Todd Durrant’s Random Thoughts
Follow the efforts of a creative, crazed entrepreneur.

Traditional Music Promotion = Cash in the Toilet

Those who know me and have worked with me in my attempts to promote new music and run an underground record label know that I have a different view on promotion than many other labels out there.   However, I think some of those labels are starting to see things my way, even if it is only because they’ve been financially stressed enough to drop the “old ways” out of necessity.    Let me explain the way I’ve felt for several years, and why I still believe it is valid.

MAGAZINES AND BIG PRICES FOR PRINTED ADS

People who have been following the synthpop, new wave, or even industrial music scene have probably noticed over the past few years that printed magazines who cover these genres are becoming an artifact of the past.   I actually think that is a sad thing.   There was a certain “cool” factor about flipping through the pages of a new magazine and reading the interviews, articles, reviews, etc.   But like with many other forms of media, the print magazines have struggled while trying to turn a profit or break even.   There usually are not enough subscribers when it comes to an underground music scene to cover the costs, so they depend largely on advertising dollars.   This is where I have been absolutely no help to the cause for many years.   Yes, I’m raising my hand as one of the music industry folks that has done little to boost the coffers of print magazines.  I’m guilty!   As cool as they are– yes, cooler than e-zines and even cooler than this blog– they didn’t have much to offer for my advertising dollar.  I shall explain.

Picture yourself reading through a print magazine.  You can access a lot of information, and you enjoy the shared points of view in the review section, which may influence your decision to buy a CD.   If there is an article or interview about a new artist, maybe that would spark an interest to investigate further, but ultimately, you probably want to hear the band before you buy.   But something you probably don’t spend much time doing is looking at advertisements, because you KNOW that’s what they are– product pushers.   You’re not going to get any useful information from an advertisement because you know from the start that it is going to tell you that the product is a MUST HAVE item.    The only useful information you’ll get from a music magazine ad is when it tells you the release date for a new album by a band you already know.   “Hey, the new Depeche Mode is coming out next month, so I should buy it.”    You don’t say that when it is Band X that you never heard of.   You don’t care that Band X is putting out a new album next month because you have no clue who they are or what they sound like.

So you read an article about Band X and it makes you curious.   But let’s say that Band X is released on a label that does not spend any money on advertising in that particular magazine.  Most likely, you won’t see an article or an interview, because the magazine “owes” Band X nothing in the way of favors, unless the band guys are personal buddies with the writer.   Or, let’s say Band X only gets noticed in the review section because everything that is mailed to the editor gets reviewed.  Well, a review is one person’s point of view, and if they happen to like the album, maybe that review will tweak your interest.  If they don’t like it, then forget it– Band X just has to work harder to get you to listen to their music for yourself.   But ultimately, those are the only ways you’re going to check out Band X, and none of them have anything to do with a paid advertisement.

Let’s say Band X is on A Different Drum’s label, and as mentioned above, A Different Drum hasn’t purchased any advertising space for years.  Then the review is pretty much the only shot we have at exposure UNLESS we start buying ads, but I’m not going to pay because that ad (which will likely be ignored by readers, as explained) will cost hundreds of dollars.   Let’s say it’s a great deal on a half-page or full-page ad for something like $500.    So, I cough up $500, and let’s say 50 people actually LOOK at the ad, and then 5 of those people end up buying it (assuming they don’t just download it for free instead).   I just made something like $25 profit on those sales!  Oh, wait, it’s not profit, because I’m now $475 away from making back anything on that ad.    If I’m making $5 profit per CD (which is a generous estimate), then I need 100 people to buy the CD just because of that ad before I even pay for the ad, so I still would not have made a profit.   But I still have no reason to believe that 100 people would buy it, unless 10,000 people actually looked at it and cared enough to act on the hype.    Again, if Band X is new, and these readers haven’t heard of them before, then no matter how many thousands actually look at the ad, nobody is going to act unless they take the next step and listen to the music, and it’s likely they’ll forget about it before they actually get that far.  They’re already on the next page, reading the Depeche Mode interview.   Oops…now…who was that band that I wanted to check out?

