A few years ago I managed a local Portland artist called Sean Flinn & the Royal We. Sean had just finished recording his first full length album, but wanted to wait until the following fall to release it. We started to work together in the winter and he needed something to build some buzz through the first half of the year. I suggested a digital EP with an exclusive track that wouldn’t be on the full length. Sean was in a number of notable projects in Portland, but he still needed to promote his own music. Releasing a digital EP would help garner revenue from a low overhead version of the upcoming album. Sean had also set up a short tour through west coast to prep that area for an album tour later in the year. We knew we could just sell the digital EP via Bandcamp, but he wanted a physical option to sell at live shows. This became a bit of an obstacle.
While CD’s and Vinyl are still considered viable merchandise formats, there are times that require something other than these options. We wanted to push the EP online, but we needed an approachable and identifiable way to sell people the digital EP at shows. Shows are where most compulsive purchases of music happen, so it was crucial. While I was in a vintage store in Portland, I came across a box of old, personal photos from a variety of estate sales. These were old images, ones with random notes on the back, that you could tell were special to the original owners. They felt so personal that I purchased some myself. I went through the whole box until I found a few that grabbed my attention. Since I had gone through the trouble of looking through all of the photos, I had decided which ones were most personal to me. Without even realizing it, I was connecting myself to them. It was at that moment that I had realized the answer to our merchandise quandary.
The act of choosing a photo out of a pile of different ones made for a very strong personal connection. Now imagine a person seeing Sean Flinn play at a show, liking what they heard and deciding to visit the merch booth. They see a box of these old photos and inquire what they are. They are told that they are the Digital EP. That there is a download link on the back of each one, but that the buyer chooses which photo they would like to buy. This is an incredibly powerful idea. You have empowered the consumer to choose exactly what version of your music they would like to take home with them. An interesting point is that they really aren’t even looking at the photo for your music. They are looking at it to find what they like in it. When they decide on a picture they like, they purchase it. Your music comes along with the picture they like. They have just purchased a singular, original and one-of-a-kind version of your music.
Now also assume that they really enjoy old photos. They take the photos home and maybe put them in a frame. Maybe they place it on their wall, or in a collage or even in an art project of their own. Either way, they interact with it outside of how they normally would a CD or vinyl. They make it part of their life and are, subconsciously, correlating their affection for the image with your music. That is the type of branding that corporations will do with product placement in media. However, you are doing it through the conscious action of the fan. This idea is not corrupt. They know they like the photo and, as well, your music.
This obviously sounds great from a marketing stand point but what about the up front cost to do something like this? Isn’t the idea of doing a digital release to maximize profit since you’re not manufacturing CD’s or vinyl? That’s exactly what its meant to do, and this type of merch should only help maximize your profit margin. Each of those photos were purchased for 25 cents each. Add another 10 cents for the sticker with the download link and you’re looking at a whopping 35 cent per unit investment. We sold them for $5 at shows. That is a PROFIT of $4.65 per unit. That is a profit with no middleman or manufacturing cost, and one that has potential for long lasting branding strength. This is a subject that will definitely require more blog posts, but for now the instance above should set a base for your merchandise philosophy. Try to build your merchandise with the fan’s psychology in mind. It isn’t as much about them buying your music, as much as it is about them buying “you”.