If, in the midst of this recession, you find yourself unemployed, broke and longing to hear Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King, the eighth studio album from Dave Matthews Band, your most cost-efficient option is, well, to steal it. Search on Google. Download the torrent. Burn it from a more financially solvent friend.
Let's say you've got a few dollars, though, and you're not averse to the archaic notion of paying for music. Your cheapest options would be the biggest vendors: Digital files of the album are available for $9.99 via iTunes and Amazon, while the compact disc itself— tucked away in a generously decorated, recycled cardboard package—can be purchased at Best Buy for the same price.
Spend nothing or spend $10: Either way, it's far less than the $16.99 sticker price that many of the 900 or so remaining independent record stores in America—Schoolkids on Hillsborough Street, for instance—offers. But Ric Culross, a Schoolkids manager for nearly two decades, sounds satisfied with his store's sales of Big Whiskey in its first week. They've sold 28 copies, he says, and on Tuesday the phone was ringing constantly with people ensuring that both the album and a seven-inch record sporting its first single, "Funny the Way It Is," were in stock.
Every time someone purchased the album, the store offered the single—tucked into a thick paper sleeve, the track titles printed on both sides—as a complimentary bonus. RCA, the band's label, manufactured only a few thousand of these singles, and Schoolkids was the only store in the state to receive any of the little records. Schoolkids benefited from having something extra for fans. The band and its label benefited by convincing a fan to spend money on an album and not simply pirate its contents online.
"Record labels cut down on the cash that they will pay for advertisements, and they cut down the promos and the posters they send to their stores," says Culross. "The theory is that they can put what cash is left into causing a person to buy the piece by giving them a poster or a piece of vinyl."
This concept is called added-value, and its simplest terms—giving away something that's relatively inexpensive to boost sales of a big-ticket item—are nothing new. Everyone's seen the swindlers on late-night infomercials, luring customers in with some free miniature version or a set of complimentary cutting knives. But the record industry is down due, in large part, to increased illegal music file-sharing online. Physical sales of music—that is, CDs or records sold in stores—have fallen more quickly than online sales have climbed. In 2001, for instance, Dave Matthews Band's new record, Everyday, sold 732,700 copies in its first week. According to Billboard, Big Whiskey should move 390,000 copies in its first week, or barely half of those 2001 numbers.
So the industry's tactics have taken on new feelings of ingenuity and urgency, reflecting both imagination and a faint sense of desperation. The strategies for recruiting the music listener back into the ranks of the music customer are highly variable and are being applied across most of the industry in some form or another, from the mightiest majors to the smallest bedroom independents.
As with Dave Matthews, there's the old-fashioned giveaway. Culross recalls passing out free Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, John Mayer and 311 singles during the past decade, not to mention the lithographs and autographs the label and the store have given customers. Large New York independent label Matador Records, on the other hand, developed a program called Buy Early Get Now in 2006 for some of its biggest bands—Yo La Tengo, Pavement and, most recently, Sonic Youth. For about $30, each customer gets to hear the album and a few bonus cuts before the record arrives in stores. When it's released, a box of goodies—the album itself, perhaps a bonus disc, posters and stickers—arrives by mail.
Other labels have simply favored limited-edition physical releases, in which only a few hundred copies of an album are produced, making those that purchase it feel like a bigger part of the conversation. John Darnielle, the Durham songwriter known as The Mountain Goats, sells through such finite batches of vinyl as quickly as he can manufacture and distribute them.
Coupons bearing a unique code often accompany those limited-edition physical releases. Customers use these codes to download MP3s of the music for free. Even in the Triangle, record labels like Trekky and Churchkey are turning that strategy into sales.
"I see the increase most in giving MP3s away with the vinyl," says Chaz Martenstein, who owns Bull City Records on Durham's Perry Street. "A lot of people justify that by seeing that they're just spending $5 for the vinyl, instead of just getting the music on iTunes. People are finding a reason to buy that physical form because they feel appreciated again. They feel like more of a partner."
The trouble, though, remains racing ahead of the customer's potential boredom with such items, while preventing the cost of such promotions from eclipsing the profits they might earn, says Phil Waldorf. Waldorf owns the independent label Dead Oceans, home of Raleigh band Bowerbirds. John Vanderslice might just be Waldorf's perfect example, then: The San Francisco producer and songwriter released Romanian Names, his seventh album and first for Dead Oceans, in May.
Vanderslice is widely known for his meticulous recording process, or for packing too much sound into one song and then slowly peeling the extraneous layers. While more and more musicians are recording straight to hard drives, Vanderslice continues to record on quarter-inch magnetic tape. "A good sounding tape machine is going to beat anything out there," he insists. When it comes time to remove the extras, he ends up with a mountain of scrap tape.
