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Reconsidering Physical Music Retail (Or Moving Past Chain Stores)

Reconsidering Physical Music Retail (Or Moving Past Chain Stores)

A few years ago the famous Tower Records stores in NYC shut their doors for good. I remember it being described as a big blow to indie artists, as Tower was the only chain that would take a chance on putting some indie artists in their racks. Last week when I was over in London I read an article that discussed the big chain HMV closing down 60 of their stores in the next 12 months.

A few quoted lines:

The retailer today announced a 14.1% drop in like-for-like sales at its UK and Ireland stores for the 10 weeks to January 1 2011, blaming the bad weather and weak sales of entertainment products.

“My message to the music industry would be, I appreciate your support,” [HMV CEO Simon Fox] tells Music Week. “We needed to take steps to make sure we are a profitable, long-term business. We think the sales impact [of these closures] will be minimised by our actions.”

Physical music retail, in the mainstream brick-and-mortar sense, has been in a downward spiral for about a decade now, and it will not recover. If we can accept that fact, we can move forward and focus on places where we can sell physical music products. Note that I didn’t say “cds” or even “vinyl”. We’re going to have to be more creative than that, but “what” to sell is a topic for another post altogether.

Chain stores never really were that great of a place to sell music as a non-mainstream artist to begin with. The retailer takes a big cut, demands a lot in return for good placement and is not invested in your career or even the music business in general. Best Buy’s business plan does not have a little section on breaking a great new artist like an indie store might be interested in doing. Best Buy focuses on profit-per-square-foot and if video games or plasma screens deliver better numbers, they won’t think twice about booting music out altogether, like they will at some point in the next few years. This is not something to feel resentful over as a musician or music person. It’s just how it is, and that knowledge can be used when you’re choosing who you work with as far as retail partners go.

As an indie artist, you have a very simple and clean set of options in front of you as to where to sell your physical products, whether it’s t-shirts, cds, usb sticks, vinyl or posters.

  1. Direct-To-Fan – Your Website – The number one spot for artists to sell their physical wares should be through a website controlled by their own team, ideally both on their own site and their label’s site (see next point). Selling product on your own site is perfect to cater to existing and passionate fans. They already know where to find you and visit regularly (if you’re doing a good job), and it’s your job to present them with interesting and cool new products on a continuous basis so they can support the cause, feel involved and are enable to share their love for your music with their friends.
  2. Direct-To-Fan – Your Label Site – Where selling from your own site targets existing fans, selling from your label’s site will provide more exposure to groups of fans of like-minded artists and allow for cross-promotion and the organic growth of your own fan-base. You will never make any new fans from your own website, as all visitors are likely fans already. We see this all the time through our own Family Records store, when orders come in from familiar names that might original find us to buy a Wakey!Wakey! t-shirt, then also end up downloading a free Pearl and the Beard song, and return later for a paid PatB album or shirt purchase. It’s a model successfully employed by Fueled by Ramen, the Wu-Tang Clan and quite a few others in the past.
  3. Direct-To-Fan – At Your Concerts – See point one, without the shipping charges! In addition, having a great merch booth will keep you better connected to your fans as it’s a great excuse to meet everyone and have a chat. The ultimate way to make a fan is to hang out at the merch booth and talk to the nice folks that just saw you play a set. Remember, artists are connectors. Benefits of selling direct (points 1-3) include a higher cut of the profit, a better understanding of the fans, the ability to gain valuable data and ways to contact fans, and controlling the quality of the service your fans receive.
  4. Third Party Online Retailers  – The CD Baby’s, Insounds and Amazons of the world. Trusted sources to buy from for people that are a bit new to buying online. They take a bigger cut, but they also handle all the logistics involved. It’s a bit trickier to get your products on Amazon than on CD Baby, but it’s totally an option.
  5. Independent Record Stores – The few that are left can be your friend, especially in the territories that you tour in. They know the market, they know their clientele. Make an effort to research local stores, get in touch, see about putting up a poster on your first time around, and if you’re already drawing quite well in their market there might be an opportunity to partner up and get them involved handling the cd/vinyl sales at the show. I shared some thoughts on how these stores could evolve and flourish with some changes here.

In the past, record labels chased down the holy grail of the massive group of casual fans beyond the original group of hardcore fans, and to reach them you needed the chain stores. The casual fans were the ones responsible for taking a record from selling modestly to a multi-platinum success. As the mainstream world slowly follows the early adopter from buying physical music carriers, to music files, and finally to streaming all their music consumption, this group of casual fans will be streaming a record for pennies only. We will once again have to zero in on those fans that truly matter, and there we will find a strong market for higher end physical products that focuses on the inner circle of hardcore fans. These fans can be served well from any of the above options.


Creator:; Owner: iSpitMarketing & Consulting Solutions; CEO: Monkeybread Multimedia Conglomerate, Sporty Marketing Firm & Temp Agency. Marketing Director: Star & BucWild Enterprises Visionary | Philanthropist | Innovator @King_Spit

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