What happened to my promo?

A promo CD barcode with hole punched through itI’ve had several discussions with artists over the course of 2008 with regard to the final destination of promo CDs. Everyone sends them out, but no one talks about where they end up. The artists and labels send out large quantities of promotional CDs targeted at journalists, DJs, and promoters. But many of these CDs find their way quickly to the used record shop or ebay.

The cost of sending out several hundred CDs is quite high. If you’re sending out an actual production copy, which is what most journalists and DJs want, it might cost as much as $4 per disc. Here’s the breakdown. The disc costs you roughly $1. Then you’ve got the cost of printing a one-sheet, bio, and any other promo materials you’re including in the package. And then you’ve got the mailing costs. Next consider the added cost of hiring a PR agent to work the release for you. That can cost anywhere from $2,000 – $10,000 depending on how good they are and how long you let them work it.

And the result? Some radio airplay, a story here and there in a paper, magazine or website, maybe even a gig or two get booked as a result, or you could sell a few CDs. Odds are though, that a good many of the promo CDs sent out just ended up at a used record store.

The artist, the label (if there is one), and the songwriter all lose out on income when someone buys one of those promo CDs from the store. They lose the money they would have made, had this person been of a mind to purchase the CD legitimately. That can be questioned for sure. I blogged about this same topic back in June, when a court case made the resale of promo discs legal. Legal it may be, but taking the cost of the promo into account, someone did lose some money on the deal.

I’m not condemning those who are selling, or for that matter buying, the promo discs. I’m just asking the question, why did you send it out to begin with?

What is the point of promotional CDs other than to serve as a visual reminder to a tastemaker? Do we really need them anymore? Is it worth the waste the mailings generate? And for music critics, does earning a spot on the gravy train even ensure that she will be more plugged in to the vast array of music available in 2008?

Those questions are asked by Randall Roberts in a piece he wrote in September (which I just now discovered) for the LA Weekly.

His answer is, no. The environmental (I’ve got a lot of plastic sitting in a pile on my floor), economic, and time costs associated with mailing out hundreds of promos, just aren’t worth the returns. Send your promos digitally and you save time and money. Not to mention making it easier for journalists like myself to deal with the promo. DJs may still want a hard copy, but I don’t. Every CD that was sent to Bluegrass Today this year went strait into my MacBook Pro for a listen. If I liked it I imported it to iTunes. If I didn’t like it, it went in a stack that I still haven’t dealt with. And if we chose to write about it, we had to go looking for a digital copy of the cover art anyway. A digital promo would sure speed things up for me, and a lot of other journalists.

I’m not saying you should stop sending out hard copies. Many DJs will still need/want them, especially bluegrass DJs who are volunteers and have to supply their own music for the show. Taking some time to work through your PR list and find out who would benefit from a digital version, should pay off for any label or band who plans to promote more than one recording project next year.

Put me on the digital list.