Just to justify my position, I HAVE spend hundreds and even thousands of dollars on advertisements in magazines back in the 90’s, before I knew better.  I just learned fast that I was never going to make back that promotional money…ever.   I even took the step of paying an extra $500 once to have a song put on a “new music sampler” that was distributed with Alternative Press Magazine– supposedly one of the biggest influences in the alternative music market in America.   I got exactly 2 phone calls because of that track on the sampler.  They said they loved it, but didn’t order the CD album by the band.   In the end, it was another $500 down the drain.

I’ve heard the arguments for “branding”– that is the advertising philosophy that you just want to flash a brand name in front of the consumer enough that they eventually remember it.   I think that works for large, general consumption products, like toothpaste or maybe even a cool car.   But a guy like me can’t afford to buy enough magazine ads to flash a band name in front of you enough that your brain will just remember it next time you have $12 to spend on a new CD.     You’ll instead spend that $12 on that Depeche Mode album you just found out about because their songs have been branded in your heart since the 80’s.

So, I could spend thousands of dollars on print ads trying to convince people who really prefer to ignore ads anyway that they should buy something they haven’t heard…or at least stop reading long enough to go online and listen.   Nope.   Not worth it.  So in the end, the fact that print magazines are struggling in this market is partly my own fault.   I don’t have the financial ability to support them.

HEY, I HAVE AN E-ZINE…CAN YOU SEND A PROMO?

I’ll mention the online e-zines now.   Here’s the thing about them.  First of all, you can get dozens and dozens of promo requests and advertising offers each month from uncountable e-zines and music information sites.  There are just so many!  Anybody can start one!  The requests have slowed the last few years because people have gone to writing blogs instead of building their own e-zine.   But it was always hard to determine who had an e-zine that was legit, and who just wanted a convenient way to build a music collection with promo copies.   Thankfully, that is coming more under control now and there aren’t as many people trying the e-zine thing.   I was not sending out many promos to those people anyway, and I certainly wasn’t paying to put a banner on their homepage which would be ignored by every visitor anyway.   Why would I want to pay $100 per month to annoy happy web surfers…that is, if you have anybody visiting your e-zine anyway.

So, mailing out promo copies to untested e-zines was never my approach.   And yes, I have already read emails saying “due to lack of support we’ve had to shut down our e-zine”, maybe because enough other labels and bands felt the same way I did and were not in the mood to mail out 300 promos copies of the 500 CD’s they just pressed as promos to e-zines.   Recently, I was pointed to a couple of good sights, like Alexa.com who rank any homepage and give traffic estimates.   So now, when I get an email asking if I’d like to send promos to a new music site or buy an ad on their page, I just look them up.   “Hmm, you are ranked 2,598,035 on Alexa.com which is more than four times worse than my own site, so I don’t think I’ll be sending that promo.”

I’M A CLUB DJ AND I’D LOVE TO PLAY YOUR MUSIC

I only have one thing to say to these guys.  Well…maybe I have two or three things to say.   First, you’re in the underground club scene if you’re even interested in contacting me, and that means you are FREE!   You can actually PLAY the stuff I send you, if you really want.   Feel that liberation coursing through your veins?  It’s great, isn’t it?   Well, then why do I NEVER see any of the songs that I send you on your play lists?  Why are you always playing the same tired tunes over and over and over.   Why are you playing the same stuff that every other DJ in this scene is playing?   I was a DJ for several years, and I thrived on finding new music for my audience.   Sure, I had to play the required hits, but loved to mix in the new stuff and keep it fresh.    But I swear, the majority of DJ’s to whom I’ve sent promos over the years haven’t touched the things.   The music I release can’t ALL be that horrible, can it?  If it IS that horrible, then why are you asking me for promos?   Just cross me off the list as a “label that releases crap” and stop asking for promos.

Again, I know I’m right about the majority of these DJ’s, because I’ve looked at their playlists.  I’ve been in their clubs.  How many times must we hear the same VNV Nation songs from the same album over the last 10 years?   You can’t tell me you don’t have room on that playlist for a new song or two.   Oh, VNV Nation has a new song that you played last week?  Great!  I’m glad you fit THAT one in.

