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Is Physical Distribution Worth It for Indies?

The slow death of record stores and the increased opportunity afforded to emerging artists are two stories that we have all become familiar with. Distributors of CD’s have no doubt fallen on hard times as well. Given the cost of distribution, and the fact that record stores are disappearing from the map, does it make sense for Indie artists and labels to consider getting a traditional distribution deal as a major goal? 

Existing retailers are getting more exclusive. Rising “music retailers” Wal-Mart and Best Buy only stock that which they know will sell millions.  And in place of an increasingly bland music retail scene, artists are making it easier to get their music from them directly (or at least by buying their CD of amazon).

If an artist is able to break through and play SNL or grace the cover of Rolling Stone, then yes, I’m sure plenty of folks will wander into a record store asking for their album. But who goes into a store anymore and walks out with an artist they’ve never heard of? Sure, it happens. But should indie labels base their retail marketing strategy around hoping that passer-bys happen to think their cover art looks interesting?

Without a very large media campaign that only the largest of indie labels can pull off, why would an artist want their CD to be sitting on the shelf collecting dust? Why would an emerging indie label spend the resources and outlay necessary to put it there?

I’m interested in hearing people’s thoughts on at what point in their growth it makes sense for an indie label to pursue physical distribution. But in this day and age, it seems to me like that point is stretching further and further away, as alternatives continue to present themselves.

Reader Comments (4)

Awesome article.

I think it's absolutely worth it, provided you've got numbers that prove it's worth it. Most indies aren't there, but there's plenty of indies that are there and showing up in Best Buy makes sense for Rhymesayers, for instance.

But sheeee-it, to reach the threshold where physical distribution is really a consideration you're look at at least upper 5 digit opening week numbers, right? That's a huge project to launch and definitely beyond the capacity of most indie labels, even those who are making a name for themselves and releasing excellent work.

October 12 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

Within the next few years, I think we can all pretty much assume that the ratio of physical CD sales to digital download sales will shift in favor of digital downloads. For now, however, physical CD sales still reign over digital downloads in the independent music industry. So yes, it is probably still worth it.

Depending on how in-demand your music is, I would think that numbers do matter.

I'd like to see a band out there that offers their physical CD exclusively at their if people wanted a physical copy they would have to attend a show to buy it. This could be a terribly stupid idea but still I'd like to see someone play around with it. Maybe I'll do it, lol.


October 12 | Registered CommenterChris Bracco

^^We've definitely discussed doing that, making the physical disc something rare + thus valuable. No online sales is also a weight off in the order fulfillment department, plus it's under-the-table income, which is a huge consideration for any act. Keep as much of your earnings off the books as possible...but that's true in any line of work.

I've actually got a betting pool going where some cats think that the swap between digital and CD will be in 2010. Shit moves fast these days! My own guess is 3-5 years, though. I think car stereos remain the "killer app" for CD sales.

October 14 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

Physical CDs are definitely worthwhile for independent regional bands that tour. Indie record stores are struggling, always have, but they're not going away, cuz they provide fans with a few experiences you just can't get online, like conversations about music and musicians with passionate store clerks who attend the same shows they do, and the occasional rare CD/LP find or happy accident. It's absolutely vital for a band on the make to develop relationships with these stores and clerks, because early adopters, the more adventurous music buyers will be found nowhere else in meatspace, other than at your shows, and most of those folks are already your fans. Even if sales are slow to non-existent, having your product available where you play shows and having those passionate music store clerks talking you up tells those fans something even if they don't buy-that you're serious about the mission and not just a dilettante or an internet phenom.

October 21 | Unregistered CommenterMojo Bone

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