The End of the Beginning

Since mid-2017, I have been working to build my creative skills into a self-sustaining, and ultimately profitable, business. I spent a lot of that initial time refreshing my knowledge of how to be self-employed. Regulations, taxes, legal structure, manufacturing costs, global distribution options, royalties, streaming, performing rights organizations, licensing opportunities, and a gazillion other things that musicians and creatives should know about running a business, but often don’t.

My consulting practice, which I’ve had off-and-on since 2003, gives me a leg up in many ways, as does my MBA. Over the years, I’ve developed deep domain knowledge in IT and Marketing, and experience with high-growth and startup environments. I know how to set up and run a business, how to lead teams, what to outsource, and how to bring a product to market. I’ve done all of those things successfully. 

But this time, on the whole, I’ve been failing.

Not entirely, as we’ll see, and not in some fundamental ways. I’ve had some amazing successes! But I’ve reached a point in the process where I need to reassess, adjust, pivot, and make some hard choices and changes.

Those Who Can, Do. Those Who Can Should Also Teach.

This article is the first in a series that I’ll be writing to explore my journey to date. My hope is that by telling my story to someone else, I’ll gain those insights that are so easy to miss when you’re too close to the subject. It’s also time to own up to some cognitive errors and willfully incorrect decisions that I’ve made. Or to justify them. As Styx once said, “You’re fooling yourself and you don’t believe it.” Time to get up and get back on my feet.

The best way to understand something is to teach it to others. I’m a storyteller, so most of these articles will be narrative. I’ve considered doing a video series or podcast as well, but to start, let’s see how the writing goes. Along the way, I’ll be building resource pages, largely for my own benefit, but I suspect they will be of great value to others. If there are other, better resources online already, I’ll be linking to them as well.

And if you like seeing the dark underbelly of it all, I’m going to be giving actual numbers and data. The real dirt. I’m going to share in ways that, frankly, I’m a little uncomfortable sharing. It’s embarrassing. It can be demoralizing. But just as telling the story will help me understand it, showing the reality in a stark, accountable way may help me find better ways to change it.

Let’s Start at the End of the Beginning.

Most stories start at the beginning. I’m going to start at, oh… let’s say it’s Chapter 3 or 4. There’s a lot of background, but we’ll cover that over time. Here’s my relevant to-do list for today:

  • Unmap from Bandcamp site.
  • Create new CNAME record pointing to Bandcamp.
  • Download stats from Bandcamp
  • Cancel Bandcamp Pro subscription
  • Create reports for 2018 taxes to send to accountant
  • Begin update of music site to add film/game composition services

You’ve probably already noticed that “write music” isn’t on that list. It often isn’t. There’s a lot more to say on this topic, but writing, recording, and producing music is the fun part. And the easy part. And it’s at most, maybe 50% of the work.

Another thing you’ll notice is that half of the today’s tasks are related to cancelling my Bandcamp Pro subscription. First, let me say in no uncertain terms that Bandcamp is awesome. I’m a fan, and will continue to use them as a sales channel. Out of all the places you can buy my music online, Bandcamp takes the smallest cut away from me. I make the same amount of money from an $8 sale that I would with a $10 sale on iTunes or Amazon. Good for me, good for the customer.

The Bandcamp Pro premium subscription provides some nice additional features including batch uploading, video hosting, upgraded stats and Google Analytics integration, a custom domain name, and more. And it’s only $10. Which is $120 a year. Which, in the big picture, isn’t a huge amount of money. A nice night out can easily cost $120. There’s just one problem:

I’m not making any money selling music on Bandcamp.

Well, I’ve made a little, but not much. And certainly not enough to cover the cost of Bandcamp Pro, much less all of the other things I have to spend money on in this music business. Here’s the first “hard truth” set of numbers:

Bandcamp Revenue as of March 2019 totaled only $120.45
2019 numbers as of early March. There’s still time for improvement!

Pretty dismal, right? And a harsh reality. This is music that I’ve agonized over, spending hundreds of hours perfecting, mixing, mastering, and testing with audiences. It’s good music – nearly everyone who has listened, has found something that they really liked. There are a lot of reasons why it hasn’t sold, though, and I’ll be discussing those in more detail in future posts. For now, though, it’s time to make a hard choice.

I haven’t taken as much advantage of the Pro features as I should. The things that I’ve used are more the convenience and aesthetic functions. I love having the deeper stats, but I haven’t done anything with that information and that’s a critical error on my part. Between September 2017 and March 2019, I netted $120 from Bandcamp sales. During that same period, I spent $190 on Bandcamp Pro. I’ve lost $70 on convenience, aesthetics, and valuable information that I just left sitting there.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Once again, I want to stress that Bandcamp is awesome. The Pro subscription features are worth the money if they’re resulting in enough sales to cover the subscription cost. But based on average sale prices, I’d need to sell two albums every month, and that hasn’t happened. Yet.

It’s pretty obvious that from a business perspective, I can’t afford this cost. The information gathering is probably the most valuable piece of it all, but I haven’t been using it like I should. Also, until I have a critical mass of sales happening, the information is less valuable than diverting that money and effort into other things like building awareness.

Emotionally, this is a very difficult moment for me – it is the first action I’m taking that acknowledges I’ve failed at this aspect of creating my music business. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve failed as a musician, or that paying for Bandcamp Pro wasn’t a smart thing to do in the first place. The information collected so far is valuable – I can now see where I actually should be focusing some of my efforts. More on that in the next post.

If you’re still with me, thanks for reading! I’d love your feedback, and if there are specific things I can cover that would be helpful to you in your own efforts, leave a comment and let me know!

2 thoughts on “The End of the Beginning”

  1. Thanks for being so open and honest Ray about your journey… so far. Its the dilemma of a lot of creative arts where the digitisation of product (books, music, what have ye) has resulted in a cheapening of its value to consumers – folks won’t pay for a tune or a book when free/near-free lo-fi versions are online.

    In an idealistic world, the internet promised a utopia were listeners/readers would make micro payments for each listen of a tune but somewhere along the line the micro became pico/nano sized 🙁

    As Darwin would say, it is those creatures that can adapt that will survive. Some musicians are – through film music production, writing samples for others, refills, etc. Perhaps the next step is to cast the net wider – dip a toe into a few channels and see which give you personal affinity for doing, and also pull in a buck.

    • Thanks for the comments, Rod. In many ways, there are more opportunities now to connect directly with an audience, but the signal to noise ratio is so bad that we’re back to square one, needing to find a marketing company, which is what the major labels really were – and they were darn good at it. I’m mapping out all of the mistakes I’ve made so far (and acknowledging that I knew better, but did the wrong thing anyway) in the hopes that I can help others not step in the same puddle.

      The saddest part to me, and I’ll be expanding on this in the future, is that the music itself is now almost a secondary concern. It’s the loss leader that potentially leads to the other types of revenue streams you noted. I won’t make money on the music, but maybe I’ll get an appearance fee when my viral hit lands me a spot on a talk show, or a movie cameo, or a scoring gig.


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