Your #1 sales reps
You’re heading out to a gig. On go the AC/DC socks and pants set (in case you pull, you’ll shake them all night long), Iron Maiden trainers with Eddie’s face on them, that cool Baroness t-shirt, denim jacket with Municipal Waste and Motorhead patches, and your beloved Megadeth cap – do you ever get the feeling like you’re one of those multi band fliers that get handed out at gigs?
All these bands are exceptional at branding (or perhaps their record label is) and although that Slayer air freshener may have represented a step too far for you, it’s big business – in fact, it’s fast becoming bigger business than the sale of the music itself. The music industry, traditionally centred around selling only music, are clambering to get into the merchandising game offering bands 360 record deals that include selling merch (and live shows, plus distribution, publishing etc.) in an attempt to bolster their languishing profits. Traditionally the bastion of mega b[r]ands like Kiss and Iron Maiden, it’s now becoming normal for even the most marginal of bands to view themselves as a brand – the era of bands as brands is upon us.
It’s worth clarifying what I mean by ‘branding’. The retail world decades ago cottoned on to the fact that a consistent approach to advertising their products led to more sales. It’s a simple psychological reality that, when someone who is given a choice of similar items, they will choose one that they are more familiar with or is more recognisable. It didn’t take advertisers long to work out that, with the right product image, you could build up feelings affinity, identification, even devotion to otherwise completely mundane or functional products. This then expands out to product ranges, then to merchandising related to product ranges. In this day and age, it’s got abstracted to the point where, in some cases, the brand is as important (if not more so) than the product (take Apple as an example of this).
The music industry was slow to get to grips with this, but fast to capitalise – and it’s getting better all the time. The heavy metal world is spectacular at this. Most metal bands have an identifiable logo, a sub-genre, an identifiable band image, and fans that will wear their t-shirts, hoodies, caps etc. This stuff all pulls together to form a band’s brand. It’s what makes you instantly recognisable to folks who know your music, but your brand image is a viral mechanism in itself – a badge of honour, sign of allegiance, a deriver of coolness (or uncoolness) – and when wielded correctly can be the single most important factor in the success of a band.
Bands like Black Sabbath or more recently Mastodon and icons like Kurt Cobain this exude coolness and create culture and identity effortlessly that people immediately attach to. Other bands have record companies pay millions of quid on creating this identity (eg. Linkin Park). But either way, it’s a powerful mechanism for spreading affinity with a band.
Now, on to the economics. Traditional musical marketing, broadly speaking, considers 4 elements (and seemingly in this order of importance):
- The format containing the music (record, tape, CD, MP3) – the Cornflakes box if you will
- The music itself – the Cornflakes
- The band and their image – the Kellogg’s brand
- Sales of other related stuff like merchandise – like, umm, those branded Kellogg’s bowls you used to get I guess
The purpose here is clear – sell more music, just as it is for Kellogg’s to sell more packs of Cronflakes. Given the dwindling sales of music (you know the reasons, I’ll not patronise you by repeating them) it’s starting to become necessary for this paradigm to shift. To maximise revenue generated by a band, all potential product lines must be considered, and their relative commercial merits should be judged within the context of that particular band – to give a facile example, metal fans are more likely to buy t-shirts and CD’s whereas Dance music fans are more likely to buy records and record bags. So if your core motivator with regards to generating cash is no longer the music, but a diverse and malleable collection of product lines, where is your focus? The band of course! The band, their music, their image and that of the label are vehicles to shift more stuff, be it CD’s, bandanas or bog roll. In fact, it’s conceivable for a band to exist and be very successful without ever officially releasing any music at all (more thoughts on this at a later date)
And let’s be perfectly clear here – a fan that buys a t-shirt is potentially more important to you than one that buys the music. Why? Well, they like you enough to wear your band’s name on their body, and walk around like a big advert. They hang around with their buddies who want to know who the hell that wondrous looking band on that t-shirt is. People are now talking about your band – the importance of this should not be underestimated. And because kids tend to like to fit in with the crowd, they’ll probably all go off and buy one for themselves, thus propagating the same mechanism. Did all these kids ‘steal’ your album from the interwebs? Probably, yeah, but what have you really lost? You’ve shifted some t-shirts that you probably wouldn’t have, which are generally more profitable anyway, and whether they bought the music or not, they’re still fans.
File sharing aside, squeezing profit, or even return on investment on physical and even digital music sales is nigh on impossible for most bands. The overheads are big, distribution and promotion hard and costly. Merchandise tends to be more profitable as the margins on each item are higher and the overheads lower. Also, when you concentrate on selling the music, you can really only sell a couple of items to any 1 individual (CD’s, collector’s packs, record), but clever branding and merchandising opens the door to sell a whole range of other items to peddle to all the adoring fanatics.
Now, to be clear, I’m not suggesting that unsigned bands stop releasing albums/EPs. The artistic merits of the album format aside, they provide a vital marketing mechanism, and a way to manage your marketing over time in discrete chunks (analogous to campaigns in marketing speak). Spending out on decent recording and some nice artwork is essential, but when looking to recoup that cost, you should place your emphasis on selling merchandise rather than CDs, and even consider giving the music away in digital form, either in part or in its entirety, to help shift more merchandise and spread awareness of your band. This depends on the band, but you should generally only consider a physical release if there is CLEAR demand for it, and always consider getting up on iTunes as the priority.
The best approach to branding and merchandising will be different for every band, and the key to success is agility – the ability to roll with what the fans are demanding – something which the bigger record companies are terrible at.
If you’re in a band, you’re agile and creative, so this stuff should come naturally to you, so get on with it!