Experiences with Online CD Distribution as an Independent Classical Recording Artist

In 2001 my wife Victoria decided to make a CD of wedding music played by a string quartet. Her impetus for making this recording is that there is definitely a need for recordings of the actual wedding music that is played at weddings: not orchestra arrangements or obscure works that no one ever programs, but the popular, classical music selections that are always requested. Since we were both unfamiliar with marketing and selling CDs online, I took it upon myself to explore the possibilities.

Numerous online stores sell CDs. These stores range from ones that sell music recordings only, such as cdbaby.com, all the way to stores that sell non-music items, but will also sell CDs related to those items. An example of this would be a wedding website such asweddingchannel.com that not only sells wedding CDs, but just about anything else related to weddings. A few major online stores fall somewhere in the middle, such as the ever-popular Amazon.com website. Amazon.com not only sells books but also has a vast music store with hundreds of thousands of CDs.

There are vast differences between all of these online stores. Here are the main ones I explored:

As an independent artist, the most important consideration is whether these stores will sell CDs that are not distributed by a major distributor. A major distributor is one that distributes for the big labels—or even the big label itself—such as BMGColumbiaSony, etc. Many of these large labels distribute or market subsidiary labels. An example of this in the pop music world would be Madonna’s label,Maverick Recording Company, marketed by Reprise Records, an AOL Time Warner Company. What does this mean for an independent, classical recording artist? Not much, except that on a smaller scale, you will end up doing this work yourself. In order to successfully market and sell top-selling popular recordings, many companies often work together in order to do the job efficiently. Doing all of this work yourself can initially be a lot of work, but once you figure out how to do it, it can pay off much more substantially in the end.

One of the reasons to not find a distributor for your independent CD is that you will only be paid a small percentage of the money that the CD sells for. Distributing CDs yourself takes more time, but you also make a lot more money—it is your call. The trade-off is large-scale distribution versus profit, as well as time spent dealing with sending the CDs out by yourself.

This is where online distribution comes in. If you can market your CDs online, either through the major outlets mentioned above or by yourself on your own website, you will make more money—it is that simple. However, there are a few major obstacles I encountered when attempting to do this.

Some of the stores mentioned about will not carry independent CDs. Barnes & Noble.com, for example, not only flat-out refuses to carry independently-released CDs not distributed by a major distributor (or marketer), they also have a very unclear policy regarding the recordings that they carry. Their web pages that explain their process of acquiring new "titles" are obviously geared toward books, not music recordings. In this sense, it is obvious to me that a bookseller implements the content and policies of this website. As of this writing, Barnes & Noble.com seems out of touch with the recording business.

Many online recording stores I researched specialize in selling CDs by independent artists— cdbaby.com is a good example. They have a website that is easy to navigate and friendly to independent artists (although slightly amateurish-looking, in my opinion), both classical and otherwise. cdbaby.com allows you to include sound files, recent news, a bio and almost any other information that you think would be pertinent to selling your CDs. They also openly allow you to link to your website, and you can set up your website so that people click on a button for the CD they want and can immediately pay through cdbaby.com.

Some online services allow you to sell CDs by setting up a button on your website that will allow you to take credit card orders and even figure in shipping and handling costs. The PayPal service is a good example of this. This service can be used for anything from recordings to sheet music to general merchandise. You are responsible for shipping your CDs yourself and keeping track of everything, but if this is the path you choose, this is a great service. PayPal also takes less money from you than CDStreet.com, but also does not have a centralized website geared toward independent artists like CDStreet.com. You would have to rely on people finding your site.

Unlike with Barnes & Noble.com, the Borders.com service representative I spoke with on the telephone was very helpful. He knew what he was talking about and immediately gave me the information I needed in order to sell Victoria's CD through their website. It is interesting to note that CDs sold through Borders.com are actually rerouted through Amazon.com. (Amazon.com recently bought the ailing Borders.com website.) Borders accepts independent CDs through a service called Muze, Inc. This is a company that does the work for Borders.com regarding their online sales of independent CDs.

Another site, The Orchard.com, can end up being very beneficial and convenient for independent classical artists who want to sell their music digitally. However, the initial costs of joining this service are a little steep. First, they charge a set up fee of $90 just to join. There are other optional fees on top of that, such as $10 extra for listing your website URL on their website. They also set up a web page for you on their website, with sound clips, a biography, etc. Taking all of this into account, I think this service is definitely worthwhile since they distribute to most major online digital services.