Indeed, on the last day of mixing Romanian Names, he and producer Scott Solter spent hours poring over every second of music one last time. They made massive cuts, snipping away anything that sounded superfluous—entire verses, introductions, solos. When they'd finished, he crammed the tape into a trash bag and put it in a closet at home. He knew those minced moments couldn't just sit there, though.
"I was like, 'This isn't an outtake. These are actually pieces that almost made it onto the album,'" says Vanderslice from a tour van headed to Milwaukee. "The next couple of days, I started thinking about them, that we should cut them into pieces and give them to people and let them own the rights to the pieces of these songs."
So that's what he did: He approached Waldorf with the idea of giving away a limited number of these pieces—and the rights to the music therein—in a promotion for Romanian Names. The label developed a letter-pressed, hand-numbered box for each piece, and in late April, Vanderslice and Dead Oceans announced the offer on their respective Web sites. Within two hours, the 100 pieces of tape were snatched up. In fact, the label moved more than 500 copies of Romanian Names before its official release—numbers, Waldorf says, that were driven by interest in the giveaway.
"We did a much less elaborate preorder with the band Akron/ Family, for instance, and their sales history isn't that far off from John's," says Waldorf, at home in Austin, Texas. "But we sold about four times as many preorders for John, even though our first week sales were almost identical."
And while it's interesting to give something to fans, the point all along was to sell records.
"I'm a huckster, man. I would have been in the circus 100 years ago. I am absolutely for being a performer and an entertainer and a sideshow carny," says Vanderslice. "When I watch that ShamWow guy or the Pocket Fisherman guy, I want to be in the same breath as those guys. I see a patriot. I see a salesman. I see a performer on a stage."
John Vanderslice plays with The Tallest Man on Earth Wednesday, June 17, at Local 506 at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $10.
Some labels simply dole out extra tunes to convince customers to buy a record. Online file-sharing eventually lessens the impact of those ideas, though, forcing labels to get creative about what they can give away cheaply to make money on units moved. Below are five ideas that make us consider reaching for the wallet.
THE HOLD STEADY, BOYS AND GIRLS IN AMERICA: In 2006, Vagrant Records knew it had perhaps the hottest indie band in America, The Hold Steady, on the eve of its most anticipated album yet. People were so anxious to hear Boys and Girls, in fact, that as soon as it leaked onto the Internet, people would break their own bandwidth to get at the files. Vagrant lured customers into record stores with a black-and-white comic book in which each song inspired a different scenario. These didn't last long.
SUNN O))), MONOLITHS & DIMENSIONS: California metal label Southern Lord has long been one for limited-edition merchandise and big package deals ("Maximum volume yields maximum results," dudes), dropping the price of vinyl or discs when sold with a poster or sweatshirt. This release—the sixth from flagship band, Sunn O)))—meets a horde of eager fans with smartly curated options: Buy the disc, get a patch. But the disc and a shirt, though, and get a patch, a sticker and a poster. The vinyl options, we hear, will shatter hell in two. Hail the mighty dark one, indeed!
SONIC YOUTH, THE ETERNAL: In the late '80s, Sonic Youth made the pioneering shift of being an indie band that moved to a major label. Now, contract with Geffen fulfilled, they're back at one of the more major indies, Matador. New company, new budget, new ideas: To lure fans into buying their first from Matador, Sonic Youth offers them a payload of extras if they pay for the music before it hits store shelves. You get a full album stream before release, a vinyl-only recording of the band's July Fourth concert in New York, a poster, early access to concert tickets, and an online bevy of album outtakes and B-sides.
TORI AMOS, ABNORMALLY ATTRACTED TO SIN: The N.C. native has long been faithful to her fans, and her latest is no exception: Those purchasing Abnormally Attracted to Sin from select independent retailers (in North Carolina, only Schoolkids Records in Raleigh) receive a beautiful 11" x 18" lithograph exclusive to this album. At press time, Schoolkids could not confirm if it also had Kleenexes available for those purchasing the album.
PRURIENT, AND STILL, WAITING: Last year, one of the world's leading noise labels, No Fun, teamed with one of noise's best new artists, New York's Prurient, for two versions of one album: Buy early, and the seven-track CD came in the left side of a gatefold package. The right side held a 5-inch record, with the album's proper prologue on the A-side and the epilogue on the B-side. That version is, of course, long sold-out. Buying it now must be like watching a pan-and-scan television version of Lawrence of Arabia.