Glass Houses: Indie Bands Are Doin’ It For Themselves
Posted Dec 27, 2005

The Internet doesn't have to be the enemy for duplicators and replicators. The name of the game is finding ways to make the technology work for you. While music CD sales are down (except for Christmas 2005, when replicators saw some surprisingly high numbers), the lower sales are mostly for signed bands on major labels. The Internet has given unsigned bands a forum for their work, and they can get a fan base just by selling their music at gigs and off the Internet. Who will manufacture these discs? You will!

One unsigned band whose singer has a lot of name recognition told me that a fairly large indie label, which will go unnamed, signed them, did nothing for them but distribute their already completed disc, then dropped them and ran with the money. The band didn't get a penny. Subsequently, they learned from their mistakes and handled the next project themselves. I hear similar stories all of the time. While many disc replicators are leery about dealing with this type of client, Disc Makers. Pennsauken, NJ, has made very successful business of it.

To be involved in this market, there are two important factors to remember. You have to spend money to make money. Be prepared to market your services extensively, and to build up an infrastructure that will offer "awesome" (for lack of a better word) customer service. In 2005, Disc Makers' music business is up in double digits, according to Tony Van Veen, vice president of sales and marketing. That's all from a combination of small indie labels and individual bands. The vast majority of orders, he says, are really from the artists themselves.

Marketing is key to success in this arena. Disc Makers has eight sales offices in many of the major metropolitan areas. "We do direct marketing. I mail catalogs. I advertise in dozens of magazines. I attend dozens of trade shows. I have a studio partner referral program. I have a Web site where we actively work on our search engine optimization that gets a lot of hits. I've got a complete marketing machine," he says.

Van Veen is not worried about the Internet stealing business. In fact Disc Maker gives clients coupons for free album postings on iTunes, Napster, and other major download sites. For indie artists, the more they can use the Internet as a tool, ultimately the more CDs they are going to sell. "For an indie artist, the best way to monetize their music is to sell it at their performances. You can't very easily sell downloads at performances," he says. The CD is still an extremely effective way to get noticed. It holds a lot of music and it is cheap. That's something that artists need and will continue to need," Van Veen says confidently.

Another duplicator who had the idea of working with bands and the Internet is SRT in New York. President Jeff Bitsimis described the program. Bands posted their music on the company's Web site, and when someone wanted to buy it, SRT would burn the disc. At one point, 14,000 songs were available on the site. While the program offered a lot of potential, it never really got off the ground and he has since pulled back on it. "The problem was lack of marketing. You just can't put the music up on the Web. You have to get the word out there. We had this great mechanism that was met with great enthusiasm at trade shows around the country and in Europe. But it never really got to a critical mass." While it might not have been suited for his company, I really think Bitsimis was on the right track, and he agrees the potential is still there. Perhaps charging bands to put their music on the site would have encouraged more marketing on their part, he says.

What about DVD? The vast majority of work coming from the indies is still CD, though replicators are seeing some movement to DVD, both as combo packages and concert videos meant to supplement CDs. "As an artist, the more titles they have to sell at performances, the more likely they are to make money," Van Veen comments.

One gripe that manufacturers have about indie bands is that there is very little repeat business. "There is repeat business when the bands are doing small runs of 50 or 100. They may come back and buy 50 or 100 more. They're hoping to find that one someone to listen, and hopefully finally lead them to the promised land. Rarely to we get orders in the thousands," says Mike Weiss, COO of Video Labs.

Has your interest in the indie music business been tickled? If so, one important thing to remember, according to Van Veen, is that this business requires a lot of customer service. You need a big staff of telephone sales reps to educate the clients. Since most clients have never done this before, you have to help them get their master ready, get their art work ready. Then you need a bunch of customer service reps that can hold their hand, answer questions even after the orders come in. You have to have the infrastructure to handle the business correctly."

While Mica Lee Williams has been involved in group projects with her former band, Mighty Charge, Lucid Dreaming High (www.micaleewilliams.com) is her first solo CD. Unfortunately, she knew nothing about CD manufacturing, and had to learn a lot the hard way. She wholeheartedly believes customer service is key for the indie artist. During the time she was trying to get her CD manufactured, Williams was misled about uploading music files directly to the manufacturers' system. It did not specify that they wanted MP3 files. "Who would put out their CD with MP3 files? It doesn't make sense," she says. "I called and told them they should be more specific in their Web site explanation because it cost me valuable time thinking I could upload the .AIF information. The guy on the phone gave me a bad attitude instead of great customer service, as if I was out of line. I was dishing out a lot of money and attitude wasn't helping me get my product finished on time. I then had to take a master down to the plant by hand, which by the grace of luck was where I live." The bottom line, she says, "it is monumentally important not to be unprofessional and be able to make your customers happy."

Ron Kaplan and Weber Iago's Saloon is Kaplan's fifth CD on his own label, Kaplan Records (www.ronkaplan.com). He said much the same as Williams. "I chose my manufacturer, not only based on price but also because of the additional services they offered in terms of perks, which is invaluable to newbies."

If you don't believe there is money to be made here, take a look at magazines such as Singer & Musician, which offers pages of CD reviews based on indie artist releases. Also, think about this: smaller independent labels haven't seen the same loss of business that the major labels have. "While the overall (CD music) pie is shrinking," says Van Veen, "the independent slice is getting larger and growing faster than the overall pie is shrinking." You do the math!