What Every Merch Booth Needs to Sell: CDs!

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Note: this cautionary guest post was written by Portland, Oregon’s Rob Stroup, a talented singer, songwriter, guitarist, drummer, band leader, sideman, engineer, producer, owner of 8 Ball Studio, and all-around abiding dude.

A merch booth without CDs is like a grocery store without milk and bread.

Confession:  I have a romantic attachment to vinyl.  I listen to a lot of it.  At home – almost exclusively.  So when I went to press my last record – at great expense, I pressed my record to vinyl and included a digital download card inside.  The thought was that, surely, people would want to buy the vinyl!  For vinyl enthusiasts – it would be a no brainer.  Even if they did not currently have a working turntable, they could download it digitally, burn CDs for the car, listen in itunes or whatever they wanted.  Then they could have the larger album art.  And one day, when they get that old turntable back up and running, it’s on!  Right?  Unfortunately – wrong.

Here is the most common reaction I got from a visitor to the merchandise table:  “Wow – vinyl… cool!  I love the artwork!”  At this point they pick up the record and examine it front and back and you think: “I got um.  They are totally going for it.”  Then – out of nowhere – they place the record back in the stack and say “Do you have any CDs?”  At which point – I call their attention to the digital download card sticker on the record.  Their response?  “I just want a CD thanks.”  At first – I was completely confused by this interaction.  Actually – somewhat irritated with 500 copies of the vinyl record in my basement at over 4 bucks a piece.  Luckily I had done a short run of CDs as well and had something to sell them.  But it was still perplexing.

Most of you reading this blog are probably coming at this dilemma from the complete opposite angle.  Where the decision is to a) release digitally-only or b) go to the expense of pressing CDs.  Here’s the thing:  People still like CDs.  It’s what they’re used to.  When they plop their money down at a show – they want a tangible item in their hand.  Of course there are those who have reached a certain comfort level with downloading their music.  And for those people, obviously that is easy to accommodate.  But for those that want a disc,  there is still value in pressing the old familiar CD that they’re used to.  These days there are some pretty good options for shorter runs if you don’t want to press 1000 copies to start.  Sure – it costs a little more per unit, but the upfront cost is much easier to swallow.  (And believe me – still a heck of a lot cheaper than vinyl!)

In addition, if you are releasing a recording,  you are probably going to be sending out some promo packs to clubs, press, radio etc… right?  I have also found that, by and large, these folks don’t want to be hassled with downloading your music or trying to listen online.  They don’t even want to be bothered with cellophane.  What do they want?  A CD without any shrink wrap in your promo pack.  And let’s face it, we are doing absolutely everything in our power to get those people to listen.  Minimize the amount of barriers between your music and their ears – that is the goal.

There is yet another argument for the CD.  Most digital download cards are redeemable for MP3s.  CDs are pressed at 16 bit / 44.1 sample rate.  You don’t need to know what that means from a technical perspective other than that it simply sounds better.  And these days – some folks are frustrated with shrinking fidelity to fit on ever smaller devices – and there is actually a movement to seek out even higher resolutions.  There are sites now that sell recordings at resolutions up to 24 bit / 192 sample rate.  One of the customers at my merch table actually explained to me that he wanted the CD because it sounds better than the download card.

Like any technology, CDs won’t be around forever. But we’re not there yet.  If you are trying to decide if there’s still value in the physical CD – there is!  As you know – recording an album can be expensive.  If you have come this far – go the little extra distance and spend money to at least do a short run of discs.  The technophobes, industry folks, and audiophiles will thank you.

Need professionally-manufactured CDs fast? CD Baby offers disc duplication for as little as 1 disc.

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  • John Finn

    500 vinyl and no cds?, except for the audiophiles whos really going to buy them.?
    crazy baby!

  • If you’re gigging, offering vinyl, CDs, and download cards is the way to go. Plus, many, many different styles of shirts. But, I’m no longer gigging.

    Now, I’m doing everything on-demand packaged with digital downloads. On-demand shirts, posters, etc. I no longer have a stack of unsold CDs, shirts, and posters in my garage, like I did with my previous release. Sure, I only make a few bucks per sale but that’s much better than trying to recoup the cost of inventory. Because of this model, financially this is already my most successful album yet and it’s only been out a month. I’m still way in the whole on my previous album which has been out for years.
    Nobody has asked for an on-demand CD yet, but I’m interested to see if they ever do.


    • How are you doing on demand, through CD Baby? How do you handle CDs @ shows? Just order up 10 or so?

  • Cheyenne Welles

    Is this news to anybody? That a musician should press CDs of their latest offering? And have them available for sale at their merch table? That CDs sell better than vinyl? That some people still prefer CDs to digital downloads?

    I’m shocked, *shocked*, I tell you.

  • greezeB

    Agreed! Although hip hip horray for those keeping vinyl alive!

  • There is a HUGE trend now for artists to release their latest albums as digital-only or vinyl-only or vinyl-with-digital-download-card (like Rob had planned). I actually can't believe how many bands are doing this these days. And most of them end up where Rob did, wishing they'd pressed CDs. So… this article was an attempt to forewarn them!

  • We did the same vinyl w/ download that you did Rob, but had already planned to do CDs for press, so happened to have some with us just in case. We've seen the same thing . . . certain folk still want CDs, although I think for us, it's 50/50 at shows, with half of our sales as vinyl. I'd attribute some of that to our genre, though . . . the power pop/garage scene has been buying vinyl since well before the recent switch. On tour, the vinyl seems to sell better in the bigger cities as well (SF, Chicago, NYC, etc.), with CDs selling better in smaller markets.

