Should we print CDs, vinyl, cassettes, or download cards?
It's a decision every musician or band must make when finalizing an album release. Even as reports show a steep decline in CD sales, most artists can't seem to let go of what many consumers end up throwing or piling away after a simple digital upload.
Musicians are aware of this. And that's why a number of them offer their fans download cards, a more disposable and cheaper-to-print option than CDs. They're something to sell to those "exclusively digital" consumers, who seem to make up most of today's population.
"It's that kind of in-between in terms of just straight streaming and having something that you can have in your hands," John Berdahl says of download cards. The Fargo musician offered his band's latest album, Decemberweary, through download cards and found it moderately successful.
Some musicians are finding that customers are much less likely to purchase download cards over CDs or vinyl.
"Can you get someone to pay for a card? Maybe, but I haven't seen it work yet," says Twin Cities-based jazz guitarist Todd Clouser.
Sax/keyboard player Joshua Holmgren of More Than Lights says he's finding it harder and harder to justify selling CDs anymore -- let alone download cards.
According to folk musician Nate Sipe: "Pert Near (Sandstone) tried using DL cards to mail out with a new release promo pack. We were able to trace which ones were actually redeemed, finding that they were not very successful."
Even record store owners are hesitant about download cards. Matt Oland of Orange Records in Fargo nearly laughed when asked if he sold download cards. "You have to go to a store to buy a card then go to your home to download it.... You're making a step that you don't need to make," Oland says.
It's no surprise that music fans are more enthusiastic about spending money on CDs and vinyl over flimsy business-card-like items.
"As physical objects, (download cards) are very unromantic, and buying music in a physical format these days is all about romance," Clouser says. "Vinyl is cool, CDs can be a reminder of the show and can be signed, etc., but a download card just isn't attractive."
Holmgren sees download cards as more of a means to an end. "I have never met anyone in my life that has held on to a download card for nostalgia."
Then why bother with download cards? Or even jump drives, posters, wristbands, or stickers with download codes, for that matter? Because they're still useful add-ons, musicians say. Buy two CDs, get a free download card. Buy a $15 T-shirt, get a download card for $5. Buy a $20 vinyl, get a free download card. These days, most new-release vinyl is sold with a download card.
Perhaps this is one reason there's been a significant increase in vinyl sales, unlike CDs and digital downloads. It's a special product for a true fan who wants the album artwork and liner notes in physical form. Some say vinyl produces better sound quality, too. And fans can still get the added bonus of a digital copy of the album.
"Something that is handmade, touched, or special to the experience of the live music should be paired with a download card really if it's going to have any lasting in somebody's pocket," said Kendl Winter, banjoist for the Minneapolis folk outfit the Lowest Pair.
The end goal, of course, is to get people listening to the music. When most music is available online for free, it seems musicians need to stay creative with how they market their products.
"When I talk to my younger cousins, who are in middle school, high school, and college, they all get their music off the internet: iTunes store, Spotify, Pandora, etc.," Holmgren says. "My biggest priority is making sure that all of my products' online mobile features are as updated and current as they can be."
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