The following is an excerpt from Jay Frank’s Hack Your Hit: Free and Cheap Marketing Tips For Musicians, available January 31. Frank is also the author of Futurehit.DNA, and the Owner and CEO of DigSin, a music company which provides its subscribers with free music. Before creating DigSin, Frank served as the Senior Vice President of Music Strategy for CMT, and as the Vice President of Music Programming and Label Relations for Yahoo! Music.
Buying your own downloads is much like watching your own video. If you’re not going to do it, who else will? Granted, watching your own video is a little different, because doing that doesn’t cost you anything. You log on, go to the website address and watch. Not a penny spent. Downloads are another matter. If you’re going to buy your own music, it’s going to cost you a dollar.
Or does it? You have to remember that this is your music. Let’s assume that you’re not signed to a big record company, and you placed the music up for sale yourself. This means, of course, that you get paid for each download. When you buy a 99-cent download, 70 cents comes back to you, so that download only costs you 29 cents. You’ll spend 10 times that amount on a Starbucks coffee to wake yourself up before rehearsal.
But why should you buy your own music in the first place? One reason is logistical: it’s quality control. You may have done everything you were supposed to with your digital distributor to get your music uploaded into their system. You tested and listened to the song, and it all sounded fine. However, in a world where the distributor is dealing with thousands of songs weekly and each service ingests tens of thousands of songs, errors can and do occur. One way to confirm that your music made it in there correctly and in one piece is by buying and listening to it yourself.
So, what difference does that one copy make? In the purest sense, not much. Just as with watching a video, buying a copy of your song takes you only 0.0001% of the way to becoming Platinum. But here’s a startling fact: Now that most music is released independently, an overwhelming majority of titles fail to sell even 100 downloads. Looking at it another way, 100 copies will catapult you to the top percentile of independent musicians. So in a practical sense, one copy gets you 1% of your way there – a meaningful percentage. Sounds great, except … people forget one thing. iTunes is, of course, not the only store that sells your music. In the US, you can also sell music on Amazon, Rhapsody, eMusic, Verizon, Nokia, Bandcamp, Music Unlimited and many more destinations. The Orchard aggregation service alone distributes music to 660 retail outlets in 75 countries!
Now, I wouldn’t expect you to go around the world and buy from each outlet. That might be good and ambitious, but I’m not sure that will accomplish much. Also, for those of you reading outside of the U.S., I’m focused on the American market mostly because I know it best. I can’t say for certain how much what I’m about to say applies to your market. For now, let’s just assume that you are buying from U.S.-based stores.
For most artists, despite demonstrating the ability to make something with online music, getting signed to a major record company is the ultimate goal. Labels study several metrics to ascertain whether or not an artist is having any significant impact. One of those is SoundScan, which combines all digital sales into one neat, easy-to-read format. If you want to impress record companies, your SoundScan tally needs to be of a decent size. Selling 100 copies on your own won’t get you signed. However, since so few artists achieve this goal, 100 copies at least puts you on their radar if your music comes across their desk.
With that in mind, if you buy your music from 10 outlets in the U.S., you’re now counted as 10 copies in SoundScan. That’s 10% towards that first goal, and the net cost to you is only three dollars. Sacrifice one latte for one day. If you’re in a band, get the other members to do it, too. Then, let’s say everyone gets their boyfriend or girlfriend to do the same. In a four-piece band, you’ve now sold 80 copies. Suddenly, that first 100-copy hurdle doesn’t seem so insurmountable. And this is before you start bugging your parents to do the same thing.
You can see how quickly this can add up. Spend 10 bucks now, get seven bucks back later, and improve the likelihood of showing up on record company radars. Even if you don’t right away, you’ll have a better story than most artists for a label to see once you do. Just give up the fancy coffee for a day.
Now, shall we go one level deeper? I think we shall! How about coordinating this effort so that everyone is buying your music on the same day? Perhaps the first day your music comes out. It’s naturally a dream for everyone to get on those iTunes sales charts. However, iTunes comprises a huge majority of digital sales, so even one of its sub-charts is likely out of your grasp until you get some real momentum. On the other hand, the other sites don’t get nearly as much traffic or sales. Most artists don’t realize that people actually buy music on a subscription site like Rhapsody. Yet a sale on Rhapsody generates the same money as one on iTunes and looks exactly the same to a record company as an iTunes or SoundScan sale. And it could be a whole lot easier to appear on these charts, especially the sub-genre ones.
The beauty about claiming a chart position is that you only have to do it once. Many times you’ll see an ad about the No. 1 movie in America. It may actually be No. 1 only for a week and then sink like a stone because the movie stinks. But they can never take away the fact that it was at one moment in time a No. 1 movie. Same thing with albums. I’ve seen many an album over the years debut at No. 1, only to plummet and be forgotten a month later. Those records may never sell much, but in a marketplace context, achieving that position is a key attribute that will attract attention.
My first book, Futurehit.DNA, is one I can honestly market as a No. 1 Songwriting book on Amazon. I doubt that it is still No. 1, as Amazon updates its stats every hour. So how long was I at the top? Even if it was for as little as an hour, it gives me at least one un-manipulated screen grab of dominance. For the record, I was No. 1 for longer than an hour, but not as long as a month. But does it matter?
Note that I didn’t go for the impossible. A niche book like Futurehit.DNA had essentially zero chance of being the biggest-selling book across all of Amazon, even for an hour. I didn’t bother chasing that. I focused on a relevant sub- genre that made a difference in my marketing efforts. No need to sell thousands of copies in a concentrated period of time to accomplish my goal. I didn’t even need hundreds.
This is how choosing your sub-genres when you distribute your music becomes important. You need to pick terms that accurately describe your music. But you should also be cognizant of the sub-genre chart where you want to look good. So choose descriptions that you can plan on promoting once you get a good position from coordinating your own internal sales efforts.
Focus the efforts of everyone on your team on these sites, and then start watching regularly for the chart positioning. Amazon tends to have the most impact, so refresh the site hourly and see what happens. Make sure you take a screen grab to document your chart position; you’ll want to promote that to your fans later on. The aura of a hit will make them feel excited about being a fan of an artist who is getting bigger by the day. It may also spur them to buy the song, as many people only feel comfortable purchasing what others have bought. Strange, I know, but true. That’s why so many people gravitate to sources such as the iTunes chart to decide to buy.
Don’t be discouraged if you don’t rank No. 1. Even on the sub-genre chart, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to get a No. 1-selling song, but that’s OK. In your development period, it’s good enough to say that you had a top 10 or top 20 release. Getting a screen grab showing you on a chart between two big-name artists is also worth its weight in gold. No matter where you peak on the chart, for however short a time, take that figure and spin it as positively as you can. Almost any story can be turned into a good one.
Finally, it’s best to buy your individual songs than your full album. Album sales are certainly nice, but right now you’re playing a quantity game. If you can buy three or four tracks on your album, that makes the overall number on the album look good. If you can achieve 100 sales of each track on your album, you’ve sold 1,000 downloads. If you bought 100 albums, you’ve sold 100 downloads. Which one sounds better? Not to mention cheaper!