Music Service Discounts

Money Can’t Buy You Love

If I had $5,000 to spend on music promotion, I certainly wouldn’t waste it on any of the following:

Ads. It’s easy to get “dazzled by the numbers” when given the opportunity to reach thousands of people. We think, “If only 1% of those people bought the album, I’d double my investment!” Don’t let the math fool you. Unless there is a compelling reason to respond to your ad, nobody will. That goes for print ads, banner ads, and Google Adwords. One exception is letting your already massive fanbase know about a new release or tour.

Press. Words don’t sell music. Music sells music. Few people bother to read reviews, features, or interviews with bands they aren’t familiar with. Even fewer take the next step and search for the music. A feature in a music blog is much more effective, because readers are one click away from hearing or even downloading your song. Sure, a four-star review in Rolling Stone has its uses, but it ain’t gonna happen. While good press usually doesn’t have an explicit price tag attached, you’re often expected to purchase an ad.

Radio promotion. I’ve spent over $10,000 on radio promotion, with negligible results. A European campaign that got my songs in regular rotation on over 40 commercial stations in Italy and France, plus a highly targeted US campaign that got me on the CMJ Charts, earned me a combined total of zero royalties and zero sales. I’ve had a lot more luck with Jango, at a fraction of the cost. Before you invest in a radio campaign, ask yourself 1) who are you trying to reach, and 2) what exactly do you want them to do?

Nobody has ever contacted me or bought a CD as a result of seeing my ad, reading about me in the press, or hearing me on the radio. From a promotional standpoint, it may as well have never happened.

Compilation CDs. When I was getting started in the mid-90’s, landing a spot on a compilation CDs was a big deal. Back then, just having a CD was a sign of success. Today, anyone can burn their own. The compilation CD has been supplanted by the playlist. You’re better off uploading an iMix to the iTunes Store and calling it a day. Under no circumstances should you pay to be on one of those compilation CDs “A&R companies” shotgun to their database of industry contacts. They go straight into the trash. Even if it doesn’t cost you anything, think twice about letting include your song on their compilation. You’ll be competing for sales of that track on iTunes.

Promo CDs. Thinking about pressing an extra 500 CDs to give away as promos? I wouldn’t. Believe me, if the 3,000 CDs in my garage had any promotional value, I’d give them away in a heartbeat. Shotgunning promos to DJs, music supervisors, A&R departments, and your favorite bands undercuts your own sales. Within a month, you’ll see a dozen copies going for $0.99 on Amazon. No joke.

Song Contests. This year I had the incredible luck of being named a Grand Prize Winner in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest. Despite sending out press releases and doing everything else I could think of to snowball the win into something bigger, it didn’t do much from a promotional standpoint. Still, I received over $8,500 in cash and gear, and it was gratifying to be recognized by my peers. My recommendation is, only enter a song contest for the prizes.

So what would I spent that theoretical $5,000 on? I’ll have to get back to you on that one, because I honestly don’t know. I promote to establish and nurture a genuine relationship with my fans. While money can buy you “exposure,” it can’t buy you love. I’ll expand on my reasoning next time as I make the case for online-only promotion.

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  1. Ha… this is especially useful to me now …when I am considering all this! But yeah, a list of what you WOULD spend it on would be helpful! Regarding the compilation CD , I was thinking that themed compilations might be the exceptions. Last year I found several artists (Sally Shapiro, Au Revoir Simone) from my search for holiday compilations. I ended up buying their album. Although, maybe I am the odd exception!

  2. Brian, I’d spend the extra $5,000 on a great audio magician like you to give my music its best foot forward. =)

    Since you’re yourself and can’t really do that, may I suggest you take $5,000 worth of time off and write/play more music?

  3. Great post. I especially like the bit on songwriting contests, which I have always questioned in terms of their real ability to help generate sales. I swear, there is too much talk today on exposure! What we independent types need is sales. Thank you for your sobering assessment of how the latter is so elusive, while the former is everywhere you look.


