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How to build a great online store for your band

A shopping cart

First came the cheap recording equipment, which turned everybody into a bedroom recording artist. Then the web arrived, turning all these bedroom recording artists into bedroom recording labels, able to flog records (in theory at least) to a massive global audience.

Now, many artists are great at making music in their bedrooms, but not so savvy when it comes to selling it from them, so in this post I’m going to outline how you can build a really good online store that makes it easy for people to purchase your wares – and ensure that people can find them.

Let’s start with building your store: there are three main approaches you can take, with various pros and cons – so let’s look at each in turn.

1 Send people to Amazon or iTunes

The first method of creating an online store, and possibly the easiest, is to simply create a page on your website called ‘store’ and place a few links on it to well-known online retailers that are stocking your CDs or selling downloads of your MP3s (Amazon, iTunes, 7 Digitial and so on). There are three main advantages to this approach: firstly, you don’t need to fulfil anything yourself (i.e., walk down to the post office and send stuff off to your customers); secondly, your music is chart eligible if you sell it this way; and thirdly, many people shop regularly with these companies and will be comfortable with buying your products from them. To maximise income from this approach, you should ideally obtain and use ‘affiliate links’ for your album from any online retailer that provides them.

2 Use Paypal

Although selling music via Amazon and iTunes is pretty easy, and has several advantages to it, you may find that selling your music direct to fan is more profitable. Instead of losing 30% or so of your sale to iTunes etc., you get to keep all the dosh. If you only have one or two products to sell, then selling them through Paypal is probably the easiest way to do this. It’s fairly straightforward to create a couple of ‘buy now’ Paypal buttons, accept payments and fulfil any items yourself.

3 Use e-commerce software / an online store builder

If you have lots of products to sell – i.e., a big back catalogue and a wide range of already-manufactured merchandise items – and you are fulfilling orders yourself, you may find it easier to go with a more comprehensive ‘online store solution’ – a paid-for web service that lets you manage lots of items of stock, keep track of orders / inventory, present items in an attractive way and add / remove products easily. There are lots of different solutions out there, but two stand out for me: Ecwid and Shopify. 

Ecwid is ideal for people who already have a website (for example, a Wordpress or Squarespace site) and want to ‘plug in’ an online store system. You set up your store on the Ecwid website, add products, upload artwork, set up pricing...and then, when you are ready to launch your store, you are given a snippet of code that you can add to the shop page of your site; once you do this, your online store and all your CDs and tacky t-shirts magically appear. You still fulfil the products yourself, but you get a professional way of displaying stock online, tracking orders, capturing data and accepting credit card payments. You can try out Ecwid for free here.

If you don’t already have a website, then Shopify is possibly a good option for you, because it’s a system that doubles up as a website building tool and a sophisticated online store which lets you sell physical and digital products. There are more sophisticated / user-friendly website builders out there, but its online store functionality is amongst the best available, and with a bit of perseverance or help from somebody who knows their online onions, you can put a very nice site together with it. Shopify’s free trial is available here.

The downside of using one of these solutions is that they come with monthly fees attached. So really, they are best suited for bands who are going to be selling enough items every month to justify these payments.

Selling direct to fans? Give your customers some options

Even if selling direct to fan is the most profitable option for you, some people prefer to buy music from the big retailers. As such, even if you are using Paypal or an online store builder to facilitate online sales, it's still worth offering people the option of buying your music using Amazon or iTunes. By all means encourage fans to buy direct from you, and explain that this is the best way they can support your band...but give people the option to buy elsewhere – or you could lose sales. An iTunes sale, even if less profitable than a direct-to-fan sale, is better than no sale at all...

What about selling merchandise, then?

There are two main approaches you can take to selling your tacky t-shirts online:

  • You can manufacture merchandise yourself, and sell it using one of the methods described above.

  • Don’t manufacture any at all but use a site like Cafepress or Zazzle to design an item of merchandise virtually – with these sites, your item only gets manufactured and shipped once a customer places an order.

Which option is for you really boils down to how popular your band is and how many items of merchandise you’re likely to sell. If you are only likely to sell one or two items a year, then I’d avoid manufacturing hundreds of t-shirts like the plague, but if you are huge and likely to sell thousands of t-shirts and leather thongs with your band’s logo on them, then manufacturing them yourself will lead to a much greater profit margin. This is because sites such as Cafepress and Zazzle charge a ‘base rate’ for items which is quite high, meaning you have to keep your mark-up very low to prevent your t-shirts becoming prohibitively expensive.

