Ten years ago, distribution was one of the main reasons artists needed record labels. Of course their marketing and recording budgets didn’t hurt either, but that’s what crowdfunding is for today. Just like crowdfunding, independent artists now have access to channels of distribution outside of the major label supply chain. The simplest and most direct of these channels consist of free streaming websites such as bandcamp, SoundCloud, and ReverbNation which allow artists to create profiles, e-mail databases, sell music, and interact with other artists and fans alike.

All of these actions are a form of direct marketing or personal selling. Direct marketing bypasses the supply chain completely, or “cuts out the middleman” by going straight to the consumer. If you’re as old as me and ever used MySpace, I’m sure you’ll remember how many bands became successful simply by creating social media profiles and interacting with their fans in real time. This type of direct marketing was free, added value to the customer’s experience, and allowed the artists to become their own managers, publicists, and distributors. Though MySpace is no longer the internet powerhouse it once was (R.I.P.), there are other methods of distribution which do similar things.

You were my first friend Tom, but I feel like I hardly knew you.
You were my first friend Tom, but I feel like I hardly knew you.

The first aspect of distribution is to set a goal. Do you want all of your fans with smartphones to be able to purchase your music on the go? Or do you have older fans who would like to buy a physical CD at a store or concert? Maybe you’re extremely hip and are offering vinyl through mail-order. Believe it or not, some major radio stations are now playing local and independent artists as frequently as national ones and maybe you’d like to get yourself a slice of that market share.

Successful distribution requires having a plan in place which allows you, the independent artist, to distribute your music at the lowest possible cost to the largest possible audience. For organization’s sake, we’ll break the channels of distribution into two categories. We’ll start with digital by covering streaming and purchasing, then move to physical where we’ll cover brick and mortar stores, radio, and selling merchandise at concerts.

Like I said before, the melting pot of social networking sites, artist profiles, and e-commerce has met at a crossroads and churned out sites like ReverbNation and SoundCloud. These sites stream music, which simply means that listeners can play the music for free on their websites. Other programs such as Spotify, Pandora, and Rdio offer similar services, but are organized differently, have smartphone applications, and may offer membership costs for more premium services. Regardless, if your goal is to put your music in the hands of your target market without any financial return, then this is an excellent route to take. As we discussed in the pricing article, the freemium model can be a great marketing tactic which drives fans to your concerts and other merchandise.

If your goal is to have a financial return on investment, then that is where iTunes, Amazon, and other digital retailers come in. As I’ve mentioned before, these do not cost a lot of money, offer instant gratification to smartphone users, and are reputable retailers which add authenticity and credibility to your brand image. Of course there are websites which offer both streaming and the ability to purchase, and I’ll have to admit that bandcamp is my personal favorite. Bandcamp allows for artist and fan accounts, has a smartphone application, and costs the independent artist next to nothing to use.

The internet is not exactly tangible, and sometimes there’s nothing better than hearing a new song on the radio, seeing a band live and picking up one of their CDs, or digging in the crates at your local indie record shop. CDs and download cards are products which can easily be sold at your concerts, as setting up a merch booth takes little effort and can offer excellent visibility, opportunity, and revenue. It has also never been easier to place your products on the shelves of brick and mortar stores such as independent record shops, coffee shops, and other small businesses in your community.

Courtesy of www.ThunderPussy.com
Courtesy of http://www.ThunderPussy.com

As far as getting your music on the radio, there are two radio stations right here in Columbus, Ohio which often play local music. In fact, in researching for this article, I was surprised to see my former bandmates from Someone Like You in rotation on 99.7 The Blitz Local Stuff with their new group We Are The Movies. Another admirable local radio station is CD102.5 who plays local indie rock on their Frontstage program every week.

Another method often unknown to many independent artists is licensing. I could write an entire article about this and probably will someday, but the bottom line is this: if you simply want your music to be heard, you can partner with a publisher (or become your own) and license your songs to movies, TV stations, and companies who play music in restaurants and shopping malls. This type of distribution pays a royalty, and allows for the general public to be exposed to your work. As you may have realized by now, distribution comes in many different shapes and sizes. It all depends on your target market and what is the best way to reach them. As technology changes, so will the supply chain, but the end goal will always be the same: to have your voice heard.