In defense of some club DJ’s, I have actually witnessed fresh playlists that mixed things up, and I know DJ’s that strive to play new music on a regular basis, but they are in the minority.    So, those are the 3 DJ’s left on my promo list.  I’ve just conveniently forgotten about the others who used to get promos, because they obviously forgot that they were supposed to PLAY the music I sent to them, instead of putting it in their personal collections or giving it away to their buddies.

WE’LL HAVE A RELEASE PARTY

Some club DJ’s offer to do “release parties” for new albums that you put out.  What does this mean?  It means that they don’t just want one promo, but they’d love to get 10 copies of that new album to “give away” at the party while playing your music.    OK, I have experience here too.   Usually, that means that they will give those promos to their friends, then not play your music because they have to play VNV Nation for the 13th time that night.   But that DJ sure gets popular because he always has a pile of cool new stuff for his friends.    Oh, and I thought that playing the new music at the club during the release party was supposed to encourage people to BUY the new album, not get it for free at the party.

IN-STORE PLAY COPIES

I actually do believe in in-store play copies.  If there is a real store that markets and pushes this new music, then sure, I’m happy to give them a free CD to play for their customers.  I only bring this up because I had one case that was hilariously bad when it comes to promotion.   A store called me and said that they had just set up listening stations in the store.  That meant that they would put your new release into a CD player with headphones so the customers could exclusively check out the new music while shopping.   The payment required was only 5 copies of the new CD for the store– for the cost of 5 CD’s, the new album would be in the listening station for a month.    I said yes, because that could be good exposure.  I sent a listening copy, and 5 copies of the CD to sell.

The next month I got a call back from the store.   “That worked wonderfully!  We sold all 5 of your CD’s!  Would you like to do it again this month?  The cost is still only 5 CD’s!”

My “idiot alert” alarm went off and I said “no thanks”.  I could see where this was going.  A success for them was a 100% loss for me.  They had just found a way to keep their store stocked with free inventory.   They’d sell your 5 copies, then wait until the next month to restock and sell the next 5, and keep it going indefinitely.   Of course, once I said that I didn’t want to do the listening station again, they conveniently never needed to order another copy of that CD again.  Or at least not for a few months, or years.

But usually, the in-store play copies are a good thing.  The down-side in today’s market?  There are virtually no brick and mortar stores left that even sell this stuff.   They’ve all closed down with the digital revolution.

JUST GET THEM TO HEAR THE MUSIC, ANY WAY YOU CAN!

Let me sum up what I think is the most important thing in promotion in simple terms.  People MUST hear your music, or they’re not going to consider buying it no matter how much you spend.  This can often be done without a lot of expense, thanks to the internet, though you’re clamoring for attention among tens of thousands of independent bands who want to be heard as well.   So, you have to be creative.  As a label, my best bet was to work a large number of bands into one promotional campaign.  I’ve made a lot of CD samplers which feature as many as 15 different bands, then have given those CD’s away to anybody and everybody, including those DJ’s mentioned above, because I want the samplers to go to every friend and club patron possible.   It’s like a piece of candy that they are given to taste, and hopefully enjoy.  So, for the price of one magazine ad, I can instead make 1000 CD’s to give directly to people who like this kind of music.  I can put them in CD orders that I ship out– directly to people who BUY music.  That’s just one way to get the music into the ears of potential fans, and there are many others.

