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Entries by Laurence Trifon (9)


Digital Distributor Math: Choosing the Right Distributor for Your Band

You are a musician and you want to sell your music on digital retail sites.  You are deciding between two digital distributors to deliver your new album to retailers.  The two distributors, Distributor A and Distributor B, have different payment terms and fees.

  • Distributor A charges a one-time album set-up fee of $20, plus an annual “maintenance” fee of $20, and takes no percentage of your sales (Distributor A passes 100% of the sales revenue it collects on to the artist).

  • Distributor B does not charge any set-up or annual maintenance fees, and takes a 10% cut of your sales revenue (you the artist keep 90%).

Assume both distributors will deliver your content to the same stores and offer identical service except for the payment terms. Which distributor do you choose?

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How much is a fan worth? - Part 1

Most aspiring artists intuitively understand that there’s value in building an audience for the long-term rather that focusing solely on short-term revenue.  Bands offer free downloads, play free shows, and spend countless hours on- and offline interacting with listeners in hopes of developing a fan base that will support them over their careers.

But how much is a fan actually worth?  How much should an artist be willing to sacrifice (or spend) today to acquire fans?  And how many fans are needed to be able to make a living as a musician?

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A Better Way To Book Live Music

Digital technology has revolutionized the way recorded music is created, discovered, distributed and sold. The market for live music, however, has yet to undergo a true revolution.


As Andy Malloy touched on in his Music Think Tank Open posts a few weeks ago, the Internet should enable fans to proactively drive the concert business. Rather than waiting for bands to come to them, audiences should be able to bring bands to their town with a few clicks of the mouse.


The way things are


Unfortunately, we aren’t there yet. Some of the tools have changed, but live gigs are still booked the way they were 15 years ago: The artist and the venue engage in a time-consuming, inefficient exchange of primarily historical information while potential concert-goers (fans) sit on the sidelines.

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Want To Be A Great Musician? Act Like A Great Engineer

In his classic book Reality Check, Guy Kawasaki summarizes the advice of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak on how to be a great engineer:

1. Don’t waver
2. See things in gray-scale
3. Work alone
4. Trust your instincts

When I read this the other week, my first thought was that this is also great advice for musicians as they navigate the creative process.

Don’t Waver
I know some very talented musicians who, despite writing and recording constantly, really struggle to complete any of the projects they start. They have a wealth of talent but little work to show for it.

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Can File Sharing Be Monetized By Advertising?

Ideas about how to monetize P2P activity – as opposed to trying to sue it and its users out of existence – have been discussed for years, and several companies have attempted or are attempting to do it. Thus far, the results haven’t been all that encouraging. Within the past month, BitTorrent, Inc. announced that it is abandoning its paid P2P offering, and P2P search advertising service SkyRider pulled the plug on its business. There were certainly flaws in the way that both of these companies executed their services, but nevertheless it got me thinking: Can file-sharing be monetized effectively over the long-term? Or is it a strategy that, while appealing in theory, is destined to fall short in practice?

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The Myth of "Almost Zero" Recording Costs

There’s a myth being perpetuated these days that recording costs are approaching zero.
For example, in his popular article “Survival Strategies for Emerging Artists” David Byrne states:

Artists used to need the labels to bankroll their recordings. Most simply didn’t have the $15,000 (minimum) necessary to rent a professional studio and pay an engineer and a producer. For many artists — maybe even most — this is no longer the case. Now an album can be made on the same laptop you use to check email.

That last sentence sure sounds exciting, and I’ve read similar statements by other people. But it isn’t really true.

I think it’s fair to say that most musicians today could make a decent demo-quality recording themselves for a negligible amount of money. But to suggest that most artists can create a professional quality, commercially viable recording at almost no cost is misleading. Making a great recording that can capture people’s attention in a very competitive music environment still requires a reasonable investment of money and time.

Digital technology has certainly given artists unprecedented access to most of the hardware and software they need to record and produce music. These days you do not need label money just to access recording equipment. But let’s be clear on one point: your favorite artists are not churning out finished albums solely from the laptops they use to check email. You should not expect to either. Depending on the type of music, an investment of $5,000 to $20,000 will buy most musicians a very capable home studio. Over time, you will probably need (or want) to buy additional hardware and software for your studio, but $5k - $20k should do the trick to start. In the scheme of things, that’s a pretty modest investment and well within reach of the average person.

