A very important aspect of selling your own record is
getting it into the stores and onto the websites that do the bulk of the
download sales. There’s no shortcut here; hard work is the only way to do this
unless you have an incredible buzz, a recent sales track record, or a fool
proof guarantee of record sales to the retailer. The important aspect in this
equation is leverage.
There are three things a distribution company looks at when deciding whether or
not to distribute an independent record label: The quality of the product
(music), the flow of the product into the pipeline (does the label have enough
product to release something every few months), and the economics (does the
label have enough financing to be a real record label and cause
“push” and “pull” through the retail stores). They also want to know that there is someone
on the team that knows what they are doing (experience is crucial).
“Push” is getting the retail stores and websites
excited about carrying the record so they’ll order it for their stores, and
“pull” is getting the consumers into the store or onto the website to
buy the record. Retailers are in business to sell records, be informed about
artists and their releases, create store loyalty, provide a local service (sort
of a music industry center in their local area), and make a nice profit. I find
that if you treat them as such, and with respect, they are happy. Websites are in business to attract consumers
and sell advertising because that traffic is significant.
The stores don’t owe you anything as a new label– bear in
mind they’ve seen many, many labels come and go. It’s your job to convince them
you are serious as a label: understand their strengths and difficulties
(competition in local markets, credit concerns, the internet, etc), and support
them financially through price and positioning and through co-op advertising. This is not always financially easy to do as
a small label–it’s tough to get a better position in the store than Sony or
UNI, unless there is some incentive for a local store to hook you up–liking
you is good motivation, bringing the artist through on promotional tour to sign
autographs is another good motivator.
In a perfect world, retailers want to carry product that
will fly off the shelves at breakneck speed regardless of the price they are
charging. Read that again, it’s important– retailers want to carry product
that will fly off the shelves at breakneck speed regardless of the price they
are charging! Just having a good album does not insure this. Proper set up, a
strong buzz on the streets, strong awareness of the project, radio play, a
healthy budget spent properly and efficiently, added to good music does insure
Bear in mind that when a record sells at a discounted price,
the retailer is not absorbing this loss, the label is. The label reduces the
wholesale price by a percentage often by offering more units for a fixed price
to make up the percentage difference– for example a 10% discount might be
offset by offering one record free for every ten ordered instead of lowering
the invoice by 10%. By the way, this free “11th” album is considered
promotional (“free goods”) and the label is NOT responsible for paying
artist royalties on that unit (which is a very good rationale for artists to
limit their “free goods” in their recording contracts). Sorry labels,
gotta look out for the artists!
Because most new labels don’t have a track record or the proper financing to
have flow of product yet, getting distribution even locally through a
legitimate distributor is difficult. The
goal is to have enough leverage to negotiate from a position of strength
instead of when you need something. And waiting until you no longer need
distribution is hard as hell. That means you have to go to each retail store,
convince them to carry your record (often on consignment, if they even offer
that), and then convince them to pay you for it. Once the record is selling
sufficiently, it’s no longer a struggle, but it’s still time consuming to go to
each store to pick up your money and deliver more records. The internet is a bit easier to convince
because theres no storage issues as there are with traditional retail
stores. For the clients I consult, we use
TuneCore (www.TuneCore.com). Its one
place where you can upload your CD (music and artwork) and then they send it
out to the major internet retail sites like CD Baby, iTunes, etc. Of course, its up to you to market and
promote your music once its uploaded to the various sites.
Once the record starts selling, or has an incredible regional buzz, the
distributors will become interested and you just need to ask what they can do
for you that you can’t do yourself. Is what you’ll gain worth giving up 20 or
25% of the money? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. A regional distributor (like Select
O Hits) can expand your coverage area (provided you can afford to expand your
area with promotions). But you must weigh the cost of that service.
