the download.
So how can you relate to this marketing tactic? Well I certainly don't suggest you go out of your way to record an additional album just to offer it as a free bonus. But you certainly should have additional tracks that either didn't make your CD or that you recorded for this reason alone. If you don't have retail distribution, it doesn't mean you shouldn't adopt this marketing idea, because even if someone buys your CD at a show, that is still a potential fan you can grab and market to later on.
Don't think that you need to stop here either. It may not be just free songs that you offer your fans. Ask yourself this:
"What could someone offer me free that would make me happy to give up my contact information?"
You could make a band video that could include all sorts of secret backstage goings on that only fans who purchase your album could get access to. Perhaps an ebook with photos that fans can download that contains all sorts of things the band gets up to. Perhaps half priced tickets to your shows. Perhaps all of these ideas. It's as wide open as your imagination.
Think creatively, and put your promotional campaign together. Have fun with it. It's really encouraging watching something like this work successfully.