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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August 06, 2007

Going Postal
by David Harrell

postal carrier

Despite the growing use of digital downloads by music fans (and the increasingly large role of mp3 blogs in promoting music) the physical CD isn't going away any time soon. Especially for sending your music to reviewers and radio stations. Very few (if any) college radio stations are going to deal with an mp3 download. Nor will print publications.

It's not cheap, and postage is a big part of the overall cost. The cost of mailing a CD (in a jewel case) exceeds that of a manufactured CD itself. And it just got pricier: Last month I mailed some discs for the first time since the postal rate increases that went into effect in May. While the increase in the mailing cost of a first class letter was marginal -- the bump from 39 to 41 cents was just a 5% change -- I was shocked by the huge increase in the cost of mailing a packaged CD.

Prior to the rate increase, it cost me $1.35 to send a CD in this cardboard packaging via first-class mail. (For a single CD, first class is far cheaper than the media mail option.) But the old postal rates treated small packages like letters -- you basically paid by weight. The new rates charge a higher base rate for packages, so the rate for my CD package increased to $1.81, a 34% increase.

While I could save on mailing costs by ditching the jewel cases for cardboard sleeves, I worry that CDs in sleeves are more likely to get lost in the shuffle at a radio station, if most of the releases are in standard jewel cases. Given that we're already fighting an uphill battle as a self-released, self-promoted act, I'm reluctant to send out anything to radio and reviewers that doesn't conform to the packaging norm.

I'm not wild about the Digipak format either. (Too easily scuffed and the inserts fall out, etc.) But if they're lighter, I'm willing to consider them.

Anyway, it seems like these new rates are going to have a huge impact on small labels and self-released musicians. Dischord Records has already discontinued its longstanding "free shipping" policy. And the new rates make selling CDs through's Advantage program even less lucrative than before, due to a "just in time re-stocking" policy that maximizes mailing costs with small re-orders.

I suppose there's no getting around it, though. If you want to get your music to radio,, and certain reviewers, a digital download just won't cut it, at least in the near future.

Still, the whole thing makes me question the logic of mailing digital files on plastic discs in plastic boxes in cardboard packages. I don't -- in any way -- want to disparage the influence of college radio or the DJs and music directors (some of them of them were very kind to us during our last radio campaign back in 2005 and I have fond memories of my own short stint in college radio). But I'm starting to wonder if a blurb and a link on a well-read mp3 blog is more valuable to small indie band than modest airplay on a small- or mid-size college station. Ideally, you'd want both, but these new postal rates make me slightly less inclined to send out 400 copies of our next album to college radio. We probably will anyway, but I'll try to team up with another self-released act or two to split the postage costs.

Image swiped from the Minnesota Historical Society.


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

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

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

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    <a href="">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

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