  4. LOVED this article Brian! As disappointing as it is…the reality is that almost nothing works (or works well) as far as promoting Indie music. The best way is to play live to gain fans and sell cd’s and merchandise at shows. Another way is to support other Indie Musicians who may turn into fans. And probably the most important thing is to be active on some music based websites and/or social networking sites. I look forward to more on this topic!!!

  5. Thanks for the kind words!

    Rain, those themed compilations sound promising. If you can submit a non-album track so you don’t have to compete for sales, all the better! I certainly wouldn’t turn down a soundtrack placement either, not that I’ve ever been offered one. I guess I’m mainly referring to compilations put together for the sole purpose of promotion.

    Britt, $5,000 worth of time off sounds nice! I suppose I’ll have to do it in order to put out a new album in August.

    Jeff, you nailed it. “Exposure” is nebulous and generally meaningless. That’s one of the key points of my next article (or at least the first draft).

    Charlene, my sales weren’t too impressive when I last played live 10 years ago, but many bands can live off it. Perhaps that’s because my live show sucked ;). I agree that social networking is key, but I haven’t found a winning formula yet.

  6. If I had the $5,000 to spend I would take $90 of it and apply to the SXSW and CMJ music festival. These are the places that make bands! Look at all the “buzz bands” of the moment, The xx, Suckers, Real Estate, whoever, they all played these festivals, did as many shows as possible, and played every one like it was there last. This is where bloggers, writers, managers, A&R guys, radio jockeys, anyone who is anyone in the music industry finds bands in these two places. So $90, a rental van, and some gas, go play!

  7. Brian –

    Insightful as always. Brilliantly written article on the tragedy that is Independent Music. Still, there are exceptions to every rule. I agree with Charlene regarding playing live (even if it’s just once per quarter or once per year). If you promote it to your fans and give them plenty of advance notice…you might find that they not only show up…but they might bring new potential fans as well. Of course, it takes the right venue to pull it off. It would probably additionally take a significant amount of online interest….say, from advanced sales. Another thought would be a live concert (via the internet) straight from your studio. Rent a fantastic baby grand piano and hire a really good video company to pull it off like a music video, but only for streaming to those fans who’ve paid to see it. IT…..COULD…..WOOORRRK!!!!!

    My thoughts as scattered as they usually are.

    All my best as always,

  8. Good one Brian. It was interesting that your piece was “delivered” in my reader next to an article about “fixing what isn’t working”. Lots of food for breakfast this morning.

    It has struck me over the last few years that for musicians who can perform live, the end game is the performance. That sounds pretty obvious, but from the things I read from people starting out, it is not. For the last 30 years, venues (read: bars) have made $$ off musicians by using the “exposure” ruse, hey play here and eva’body will see you and you’ll be on your way, and oh by the way, you will pay US for the privilege. It’s a parallel to any other con game..take this workshop, hire this consultant to the “music industry” read this how to market yourself in the “new economy” etc etc. For those people who have been exposed to professional sales motivating scams like Zig Ziglar etc, it’s all to familiar, for people who are green musicians it’s all “marketing” and gee it sounds great. Instant solution.

    So, if things are back to where they were before the rush of the internet “leveling the playing field”, it might behoove the massive to pay attention to how they are going to get paid (assuming you are doing this for more than a hobby). And that $$ comes from playing live. Unless you hit the lottery (and it is not impossible, just improbable) you will make a living playing music live, and to do that, you need to get paid for it, not pay the venue for exposure, which is the opposite way around.

    There used to be a thing called the Musicians Union. ( I can hear all of you groaning from here). They had a thing called “pay scale” and when you played music at a joint, you got paid that scale. The purpose of the Union was to make sure this happened. It was ORIGINALLY organized to protect workers from being chiseled. I always think it would be a good idea to organize a non corrupted union to do just that. Other tradespeople have them.

    Of course, I think World Peace and Justice are a good idea too.

    thanks for your columns, good stuff.

  9. We have not played very many live shows. Mostly because the preparation and money spent to go into the show would usually leave us in the red as far as money is concerned.

