Money in an envelope - image accompanying an article about building a band mailing list

Sorry if we're teaching you to suck eggs with this sentence, but selling records is getting more and more difficult. As the financial difficulties of HMV show, not to mention the closure of swathes of independent record shops up and down the land, fewer and fewer people are buying albums. And you don't need a degree in rocket science to see why: ever since records became ‘files’ rather than physical items, it’s been getting easier and easier to obtain music for free – either through file-sharing or legal, ad-funded services like Spotify. So, in a world of free music, how do you actually make any cash out of your tunes?

One important answer to this tricky question is this: the money is in the list. What list, we hear you ask? Well, the list of people who have given you an email address. Generating a decent database is one of the most important things that a band can do these days, but, perhaps understandably – as “data management” isn’t exactly the sexiest aspect of a rock career – it can get overlooked by bands. So in this article we’re going to spell out the benefits of having a good fan database, suggest ways to build one, show you how it can generate dosh and outline some pitfalls to avoid. What on earth else do you need?

Why an email database matters

Having a good email database of your fans is a really important for a number of reasons:

  • The people who are interested enough to give you an email address are probably the people who are most likely to buy your music. They are amongst your warmest "leads". So warm that they may even ignore the illegal torrent of your latest album in favour of parting with real money for a real CD.
  • Communicating with your list is extremely cost-effective. If you’re cheap, you can email everybody for free, or if you want to be a little more sophisticated about things, you can use an inexpensive but very useful email marketing tool (more on that anon).
  • Email addresses can be used not only for direct-to-fan communication but for building up fanbases on social networks. For example, Facebook and Twitter allow you to import your email contact list and identify profiles of people who are on your list. Depending on the social network in question, you can then either follow them or send bulk friend invites out. Either way, you can use your data to boost your social media following.
  • When used in conjunction with a half-decent email marketing system, your database of email addresses can tell you a hell of a lot about your fans – where in the world they are based; how many of them open your emails; what sort of content they particularly like and so on.

But how do you build an email database?

Ok, having spelt out the benefits of an email database, how do you actually create one? There are a few different ways you can go about it.

  • At the very simplest level, you can just whack an email address on your site that people can send a message to if they want to join your list. You could then store these email addresses in Outlook, or an Excel spreadsheet. However, this is a very 1990s, less-than-ideal way of going about things – not only will ‘spambots’ find your publicly listed email address and send you a load of crap, but the above method relies on you manually filing a bunch of email addresses. That said, at least it’s a quick way of getting a list on the go, and would probably suit people who are generally afraid of computers or particularly into retro data storage methods. 
  • Getting a little bit more sophisticated, you could use a free service like JotForm to build a form that captures email addresses; this lets you capture more details about your fans and will send an email to you every time somebody completes your form. However, it's all still a bit of a manual process requiring Outlook lists or Excel spreadsheets.
  • Getting more sophisticated again, you could consider using Feedburner and your website’s RSS feed to capture data and broadcast e-communications. We recently featured a guide on how to use Feedburner for email communications on The Prescription – check it out. This is a cost-free, very handy way to capture addresses and send emails; in fact, we use it ourselves to allow people to sign up to the Prescription. All the data is stored online and unsubscribes are handled automatically –  the only down side is that you can only capture email addresses (i.e., no additional data, like name / postcode etc.)
  • Finally, you can go mad and use an email broadcasting solution like Getresponse or Mad Mimi. These are nifty tools that allow you to do a whole host of useful things, like create fancypants HTML emails (emails that involve graphics and photos); send pre-written, automated emails to subscribers; see who’s opening your emails; find out where your fans live (!) and much more. Unsubscribes are handled automatically too.

Ok, so how do I actually use my list to make money?

First, you’ve got to be realistic about things: despite the list containing your ‘warmest leads’, only a very small proportion of them will actually part for cash for anything – as a rule of thumb, around 1% to 5%. So if you have 1,000 people on your mailing list, you can expect 10 to 50 sales of something. Hence, the first thing you need to have to generate any sort of meaningful income from your list is as large a database as possible.

And how do you do that?

  • Incentivise things – give anyone who signs up to your mailing list a free track, EP…or even album, as this chap does.
  • Encourage your list members to then grow your list for you. You can do this by giving existing members rewards for getting more people to join your database. For example, give away an EP to fans who forward your original free track to 10 friends.
  • Make it easy for people to sign up - don't create lengthy forms packed with daft questions, like the names of dogs, sexual preferences, that sort of thing. Keep it basic: name, email and location is generally sufficient (no, it's not a big-brother tactic: location is handy for emails about gigs).
  • Mention the mailing list / free offer at every gig you play, and always capture email addresses at the door of events – ask every paying gig-goer you have to join your mailing list as soon as they walk in the door of the Pea and Parrot (or whatever crap venue you happen to be playing that night).
  • Consider using online adverts on Facebook or elsewhere to encourage people to sign up to your list. However, be aware that this can be an expensive activity which is full of pitfalls…see our recent article on Facebook advertising for more information on this.
  • Send details of your freebie to relevant blogs and music sites, asking them to feature it. 

Using your mailing list wisely

Remember that once you have your 100,000 strong mailing list, don’t overdo things. Think long and hard before you hit the send button on every e-newsletter. Do you really need to email everybody once a week with inane news about your granny? 

Also, remember that with mailing lists, it's incredibly easy to break the law; there are quite a few data protection regulations that you really need to adhere to if you're capturing email addresses. The key things to remember from a legal viewpoint are as follows:

  • Make it clear to users what they are signing up to
  • Use a 'subscribe' button or 'Yes, sign me up to your silly updates'-style checkbox
  • Give users an easy way to unsubscribe from your spammy newsletters.
  • Store your data securely

And finally, although the money may be in the list, it isn’t all going to come from flogging CDs. They're on the way out, as we mentioned at the start of this article. You may find that even if you have a large mailing list packed with enthuastic supporters, they may still not be arsed buying a record which they can listen to on Spotify for nada. But they may very well pay to see you live, wear your t-shirt or drink from your tasteless mug. Check out our recent article on Ryanair’s business model (yes, really) for some ideas on how to make money from fans who will happily listen to your music for free but won’t buy any albums from you.

Right, we’re off to spam a load of people on our mailing list with this article. Toodle pip.

Get these articles in your inbox

If you enjoyed this article, make sure you sign up to email updates - we'll send you all our latest blog posts and music promo tips.