What’s up with our band merchandise?

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As mentioned in my update, I’m about to release a new album. This has lead me down a rabbit hole of trying to figure out how to release it. The band, by the way, is not a band. It’s a recording project. I can’t rely on traditional outlets or concerts to generate exposure and sales. I also don’t want to just release it digitally and hope 10 people buy it on iTunes… which would effectively earn me a grant total of ~$50.

So, that leads me to ask, what’s the value of recorded music?

For a lot of people, including myself, that’s a wishy-washy question to answer. How about these questions: When the last time you bought music? Or, when you do purchase music, do you prefer CDs or digital downloads? Maybe you prefer streaming?

If you are a musician, there’s a good chance that you buy a lot of music. It’s like working in the restaurant/bar service industry and leaving big tips; it’s part of your job, and it’s arguably somewhat ingrained in your soul to support your peers. Most musicians go to shows and buy albums. We all know the work it takes to make them, and because of that we’re basically a support group. I buy your CD, you buy mine, etc.

However, if you’re not a musician, you probably value recorded music a little differently… and that’s totally okay.

Unsold CDsAs music consumers, we’re constantly being provided with newer, easier, and cheaper options to access to endless amounts of digital content. We’ve reached a point where pretty much any music can legally be streamed – for free – as long as you are willing to sit through a few ads. This is ultra-convenient, but it also causes a powerful devaluation of recorded music. This isn’t news, and I am not writing a sob story – this is just how it is. The value of recorded music, as a consumer, is worth the effort that it takes to sit through a Geico commercial. We don’t actually need to purchase anything.

If we do purchase something, most likely it’s a digital download, or physical product like a CD or vinyl.

There’s still plenty of room for profits within these options (physical and digital), but success hinges on the ability to move massive quantities. Often, the exposure needed to methodically generate that kind of activity is fueled by advertising campaigns that require large investments from big labels. And because of the financial risk involved, investors (aka big labels) prefer to only fund safe mainstream music genres. They know what to make – it’s a formula, and they make a lot of it.

If you identify your music with other genres and market as an independent artist, you’re probably not going to get any outside funding you start a crowdfunding campaign. Or you already have money.

I’m pretty lucky. It’s taken years of work, but the main band I play with (The Kandinsky Effect) has made some remarkable progress as a creative music project. We have three albums out and we have independent label support. The label is great, the people working there are passionate, and they work hard to promote every album they release. They have a large catalog of almost 500 releases, so there’s a network of other bands we can interact with, and they help us whenever possible. But, it’s still very small. The label caters to a niche creative-music market, and we’re plagued by the word “jazz.” This is nowhere near the large numbers that it takes to create sustainable profits. With our latest record, we didn’t have to front the money for manufacturing, but we still paid for everything else. And, if we want to sell our albums, we buy them (at a discount + royalty fee) from the label. That’s normal.

The issue we are running into is that audience members are shocked when we try and sell our albums for any amount over $10. Obviously we have to bump that price up and explain why, but that $10 price tag is quickly becoming a standard expectation for CDs. I know from personal experience that if we covered our own manufacturing costs, price per disk would be about ~$1, but then we lose the label support. Still, even if the CDs were entirely free – $10 profit per unit is pretty small when the max we can travel with has to fit into our carry on luggage. I have no idea how to move sustainable volumes like the mainstream genres are selling.

The only thing I can think of is to simply charge more, but that price needs to be justified.

Let’s change gears for a minute and think about restaurants. I love burgers. Now imagine that the fast food industry set the standard on prices for all burgers. How would this affect any family run restaurants? Or how would this affect an aspiring chef that spent years in culinary schools, racked up a ton of debt, and eventually opens a bistro with a fancy organic burger. If all burgers were expected to be sold for the same standardized price… Well, it’s not a perfect metaphor, but maybe you get where I am going with this. Prices in other creative industries are allowed to fluctuate. As independent musicians, do we need to sell our recorded music products for the same standard prices as mainstream music?

I don’t think we do. Technically, we can charge whatever we want. The challenge is that we have trained our consumers to expect online music to be provided for free, and around ~$10 for CDs. In order to change that, we need to figure out how to revalue the recorded music that we make.

So, how do we get music consumers to feel like it’s worth spending $100 on merch? I don’t know… but those are definitely the products I will put in my carry on.




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