Let’s try it right now, shall we?  Let’s see if this kind of promotion gets people excited.   I’m going to take a CD single, which is meant to be a way to promote a band’s future releases (not a money-making venture) and give them away.   Hey, you’re a possible music fan, right?  Want to hear the song?  Here, let’s do it for my own first CD single, SAUDADE “Bad Dreams”.    Here is my home-made video for it, which you probably have watched already if you know me well enough to be reading this blog.  Yes, laugh, because I mentioned before that I don’t care much about image:

Didn’t like it?  Well, I can’t convince you if you already know it’s not your thing.  Want to hear a bit more?  Want to spread the love?  OK, send an email to todd@adifferentdrum.com and write a note saying “I read your blog and I want your Bad Dreams CD sent to this address” then provide the shipping address.  I’ll send you one, just for taking the test.    Think you know somebody else who might like it?  Send me an email and give me THEIR address and I’ll send it.   Of course, if you live half way around the world, it might be nice to give me a token postage payment for my offer, right?   And I don’t want to suddenly see EBay flooded with the freebees you requested, OK?  Besides, I’m already flooding EBay with them for next to nothing.

There, wasn’t that fun?  People get some free stuff which was meant to promote Saudade.  You’re happy, I’m happy.  But I’ll be even happier if you like it enough that next time you’ll actually buy it for the $4 average price tag.  Then the promotion will have been worth it.  But the mission will have been accomplished to some degree because you will have heard the music.   That leaves a longer impression than glancing over a $500 print ad, for sure.

-Todd

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11 Responses to “Traditional Music Promotion = Cash in the Toilet”

  1. I bought “bad dreams” (you knew that already) and it was well worth the purchase.

    Nicholas

  2. Ok, I’ve already purchased the “Bad Dreams” cd single too, through the synthpop addict club… HOWEVER, for anyone reading that doesn’t have this cd single, you should definetly respond to the promo offer! ‘Bad Dreams’ is a great introduction to the wealth of creative talent behind Saudade! The single version (as in the video seen here) is Great, and the Rename Remix of ‘Bad Dreams’ on the cd single is AWESOME and I’ve been spinning it in my car cd player for a few weeks now!!! It is electronically charged with instant beats that will get you moving and singing from the moment it starts playing!
    If Saudade can bring us a collection of great electronically driven songs, then I’ll definelty be a supporter!! I love the Bad Dreams cd single, but I’m so daggum mad right now because I’m listening to the songs on Saudade’s MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/saudadesongs and I’m TOTALLY addicted to the song “Her Way” ! And I’m mad because I want it on CD, like NOW!
    As well as, “Missing”, and “Like You” (w/Endless Shame Mix).
    But the song ‘Her Way’, by Saudade <– OMG, That is such an Incredible song! You’ve got to check it out!

    One other thing, I happen to love these ‘No-Budget’ videos… I especially love the video for ‘Missing’ and the same is true for: ‘I’m Happy’ (Rename Antidepressent version)…
    What is awesome is that I’d rather see a video like these, which seems to represent a story, and keeps your curiosity rising with a meaning in the end of it, than to watch any of those ultra expensive visually meaning less videos they play on, well you know that channel on tv. The video can be as ordinary as the day, but if it’s creative (like ‘Missing’) and keeps me on the edge til the end then I’m hooked. There’s so many things (ordinary things) that can be done with CREATIVE intention!
    So far I’m excited about what I’ve heard from Saudade and hope we get to hear more!
    Thanks,
    Steve (memphis)

  3. On the Club DJ aspect, there’s another thing to consider: why send promos to someone that (often?) is being paid to spin music?

    On the webzines aspect… In over 5 years since starting Connexion Bizarre, I saw a few ‘zines come and go. Many of those started ambitiously and with great fanfarre, stating to be the next big information source, selling adspace, hounding labels for free stuff, etc and closed in a few months citing motives as varied as “lack of support” and “disillusionment with the scene” (whatever the scene was). Translation for those terms: no free stuff and no instant protagonism. As for me and C.B., I started by reviewing my own purchases (still do that on occasion) and things just snowballed with artists and labels asking to send stuff on a regular basis, so I must be doing something right…

    I think I asked the guys at Ant-Zen and you about promos a couple of times but that was it. The lack of an avalanche of ADD promos didn’t stop me from featuring ADD releases on the C.B. radio show and on the loungey synthpop nights I hosted for 2+ years. It’s called “supporting the music I like” (which happens to be a *lot* of stuff, really). 🙂

    • Yep, you are one of those guys that runs a webzine out of a love for the music. You indeed purchase CD’s regularly– of that I can testify. Your behavior as a webzine reviewer is more respected because you’re not just getting a bunch of freebees upon which you will throw your judgment. You are supporting the music first and foremost, and then sharing your opinion professionally.

