Who Won The Week?

You would think that Detroit music buddies (and Raconteurs bandmates) Jack White and Brendan Benson could coordinate their new album release dates a little better, but they both released their new solo albums (“Blunderbuss” and “What Kind Of World,” respectively) on Tuesday. To pack the day even more, Portland indie rock favorites The Dandy Warhols released their new album, “This Machine,” as well.

All three artists have done roughly the same thing: they started their own labels and are selling music directly to their fans (well, mostly). Which is the new reality for working bands. But in this brave new world, everyone has to find their own way outside the confines of the polished, uniform studio system. Unfortunately, just because everyone can sell their music directly to fans doesn’t mean they know how to do it well.

These three albums coming out the same day made for a nice contrast in what works and what doesn’t.

Obstacles

Don’t put obstacles in the way of your fans giving you money.

This seems like a no-brainer, but those obstacles take many forms.

Preorders

Don’t announce your album without giving fans a way to buy it, even if it’s months away from coming out. If you don’t, you’re only giving fans an opportunity to forget or decide not to buy.

Anticipation

Anticipation is overrated. Jack White and The Dandys sent out e-mail announcements of their albums long before the release date – hoping, one assumes, to build anticipation. But those e-mails did not provide any way to purchase the albums. So either their fans had to wait to buy it or buy it somewhere else. Neither is a good situation for the bands.

Anticipation is worthless for established fans. If they’re already on your mailing list, having to wait to buy your music is not going to make them more likely to buy.

Word of mouth is different. “My friend Kevin can’t wait to get his copy of the new Jack White album” is something that might convince someone on the fence they want to buy. But that’s not direct marketing, and not something you accomplish on a mailing list. This is what people are trying to accomplish with Facebook Like and Google +1 buttons.

Brendan Benson’s e-mail came much closer to the release of the album, but it contained a link to an online store were you could pre-order the album in a variety of different packages, including the album on CD or vinyl and t-shirts and even headphones. All packages came with a download three days before the street date. I ordered the CD package and was listening to to it by Saturday night.

Packages

If you want to make the music purchase special, give the fans something special to purchase.

I have written about special edition packages before, and I like them. They give fans a way to support musicians above and beyond just buying the album. But they have to offer something more than just the album to be effective.

Just before “This Machine” came out, the Dandys sent me an e-mail with a link to their web site with lots of purchase options for the album. They did a good job with the packages – each of the Dandys designed a t-shirt, and there’s a very nice tree-ring picture vinyl. There were lots of combinations of CD, vinyl, and t-shirts to choose from, and everything came with a digital download. Even though I had already pre-ordered the CD from Amazon, I ordered the picture vinyl because it looked cool. And because of that, I got a download code, so I didn’t have to wait for the CD.

Digital Delivery

Even if they buy a fancy special edition package, the vast majority of your fans are going to listen to your album digitally on their computer or phone. If they buy a CD, the first thing they’re going to do is stick it in iTunes and rip it. So sell them the files directly.

I like digital downloads. But most of the time I end up buying CDs because I can rip them to lossless audio, which I can made into anything I want, which isn’t possible when your only download option is MP3.

When I’m given an option for a higher quality download (FLAC or WAVE), I don’t need to buy the CD. You don’t need to spend money manufacturing it and letting a middle man take some of my money from you.

I especially like it when I can download FLAC files and MP3s so I don’t even have to do any conversion.

The Brendan Benson downloads came from a European record label called Lojinx that offers FLAC and MP3 downloads.

The Dandys downloads came from Bandcamp, which is a US-based digital distribution website for indie bands. They provide a whole host of download options, including WAVE, AIFF, FLAC, AAC, MP3, OGG, etc.

I was listening to the Brendan Benson and Dandy Warhols albums before the Jack White CD showed up in the mail.

Extras

Blunderbuss was the only CD I had to actually buy (and rip).

If you go to Jack White’s web site, there’s the new album on the front page – “Available now!”  Oh, really?  How do I get it?  There are three links:

  • “Purchase CD” redirects you (through a URL shortener) to Amazon.
  • “Purchase Vinyl” redirects you to page on Jack White’s record label Third Man Records, where you can buy the LP, and only the LP. No special goodies, no special editions.
  • “iTunes Download” redirects you (though another URL shortener) to iTunes.

Judging from Jack White’s web site, the only way to (legally) download Blunderbuss is through iTunes. Not true of course – the album is on Amazon MP3 and Google Play. But there is no way to download the album from Jack White.

The only way to buy Blunderbuss directly from Jack White is to buy a vinyl copy.

I understand that Jack White loves vinyl. Fine. It’s the hip thing right now. And he has done some really cool multi-colored vinyl special editions which are of interest to music and vinyl collectors. But just not for this album. As Henry Ford supposedly said of the Model T, you can get it in any color, as long as it’s black.

Unless there is something unusual about the medium on which the music is transported, it is of secondary interest to the fan. Because they’re trying to buy the music itself, not a lump of plastic with the music scratched into it.

I bought The Dandy Warhols album twice – once on picture vinyl because it looks cool. I may never put this on my turntable. Jack White, who has come to specialize in weird special edition vinyl, didn’t even try to entice me to spend more than the $10 the CD cost me on Amazon (and of which he maybe gets a few bucks?).

Exclusivity

Exclusive deals are just a barrier in disguise to your fans giving you money. Think twice before agreeing to it.

Jack White appears to have some sort of deal with Apple because the album was available for streaming before it was released. I assume they paid him some money. But this really serves as promotion for Apple, not Jack White. And it seems to me to be a short term game for the artist, particularly since the apparent exclusivity kept him (intentionally or not) from promoting other avenues to purchase the album.

I think it was intentional as buying the album on MP3 from Amazon or Google costs $1 more than the physical CD on Amazon. So if you like to buy your music digitally, but don’t like buying music from iTunes, you have to go out of your way to Blunderbuss, and you’ll pay extra for it.

Give The Fans What They Want

This has always been the golden rule. Fans want to support their favorite artists, but they need to be able to do it easily. Don’t put barriers in their way, and give them the flexibility to do it the way they want to.

Brendan Benson won this week in music because he put fewer obstacles in my way to giving him money. The Dandy Warhols came in a close second by getting me to buy their new album twice and still having a download before the Jack White album showed up.

Jack White III came in a distant last place, which is unfortunate because it’s a good album and he otherwise seems very smart about his music.

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Brendan BensonWhat Kind Of World

The Dandy WarholsThis Machine

Jack White III – Blunderbuss

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