    One can pull off a successful live show on a shoestring budget, I have realized. Having a sort-of “bare bones” show. A show WITHOUT a lot of hocus pocus (hocus pocus being specialty lights, fog machines, props, screens and projectors, etc). Not to mention specialty gear is often desired so that one can get a bit of the sound they want at the club or bar…without totally relying on the sound guy and whatever system the club has. My point is that playing live can be very expensive for Musicians. I have found all the “extras” are not always necessary when you perform with energy, enthusiasm and confidence. People respond very well to that cause that’s what they want to see- who cares about some blinking lights. LOL

    In today’s age of the Internet- (here I will speak of Matthew’s idea)…I do think it would be awesome to see a Musician do some performing from their home / studio and then watching it online. I think it should be free for fans, and available on various sites (like youtube, and other sharing sites), for people to enjoy and discover on their own terms. It is a brilliant idea. I hope to one day try it (we have a good video camera- so what the hell)! Hahaha. But there is still a lot of work for the Musician with this idea…all in the hopes to gain just a few new fans and to please the true fans. It’s tough! I would love to see Brian perform a couple of songs on his piano from his home!!!

    Pat’s idea of performing at Music Festival’s (SXSW & CMJ) is a great idea too. It’s better than investing hundreds or thousands of dollars mailing promo cd’s all over the place only to find them being sold on ebay, or what not. Hahaha. There is real opportunity with this idea!

    I keep searching for the right recipe for success. When I know there isn’t one. Being a very successful Musician has so much to do with knowing the right people and having “the big money machine” behind you then it does anything else. There is a ton of talent out there…and sadly most will not get the recognition they deserve. This does not make one a failure- failing only happens if the songwriting stops. And as long as the songs are well crafted people will take note- it just takes time for fans to weed through all the lame music that is floating about nowadays.

    Oh it feels good to vent on this topic! Thank You Brian for letting me do so!


  10. I appreciate your insights and ideas!

    Is a live performance the answer? For bands that put on an amazing show, absolutely, but I gave it enough of a shot to know it’s not for me.

    I played out regularly around ’96-’99, back in the magical days when artists got paid for it (though I wasn’t in the union, jp). I toured the Borders and Diedrich circuits and was paid $80-$125 to play 3 hours on a Friday or Saturday night. I’d sell a couple CDs and gather a few email addresses each time, but nothing beyond that.

    I ultimately gave it up because I never really liked performing. Therefore it won’t surprise you that I’m not a great performer. Most shows were just me at the piano, so it came off more folk than electronic. I did play a few bigger shows with electronic accompaniment, and those went over pretty well. Still, I don’t plan to do it again. I’d rather focus on what I enjoy: creation rather than re-creation. I know I’m weird in that respect – I’ve always preferred listening to records over seeing a band live.

    I do want to try making some “in the studio” videos over the next few months as I work on the new album, but I don’t expect those to be breakthrough promotional tools.

  11. One of the strangest things about the whole “leveled playing field” bit is that it’s getting harder and harder to sell music online (and the advice now is to give it away ), so it seems to point to either licensing or..a hobby. For everyone, whether you want to or not.

    Another odd thing is the argument re the “give it away free” side..all the people who help make music, whether it’s the guitar makers or PA companies or..ahem..mastering engineers..are dependent on musicians who have the long green. And eventually, (as in now) a lot of the “side industries” are going away..because nobody can afford them. duuude I can do it on my laptop..with the result that things sound like poop. usually..

    AFA “creation vs re-creation”..I play improvised instrumental dance music..what used to be termed “jazz” I think, and it is a constant creation every night. I used to play the other music that was recorded ..but I have moved on and past that.

    I don’t want to hijack/misdirect this excellent post of yours; it easily gets sidetracked into “Free” territory, and I am for Free, in most ways. Maybe we pick this up in another article re people who are musicians struggling with not getting paid..there are still some of us left, though fewer and fewer every year. The Musicians Union in Portland OR started an agenda last year..a “living wage” campaign for musicians. I thought it was great idea until I brought it up to some wags at my local.. that was pretty funny.

  12. Spend the $5000 on sponsoring a big name act and open for them yourself. Get together with a local promoter whos got upcoming events that are of decent size, spend the $5000 to sponsor the show as the title sponsor and make sure you get at least a 20 minute set out of the deal. At least youll get some exposure, you might even make some new fans and sell some albums. You probably wont make your $5000 back, but youll get that at least that much in promotional value back.

