Let me begin by expanding the scope of what we will be discussing since the subtitle "on the web, by mail, etc." seems to focus on different ways to market product. I would like to suggest that we need to be creative in the products we choose to market also.
My own bias is that marketing of product - whether it be CDs or bumper stickers - is terribly neglected in general. There is a reason why the "big names" carry all that stuff around with them to sell during concerts at outrageous prices. Now, part of the reason the price is so incredibly high is that the venue concessionaire is taking 30 - 40% of the gross. And everybody is still making enough of a killing to drag all that stuff all over the country. There is something to be learned here, especially since it's unlikely that you will be paying anywhere near that percentage.
The most obvious product: recordings. You simply have to have at least one. It's difficult enough to make the economics of touring make any sense in the beginning; it's nigh on impossible to do without product to sell. I've listened to all the explanations regarding why people don't have recordings: too much money upfront is the primary one that is put out there. Sorry, but that just doesn't cut it. If you can't afford to do a recording, then you are an undercapitalized small business and your future is shaky at best. If nothing else, join forces with a batch of other undercapitalized small businesses, form a conglomerate and put out a compilation recording. Maybe you have to go in and do it piecemeal in a studio as you can afford it (a method which will cost you more in the long run but less in the short-term). The good news is once you actually have something in hand, the big bills are behind you and your per piece price starts to go down. Eventually, you will recoup your production costs and all you will ever have to worry about is duplication costs and mechanicals, which gives you a really delightful profit margin.
Without a recording, there is also just no way to market yourself the way you need to to build a career. You use it as a demo; you send it to radio; you send those 10 - 14 songs out there as little ambassadors that keep your name alive even when you aren't around. Again, let's look at what the big guys are up to. They are not waiting five years between releases. In general, they are putting out an album every 12 to 18 months. Now that may be too ambitious a timetable for you but you do need to start fiscal and lyrical planning for your next project as soon as you finish the first one. Several different choices of recordings can make a huge difference in your touring income besides all the other obvious career advantages it contains.
One reason I hear for not doing recordings more frequently is "I just couldn't write that many songs that quickly." I agree that coming up with a dozen really good songs in eighteen months can be a really ambitious program, especially if you are trying to tour like mad to support the earlier release. What I don't agree with is the conclusion. Who ever said you had to write all the songs? Somewhere along the line, it became a no-no to cover material. Personally, I don't get it because I know there is a large array of excellent songs out there that are barely seeing the light of day because everyone is so focused on only putting their own stuff out there. There is no denying that, on the national level, it's very good news if you are recording only your own material but the reasons for that are primarily economic. And, if you take a good look at what's happening on that level, many of those artists are not listed as writers for the songs they are recording or they are listed as co-writers. I'm not sure when we declared non-songwriters to be persona non grata but I wish we would get over it. And, from a product point of view, you are better off with four recordings that is half your songs and half other peoples that with two recordings of only your own material.
Also think about marketing when you are designing the CD packet. Make it as attractive as your budget will allow, i.e. whenever possible, use professional photos, a graphic designer (even if it is to execute your ideas), add color. Go to the store and look at all the CDs on the racks, especially in the rock section (which you will note is the largest section by miles). Get a feel for what makes you pick up a CD. Try and avoid coming up with a design that is so artistic that people will have a hard time figuring out who put it out and what it's called. Is there something especially wonderful about your CD? (Pavarotti sings backup on that one number..) Go the distance and get a sticker for the front.
Okay, so now we have the obligatory one CD to put out there. Before we even get to the "creative" marketing, let's look at the basic stuff. Way too many people are just sticking a stack of CDs out there and hoping for the best. Think of yourself as a mobile retail store and act accordingly. You want to make it easy for people to find you, figure out what they want to buy and buy it. Figure out some way to display your wares - a rack or a support to display the CD. What about something else to draw people over? A poster or photo will make it clear that this is the place for your materials. How about a song list that people can actually read? Get them laminated and they will last forever. Do you have one than one title - offer a deal for buying in multiples. Do some neat signage listing CD and cassette prices. Have pens available to use for checks, a supply of Sharpies to sign CDs and a sign spelling out to whom checks should be made out. If at all possible, set yourself up to take plastic. It's the quickest way I can think of to double your sales. Once you have all the different bits and pieces of your mobile store together, spend some time putting together a relatively convenient way to tote this stuff around so you will be more likely to do it. I know it seems like a drag but it's just as vital to your eventual success as those guitar stands, tuners and cords that you haul everywhere you go.
Remember that you are one of the biggest magnets for traffic that you have. If you are off in the green room after the show instead of meeting people and signing CDs out in the lobby, you have probably not maximizing your sales. If you are out and available to the public but not in the same room with your sales table, you may actually be drawing people away from buying your product. Figure out some way to handle mail order sales, even if you have to do it yourself and have some kind of printed order form for people to take with them. If you are a member of an organization like songs.com, support their efforts. Mention their name on stage, give people something to carry away with songs.com's info. (I did a postcard for my artists to hand out which contained information for ordering by phone and on the web.)
If someone else is going to be handling your sales, try and spend some time making sure they know what the "sell points" are for your product. Approach this is a business-like fashion; do an inventory before and after. Not because anyone is trying to cheat you but because people make mistakes. I use a form for other people selling and for any place I am selling where I expect sales to be high volume. If I didn't introduce some kind of order into the system, I'd never be able to keep track of it all. Writing things down is inconvenient at the time but you'll love yourself come April 15th.
Now, to return to my original point of being creative in what products we have out there! (Those of you who know me knew I'd get there eventually..) I am amazed at how little merchandising goes on out there. Okay, so you don't want to carry around a batch of t-shirts in different colors and sizes. What about bumper stickers? Name your tour: Simon Guitar's Unstrung East Coast Junket 1998 and get a good graphic designer to put together something that even you would be willing to stick on your vehicle. Do a smaller square or oblong that can be put in a car window - only put your or your band's name on it but make it a marvel of graphic design. Got a great picture? - use it. Speaking of pictures…I assume that most of you are buying 8X10s in bulk for publicity purposes. Think about selling photos as part of your mobile store, especially at festivals or such. It's a neat souvenir and an easy thing for people to buy for the kids to get signed. I had one artist who played a tourist bar in Nashville for a summer and sold lithographs that cost him 20? for $2 each. It won't finance a house in the country but, over a year, it might be the beginnings of your next recording project.
I did picture postcards for one band - used them in correspondence and sold them at festivals (5 @ $1) which did quite well. Think about your "image", lyrics from a "signature" song or an album title and spend some time contemplating something clever you might create that would both sell and keep your name out there. Find a catalog of promotional items or cruise the Internet to get some ideas. Maybe you will come up with a button that will take over the world. Have several unusual songs about sports figures? Do a baseball card of yourself. You get the idea.
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the Internet is the new frontier for sales, especially by the little guy. Much of what I have learned on the subject initially came from Paul Schatzkin of songs.com. To my mind, he is one of the most knowledgeable and successful people in that arena. He was the first to point out to me, with the Internet, the storefront is no longer a multiplicity of buildings in the mall. Instead, it is the monitor on your desk. It's a whole new way of thinking and selling. It also creates opportunities for the small entrepreneur that never existed before. It's a wise little retailer who learns have to avails himself of this brave new world.© McShane Glover/Noteworthy Productions