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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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How to distribute your music

The way music used to be distributed...on old tapes.

The digital revolution presents many challenges for musicians – but fortunately, distribution is not really one of them: it's now easier than ever to make your music available to a big audience (whether they buy it or not is another matter, of course). In this blog post I’m going to look at some ways that you can distribute your music quickly and effectively – and give you some tips on how to maximise revenue from each method of distribution. 

1. Use your own website

The simplest way to distribute your own music is by setting up a store page on your website and selling your music – in whatever format you like – direct to site visitors. The big advantage of this is that you keep nearly all of the cash generated through sales; the downside is the time involved in fulfilment of physical products (that, in layman’s terms, means the shoving of CDs into jiffy bags and walking them to the post office). If you think you are going to sell thousands of CDs, and don't like going to the post office, then you need to bear this time commitment in mind.

Selling digital downloads from your site is obviously more straightforward and doesn't involve the dreaded jiffy bag – but don’t forget the bandwidth issue: if you find yourself in a lucky position where thousands of people are rocking up to buy a download direct from your site, remember that they may also knock it over unless you’ve set everything up correctly from a hosting / bandwidth perspective.

As for processing payments, an obvious way to get started on this is via Paypal, but a tool like Shopify might be a better bet, as it allows you to upload and sell digital goods easily, track and fulfil orders, run sales reports and so on - Paypal can be a fiddly business as far as this goes, and not everybody loves buying with it. You can also use Shopify to sell other merchandise and, in fact, build a whole music website on it.

A good thing to do when selling direct from your site is to ‘add value’ to the stuff you are flogging. By this I mean making the products on offer more appealing on your website than on other digital stores – for example, you can let potential customers know that you will sign every CD bought direct from your site; that you will include an exclusive PDF of lyrics with every download of the album and so on.

However, if you think you are going to sell records in quantities that might result in a chart position, then it is better to focus on a distribution solution that lets the good folk who run the charts know whenever somebody buys a copy of your album. Which takes me onto…

2. Use a digital distribution company

There are a host of companies out there that offer global digital distribution on all the major digital stores and streaming services. You just pay a fee, upload your music to their system and they make it available on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify etc.

As every online store you sell your music on will be taking a percentage of each sale, you won’t make as much money as you might from selling direct, but there are some big advantages in using an online distribution company, namely: 

  • you will be selling music on sites and stores that have large, existing customer bases
  • people may be more comfortable with buying music from their preferred digital store than from your site
  • this method of music distribution makes you eligible for the charts (and we all love being in the charts).

The question is whether you plump for a company that takes a cut of every sale (such as Zimbalam), or use one like Tunecore where you pay a flat fee every year and keep all the dosh generated via sales (after iTunes / Amazon / 7Digital have taken their percentage, of course). You’ll need to base this decision on the number of downloads you reckon you’ll sell.

There is work involved in all this – you’ll need to be prepared to spend a couple of hours gathering and uploading your music, album art, meta data etc. to your digital distributor’s website (and in quite specific formats). It’s time consuming and occasionally technically challenging but once it’s all set up, you will have global distribution and, theoretically at least, a chance of getting into the charts.

Remember that some online music stores provide ‘affiliate links’ that let you get a little bit more cash from each sale of your download. If you are pointing people in the direction of these stores, you should use these affiliate links to do so – this will help you get a few more pence any time somebody buys your music (follow these links for more info on iTunes and Amazon affiliate programmes: iTunes | Amazon).

3. Get a distribution deal

Another approach to getting your music out there is to try to secure a traditional distribution deal, where a distributor takes charge of getting your music into the shops and onto online stores.

The nature of each deal will vary, but generally speaking, this is possibly the most expensive way of distributing your music, so it’s best to do a distribution deal only if: 

  • you know you have a fairly large number of fans, who are very likely to purchase your CDs from record shops or
  • the distributor is offering to provide you with some support promoting the album (for example, by hiring a music PR firm, printing up posters etc.) or
  • you are completely and utterly too busy / technically illiterate to upload your own music to digital stores.

Make sure you are aware of all the potential charges from a distributor before doing a deal - delivery costs, CD storage costs, 'sale or return' costs and so on.

4. Forget selling your music

Of course the other way to distribute your music is to forget selling it, and just give it away for free. People are generally more likely to part with an email address / Facebook like in exchange for a download than they are to spend hard cash on a CD, and you may feel it's better to have tight people listening to your music than none at all. Oddly enough this can still generate revenue for you though, because, done right, free downloads can generate a (larger) fanbase that attends gigs, buys merchandise and so on.

And finally…

Possibly the best way to distribute your music is by using a mixture of the above four approaches – for example, give away a free EP in exchange for an email address; sell limited edition, signed CD albums direct from your site; use Tunecore or similar services to get your music into online stores; and see if you can convince a distributor to put your music into the nation's few remaining record shops.

That way, you can guarantee that you’ll end up with your mum’s email address, and that she’ll buy your record in three different formats.

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