Okay, okay. As musical artists (or any other artist, for that matter), we often like to try to tell ourselves, “It’s not about the money, it’s about the art.” In a perfect world (or in Star Trek), that would certainly be true. Most musicians I talk to (including myself—yes, I talk to myself sometimes, don’t you?) tell me they wish they had the freedom just to create without worrying about the money.
But let’s face it: no matter how pure we want our motives to be, we still want to make music that sells. This is the real world, and we still have to pay the bills. We all know that the best way to have the freedom to create is for the music itself to bring in income, and I don’t know many musicians who legitimately don’t want that. I’m not talking about “selling out” or pandering; I just mean we all want our music to have enough perceived value that people would actually pay us money for it. And there’s nothing wrong with that, nor does it make us any less legitimate as artists to want that to happen.
Believe it or not, there are DIY musicians who are actually making a decent living from their music, without the help of major labels or distribution. I’m not saying it’s easy, nor am I saying there’s a clear-cut formula for this. I’m just saying it can be done. A natural part of that process is music sales—that is, getting people to pay for your recorded music. There’s essentially two ingredients to this: 1) Get your music into the marketplace; and 2) Generate enough interest and perceived value for people to want to buy it. The details can differ from artist to artist, but in reality, it really boils down to these two principles. You have to have a product available, and you have to connect to the people who want to buy it.
If I could create a simple formula for DIY musicians to sell their music, I could make a living teaching people how to do it. For now, all I can do is offer a few practical tips to increase your music sales. Here are 5 of them:
1. Create a great product.
Someone with great marketing skills can sell ice machines to Eskimos, at least for awhile—but at some point people will evaluate the quality of your product to decide whether they will keep buying. The point is—make sure you’ve got something worth selling. Work on your songwriting skills; create the best recordings and mixes you possibly can. The subtle differences between good and great are actually miles apart, and the better your songs are and the better your music sounds, the more perceived value your music will have. (Not to mention it’s a matter of integrity—you should always be giving your best work, no matter what.)
2. Get your music in as many places as possible.
It’s simple math—the more places your music is available for sale, the more people are likely to see/hear it. It can be difficult for DIY musicians to move hard-copy CDs and vinyl records on their own (although it’s always a good idea to get it into the independent record stores when possible); but digital downloads are unlimited, and it’s really easy to upload them to the Internet. Outlets like CD Baby, Bandcamp, iTunes and Amazon are great for this, but there are others, as well. And don’t be afraid of streaming services like Pandora or Spotify; they don’t pay as well per listen, but they do pay—and it can be great exposure, which can lead to more sales.
3. Become a social media expert.
Time for truth: YouTube has made more music stars in the past several years than Simon Cowell and his ilk. The great thing about the digital age is that you don’t have to wait to be discovered anymore. Smart leverage of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other current social media outlets can greatly expand your reach and help your audience find you on a global scale. There’s a learning curve involved, and a bit of patience, but you can do it.
4. Give away your best work.
This might seem counterproductive at first (aren’t you trying to MAKE money, here?), but you have to see your music not just as a product, but as a calling card. It’s the thing that gets you noticed, and the more people hear how awesome you are, the more people will want to hear more of what you’ve got (and eventually pay for it). So don’t be afraid of making some of your best music available for free, at least once in awhile. More exposure leads to more sales.
5. Don’t get upset over pirating.
The same Internet that makes it easy for you to put your work out there is the same Internet that makes it easy for people to steal your stuff without paying. It’s neither fair nor just to you as an artist, but if you overreact to it, it will actually hurt your perceived value rather than help it. It’s a psychology thing. Displaying public outrage over people stealing your music won’t stop bad people from stealing, but it might discourage the honest ones from buying, because no one likes a sour puss. The best way to deal with it (for now) is to relax, and just consider that if your music gets shared illegally, it’s just that much more free exposure for you. Stay calm and confident, and you’ll continue to build perceived value among those who are honest. At some point, it will begin to pay off.