Survival mode: Help for musicians who can no longer sell CDs

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Professional musicians are currently faced with a big challenge in that the business model that they have earned a living by for the past several decades has completely blown up.  The monkey wrench of course is the rise of digital distribution.  Musicians that adapt will survive and the rest will not.  The same is true for authors, artists, and similar professions.

Here are some staggering stats.  In 2008, there were 115,000 CD releases in the United States.  A whopping 110 of them sold at least 250,000 copies, 1,500 sold at least 10,000 copies and less than 6,000 sold at least 1,000 copies.

Think about that for a moment.  There is no way possible that you can break even on a decent quality CD if you sell less than 1,000.  That means that over 95% of all CDs released last year lost money.  And by the way, many of the artists who produced those CDs had contracts with record labels whose sole purpose is to market those CDs.
It is no secret that there are few record labels that can market their way out of a paper bag.  But who would have suspected that even the big labels are struggling.  There were only 1,500 CDs that sold a measly 10,000 copies?  Even I have a CD that has sold 10,000 copies.  How can a recording label with all of their distribution NOT sell 10,000 copies of a CD?
I suppose this is why I have never tried to get signed to a record label (not that I could if I wanted to).  I just have a feeling that I will come out way ahead on my own.  Even in my niche market, my CDs apparently sell better than 97% of all CDs produced in the US, and while I have to pay production costs, I keep all of the profits.  Whether a record label could outsell me is somewhat doubtful and even if they did, I would have to settle for 10-15% royalties.
If you are a musician, you can probably forget about record labels anyway.  They are going out of business faster than you can blink and the ones that are surviving are signing fewer deals and promoting less music.  The good news is you don’t need a label any more than I do if you decide you are going to market yourself.
So how do you go about the process of branding yourself and generating revenue?  I have been experimenting with that problem for the past few years and the results have been somewhat astounding.
There are a lot of things that work if you spend the time.  When I say they work, I do not mean that any one thing is likely to sell 10,000 CDs.  But collectively, you can grow a business over time.  Things that work include finding partners who will sell your products, blogging, Facebook, Twitter, and all of the normal things that people talk about.  Yes, they really work.  The graph of visitors to my site and revenue from my site shows that they work.
The biggest boost I got recently though came from the viral campaign I did with my new CD Portraits of Hope.  I gave it away for free (by download) to people who would pass the offer on to their friends.  By the time the campaign ended in October, 10,000 people had downloaded the project.
Of course, giving away music for free in itself is not exactly a quick way to become profitable.  But ironically, this approach works very well.  For example, traffic to this site is now triple what it was before the promotion last summer.  Sales have also tripled.  Even the project that I gave away for free has increased in sales dramatically.  Sales of Inspirational Improvisation, my DVD course for church pianists, are up 200%.  Numerous blogs and sites across the Internet now link to me.  I got hundreds of new fans to my Facebook fan page and new subscriptions to this blog.
The revenue has been great but the branding has been invaluable.  I would do this kind of campaign if it did not generate one immediate dime in revenue because of the branding.  Branding yourself is investing in your future.  It is stocking away for a rainy day.  And the rainy days are here and not going away any time soon.
Over time, we as musicians will have to continue to adapt to what is happening.  But we are starting to see clues as to what the future may look like.  One thing about the future we know for sure is that CDs are not a part of it.  Musicians will have to find other ways to earn a living.  And the musicians that are best positioned to do that are ones with a strong brand.
This kind of strategy is not just for musicians.  It will work for anyone else that faces the same challenges but can deliver their products digitally.
By the way, if you find yourself in this category and want some help, contact me.  I am willing to lend you the software I used to run my viral campaign at no cost (there is a catch, but a very insignificant one).