Of course, the tools themselves are just part of the story. How you use them is just as important, if not more so.

Creating recorded music is an art in and of itself. I’ve heard many indie acts that sound absolutely incredible live, but whose albums fail to capture the magic they produce on stage. Despite having excellent songs and phenomenal musical talent, their recorded music falls a bit flat. I’m not referring to cases where something is obviously wrong with the musical performances or the recording technique. I’m talking about albums where everything sounds well done, but ultimately it doesn’t move you or excite you or grab you as a listener. Why does this happen? I think it can usually be attributed to shortcomings in one or more of the following areas:

Engineering/tracking. Where you place microphones, the volume of your instruments, the size and shape of your room, the combination of gear you use and the order of your signal chain will affect the sound of each instrument you record. Good engineers understand each of these factors and are able to get the best results out of the equipment and recording environment at hand. Seemingly slight differences in the tone and character of each sound you capture can have a big impact on how the recording sounds overall.

Production. A producer is essentially the creative director for a recording. Producing involves determining the musical arrangement of each song; deciding what elements are needed at each moment in a song; deciding when particular elements need to be re-recorded, re-worked or eliminated; and coaxing the best performances possible out of each musician. It may also involve digitally editing the performances of certain instruments as needed. Arrangements that are too cluttered, combinations of instruments/sounds that sonically interfere with each other, arrangements that fail to emphasize the strengths of the artist, or elements of the track being slightly out of sync with each other can all cause a recording to fall short.  

Mixing. Mixing involves two main tasks: balancing the relative volume of each instrument in the song appropriately, and adjusting the frequencies and panning of individual instruments so that they each sit in their own sonic space without interfering with each other. The differences between a mediocre mix, a good mix and a great mix can appear subtle to the untrained ear. But the quality of your mix will greatly influence how listeners psychologically perceive and respond to your music.

Mastering. This is the final step in the recording process. Mastering involves adjusting the overall EQ, compression and volume of each song. The goal of mastering is to not only make each song sound as good as possible on its own, but also to make sure all the songs on an album sound consistent in terms of volume and sonic character. High-quality mastering typically requires a perfectly tuned room, specialized high-end equipment and an experienced mastering engineer. A good mastering job can be the difference between an album that sounds amazing and one that sounds dull, harsh, or unexciting.

If you really want your recordings to be on par with the pros, all of the above tasks must be done well. And doing them well typically requires years of practice and experience. So if you or your bandmates don’t have experience yourself in any one of these areas, you’ll need to find people who do. At the very least, you’ll probably need to hire a legitimate mastering engineer. (Don’t be fooled by  “auto-mastering” software or producers/mixers who claim they can master your project too – mastering is a very specialized skill that few people can do well.)

Hiring good engineers, producers, mixers or mastering engineers doesn’t necessarily require outrageous sums of money… but it’s not zero. It’s difficult to say generally what these services will cost, because they vary widely depending on many factors. However, in my experience:

  • Mastering will typically run you anywhere from $100 - $500 per track, assuming there are no major problems with your mix.
  • Hiring an experienced mixer can cost a couple hundred dollars per song all the way up to several thousand dollars per song.
  • Engineer and producer fees vary quite a bit, but they can easily add up to several thousand dollars or more for an entire album.

Has digital technology lowered the costs of recording and created new opportunities for independent artists? Absolutely. But if you are serious about your music and your career, you still have to do some spending in both cash to buy equipment and/or hire professional help, and in sweat to develop your own engineering, producing or mixing skills over time. It will be very hard to survive as a professional artist if you don’t.


A Buyer's Market: The way we purchase online music

The NDP Group published a study this week that found that only 10% of Amazon MP3 customers had also purchased music on iTunes. The study also found some significant age and gender differences between iTunes and Amazon MP3 customers.  

When I read this, it reminded me of an important point which musicians and labels should always keep in mind: There’s not an online music market; there are many online music markets. And each one is its own little world with its own set of core users.

Most consumers I know, myself included, tend to gravitate towards one or maybe two online music services and use them almost exclusively to acquire music. The Rhapsody folks I know use Rhapsody. The iTunes loyalists use iTunes. The only times they venture out to other services is when they really want something that they can’t find on their preferred site, or in certain instances when they want to buy from an artist directly.

When it comes to marketing your own music, it can be tempting to want to sell your album only on those sites that offer the highest payouts. Or to think you can convince droves of listeners to purchase your music from your own website. But the reality is that it’s very difficult to get customers to go where you want them to go.