  13. The answer for us aging Indie Artist’s (those of us over the age of 30), is Music Licensing. Getting songs licensed to TV, Movies, video games, etc. That is my main focus for ‘Blind Faith and Envy.’ Though playing live is still something we are interested in doing from time to time. Though there is a ton of competition for placements, at least some song placements yield monetary reward. And it is a more realistic avenue for most of us who are not in a position to tour. The key is to forge a relationship with a couple of legit companies and send them your best songs from time to time…and hope for the best.

    It is quickly becoming fact that there are only two groups of Musicians…the very rare few who make it big and the rest of us. The majority of us have to realize the fact that we are merely hobbyists with BIG dreams and shallow pockets. But- the dream doesn’t have to die, it just has to be reshaped. *Music Licensing* to the rescue! 😉

    Brian- I am sure you are your own worst critic in regards to your own live performances. I have mixed feelings about performing live- I hate it and love it at the same time. I hate all the prep for a live show and I hate getting jipped or flat out ripped off by promoters…but I love performing and seeing people engaged…even if it’s just a crowd of 10!

  14. Charlene,
    I disagree about your either/or part. There are a lot of people making a living playing music live who aren’t on the corporate shill bandwagon or trying to “make it” …whatever that means these days. They don’t make a lot of money, but enough..and it’s hard work and travel, not just “a show” here and there. It also takes a full time commitment. Try telling your boss you are headed off to two weeks in Poland..hope you still have your day gig. (assuming you don’t live in Poland 😉

    AFA as licensing, I think it’s a mugs game..if you scroll down a bit and read Brian’s excellent post on TAXI, you’ll get the drift. I have been involved with Creative Commons and ccMixter almost since it’s inception, and have had things placed..documentaries, shorts, podcasts for instructional resources, industrials for cities and hospitals..a lot of diverse things ..and the money isn’t there. I don’t write music for big Hollywood productions, where the money IS..but if you think the competition for gigs is tough, try getting into the Big Leagues in Hollywood. Good Luck. The rest of it is pretty dog and pony, $$ wise..and I think Brian has been saying this for a while as well. I get great satisfaction on having, fe, a piece in a documentary about the Holocaust..but that is all I get..satisfaction.

    Having known this (and knowing a few people in Hollywood film licensing as well) I made a conscious decision a while back to return to performing..and in certain styles of music, you can be “older” . also need to have your head on straight and be aware of every scam. Which is why I started the little rant today about a Union. btw, there is a Union for actors and voice over people..a very good one, and they are protected well.

    Charles Mingus knew this 40, 50 years ago..and started his own label, booking agency, Dave Byrne said..same as it ever was.

  15. JP:

    Yes- I agree with you, an Indie band can play show after show, set up tours all the time, and pull in enough money to get-by.

    Music licensing is a brutal business, and an Artist can easily waste a ton of money sending promos out in this area as well. I never had faith in TAXI, so I never gave them a try- though I sure thought about it, and almost did. The problem with Musician’s is that most don’t know how to wear 2 hats, one being the ‘creative hat’ and the other being the ‘business hat.’ For real success you have to be extra savvy in both. Unfortunately for me, I am not a people-person…and I feel my skills are only moderate in both areas. But- when they grow strong, I will pursue the music licensing route more aggressively. 🙂

    Your placements thus far sound very good, by the way- congratulations! So is this an avenue you will continue to pursue (music licensing)? Even if it only brings in a little bit of money here and there- that’s a good thing, better than nothing at all!

  16. Brian..I don’t want to hijack this thread, and I am rebuilding my site, so I can’t haul the topic over least today. Let me just answer Charlene? thanks.

    I think the left brain/right brain, two hats thing needs a lot of know, that’s a standard tag used by people who would like you to use their services. But if you are a musician, or a writer or an artist in have made a decision, and can deal with the mundane part..which is the biz end. And have to do that. But it can be done without workshops/seminars/ SXSW.

    AFA licensing..sure. But I have also set a principle..and the projects I like and willingly do, as part of Creative Commons, get my full free attention. the rest, and there are a bunch..don’t know yet. .

