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Who Buys CDs?

I came across this outstanding post by Hank Cramer, a folk musician, and member of the FolkBiz Discussion List. In it, he breaks down what he has learned about CD sales at various venues. It’s great information.

Mari Anderson raised the issue of the discrepancy in CD sales levels at varying venues. I play in a wide variety of settings, and have noticed big fluctuations in CD sales according to the venue and audience. Over time I’ve noticed that those fluctuations follow a pattern, and I’ve developed a “business plan” around that.The venues I play (or have played) include coffeehouses; pubs/bars; concerts; festivals; and special venues (museums, ElderHostels, private groups). Here’s my experience in a nutshell:

  • Coffeehouses: great place to polish your craft/act, but you’ll never make money here. The venues don’t pay because they don’t make any money. The audiences are often appreciative, but they don’t buy CDs because they don’t have any money, either. Hey, they’re here because there’s no cover charge, and they can sip a 75-cent cup of coffee all night, read yesterday’s paper without sticking a quarter in the machine, and hear you for free. My CD sales are almost zip here. I occasionally still play these for fun, but I’ve got a family to feed and bills to pay, so this isn’t where I try to make a living.

  • Bars/pubs: not noted for listening audiences, but if you do some rowdy sing-alongs (which I do) you can win them over. The pub makes money hand-over-fist (especially when you’re singing), through cover charge and the profit level on $4 pints of micro-brew. Demand a healthy share of that money “up-front”, because the pub can afford it and you’re not going to sell many CDs here. The audience may like your music, but they’re here to drink and be social, not add to their disc collection. On a good night I sell 2-3 CDs. Since I know this and factored it into my fee schedule, I have charged the bar enough to make the gig worthwhile even if I sell no CDs at all.

  • Concerts: If your music is reaching people, this should be your “bread and butter”. You should be earning money from the door, and making good CD sales as well. CD sales tend to vary according to the age of the audience and affluence of the community. The affluence issue makes sense — people with money buy, people without don’t — but the age issue is a little harder to explain. I think that younger audiences have less disposable cash, and they’re used to sharing or downloading music for free; audiences my age and older have more disposable cash, and they grew up in the era when if you liked somebody’s music, you went to the store and bought the LP. If you’re playing concerts to fans who follow you, you’d better keep recording, because you’ll reach the point where everybody has your old stuff, and your sales will drop to zip if you don’t have something new to offer.

  • Festivals: Some of the festivals I play pay a little money, some don’t. CD sales CAN be great. I’ve found that total exposure time has a big impact on sales. There’s one festival I play that pays me nothing, but gives me 4-5 opportunities in front of the audience (sets, workshops, panel concert, etc), and I consistently sell $1500+ in CDs. Other festivals offer me $300-400 to come and play, but give me a single 25-minute set…I can’t afford to do it, because the plane ticket will eat up the fee and a single set won’t generate enough CD sales to make the trip worthwhile.

  • Special events: I do a lot of traditional music centered on historic themes, and have found audiences in “special” venues, like museums, ElderHostels, and private groups (most of whom met me through one of the first two). These events now make up a significant part of my business, for three reasons. First, I enjoy putting together a special, focused concert for them; second, because the venue can afford to pay a decent wage up-front (based on their admission, tuition, or membership fees); and third, because the people buy CDs because they have an interest in the topic and sufficient income to travel and attend the event. If they like something, they buy it. I almost fell over the first time someone said “I want one of each of your CDs” — I have six in print– but that’s not unusual in these kinds of settings.

So I guess my concluding statement would be that if you want to make a business out of selling CDs to your audience, then:

  1. Play at venues where they listen (and make sure you get enough opportunity to be heard).
  2. Play for audiences with enough resources to buy your CD if they like it.
  3. If your music is catching on, keep cranking out CDs — reinvest in yourself!– so that as your fan base grows, you have sufficient product to meet the growing demand.

Keep the music coming–

Hank Cramer is an acoustic musician from Washington State. He is a member of theMountain Sound folk singer’s cooperative in Washington.

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