One of the keys to maintaining your sanity in the independent music business is to have the ability to manage your expectations about how well your records will be accepted and sold to the record-buying public. This can also be true even in the high-stakes, major label environment. A great example would be Michael Jackson's "History" CD, where Sony Music executives (prior to the release) said that sales under 20,000,000 units would be a major disappointment. After only 2,000,000 copies sold, you can be sure that some bonuses were canceled, jobs were cut and Mr. Jackson's plans to expand his petting zoo were put on hold.
How disappointed do you think you would be if you sold 2 million copies of your independent release? I know better than to ask, because after buying new homes for everyone in your family, you'd have enough left over to send several hundred thousand dollars to your favorite columnist. The difference between you and the executives at Sony is that your expectations are radically different. You expect to sell a few hundred to a few thousand copies of your independent release, whereas they were expecting sales of 20 million units at Sony.
I believe s lot of people set their expectations by simply engaging in wishful thinking. The example at Sony demonstrates that even M.B.A.-educated executives sometimes set their expectations the same way. There is no other explanation for selling a mere one-tenth of what was expected by the company. What basis does anyone use to set their expectations in the first place? When you order your first 1000 CDs to be duplicated, how quickly do you expect to sell them--in six months, in one year, or in five years?
These are difficult questions to answer. The standard response is that you always rely on your experience. That might be fine if you've released six or seven CDs in the past and intend to put out another album in the same style as the previous releases. But what if this is your first release? Or what if this album represents a major stylistic departure or a completely new musical approach? When this is the case, it can be a challenge to guess exactly how the public will accept something new and different.
Another variable you must consider when setting expectations is the effort you are planning to put into marketing, promotion and publicity and the effect you want this effort to have on sales. If you done advertising before, perhaps you've tracked the effectiveness of running ads in certain magazines or newspapers. That can give you a good idea as to what to expect from future advertising efforts. If you plan to support your record by touring or playing live, you might expect to sell many more records than if you only performed occasionally.
Likewise, how much of a name have you established for yourself? When a nationally-known columnist like Craig Anderton at EQ decides to release a record, he could expect to garner sales from people who at least have heard of him through his many articles in publications such as Guitar Player, Electronic Musician, Keyboard and EQ. Vinnie Moore was able to sell over 100,000 copies of his debut instrumental CD because he traveled all over the United States doing guitar clinics. Steve Vai is another example. In addition to getting press through the transcriptions he would do for Guitar Player magazine, Vai was able to use Frank Zappa's name to draw attention to his first release, "Flex-Able", as in, "former guitarist for Frank Zappa." If you can find a creative way to get your name out there before the public you can expect to see an effect on sales of your release.
Musicians coming out with their first releases in the late 1990's look to the Internet as a potential 'pot-of-gold'; a way to get global exposure without touring or receiving traditional exposure in one of the many music magazines. As I point out in my column, "Internet Marketing-Fact Or Fiction", exposure on the Internet is becoming more and more like exposure anywhere else--with a sizable budget you can reach many web surfers, without one, it's going to require a lot of time-consuming grass-roots work. In order to generate sales, you also run smack-dab into something called 'consumer confidence,' which is currently lacking on the Internet in general. It's necessary to be able to take credit card orders over a secure server just to satisfy the most confident of Internet customers, and you need to have the resources in place to be able to do that. Many musicians have found simply putting an album cover, a few sound clips and an address to send a check to has resulted in few actual sales. In terms of expectations, you've got to set your sales targets very low unless you can come up with ways to get a lot (and I mean a lot) of visitors to your new web site.
I'm suggesting that if you are currently 'unknown' in the music business you must realize that even to sell 500 CDs is going to be a slow, building process. This even applies to bands or musicians who have built up a strong reputation in a city or community, if your intention is to sell outside of your local area. Set your expectations at a very modest level, then work as if you intend to sell a million copies. Take every opportunity you can to present your CD to a potentially new audience and realize there are no shortcuts--it is a time-consuming process that eats most bands up. That's why you've never heard of 'most' bands. They've given up the fight long ago, many thinking (and expecting) it would be easier than they thought to sell music and build a fan base. Think in terms of years, not months, and let your experience help you to manage future expectations. Most importantly, enjoy what you're doing and be grateful for every sale, because if you are relishing every moment you spend in the music world, there's no way you will be disappointed.
Dan McAvinchey is a guitarist and composer living in Raleigh, NC.
He believes every musician or composer has the power to write, record and release their own music.
His 1997 CD release on Guitar Nine was entitled "Guitar Haus".
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