Digital Downloads VS Physical Sales
When I first got into the noise scene around 2004, I had the hope and dream that I could do this for a living. Create a label and sell music to people, seemed simple enough. I ran Pointless Blank Rec (PBR) for a couple years with very little success. My sales were always depressing, regardless of the release. Sometimes a small name would sell like hot cakes, and the bigger names would sit on my shelf collecting dust. I couldn’t see much rhyme or reason to the sale stats. My frustration grew, and turned into anger towards much of the scene. I grew very bitter seeing tons of labels with slapped together art with mediocre noise selling out 100 copies in a couple days, when I struggled to move 10.
I thought perhaps it was a traffic issue. The noise scenes memory tends to be only as long as the front page of the forum. That once your announcement topic hit page 2, your sales stopped. So I created a site, pointlessblank.com, with the misguided idea of running an online noise zine. This did not help with sales, but did help with traffic. So traffic wasn’t the issue. I grew lazy, and the site died.
I would like to believe it was not the music or ascetic of PBR releases. I stand by all of my releases as being very good, except for some of the early Jake Vida releases which were less than stellar. I also always get lots of compliments regarding the cover art, still to this day.
I think a portion of PBR’s lack of success was shipping. If you don’t know, I live in Canada. We have very expensive postage rates here. To the point I often thought to rent a PO BOX in Buffalo to make monthly runs. For example, when I released the Kakerlak – bathtub rendezvous cdr, it cost me on average $8 to mail it to the States. You can see that really doesn’t leave much room for profit, in fact I often lost money. This also was an issue finding distributors. Really hard to convince someone to take 10 copies of something with a MSRP of $10, with a 50% discount with a cost of $30 to ship it. A $70 investment for the distro, with only a potential profit of $20.
I came to the realization that there just wasn’t enough margin with CDR releases to make any money. People will scoff at a $15 CDR, which is where I really needed it to come out on top. This is when I started making and selling shirts. These had a larger margin where the shipping wouldn’t eat up all my hard work. Setting this up took a lot of time and money. Built a couple presses which didn’t offer the registration I really needed. In the end bought a two colour press and flash dryer. The shirts sold well and gave me some hope. People still seemed bummed out about the high prices. In retrospect, I should of found a partner in the states to manage all sales and shipping (doing some more shirts soon, any takers?). This would of helped keep the prices lower.
Once I gave up on the idea selling music for a living, I started Art As Intent (A2I) and stopped PBR. If I could not sell my music, and that profit was no longer a factor, why not just give it away for free? When I did The Rita shirts, I released 3 CDRs to give away free with the orders. This was also a way to snuff out some complaints about the high shirt costs from customers.
It worked really well, people appreciated it very much. Shipping was still killing me though. Even on the shirts, my margins were really small. Would cost me around $10-$15 to ship a shirt if I recall correctly. So I decided to say screw it all and asked myself, “What can I do to avoid these postage rates?” The answer was DIGITAL.
If your ultimate goal is to have you music heard and you’re no longer concerned with making money, then digital really is the way to go. If I can compare and relate digital downloads to physical sales of things I’ve released, the difference is huge. When before I found it hard to sell 10 CDRs, I now have a 100 downloads. Not everything has that many downloads, some are really low. For example Jake Vida-Grip Of Inertia has a whopping (and depressing) 14 downloads (not counting streaming), though 5 years ago, I would of been floored to have 14 orders. While Flesh Coffin’s album, Night Work, has over 100 downloads, plus the 20 hard copies I gave away for free. In this regard, by changing my goal, my label has never been more successful.
There are large stigmas that many people have concerning download only releases. Most review outlets in our small scene wont review them, some don’t regard them real releases, etc. I don’t agree with them, however I do understand them. Some of these are hard to overcome in a scene obsessed with packaging. In fact some of my most successful PBR releases were the ones with elaborate packaging.
It really clicked for me when I misread a Marshall McLuhan quote, “The message is the medium” as “The message is the message”. This led me down a train of thought that gave birth to the main ideas and concepts behind A2I today. Content above all else. Music as music, not a multimedia art piece. The pure sound as the art, without some physical fetish or materialistic desire altering the listening experience.
Getting money out of the picture has really helped me see things better, reground me to why I love noise so much, and erase my frustration with not getting heard. Releasing and creating music seems so much more pure and right to me now than it ever did.