It’s critical to make your work available wherever your fans like to purchase music. That includes smaller, niche sites as well as the big retailers. Putting your music in more places is like opening stores in new cities. It can only increase your customer base. And the likelihood that you’ll cut into downloads on one site by making your music available on other sites – even for very cheap or free – is low. If I want to buy your album and I’m an iTunes user, I probably won’t even look at Amazon, Amie Street or other sites where I could find your music for a lower price. I’m just going to buy it from iTunes. It’s convenient and it’s what I know.

Instead of worrying about cannibalizing or losing sales, focus on being present everywhere that your potential fans buy music. You have little to lose and much to gain by doing so.


Capitalizing On Fan Feedback

Imagine you’re an independent DIY artist that’s just starting out. You’ve recorded some music and started promoting it online. The initial response is overwhelmingly positive. You get emails from friends and strangers saying they can’t stop listening to your tunes. People leave you MySpace comments saying your music is the best they’ve heard in years. Someone on a message board has declared your release their favorite album of the year.

Encouraged by this feedback, you decide it’s time to target bloggers, journalists, online radio stations, and other “tastemakers” in hopes of expanding your fan base. But as an unsigned artist without much of a track record, you know it will be hard to get these folks’ attention. Bloggers and DJs are inundated with new music every day from bands proclaiming how great they are. Without any significant press, tours, or other achievements to point to, you worry that you won’t be able to differentiate yourself from the pack. Maybe they’ll eventually get around to listening to what you send them, but you’re afraid you may get forgotten or ignored if you can’t prove in writing that you are special. You know your music is great, and that ultimately it will speak for itself. But before that can happen, you first have to speak for your music in a convincing way.

So how do you do it? Is there a way to leverage the listener feedback you’ve received to get more press and promotion? Could you use glowing MySpace comments and forum posts in the same way that bands traditionally use press quotes? Would writers or DJs find your supporters’ comments credible enough? Are they going to care what a bunch of no-name listeners have to say about you?  

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. It seems to me that exceptionally positive fan feedback should carry some weight, if organized and presented correctly… right? What do you think?


Can't try it? Won't buy it.

When Trent Reznor expressed disappointment over Saul Williams’ sales data last January, bloggers and journalists offered many reasons why, when fans were given the option to download the NiggyTardust album for free or for $5, only 1 out of 5 downloaders chose to pay the $5. Some argued that there should have been an option to pay something less than $5. Others suggested that Williams wasn’t a big enough act to pull something like this off, and that Reznor may not have been the right man to endorse and market Williams’ style of music. And of course there was talk about sorry state of the recorded music business.

But I think there was a more fundamental problem with the payment option for NiggyTardust that was not emphasized enough in the analysis following Reznor’s annoucement: Fans were being asked to pay for music BEFORE hearing it. No previews, no 30-second clips, no nothing. Getting people to pay for music before hearing a single note is, as others have explained, a very tough thing to do. I have to imagine that some portion of the downloaders who chose free would have been willing to pay if they actually knew what they were getting beforehand.

(Now don’t get me wrong: There’s nothing wrong with people choosing to download an album like this for free. And given the tremendous promotional fallout from the NiggyTardust experiment, I personally don’t consider the release an economic disappointment at all. But I do believe that many fans want to support their favorite musicians when possible, and selling downloads isn’t dead yet. So for artists and labels, it’s worth thinking about how to incentivize fans to pay for digital music even when free is an option too).

I wonder what the percentages of free and paid downloads would have been if streaming audio clips of NiggyTardust had been made available on the website? My purely speculative guess is that some of the free downloaders would have chosen to pay (because they know they’ll love it), some would have chosen not to download at all (because they know they’ll hate it), and most would have still chosen free (because they’re not sure how they like it or they simply don’t want to pay). So they probably would have gotten a little more revenue this way, and still delivered the music to a lot of hard drives and iPods of potential long-term fans.

Going one step further, I wonder what would have happened if Reznor and Williams had emailed the free downloaders a couple weeks later and said something like, “Hey there, we hope you’re enjoying NiggyTardust. If you’ve decided you like the album, consider clicking the link below where, for only $5, you can download higher-quality audio files and help support Saul Williams.” Could a significant number of listeners be persuaded to pay after the fact? I guess someone’s just going to have to try it…