Digital Audio Insider -- the economics of music and other digital content


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Digital Audio Insider is David Harrell's blog about the economics of music and other digital content. I write from the perspective of a musican who has self-released four albums with the indie rock band the Layaways.

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June 02, 2006

Digital Sales More Profitable than Amazon.com CD Sales
by David Harrell
While my mother-in-law was REALLY impressed when she found my band's albums on Amazon.com, it's not hard to sell your own CD there. You just need a bar code, shrinkwrapping, and a manufactured CD (no CD-Rs).

The main downside is that Amazon.com seems to have switched to a minimalist inventory policy, at least for relatively slow selling self-released CDs. When our first disc was released in 2003, Amazon placed an initial order of 15 copies. All of those copies eventually sold, and Amazon continues to send re-stocking orders, albeit much smaller ones, generally for just one or two discs. And it seems to take a while (nearly a week) after selling a disc before the re-stocking order is placed.

The problem is -- by stocking only one disc at a time -- the cost of shipping discs to Amazon now represents a significant portion of our per-disc revenue. First class postage for a single disc is $1.35, which is actually the cheapest option, as media mail for a single CD is more expensive.

We sell our CDs at a "list price" of $9.99 and Amazon takes a 55% percent cut, paying us $4.50 for each disc sold. While I suppose there's a certain prestige to having your music available via Amazon.com, it's shaping up to be the LEAST profitable way for us to sell it. After factoring in manufacturing costs of around $1.25 a disc and the $1.35 it costs to mail each one to Amazon.com warehouse, that leaves about $1.90 per disc in gross profit.

In comparison, here's how the numbers shake out for discs sold through stores via our distributors, online via CD Baby, and digital downloads through iTunes and eMusic:

Sales in Stores, via Distributors
We sell discs to our distributors for $5.50 each, hoping they'll end up in stores for somewhere around $9.99. The orders are usually large enough that the per-disc shipping cost is pretty low, usually less than 20 cents a disc. So after accounting for shipping and manufacturing, we're netting a little more than $4 a disc.

CD Baby
For online CD sales, CD Baby takes a $4 cut of the $9.99 price. After manufacturing and shipping costs, we clear around $4.50 a disc.

Digital Downloads - iTunes and Other Stores
For a $9.99 album price, Apple pays our distributor $7. The distributor takes a 9% cut, leaving $6.37 a disc for us. (No shipping or manufacturing costs here!) The numbers are similar for the other download stores that charge around $10 for a full-album download.

Digital Downloads - eMusic
This last example is the truly amazing one. An eMusic subscription is by far the cheapest way for someone to buy a copy of one of our albums. With a 40-downloads-a-month subscription, which costs $9.99 a month, our first album (12 tracks) "costs" the buyer $3 while our 11-track second album costs $2.75 for an eMusic download.

The per-track payout rate varies each month (more details here) but the most recent payout we've received is 19 cents a track, minus the distributors 9% cut. Which works out to $2.07 take for the 12-track disc and $1.90 for the 11-track disc. The option that costs a purchaser the LEAST money still nets the same amount (or more) for us as an Amazon.com purchase.

In fairness to Amazon, dealing with slow-selling CDs is no doubt something of a pain. But the given that the CDs are steady sellers, it seems like maintaining a stock of only one disc maximizes Amazon.com's labor cost, as it has to restock the disc every time one sells. It's making me think that for self-released musicians on the right-hand portion of the long tail, digital downloads may be the best bet. (Though it pretty much cuts the indie stores and distributors out of the picture...)

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    THE LAYAWAYS

    Out Now -- "Maybe Next Year" -- The New Holiday Album:

    <a href="http://thelayaways.bandcamp.com/album/maybe-next-year">Joy To The World by The Layaways</a>

    "This is a sweet treat, deliciously musical without being overbaked for mass media consumption." -- Hyperbolium

    "Perfect listening to accompany whatever holiday preparations you may be making today." -- Bag of Songs


    O Christmas Tree - free mp3 lyrics and song details
    Away In A Manger - free mp3

    Download from eMusic, iTunes, Amazon MP3, or Bandcamp. Listen to free streams at Last.fm.



    album cover art from The Space Between

    <a href="http://thelayaways.bandcamp.com/album/the-space-between">Keep It To Yourself by The Layaways</a>

    "...about as melodic and hooky as indie pop can get." -- Absolute Powerpop

    "Their laid-back, '60s era sounds are absolutely delightening." -- 3hive

    "...melodic, garage-influenced shoegaze." -- RCRD LBL

    Where The Conversation Ends - free mp3
    January - free mp3
    Keep It To Yourself - free mp3

    Download from eMusic, iTunes, Amazon MP3, or CD Baby, stream it at Last.fm or Napster.



    album cover art from We've Been Lost

    <a href="http://thelayaways.bandcamp.com/album/weve-been-lost">Silence by The Layaways</a>

    "The Layaways make fine indie pop. Hushed vocals interweave with understated buzzing guitars. The whole LP is a revelation from the start." -- Lost Music

    "Catchy Guided by Voices-like rockers who lay it on sweetly and sincerely, just like Lionel Richie." -- WRUV Radio

    Silence - free mp3 lyrics and song details
    The Long Night - free mp3

    Download from eMusic, Amazon MP3, or iTunes, stream it at Last.fm, Napster, or Rhapsody.



    album cover art from More Than Happy

    "These are songs that you want to take home with you, curl up with, hold them close -- and pray that they are still with you when you wake up." -- The Big Takeover

    Let Me In - free mp3
    Ocean Blue - free mp3

    Download from eMusic, Amazon MP3, or iTunes, stream it at Last.fm, Napster, or Rhapsody.

    More Layaways downloads:

    download the Layaways at eMusic download the Layaways at iTunes

    the layaways website