How to ensure that people can find your online store

If you are distributing your music digitally you will probably find yourself in the odd position of competing with various digital outlets for sales of your own music. For example, you may find that iTunes is beating you to the top spot in Google search results when you type your album’s title into the search box. Or that a Google advert encouraging people to buy your album on Amazon is appearing next to these results.

Obviously it makes a lot of financial sense to ensure that your online store is highly visible in search results – you ideally want your store at the top, so that you can either avail of the more profitable direct-to-fan sales or purchases made through your iTunes / Amazon affiliate links. There are two ways you can do this: through search engine optimisation (SEO) or by advertising your album via adwords. With regard to SEO, here are some tips on getting to the top of results:

  • Your band’s name and (important) album titles should be listed in your online store’s page title – for example, a title such as "David Bowie – Online Store – Albums including Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs" is infinitely preferable to a very non-descript ‘Online Store’.

  • Ensure your page has a ‘meta description’ which lists your artist name, albums, merchandise items and so on. This can be longer than the page title – for example, “David Bowie’s official online store, where you can buy all his albums and merchandise. Get the remastered editions of Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs, or buy t-shirts, coffee mugs and leather thongs”.

  • Ensure all your product descriptions are ‘keyword-rich’ – i.e., contain very accurate descriptions of those leather thongs you are selling.

  • Where possible or applicable, use ‘meaningful URLs’ – web addresses that contain keywords. For example, if you happen to have individual pages for individual items (this will be the case if you are using Shopify), ensure that you are creating URLs such as ‘www.davidbowie.com/ziggy-stardust-album’ rather than ‘www.davidbowie.com/album1’.

You can check out our article on search engine optimisation for bands for a more in-depth guide to SEO for musicians, but following the above tips will help you enormously when it comes to ensuring your online store is optimised for search.

As for online advertising, it’s probably only worth spending money on Google Adwords if you know you are going to be selling significant quantities of records and want to ensure that they are bought from a particular location – your online store, basically. More useful perhaps is advertising on Facebook – using promoted posts or side adverts to put your release or store in front of your existing fans (who constitute your warmest audience of course).

That’s it for me for now – hope these tips help in your ambition to sell music to your parents succeed.

Online store building resources

I’ve written a more than a few reviews over at my blog on Style Factory of popular e-commerce and online store building apps. See below for links:

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The end of the download is nigh

MP3 Player

If internet rumours are to be believed, June 6 2011 may possibly be the music industry’s equivalent of “The Rapture” (for those of you who haven’t been on Facebook recently, or have been living in a hole in the New Forest, The Rapture was the end of the world, and was supposed to happen on May 21. It didn’t, unless you are reading this on a cloud with Jesus or you are feeling rather hot and can’t concentrate on this article because a devilish imp is poking your bottom with a pitchfork). Of course “The Rapture” turned out to be a damp squib, but June 6 is more likely to live up to its reputation as being a day on which the music industry will change forever.

So what’s happening on June 6? Well, according to a multitude of newspaper articles and blog posts, it’s the date that Apple may unveil their ‘cloud service’ – a system that lets listeners stream music from the web. Now, as the cloud service in question hasn’t been unveiled yet, it’s not clear what form this is initially going to take. It could be that Apple are simply going to offer something similar to Amazon and Google’s new cloud systems, which allow you to upload and stream your music collection on the web, wherever you are.

But frankly, that’s a pretty boring approach, and unlikely to be what Apple’s “cloud offer” will be. If rumours are to believed, Apple have been working hard to secure licensing agreements with the “big four” record companies – Warner Music Group, Sony Music Group, EMI Group and Universal Music Group – which means all this is heading in one direction: a streaming service similar to Spotify’s, where listeners will eventually be able to stream whatever music they like (for a fee, of course).

If Apple does go down this route, it means that an en-mass switch from paid-for downloads to on-demand music streaming is now just around the corner – the rise of 3G web connections, increasing use of smartphones and Apple’s 75%-85% share of the download market would more or less guarantee that streaming becomes the de facto way that music is consumed. If Apple release a software update for iTunes containing streaming functionality, millions of iPod, iPhone and computer users in general all around the world would suddenly be able to stream music instead of paying to download files. The choice of tracks would be vast – significantly bigger than Spotify’s library, due to full music industry buy-in – and the reach of the service would be enormous too, thanks to Apple’s strong global position in both the download and mobile device markets. All this would arguably result in death of the download, and pretty quickly too.