      From a promotional standpoint, guys like me still have to ask ourselves, “is this helping to sell more albums?” That’s the ultimate question when it comes to promotion. Even for a respected webzine– will that promo copy help sell even a few CD’s?

      So, there is the balancing act between “doing our duty as a label to promote the releases” and measuring whether or not those particular promotional efforts are helping, or hurting, based on cost vs. returns.

      -Todd

      • To be honest, I’m well aware of the efficacy (or rather, lack of…) of webzines. From my personal experience, I get a feeling that the internet as a medium multiplies the ‘inertia factor’ and by this I mean that it further reduces the number of people which will react to information they acquire on a given subject. Reading a review in a print magazine is one thing – one can always browse the magazine again as it sits on the desk and go on to check out the album – but with an electronic publication, most articles will be read only once by each person – effectively reducing the article’s impact factor.

        Though I know of people buying albums thanks to reviews we ran, such cases are few and far between. Despite an average 2100 unique visitors per month (Google Analytics, though I doubt they discount for dynamic IP addresses…) I get little to no feedback on the work we do.

        I used to say, semi-jokingly, that one of the things I did with C.B. was give labels and artists material for press-quotes that could help them get listed on distros, etc. I mean it more seriously nowadays. :-/

  4. Great summary Todd! I’m with you 100% on everything. Knowing what NOT to do is at least half the battle.

    Brian.

  5. TD,
    I am commenting before finishing the whole post. I got to the club DJ part and I am here now. I have ordered from you over the years, and you were generous enough to send free promo cds along with my orders. I always mention ADD in my playlists. Always. So, there are some of us that appreciate your major role in the scene and will be forever be grateful for your efforts. I love ADD and have even flown out to SLC to attend your convention. Thank-you for keeping this music alive and exposing me and my listeners to so many wonderful bands!

  6. Hi Todd,

    I just wanted to make a comment with regards to the club DJ section. I understand your frustration but I think you overstate when you say we as DJs are free to play whatever we want. First and foremost we have to please the club owner. That means packing the place with as many people as possible and keeping them there as long as possible. I love synth-pop and try to play as much as I can but it is a niche within a niche and not everyone shares our passion for this particular segment of the genre. Which leads me to my other “bosses”, the patrons. Requests are a way of life for any DJ, at least if you want to have any longevity in this business. I can play the stuff I love till I’m blue but that wont stop the same tired requests week after week. I can either choose to ignore them or I can try to incorporate them. I usually try my hardest with the latter because these are the people who I have to please at that moment and they are the people I need to come back the next week.

    It frustrates the hell out of me sometimes too but all I can do is try my best to mix in the new stuff with the established stuff and hope that some connection is made in the mind of the listeners. Believe me it is no fun to play a great set of synth-pop with just 2-3 people dancing, only to get your 500th request for “Beloved” which you reluctantly play and suddenly the dance floor is packed. But, after almost 10 years doing this, I’ve come to realize that the relationship between DJ and dancer is collaborative. I might be the guy at the rudder but if everyone else in the boat is leaning port and I’m steering starboard the whole ship will sink, regardless of how smooth the sailing is.

    I’ve always expected that the relationship between a label and DJ should also be symbiotic. The label deals with the artist and gets the music out there and the DJ shares it with the audience and hopefully helps to generate sales. One of the key factors in this has to be name recognition of the artist. That is exactly why I developed my own system where the currently playing song and artist is displayed on all the video screens at the club. The patrons at my club know they can look up at the screen at anytime to figure out what’s playing. It’s an instant connection, which is completely unlike my posted playlists.

