Artist Advice: Creating A Strategy To Sell Physical Music

Making the investment in vinyl, CDs or cassettes can be a big jump for an artist, but worth it if done right.
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ADE 2017 Amsterdam Dance Event Vinyl

In an era of streaming and digital music, it can be hard to forget that there is anything to care about beyond your Spotify, Apple Music or Tidal numbers. We have discussed strategy and the need to focus on streaming, but one should still consider selling physical copies of music. CDs are starting to disappear as a format, but vinyl is having its moment. CD sales fell by over 20% in 2018 in the United States, while vinyl sales rose by over 15% to 16 million units. This was the 13th straight year that vinyl sales rose. Cassettes are also starting to bubble up as a very niche item as well, growing 23% in 2018 to 219,000 units sold. Creating a strategy for physical music should be in your thoughts, but you have to consider various factors when deciding whether or not you should add physical music to your release strategy.

1. Who Is Your Audience?

This is where understanding who your fans are vital. Are they older, are they younger and what are their listening habits? When people stream your music, you can tell if listeners are streaming all the way through an album or just picking out songs they like. According to a 2016 YouGov report, 45 and 54 year olds are the most likely to buy vinyl and 18-24 year olds are the least likely, but those trends are starting to change. Those would be the individuals with more disposable income and an affinity for record collecting since they grew up with the physical format. In 2018, only one of the top ten best selling vinyl records was from the same year. Many were classic records like Dark Side Of The Moon or Purple Rain. Nostalgia sells with vinyl and is a great entry point for new buyers or returning vinyl customers.

Another YouGov report from 2018 showed that 53% of CD sales in the UK were by individuals over 55 years old. Only 16% were by buyers 34 and under. Young people are used to not having CD drives in their computers and are less likely to drive then they once were 10 or 15 years ago. CDs are still a desirable option in cars, but with ubiquitous Bluetooth connectivity in new cars, CD drives may be replaced with modern displays and Wi-Fi that connects to the internet of things.

2. Which format will you choose?

Now that you have figured out your audience, you need to figure out which format are you going to pick. Are you going to pick vinyl, CDs or cassettes? Cassettes are growing and according to Rolling Stone, in 2016, one large firm National Audio had 70% of their business come from independent labels and small bands. However, the overall sales numbers are still low. Vinyl is booming, but is quite costly to manufacture. CDs are still common and not that costly, but not as popular with some age groups. You have to decide which format works best with your listening base.

3. Assess Your Resources:

Physical music is a lot more expensive than just giving a distributor a cut of your revenue or paying them an upfront fee and putting your music on streaming services. There is manufacturing, artwork, shipping, storage (can be your house), creating a web store for these items and then the time commitment to crafting the right look for your physical copies. People who buy them want it not just for the sound, but also for the look. Depending on the color, amount you want, artwork and plant you are working with, vinyl can cost you in the thousands for just a few hundred copies. Most plants won’t do very small batches because most of the costs are getting your order started and larger orders are when the margins go up. A batch of 500 vinyl records can cost $2,000 to $3,000 to get pressed. You can get an idea with a quote from United Record Pressing. CDs are less expensive, but the price point is still high. Make sure you are prepared with enough cash for shipping and even storage if you have a large order and live in a small apartment.

4. Music:

This is a simple one, but do you have the music that deserves a vinyl pressing or CD release? If you are still working on early music you are unsure of or are just putting out as freebees on SoundCloud, don’t think to press 150 vinyl records. If there are potential legal issues that haven’t been cleared, don’t even think about physical copies. It is probably best to start with an album that you think will do well when you have the funds.

5. Timing:

There are a few ways of looking at timing. You can gauge whether or not to make physical copies based on the reaction of the digital release or you can preempt the release by getting your orders going beforehand based on hype and marketing efforts. CDs can be turned around quickly, in up to a week, if you are willing to pay the money for it. The infrastructure is still there to fulfill CD orders quickly from the boom times of the 1990s. Vinyl on the other hand is much slower. It can take two or more months depending on the pressing factory. There may be issues with your order and your order may be pushed down the queue if a big order comes in from a large client. There have been a few pressing plants that have opened in the past few years, but not enough to meet the current demand, so there is a large backorder of vinyl records.

6. Artwork:

The art is just as important as the music. How a vinyl looks can make it stand out in a record store and in a collection. The art draws the potential buyer in and can help close a sale for a curious potential customer. If your album doesn’t have great artwork or you haven’t been able to afford great art, then maybe skip on a large vinyl record. CDs are less art heavy and more to the point with the music. You can do custom colors and patterns on vinyl (for an extra fee). You should know how you want the sleeve to look along with fonts for song credits and any other writing on the record sleeve. All of these need to be designed, so add an extra cost and time to the project.

7. How Will You Sell It?

Obviously the last part is the need to sell it. You made your vinyl, cassettes or CDs because there was a demand for it. Now you have to sell it. If it is an album, you are probably going on tour, so make sure you are selling copies at a merchandise stand at your concert. Be ready to show up at the merch stand to sign some copies if you want to really make a dent in your sales. Otherwise, make sure you have a working web store that will handle orders efficiently and accurately. There needs to be email for customer support and someone who can handle that when something goes wrong with an order. Expect the unexpected and for something to go wrong. You could use a Bandcamp page to sell your merchandise, which is where a lot of users actually go to buy physical music. CD baby is a distributor that works to put your physical music in independent stores worldwide. Bleep is another good artist-friendly option to sell your music. 

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