When a distributor looks at your company, preferably through
a business plan so they can see where you’ve been and where you’re going, they
are looking to see how feasible and realistic it is for you to last over the
long haul. Do you have proper staff in key positions: retail sales, radio
promotion, video promotion, marketing, publicity, street promotions, finance
(very key position), etc. These positions can be outsourced as necessary, but
the distributor needs to know the company has the potential to last in an
industry where most have zero staying power.
Do the artists or owners of the label have experience and
connections in the industry? Have they ever sold a record before in their
lives? How have they done it? What is the likelihood they’ll be able to do it
again? Do they understand how the industry works? Will they still be in
business down the road or will they fold if things don’t go as planned? Are
they properly financed or are they in over their heads? Properly financed means
enough money to press, create and fill demand, and repeat this process for a
few records in a row without depending on immediate income to sustain the
company. These are all of the things a
legitimate distributor is considering before doing business with you.
It takes anywhere from $200,000 to $1 Million per artist to
properly promote a rap record (even regionally) and takes conceivably 90 to 120
days to get paid after the consumer buys the record, less reserves (the amount
of money the distributor keeps to offset returns from the retail stores–
usually 25% is kept and then liquidated in 6 to 9 months, depending on who
negotiates the deal and your level of power in the negotiation). Can this label
sustain that kind of commitment or will they run out of money half way through
the first project? What is their reputation in their local home base? Have they
sold records before? Do they understand how the music business operates? How hard do they work? Will they continue to
work hard or will having a distributor make them lazy? How serious are they about
putting out records? What’s their vision–where do they plan to be next year?
In 5 years? In 10? These are the
questions a distributor is asking themselves about you and your project.
If a distributor likes all the answers they ask about the record label (both to
themselves and others), they then choose to distribute the records for a period
of time (most likely 3 years) and set the percentage they are willing to split
(80-20 is great, with 20% going to the distributor and 80% to the label), the
length of time in which they are willing to liquidate reserves, and the amount
of advance they are willing to part with, if they advance monies at all–most legitimate
ones do not.
The more risk they take and the more they give you upfront,
the less you will receive on the back end split. The skill in securing a
banging distribution deal is how badly they want you and how much power you
have when approaching them.
whats a label to do? First of all, lets clear this up out the gate: not
every person putting out a record is a record label. A real record label
has a small staff, it has more than one release in the pipeline, and it is
properly funded. Without the proper financing, someone releasing a record
is just that–someone releasing a record. Without being a real record
label, there is no juice, no clout, and no leverage to insure payment.
Please understand the difference between being an independent record label and
being an entrepreneur trying to control ones own destiny (and marketing).
who comes to a distributor with zero experience selling records, one album with
no set plan to have others follow, and asks for an advance to market that
record, is deluding himself (or herself) into thinking he (or she) will get
paid. Without pipeline, it will be difficult to get paid. Pipeline
is the release of subsequent albums that a distributor would be able to recoup
any monies from, if there were returns on a prior release. Therefore it is another form of leverage to
insure payment from a distributor.
have lost so much money on poorly planned record releases over the years that
they tend to shy away from new projects now. It is harder than ever to
get a real distribution deal from a legitimate distributor, and harder than ever
to get paid. It used to piss me off when I saw the bullshit some
distributors chose to release, but then I realized that the average distributor
knows NOTHING about rap music or whats hot on the streets, other than is it
selling or not, so when someone arrives on their doorstep with the hottest CD
in the world, they tend to take a chance on it. Guess what happens when
they lose $50,000 on the hottest CD in the world, a few times in a row!
It gets harder for everyone, and the distributor stops taking such a high risk
on new records. Unfortunately, thats where we are right now. The market is overcrowded with mediocre music
that doesnt stand out, and doesnt sell well.
someone who really wants to release a record, and I am STILL a huge proponent
of going the independent route– its not hard to just do it right! This
is not rocket science. Its easier than selling most stuff on the
street–and legal. But just understand how it works, what a distributor
is supposed to do and not supposed to do, and be able to look at things from
the perspective of others: the distributor, the retail store, the promoter, and
the radio station. Easy, right?