Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, you’ll have noticed that selling records has become more and more difficult.
And you don't need a degree in rocket science to see why: ever since records became ‘files’ rather than physical items, it’s been getting easier and easier to obtain music for free – either through file-sharing or legal, ad-funded services like Spotify. So, in a world of free music, how do you actually make any cash out of your tunes?
One important answer to this tricky question is this: the money is in the list.
What list? The list of people who have given you an email address. Generating a decent database is one of the most important things that a band can do these days, but, perhaps understandably – as “data management” isn’t exactly the sexiest aspect of a rock career – it can get overlooked by bands.
So, in this article we’re going to spell out the benefits of having a good fan database, suggest ways to build one, show you how it can generate income and outline some pitfalls to avoid.
Why an email database matters
Having a good email database of your fans is a really important for a number of reasons:
The people who are interested enough to give you an email address are probably the people who are most likely to buy your music and merch. They are amongst your warmest "leads".
Communicating with your list is extremely cost-effective. If you’re on a budget, you can technically email everybody for free, or if you want to be a little more sophisticated about things, you can use an inexpensive but very useful email marketing tool (more on which anon).
Email addresses can be used not only for direct-to-fan communication but for building up fanbases on social networks. For example, Facebook and Twitter allow you to connect contact lists and identify profiles of people who are on them.
When used in conjunction with a half-decent email marketing system, your database of email addresses can tell you a hell of a lot about your fans – where in the world they are based; how many of them open your emails; what sort of content they particularly like and so on. You can use all this data to decide what sort of merchandise to sell them and where to do gigs.
But how do you build an email database?
Ok, having spelt out the benefits of an email database, how do you actually create one? There are a few different ways you can go about it.
At the very simplest level, you can just whack an email address on your site that people can send a message to if they want to join your list. You could then store these email addresses in Outlook, or an Excel spreadsheet. However, this is a very 1990s, less-than-ideal way of going about things – not only will ‘spambots’ find your publicly-listed email address and send you a load of junk mail, but the above method relies on you manually filing a bunch of email addresses. It is a quick way of getting a list on the go, but I’d personally avoid this method.
Getting a little bit more sophisticated, you could use a free service like JotForm to build a form that captures email addresses; this lets you capture more details about your fans and will send an email to you every time somebody completes your form. However, it's all still a rather manual process requiring Outlook lists or Excel spreadsheets.
Getting more sophisticated again, you can use a professional email marketing app such as Getresponse or Mailchimp. These are nifty tools that allow you to do a whole host of useful things, like create HTML emails (emails that involve graphics and photos); send pre-written, automated emails (autoresponders) to subscribers; see who’s opening your emails; find out where your fans live (!) and much more. Unsubscribes are handled automatically too.
Ok, so how do I actually use my list to make money?
First, you’ve got to be realistic about things: despite your list containing your ‘warmest leads’, only a very small proportion of them will actually part for cash for anything – as a rule of thumb, around 1% to 5%. So if you have 1,000 people on your mailing list, you can expect 10 to 50 sales of something.
So, the best way to generate income out of a mailing list is to grow it so that it is as large as possible.
And how do you do that?
Incentivise things – spell out the benefits of joining your list (this usually involves giving away music).
Consider using online adverts on Facebook or elsewhere to encourage people to sign up to your list. However, be aware that this can be an expensive activity which is full of pitfalls…see our article on Facebook advertising for more information on how to go about this.
Make it easy for people to sign up. Keep things basic: capturing name and email address is usually enough (although if you’re planning on touring, a postcode field is a good idea).
Mention the mailing list at every gig you play, and always capture email addresses at the door of events – ask every paying gig-goer you have to join your mailing list as soon as they walk in the door of the venue. Leave sign-up forms on any tables in the venue.
Ensure that your website features data capture forms prominently in all areas - on the home page, in the side bar etc.. Pop-ups and welcome mats, when used wisely, can also increase the number of email addresses captured.
Once you’ve got a large number of subscribers on your mailing list, you can send them e-newsletters about about physical releases, downloads, merchandise and gigs.
You should try to do this in as personal a way as possible — don’t talk to your fans as though you’re an airline emailing its customers; rather, communicate in a genuine, heartfelt way that lets your listeners know that you value them.
And think out of the box when it comes to what you actually sell to your subscribers. Yes, you can try to encourage them to purchase CDs and downloads, but in the streaming era this is always a hard sell. So think out of the box — innovative merch, crowdfunding and unique live experiences can potentially raise more revenue than CDs. See our ‘Let’s get physical’ article for a few suggestions on this front.
Using your mailing list wisely
Remember that once you have a huge mailing list, don’t overdo things. Think long and hard before you hit the send button on every e-newsletter. Do you really need to email everybody once a week with inane news about your granny?
Also, remember that with mailing lists, it's incredibly easy to break the law; there are quite a few data protection regulations that you really need to adhere to if you're capturing email addresses (especially in the GDPR era). The key things to remember from a legal viewpoint are as follows:
Make it clear to users what they are signing up to
Use a 'subscribe' button or 'Yes, sign me up to your updates' checkbox
Give users an easy way to unsubscribe from you newsletters.
Store your data securely
And finally, although the money may be in the list, it isn’t ALL going to come from flogging recordings.
You may find that even if you have a large mailing list packed with enthuastic supporters, they may still not be arsed buying a record which they can listen to on Spotify for nothing.
But they may very well pay to see you live, wear your t-shirt or drink from your mug. (Check out our article on Ryanair’s business model (yes, really) for some ideas on how to make money from fans who will happily listen to your music for free but won’t buy any albums from you.)
If you’re investigating the world of email marketing, there are a few reviews on email marketing apps I’ve written which will help:
And finally, you may find my guide on how to create an e-newsletter helpful.
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