How To Get Your CD On (And Back Off!) The Shelves
You’ve been playing music for years. Your live show kills, you’ve recorded and produced a record you’re really proud of, and your friends have convinced you that you’d be the NEXT BIG THING if you can only get your record into the stores! Only problem is, you don’t have a label, don’t have distribution, and don’t have the foggiest idea where to start. And if you think you can walk over to the nearest Strawberries or Wherehouse and speak to them about stocking your disc, you are in for a rude awakening. To get your music onto the shelves as an independent artist, you’re going to have to start with the folks that are in it for the music, not cookie-cutter mass merchants. Start with the independent retailers.
Best Buy and Wal Mart don’t break bands. To them, CDs are a loss-leader whose function is to bring people into the store so they can buy refrigerators. They have limited shelf space, and rarely stock a title that sells less than 100k units. The independent retailer is a different animal. The store is staffed by folks who have their finger on the pulse of the local scene. They’re knowledgeable, can make great musical comparisons, and if you are in a local band that has a solid following, it’s likely they would have heard of you, too. But even though independent retailers tend to be supportive of local independent artists, the bottom line is that this is the music BUSINESS, and these retailers need a reason to stock your CD. You’re going to have to work hard and do your homework in order create a productive, fulfilling relationship that works for both of you.
Finding The Right Retailer
To quote George W. Bush, It’s Hard Work getting your record into stores. For starters, independent retailers are taking a beating from the mass merchants. These ‘Big Box’ chains often offer sale pricing on new artist releases (as low as $7.99!) that independents simply cannot match. CD sales are slowing, and the mom and pops that have not augmented their CD sales with DVDs, t-shirts, or other tchotchkes are having a really hard time. This, of course, all trickles down to you: independents are taking less of a chance on local talent. Save yourself some time, effort, and money by focusing your efforts on stores that tend to do well with your style of music. I don’t know if you’ve seen High Fidelity (recommended, if you haven’t), but the last thing you want to be doing if your band sounds like Belle and Sebastian is hassle a record store that is run by Jack Black. If the store is nearby, drop in, check out the vibe, see what’s playing when you walk in, talk to the manager and ask what the best selling records are that week. A lot of indies have email newsletters (Other Music in NYC has a great newsletter, so does Criminal Records in Atlanta) that will give you a good understanding of their demographic and what they are good at selling. Before you do anything, be sure that you set your sites on a store that attracts the type of folks that might like your music.
What Retailers Look For From You
The record industry is truly a symbiotic industry. For a project to be successful, all the marketing elements have to compliment one another, from touring, press, radio, Internet, all the way down to retail – the last stop on the line between marketing and the consumer. This is fundamentally true for big artists and independent artists alike. However, labels and major distributors often use the ‘push through’ marketing strategy at retail: flooding retailers with CDs, discounts, and using large co-op budgets for price and positioning. They spend less time on artist development and actually turning people onto the music before they get to the store. This rarely works anymore for labels and distributors, and will certainly not work for an independent artist who doesn’t have the luxury of a co-op budget. Before you get your CD to the retailer, you need to have the other parts humming. If all your other marketing elements are in place, you’ll have an easier time convincing the manager or buyer to take your CD, and more importantly, you’ll have an easier time selling the disc, which will make the retailer want to buy from you again.
Marketing Elements That Affect Retail
Any successful marketing that you can point out to the store buyer is important, and will make a difference in their decision of if, and how many, records they take from you. But there are some marketing tactics you can use that make a bigger impact than others.
There is no better way to get yourself visibility and develop a word of mouth ‘campaign’ then to get out there and play. On a local level, consistent gigs prove to the retailer that you are a serious band and have a fairly good following of potential record buyers. On a national level, it makes good sense for the local indie to carry your record in advance of a gig, with the hopes that folks from the gig will be so into your music that they’ll stop by the store to grab your disc.
Another thing that retailers look for is a press story. It’s great if someone gives you a positive gig review in the local weekly, but sometimes it’s even better if you’re reviewed online. One great example is the band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, who blew up at traditional retail, without a label or distribution deal, after a number of blog postings, and a positive review on Pitchforkmedia.com (check out the NPR story).
Personally, I have mixed thoughts about radio promotion (for developing artists) and the connection to retail, especially given the limited resources that independent musicians have. While I think it’s never a bad idea for an artist to play an in-studio performance if presented with the opportunity, I think that the immediate connection to retail is less than good press or solid tour dates. There are arguments to be made that getting college radio play helps to build your base, which may be true, but I have never seen this effect retail. One band I worked with at Ryko was getting constant play on a major college station in Atlanta, GA (WRAS), and while there’s a great indie store in Atlanta (Criminal Records) the consumers never made the retail connection. There are certainly a lot of other marketing efforts that did not connect in Atlanta, but with the one that did, I saw little results.
Maximizing the Relationship
Once you’ve go your marketing in place and have convinced the buyer to sell some of your discs on consignment (which is the standard way indies will sell your CD), the next step is to work on ways to get folks to: A) know that your record is there, and B) buy it.
Most indie stores are great about working with you to increase your visibility in their store. Point of purchase items are an obvious way to let folks know the store is carrying your record. Some effective ways to promote your record in store include:
A) Tour posters. If your playing a gig nearby, a tour poster with your club date on it let’s folks know your playing nearby, and that the store is carrying your record. Space is always an issue with posters, be sure to make them relatively small (11x 17 is plenty big).
B) In-store copies. While there may be listening posts at the store, more than likely you’ll have to pay to get your record in them (there are sometimes discretionary spots available at some stores). Sending a couple of in-store copies of your record to a manager or buyer that digs your band is a great way to get some added visibility.
C) In-Store Performance. If an in-store performance is promoted properly, there is no better way to sell records of your band on the spot. Conversely, in-stores that are promoted poorly could be embarrassing disasters. Be sure to schedule your in-store at a time of day when folks are around, say, 6PM on a Friday as a best-case example. Indies may also help you promote the gig through an ad in the local weekly.
D) Placement and Bin Card. This is really important and frequently overlooked. I don’t know about you, but I tend to lose my mind when I walk into a record store and forget the reason I originally stopped in. Be sure to speak with the buyer or manager to either create a bin card with your bands name, or suggest that you make one yourself. You need all the visibility you can get, and if someone is in there looking for your CD, you want to make it as easy as possible for someone to find it. Being filed in with the general artist A-Z is the kiss of death.
E) Competitive pricing. Be sure to price your CD low! Again, you are likely going to be working out a consignment deal with the retailer, and you don’t want your CD in the over $10 section.