The last site I will go over is the well-known Amazon.com website. This is probably the most well known online store that sells books and recordings. They offer a service called Amazon.com Advantage that is meant exclusively for independent artists. There are many advantages and disadvantages to using Amazon.com to sell your CDs. (As mentioned above, you could bypass working directly with Amazon.com by using The Orchard.com.) In my view, I currently think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages:

Amazon.com Advantages

  • Extremely large customer base
  • High profile exposure
  • Database is easy to search
  • Customer ratings may be added (only an advantage if your CD is rated well!)
  • You are ranked next to all other CDs for sale
  • They are very organized and efficient
  • They e-mail you when you have new orders
  • Artist information is included
  • CD cover image is included
  • You can include MP3 files on their site
  • They include two 30-second sound clips from two or more different tracks

Amazon.com Disadvantages

  • This program takes the most money from independent artists (55%) compared to other options, such as selling throughcdbaby.com or selling directly from your own website.
  • They charge $29.95 per year to take part in this program.
  • Their method of payment is slow.
  • Getting in touch with a live human being over the telephone (i.e. tech support) is very difficult, if not impossible, but here is a page with Amazon phone numbers.
  • They usually keep no inventory of independent artist CDs. This means that if you have an order for one CD, you either need to wait for more orders (and then send some orders late) or send just the single CD, shipping paid by you.
  • You must send a CD if you want sound files included. You cannot e-mail sound files.
  • No reviews by Amazon staff (they seem to have recently discontinued this service).
  • Amazon.com will not let independent labels directly link to their own websites. Since Amazon.com does not allow sound clips for independent labels, but independents could have them on their own sites, this does not seem fair. Backstagecommerce.com allows independent labels to link to their own websites.

Probably the biggest gripe I have with Amazon.com is that they require two CDs in order to include sound files and to scan the CD cover. It seems like Amazon.com receives an awful lot of CDs for free. Do they keep them for themselves or re-sell them? According to Amazon.com, they give them away to "charity." Ultimately, it seems like independent artists are being swindled. It is not as if independent artists manufacture millions of CDs and have the luxury of sending out lots of free ones for promotion. For independent artists, it is usually a struggle just to produce and manufacture the CD in the first place. Amazon.com also does not offer to send them back to the artist, even if the artist pays the postage or includes a postage-paid mailer. They either keep these CDs for themselves or give them away.

My second major complaint is that Amazon.com now charges $29.95 per year in order to take part in the Advantage program. If you are a composer or other artist who would like to sell CDs through Amazon.com but you might not be able to sell more than a small number per year, this fee might prevent you from making any sort of profit or even breaking even. It is my hunch that Amazon.com instituted this fee in order to weed out unprofitable independent artists. In a nutshell, if you are selling less than six CDs per year, using the Advantage service is probably not cost effective. If you are more concerned with getting your music "out there," then perhaps you can overlook this fee.

Amazon.com has other programs, such as their Marketplace and Associates programs. These programs add more work to the independent artist but also let them make more money. Typically, the artist takes care of all of the shipping, returns, invoices, etc., but still uses Amazon.com as the conduit. The major disadvantage is worrying about shipping. Personally, I would rather leave this up to Amazon.com. Even if you only ship ten CDs per month, the time you spend packing and sending each CD to a different address will add up.

Amazon.com is very well organized and easy to navigate and their entire business is internet-based. However, as of this writing, they do not accept sound files via the Internet. Of course, the reason they operate this way is so they can achieve a certain uniform standard, and also so they can keep a close eye on quality and time spent doing all of this. For example, some people might send sound files that are way too large. However, it seems to me that Amazon.com could have a very strict policy about what they will accept as e-mail attachments, and then let the artist send the files. That way Amazon.com does not have to spend time processing sound files and the artist can keep the sample CDs they would otherwise send to Amazon.com for this purpose.

Having said all of this, Backstagecommerce.com and cdbaby.com do allow you to send graphic and sound files. In this sense, they are much more efficient than Amazon.com. Of course, the major disadvantage is that they have nowhere near the same size customer base as Amazon.com.

When people want to buy your CD, they will also probably want to buy other CDs and books by other artists. This is why people often do "one stop shopping" through larger sellers rather than through smaller ones like cdbaby.com and Backstagecommerce.com. Unless you publicly state that you will receive less money if people buy through Amazon.com than if they buy directly from you, people will not know the difference and shop where it is more convenient for them. Although Amazon.com takes a lot of money from independent artists, a certain percentage of this is warranted. They advertise much more heavily than Backstagecommerce.com or other smaller online stores and they constantly update their website. They also offer special holiday deals, occasional free shipping or shipping deals, etc.

In the end, the road you take when selling your recordings online is up to you. The three major issues to consider are:

  • Time: how much time you want to spend doing the work
  • Money: how much money you spend versus how much you earn
  • Exposure: how much exposure you will receive or are willing not to receive

The ultimate decision is, of course, up to you. Remember that if you do choose to manufacture and/or market or distribute your CDs yourself, you will not only gain substantial insight into how the recording industry works, you will also enjoy knowing that you are essentially responsible for your own success. You may also find that you will begin to view buying recordings, whether online or in a physical store, with an entirely fresh perspective.

 [Updated: May, 2006]