    I mean you could be a …welder?? and make weapons..or build bridges..same “gig”, “skillset” bladibla..but what are you doing? Same thing for licensing..crap, time wasting video game nonsense..or music that does something to give Peace and Justice a chance.

    ok Brian, butting out..`

  17. The radio is a hard one to gauge form a strictly sales based perspective.

    I know that the lowly college station I had a good following on with my synth show had a “buzz”. The after effects of that buzz is almost impossible to follow.

    That “buzz” got the attention of the big league local station and the MD started playing the band after tuning in to my weekly program. He actually told that band where he heard them and how that created an interest in rotating their music.

    Shiny Toy Guns did pretty well. : )

    Another great post, Brian.

  18. No need to worry about hijacking the thread jp! A broad article calls for a broad discussion.

    Improvised instrumental dance music sounds more fun than what I used to do! Nowadays that wouldn’t be too hard to pull off with Ableton Live and my APC40, though I’d still rather be making records.

    An artist “living wage” is a tough sell. “Free” probably isn’t doing you any favors in that regard.

    As for licensing, I had my first successes this year. The MTV placements haven’t brought in any new fans or sales that I can trace, but we’ll see how much I get from ASCAP. I signed an exclusive publishing deal with Pigfactory a few months ago. So far they haven’t placed anything, but they’ve at least made me feel like they’re handling it so I can focus on making music.

    Charlene, I’ve got four fairly representative live tracks on the reissue of my first album, Sketches in Grey. They’re fine, but by no means outstanding.

    Kenny, radio is certainly responsible for many bands’ successes. While nobody’s ever emailed me saying they heard me on your show, I appreciate your support through the years! I would never invest in another radio promotion, but I still send out new releases to the handful of DJs who have stuck by me (which includes none of the ones targeted in my paid campaigns).

  19. Ahhh..when I said “improvised instrumental dance music'” I meant improvisation free of samples, though I do understand that an apc40, or for that matter 2 turntables and a microphone, can be construed as a musical instrument. DJ Shadow ..But the whole term “dance music” has been co-opted to mean either something a DJ replays…and not the interaction of a combination of musicians playing on the spot as it were (another topic, another time).

    AFA the living wage..some success so far in Portland, but it takes unification of purpose through a Union of like minded individuals to succeed.. the strangest objections come from musicians who feel it is infringing on their “freedom”, and another topic another etc. etc.

    The “free” part I was referencing was in regards to recorded music, as it is commonly accepted that it’s “all free” now, and simply something to be used for another end;-licensing, promotions, advertising. I believe music has a great intrinsic value in and of itself. And in that essence it is always “free”..but ouch, off to something else again.

    I think it comes down to a really basic question: why do you play music (or write, or paint or ). Answer that question and the rest is simple..umm..simpler..ok, less complex.

  20. I actually meant improvisation free of samples too, but I know what you mean. As for why we make music, evolutionary psychologists have been trying to figure that one out for some time! 😉 The answer seems to be, and I’m not joking here, to impress the ladies. But why would a happily married man keep at it? That I don’t know.

  21. “As for why we make music, evolutionary psychologists have been trying to figure that one out for some time! 😉 The answer seems to be, and I’m not joking here, to impress the ladies. But why would a happily married man keep at it? That I don’t know.”

    You’d better ask the Tiger ;D

  22. This is a great article. All of which I had to learn the hard way. Some things I avoid from the begin like the songwriting contest and the compilations and paying A&R submissions etc. However, radio promotion got me, publicists got me and internet ads both with google and facebook got me too. Only thing I can say is that I did sell a few records.

    However, I think that having a lasting more engaged fanbase is better and there are now tons of tools online to allow us all to do that. We will all just have to do a lot more work than we are used to!

    1. Fortunately it seems that our promotional efforts as artists are gradually being eclipsed by the word-of-mouth efforts of our fans, due to the power and relative ease of social networking. I still toy with the idea of dropping promotion completely and just posting a song a month for free.

  23. Wow—awesome no-nonsense article…thanks so much Brian, you're gradually becoming my new hero!

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