I think it was in Texas in the spring of ’06 when I bought the Arctic Monkeys CD Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not; which went on to become the fastest selling debut album in British music history. I also picked up an Anti-Flag CD, Coldplay’s live album, and I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning by Bright Eyes that day. I’ll never forget the smirk on the cashier’s face when he said I had an “interesting” taste in music. I had actually been introduced to Arctic Monkeys a year prior when a friend gave me a mix CD with one of their songs on it. Remember those? I found some of my favorite music through mixes.

Arctic Monkeys
My Arctic Monkeys CD. Amish beard for scale.

After reading this article on The Guardian, I was very impressed to learn that in the UK, the Arctic Monkeys’ latest album, AM, was “the biggest selling vinyl LP of 2014.” The article also mentioned that vinyl has become “an attractive format for object fetishists and committed fans.” Now object fetishists and committed fans are two completely different types of people, so I had to find out: who is buying vinyl records?

I don’t have a Facebook account and as you get older your friends generally start to move on with their lives, so I posed a question to an online vinyl record forum: “Why Do You Buy Vinyl Records?” I didn’t expect to get much of a response, but the one that I did get was not only qualitative, but quantitative. Perfect strangers opened up to me over the internet detailing exactly how they listen to records, their childhood, what their hobbies are, and what kinds of music they listen to.

You can probably guess who the majority of vinyl consumers are: 20-something men in major cities with enough disposable income to afford the average $20 record. If you guessed this, then you guessed correctly. What astounded me however were the vast lifestyle differences and reasons for purchasing that varied by respondent. Approximately 76% of my audience were males between the ages of 25 and 39, with all other respondents being female (obviously) and/or between the ages of 18 and 24.

Sound was first recorded in 1857, which was over 150 years ago. The tail end of vinyl record sales slowed in 1996 with just over one million units sold, so what does that say about the staying power of vinyl? The majority of my respondents were still teenagers when vinyl “died out,” yet somehow still find themselves drawn toward this mysteriously popular format.

Old Record Player
Just listening to the new National record, no big deal.

So what caused this shift back to traditionalism? Was it Napster, KaZaA, or SoulSeek? How about iTunes, Zunes, or CD players? Or maybe it was the final nail in the coffin: YouTube, Spotify, or Pandora. I can’t say for sure, but after reading some of the responses to my question, I found that the main reason for this shift was the physical and emotional connection that the listeners felt to the music on the record. If we look at the timeline mentioned above, from vinyl to CD, and Napster to Spotify, let’s think about how this affected the artist. In 1996, bands were selling vinyl and CDs for upwards of $20, but today they only get paid mere pennies for however many hundreds of times their songs are streamed on Spotify.

The second highest response to my question was to support the artist. Bands clearly aren’t making any money from streaming, and they definitely don’t have major labels backing them any more, so where is their revenue coming from? For some lucky artists, it’s coming from their vinyl record sales. 21% of my respondents purchased just to support the artist. Two of the other major responses to my question were that listeners are buying vinyl for the higher audio quality and physical packaging.

Dent May Vinyl
Aw shucks, really? Thanks, Dent!

Some of the more interesting lifestyle statistics I gathered from my audience were geographical location and annual household income. Most lived on the east coast of the United States in major cities, some were unemployed, and others made almost $200,000 per annum. Music has always been something that brings people together, and often transcends cultural and socio-economic barriers. It was really exciting to see so many people from different backgrounds come together just to talk about their love for music. Many of them talked about the feeling they get of nostalgia or warmth once they touch the needle to the record, or how much closer they feel to the artists that they love.

The artists have noticed this cultural shift too, and have started to give back to their fans. Record Store Day is usually the third Saturday of April, an international holy day for musicians, fans, and record store owners alike. Many bands release special records and CDs and even perform concerts at independent record stores all around the world. It has become a unique and important observance for die-hard music fans allowing them the chance to collect rare memoribilia, meet the artists they love, and provide a revenue boom for small businesses and independent musicians.

Though music may be seen as a commodity to many, to others it is life. The anticipation running through their veins as they tear off the shrink wrap, pull out the liner notes, and delicately place the needle on the track. Turning the lights down low, the bass and treble up, and simply enjoying being nowhere with only your favorite song as company. I’d like to say that the recent uptick in sales of vinyl records is not a trend, because trends don’t last for 150 years. Trends come and go as technologies and cultures change, but one thing that will always remain the same is the connection that we feel to the music.