Music is all about art (yeah right!) and not at all about the money (of course!), but oddly I hear a lot of bands and artists complain about how tough it is to ‘shift units’ these days. And in a world of Spotify and torrents and general boredom with the sheer quantity of music being released, it undoubtedly is difficult to sell music.
But selling CDs or downloads is not the only way to generate cash from music, and when it comes to the music you do manage to sell, how you sell it has a big impact on the amount of cash you receive.
So, I thought that in this post I’d highlight some things you can do to ensure you are always making as much cash as possible from your musical activities.
1. Register your music with the relevant rights organisations
It may sound obvious, but you should make sure that you are registering all your releases with relevant rights organisations.
In the UK this basically means PRS for Music (formerly the Performing Rights Society and MCPS) and PPL (formerly known as ‘Phonographic Performance Limited’). These organisations collect royalties on behalf of songwriters, publishers and composers (PRS) and performers and rightsholders (PPL) and distribute them. This means you get paid when your music is used on radio, on TV, via Youtube, on certain streaming services, in public places etc.
For a full list of the exact kind of royalty collection/distribution activities these organisations engage in, visit the PRS and PPL websites, but the point is obvious – you don’t have to be actually selling any music to be generating money from it, and rights organisations put that money in your pocket. One radio play alone on a large station can generate you anything from £20 upwards; not to be sniffed at, particularly if you’re getting 6 plays a day on that station.
2. Ensure you have ISRC codes on all your recordings
The catchily-named 'International Standard Recording Code' is a bit of data that you embed in your songs (usually at the mastering stage).
And it's very important, because if you don’t have an ISRC code on a track, the rights organisations mentioned above may not be able to identify you as the owner of the track…meaning that you may end up with a load of radio play, but no royalties. Bummer.
3. Sell direct to your fans when you can
When it comes to selling your music, you basically have two options. You can sell via a distributor or record company — assuming you can convince one to get involved — or you can sell direct to fan.
A distributor / label is essential when it comes to selling CDs in record shops, but when it comes to selling via your own website, assuming (1) your distribution/record deal permits it and (2) you have the manpower to fulfil orders, it is generally best to sell 'direct to fan' rather than refer them to any other online store.
This is simply because the profit margin on the latter approach is way, way higher. If you take and fulfil your own orders, you keep 100% of the profit rather than seeing just 20% to 50% of it (depending on how good or bad your distribution deal is). The trade-off is that your direct sales are not chart-eligible. But unless you are selling tens of thousands of CDs or downloads from your website, this is not really an issue worth worrying too much about.
Tip: if you intend on selling a lot of stuff direct from your site – CDs, downloads and merchandise etc. – you might want to check out a dedicated e-commerce tool like Shopify, which doubles up as a website builder and an easy to use / set up online store.*
4. Ensure that your promotional material actually mentions where people can buy your music
I have seen tens, if not hundreds of bands omit crucial information regarding where their music can be bought from their publicity materials – and shockingly, it’s often nowhere to be seen near the most important items of all: the band’s music streams and videos.
If you put a song up on Youtube or Soundcloud and it starts generating serious quantities of plays, you are bound to miss out on sales (potentially thousands) if you don’t have a link to your online store right underneath it.
And, as far as Youtube goes, here’s an important tip: you should ensure the link is included in the first few words of your blurb – Youtube only displays a couple of lines of text before cutting off the rest of the description (users need to click a ‘view more’ button to see the remaining info).
5. Don’t forget to sell CDs at gigs
You’d be surprised at how many bands don’t bother with selling CDs at gigs, thinking that if punters really like their performance they will immediately rush home, fire up the iTunes store and download an album.
Nope, they won’t. They’ll just go to the bar and forget about you. Always have some CDs on hand that you can flog to gig-goers on the spot. Even in a small venue, you can still make hundreds of pounds from CD sales on the night.
6. Report live performances
If you are a UK musician and you are gigging a lot, it makes sense to let the PRS know what original material you are playing at your gigs.
Because, believe it or not, you’ll get some dosh for it. Read about submitting your set lists to the PRS here. (If you live in another country, it’s worth investigating what the deal is with your equivalent rights organisations – they may well have a similar arrangement in place).
7. Sell other stuff – or enhance your current musical offering
Don't forget that if you are so lucky as to actually have a supportive fanbase, you have a chance to flog ‘other’ stuff to it.
I’m not talking about selling home insurance or double-glazing here (although an attempt to do so by a hairy death metal band would be interesting); I’m talking about things can’t be played on a stereo but are nonetheless somehow related to your music.
Yes, that’s T-shirts, posters and mugs with your face or band logo plastered all over them. If you don’t want to take the financial risk of manufacturing hundreds of items with your face on them, there are plenty of online services like Zazzle that let you create ‘virtual’ products that are only manufactured once somebody has actually paid for an item.
Additionally, you can ‘add value’ to existing music products by creating enhanced, limited editions of them. A die-hard fan may pay more for a CD if your signature is scribbled all over it; or if they are really committed to your act they may download a ‘deluxe’ version of your album containing all the outtakes (read: bad songs!) from the recording sessions.
Putting the cynicism aside for a brief moment, you may find that creating special physical versions of your releases really IS a good way to entice people in the direction of a purchase, and you’ll find some tips on that here.
8. Make sure you’re on Shazam
Suppose somebody’s in a bar and they hear your catchy little song blasting out of the speakers. “Damn it, I don’t know who’s making that beautiful music,” they say. If they are technically-savvy, they will at that point whip out their iPhone and head for the Shazam app to find out who's responsible for making the track in question.
Shazam uses a phone's built-in microphone to grab a brief sample of music being played, and thanks to some whiz-bang-jiggery-pokery tells the phone’s owner what the track is.
Helpfully from the musician’s point of view, it also gives said phone owner a link to where they can buy it. Useful, no? Most digital distributors (like Tunecore etc.) submit music to Shazam by default, but check that yours does before using it to release your music.
9. Do everything you can to get your music used in films and TV shows, and as elevator music in high street stores
CD sales and downloads may be in decline, but there is still a lot of cash to be generated as a result of getting your songs used in films and TV shows, and onto the playlists used by big retail stores.
Think of all the royalties you might make from your song being used in the background of a make-out scene in an episode of The Good Wife, or played round the clock in McDonalds (and guess what? This kind of exposure might actually help you sell some music too).
Yes, it’s a tall order to get your music used in that way, but it’s something you should definitely explore extensively and exhaustively. If you have a publishing deal, get your publisher on the case. And don’t forget those ISRC codes I mentioned earlier.
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