What would be the impact of this on musicians? Well, for bands who are signed to a label and getting a significant marketing push, it would be fairly good news – it makes their music even easier to access. For musicians without a budget however, it would represent more of a headache. This is because streaming removes the attractiveness of a key tool used by musicians to entice people to sign up to email updates: the free download. For several years now, indie musicians with any clue whatsoever have been giving away downloads in exchange for the ability to communicate with fans online – with individual tracks, EPs or even albums being swapped for email addresses or Facebook ‘likes’. However, there is not much of an incentive for a potential fan to grab a free download from a band if a) they don’t really download music anymore and b) the track can be streamed anyway on iTunes.  

The free-download-for-email-address scenario that we’ve seen over the past few years has led to a situation where clued-up independent musicians have to a certain extent been able to bypass traditional gatekeepers – labels, journalists, distributors, promoters and radio stations – and still make (often quite decent) amounts of money from music via direct-to-fan sales. Perhaps it’s a negative way of looking at things, but with downloads diminished as an incentive for joining a mailing list, indie musicians will be able to communicate directly with fewer and fewer listeners online, and power will go back to being concentrated in the hands of the traditional music industry tastemakers: a label will decide what music to promote, and spend money encouraging people to stream it (rather than buy it). In effect, a technological advancement may lead us back full circle to a situation whereby only those with budgets can create demand.

But if you are an indie musician who has built a business model on free downloads, and all this does sound like the end of the world, don’t despair yet. Pretty much every technological development in the music industry has shut one door only to open another; and with all these developments, the trick is to stay ahead of the curve. The musicians who twigged that free downloads helped build databases first built the biggest databases (and sold the most music and merchandise); and it will be the musicians who twig how best to use streaming cleverly who will monetise the new landscape. The trick is to think fast. The end of the download is nigh – get ready.

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The Long Tail - and music PR

Chris Anderson's The Long Tail is a book that was published a few years ago, but it's one that we thought we'd flag it up in The Prescription, because it's still hugely relevant to musicians and those working in the music industry. Musician Chris Singleton is a fan of the book; you'll find some of his thoughts on it and the implications of 'the long tail' for musicians below.

In his fascinating tome The Long Tail, Chris Anderson highlights how in this new-fangled age of e-commerce, online retailers are actually making more money out of selling lots of individual niche products than they are from selling hits. The classic example given in the book is Amazon: in a given week they may sell thousands of copies of a particular Coldplay album, but during the same time they will sell far more albums by a variety of less-well known artists.

The Long Tail

The Long Tail

This creates the 'long tail effect', which is illustrated in the diagram on this page. On the left hand side of the graph you see the million-selling acts, seemingly way more popular than everybody else. On the right hand side you see the 'long tail' of all the other less popular niche artists that don’t sell as many copies of their albums. But because digital distribution has allowed literally anybody to sell albums online, there are now so many niche products available for sale that the tail goes on and on and on…until all the products that sell one or two copies a year actually generate more profit, when considered together, than the hits that might sell millions in a year. The little guys actually pack more of a sales punch.

This is great, obviously, for Amazon and other online retailers - all they have to do is stock as much stuff as possible. But what are the implications for all the niche artists? Well, to be honest, the long tail effect probably doesn't help niche artists that much in strict retailing terms. The best application of 'the tail' for generating music sales is probably to make as much of your music as possible available to buy – somebody’s going to want to buy that alternative nu-metal-emo-dance remix you did of some crappy B-side, so why not let them (the downside though is that putting ropey content out there may not be great for your artistic integrity or image). 

However, what may help musicians a bit more is another long tail effect: the long tail of media. If you look again at the chart above, and this time think of the left-hand side of the graph as containing the big publications – national newspapers and magazines – and the right hand side of the chart as containing the bloggers (or online content creators), it becomes clear that the bloggers actually have a bigger readership than the traditional media. A country may have 10 national broadsheets, which will be read by millions of people a day, but millions of people in that country will be creating content on blogs or social networks every day which is read by 10 or more people a day. 

Needless to say it’s fantastic for bands if they can get into conventional print publications – as this is brilliant for profile and will no doubt also influence what bloggers are writing about – but it’s bloody hard. In the absence of success in that area, the long tail of media points to an alternative strategy for musicians who need exposure. This is to convince a critical mass of bloggers and other content creators to advocate their music. This is not by any means an easy process – it requires a lot of targeted approaches, and a lot of email-writing, but if done properly, at least it offers some exposure instead of none. The digital revolution has created a situation whereby decent bands who had no hope of getting national press can now at least get their music written about and crucially, heard by a potentially large audience.

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