    Anyway, I’m rambling a bit but my point is that you shouldn’t let your frustration guide your relationship with DJs. There are some bad apples of course but ultimately I think we all share the same goal of sharing the music we love. I certainly don’t do it for the money! Which reminds me, to the person who says you shouldn’t give free stuff to people who get paid to DJ: most DJs in this genre don’t get paid much and once you add in the cost of equipment and music you’re generally lucky if you break even as a underground club DJ. So you can’t blame us for just asking for stuff, every CD I buy takes money away from my family so I try to be sure it is something I can use and enjoy.

    Keep up the great work Todd and I hope someday we can meet in person and maybe work together to find ways to keep the music we love going!

    Steve
    DJ Darkwave

    • Just a couple of points in reply to your reply to my comment, based on what I know from what passes for a ‘scene’ here (refering to the ‘dark/goff/whatever’ scene which I avoid like the plague after a few years of frequenting it while keeping a safe distance – i.e., avoiding drama b.s. and so on)…

      First, like you said, there are a lot of bad apples out there. I’d go as far as sugest that a great percentage of so-called DJs in the ‘scene’ belong in that cathegory. Most will not take any chances beyond playing sure-fire hits and the amount of downright pirated material that they use to spin is staggering. And then they have the nerve to ask for promos (which they may never play at all) to play at parties which have a total of 50 people in them *if* they’re lucky. And they’re paid for doing this – badly but they’re paid. Should you ask me if they deserve it, my answer is “no”.

      Of course, there are DJs who are honest enough to post public playlists which not only provide guidelines for their audience but also provide information for labels and artists. Several labels, in fact, demand playlist samples before adding DJs to promo pools.

      Second, as far as playing what people (punters and owners) want, you have a point there. But that’s a purely commercial logic that leads into ‘more of the same’ events. How many people come up with the idea of starting something low-key, usually in the middle of the week and just for an extended circle of friends at the beginning, just to showcase new tunes and, shall we say it, ‘exchange ideas’?

      “Utopical” I may hear you say. But doable and I know people that did such things with more or less success and at least one case (in Paris) which lasted for a few years (albeit in a ‘experimental music scene’).

      How how about flipping the finger to ‘the scene’, figure out what ‘scene music’ has a more mainstream appeal and make a proposal to a more mainstream or artsier place? Also doable. Heck, I know I did it for a couple of years with a monthly synthpop night (on a saturday…) until I got fed up last November. Average number of scene people in each synthpop session: zero; average state of the venue: good attendance to packed.

      Was I paid for it? A simbolic pittance (+ drinks) which helped me buy one CD per month. Then again I may be an oddity in this: I buy the CDs anyway, I do the spinning for kicks and I don’t care about my standing or popularity in any ‘sceen’. I do my thing and that’s it, if people like it, all the better. 🙂

      Btw, I’m doing the synthpop nights again next June 6th (http://www.connexionbizarre.net/images/flyer_pt_20090606.jpg). 😉

    • P.S. – good call on having the ‘currently played song’ always on display.

    • As you’ll see in a subsequent article that I apologized to DJ’s for being too harsh on them. I did exaggerate a bit to make my point in this initial post. DJ’s do indeed have to keep people happy or they don’t keep their job. I was actually a club DJ for about 8 years until I quit. I also had to play a lot of the same stuff over and over and over again, simply because that’s what the patrons came to hear. I did work in new material that was completely unknown– at first, it would clear the floor, but after a few weeks, they were sticking around to dance because by then the song was recognized. People like dancing to what they know, but they’ll never know it until they hear it enough (even while they’re getting a drink for the first few times).

      My main point here was that I’ve sent promos on top of promos to DJ’s to see that they never used them. When I’d ask if they play stuff from A Different Drum’s label, they would say “yes, we play De/Vision and Iris all the time.” They would play “Annie…” and some other 5-year old De/Vision stuff. Those were not even bands I was releasing anymore. What about all those other CD’s I was sending? They were never touched, as far as I could tell. I just didn’t see the effort to work in the new material.

      If it isn’t getting played, for whatever reason (even if it is because of the patrons’ general lack of tolerance) then it isn’t worth me sending the stuff. Therefore, it becomes a waste of promotional money.

      -Todd


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