2013 was a slow year for Passive Promotion, because I was too busy with this, this, and this to write. For the most part, I focused on creation rather than promotion. Next year I’ll have two EPs and a full-length Color Theory album to promote, and you can bet I’ll be sharing my methods and results with you here.
While I didn’t write too much over the past year, I did read a whole lot! Here are my top 10 music promotion posts of 2013, in reverse chronological order, based on how useful I found them for my particular needs and circumstances:
The Indie Musician’s Guide to Digital Distribution
Wax On, Wax Off Guide to Starting from Scratch on Twitter
8 Effective Email Marketing Strategies, Backed by Science
The 7 Biggest, Counterintuitive Social Media Mistakes You May be Making
The Ultimate Guide to Band Merchandise
Lady Gaga shot to the top of the sales charts upon the release of her last album, in part because it was deeply discounted on Amazon. Radiohead pioneered the “pay what you want” approach, with most downloaders opting to pay nothing at all. Last week I asked my fans which pricing model they prefer, and received dozens of enlightening and thoughtful answers. The discussion continues, but as you’ve already deduced from the title of this article, I’ve made my decision.
I tried both approaches over the past two months, with two full-length rarities sets. Both consist of material already released on USB key, so the audience is relatively limited. I sold the first set for $5 with a discount code, and made the second set name-your-price. The latter features more recent recordings, and is clearly the superior release, so there’s little point in comparing sales numbers directly.
Name-your-price certainly has a lot going for it:
- It provides a legal alternative to piracy
- It generates far more downloads, which can boost your mailing list if you require an email address
- Anyone can “own” your album, even in countries with weak economies or rampant piracy (a decent percentage of my downloads were from Russia)
- People are more likely to share a link to a “free” download with their friends
- Potential fans can download first, and decide if they like it later
But in my opinion, those pros don’t offset the cons:
Let’s be honest. You don’t need the money.
Anyone can make a record for next to nothing these days. Almost any other hobby is more expensive: photography, mountain biking, even video gaming. When a teenager singing into a webcam gets exponentially more views on YouTube than your latest “professional” video, the answer isn’t more money.
You’re just not there yet.
(hey, don’t feel bad – I’m not either)
Tracking at Abbey Road Studios won’t get you there. Hiring T-Bone Burnett to mix your album won’t get you there. A full-day mastering session with Bob Ludwig won’t get you there. 10,000 pressed CDs with 18-page inserts won’t get you there. A $5,000 promotion budget won’t get you there either.
No matter how much money you throw at your project, we’re all limited by a stubborn principle called free market pricing. People are only willing to pay what a product is worth to them, not what it costs to produce. The intrinsic value of music is in free fall, and people won’t pay for it if they’re just not that into you.
So why are musicians flocking to fan funding (also known as “crowdfunding”) sites like Kickstarter, Sellaband, Slicethepie, PledgeMusic, and artistShare in droves?
After 45 hours of work over six weeks, my song is one of the 118 approved to be in the RBN Store when it launches. My last article laid out what it takes to get your song in the game, namely a deep skill set and lots of time. While I managed to clock in well under my 60-80 hour estimate, I had a considerable head start. I’d already messed around with Reaper, my stems were ready to go, I’d played through most of Rock Band 1 and 2 on all instruments, and my Xbox 360 was already networked to my studio computer. Plus, I’ve been a full-time mastering engineer for twelve years and a computer geek all my life. Even so, without the expert guidance of the folks at creators.rockband.com, my song never would’ve made it through the pipeline. They are a wonderful group of people – true professionals in every sense of the word.
Knowing what I know now, would I do it again? Probably not. Here’s why:
- The authoring guidelines are rules, not suggestions. I mistakenly counted on some wiggle room. I figured if the parts made sense and felt right to play, they’d be acceptable. Not so. For example, on medium difficulty, green-blue chords are not allowed. There can be no kicks or snares between right hand time keeping gems, period. There are lots of rules, not all of them intuitive. Personally, I think that’s a good thing. My initial concern that amateurs would flood the store with flawed product was unfounded.
- Playtesting others’ songs can take as long as authoring your own. Authoring is a collaborative process. It takes me about an hour to playtest a song completely, on all instruments at all difficulty levels. You might need a dozen playtests to prepare your song for peer review, so you should plan to do at least that many for others. It’s not just a goodwill gesture. If you don’t actively contribute to the community, nobody will touch your songs.
- Hiring a professional is affordable. If you’re willing to share the royalties with an authoring company, your upfront cost can be as low as zero. There are plenty of companies eager to chart your song, with a variety of pricing structures.
- Professionals do a better job. Authoring is both an art and a science, and experience matters. No two companies will chart the same song the same way. Check out the expert previews on YouTube and you’ll spot considerable variation. It’s not easy to capture the magic of a real live performance.
A few weeks ago, Kevin English of eleetmusic got me in to the closed beta of Rock Band Network, which provides the necessary tools to get your songs into the game. When it launches, the RBN Store will sell those songs through the game’s interface, with 30% of the purchase price going back to the artist. Now that the beta is public, you may be eager to dive in, but let me warn you – it’s a lot harder than I thought it would be! Authoring your first song requires a deep skill set and 60-80 hours of focused effort.
You’ll need to have:
- Multitrack sessions of your song, including a dry vocal
- A computer running Windows
- An Xbox 360 with at least a 20 GB hard drive
- Rock Band 2
You’ll most likely need to buy:
- A premium Creators Club membership ($99/year or $49 for four months)
- A Gold subscription to Xbox LIVE ($49.99/year)
- Reaper Digital Audio Workstation software ($60 discounted license after a 30 day trial)
You’ll need to be able to:
- Prepare stems from your original recordings
- Learn a new DAW plus custom scripts
- Play the game proficiently on all instruments at all difficulty levels (good luck if you can’t sing!)
- Transcribe a vocal performance to MIDI, differentiating between vowels and consonants by viewing the waveform
- Play the drums (to program the right hand/left hand animations correctly)
- Connect your Xbox 360 to your computer
In addition to all that, you’ll be expected to test and review other members’ songs. It’s a network after all!
I promote to establish and nurture a genuine relationship with my fans. I measure my success by the number of subscribers to my mailing list. Notice I said mailing list, not Twitter followers or MySpace “friends.” I’m talking about the people who grant me permission through a double opt-in process to email them directly on a regular and consistent basis. Right now there are just over a thousand, but there are plenty more out there who might love my music if they heard it. So how do we reach those potential fans?
In the pre-Web 2.0 days, you’d court a label, or if you were really adventurous, you’d hire a PR firm yourself. The PR firm would leverage their relationships with press and radio, which in turn maintain relationships with their audiences. That left you three degrees removed from your potential fans, the vast majority of whom you’d never hear from. Today, social networking allows us to cut out the middlemen and establish those relationships directly. Let’s dispel a couple of myths:
- It’s all about exposure. My bullshit detector goes off whenever I hear the word “exposure.” It’s nebulous and generally worthless. I’ve spent a lot of time and money courting press and radio, resulting in bucketloads of “exposure” but few sales or follow-up contacts. While “you never know” who might be listening or reading, chances are good that nothing will come of it. The best promotions are targeted to as specific an audience as possible.
- You need to impress the gatekeepers. No, you really don’t. You’re better off letting them come to you. Bloggers, DJs, music supervisors, labels, and the rest of the industry want to discover you for themselves. Grow your fanbase and the rest will follow. I know that may seem counterintuitive, but one small leap of faith could save you years of rejection and frustration. It is my sincere belief that lasting success comes from the bottom up.
Musicians might be interested to read why I switched to Ableton Live.