    Interestingly enough, we also offer download cards separate for sale, and almost never sell them. They're even cheaper than both the LPs and the CDs, but they just don't move. Everyone still seems to want a physical product. Cool article Rob!

  • Our main sales come from CD's & T-Shirts. Of course that is mainly the case due to our most predominent demographic being over 30's. We find obviously the younger the crowd the more chance they'll grab a download rather than a physical medium for music purchasing.

    Steve Mulry
    Black Label (Australia)

    • Thanks for mentioning demographic. As classical touring musicians, our demographic is over 40’s (at least!), and we have found to our amusement that the download cards we were so excited about are worse than useless. Our audiences think they’re badly-designed business cards with no contact info, and it takes unbelievable amounts of time, while standing at the sales table, to try and explain what to DO with them.

  • Raj

    Tapes? You've got to be kidding. Might as well print up 8-tracks. I find that CDs still sell very well.
    Happy Holidays.

  • nathan

    for a long time i've been seeking music in formats that have lossless compression, mp3's are actually the devil. i have a collection of them because theyre so widespread, FLAC does a fantastic job of this and seeing them in greater acceptance is great, but the file sizes are just so big, im not a huge fan of apple, but i do admit their AAC format (kinda similar to oog vorbis, but different) reaches a MUCH better quality then mp3, with a much smaller file size. a 128kbps aac will sound better then a 192kbps mp3

  • jp

    obviously everyone has advice and it may or may not be relevant to you. here is some from a garage rock band that has toured the country five times and played hundreds of shows on the road and made/sold music DIY style and through a label.take it or leave it:
    cds should only be sold if you seriously have absolutely nothing else to sell. its best to have vinyl and tapes and then cd’s should be a give away. obviously, vinyl and tapes should include a download card. it is regional though: in the Midwest and sometimes south you can maybe sell a cd or two, but from our experience, legit looking cd’s with all the packaging and screened cd and everything, are a money pit and you will have a hard time getting rid of them. if you have a label making them for you along with a vinyl, then by all means take advantage of that (especially if they have decent distribution) but if you are releasing something your self, save up a couple grand, get it pressed on vinyl and make the tapes yourself (legit looking tapes with all the packaging, colored cassets, pro dubbing and silk screening are inexpensive online and profitable.) depending on what kind of music you play and the scene you play in, tapes can be extremely worth the money (again this is from a garage rock or whatever perspective- i don’t know what its like if you’re making rap or dance music, etc.) in our experience, cds are hard to even give away most of the time – they often are just an annoying thing that somehow will get scratched and covered in beer and become a heavy box that you have to unload and set out at every show (not to mention they are just one more piece of shit that take up precious leg room in your van). how to make a cd: make a reasonable looking cd that you burn off your computer with a hand made sleeve and spend as little as

  • I am a musician in Japan. I gig every single weekend (I have a fixed venue plus other things). At my fixed gig I do a solo show and I get paid roughly $150 for the show. I sell my CDs at 1700 yen (or roughly $20 US). To be fair I sell anywhere from 5 to 25 per show. It is the biggest source of income I have (you can do the math if you wish). The Japanese at the show often want the CD to remind them of their experience. I have never not signed a CD for one of them either. And I often take the time to chat with them which helps with them becoming fans. The CD also has all my contact info on it and I’ve received lots of other gigs thanks to it (It works as a business card).

    Something I’ve been doing lately as well is when I get hired for a wedding gig, I have been suggesting the couple buy my CD for each of their guests as a take home (in Japan the guests always have a bag full of things to take home). Of course I offer to them at a very reasonable price and I sign all of them. It adds a big profit increase for the gig and my music gets put into the hands of yet more potential fans.

    I mentioned the money numbers here mainly to state clearly that CDs for me, are still vital. They add at least another 50% revenue to my live performance.

    I hope they do the same for all of you.

  • Glad to hear of someone else’s experience. I was going to skip CD’s for the most part, except for promo purposes. I find I never want a CD even when bands offer them for free. It’s needless clutter without the “cool” of vinyl. I just get it online. But…obviously most folks are still into the silver plastic disc so they can then download it and rarely look at it again. As long as it’s in someone else’s garage and not mine. Thanks for the article.

  • jamesk

    nice.. i’ve been struggling to decide whether to press cd’s for a long time now… i make hip hop. and when i’m selling t’s and hats at shows people ask… “do you have any cd’s??” so dumb right?

    im getting some from my old album pressed tomorrow— i know i’ll regret it if i dont..

    thanks boss


    I’m in a gigging band as well; and the CDs are our bread and butter. Last tour we had free song cards as well [ so everyone walks away with some form of our music ] and we asked everyone who bought our merch if they preferred a download card / code or CD – and almost everyone who has bought a CD usually says something like this: ” We get you guys [ the band ] to sign the Disc [ or cover art ] and then we upload the music into our computer for our iPods”. The disc becomes a cool memento of the show / event – at least this is our experience.
    We also offer an EP [ $5. ] as well as a full length [ $10. ]. This usually insures that everyone can afford our music. “For the price of a Beer; you can get our EP”…..this sales chop works!!!!

    Hope this helps!!!

    ~OD http://www.reverbnation.com/ottosdaughter

  • "You might be debating if it's worth it to press CDs anymore"
    That's one possible underlying cause of the Harry Potter Moratorium- which will be a form of the digital-disto-only option that some CDBaby members are using.

    re: vinyl- obvious solution: special edition CDs or DVD-A's in a 12-inch cover.

  • Hello from the other side of the world (Scandinavia)! Do you mean to say that people in the USA still want tapes – er.. you mean analog "C-cassettes"?? This is quite interesting! Overhere I don't even know where you could buy a new cassette deck, although cassette players may be included in "kitchen boom-boxes".
    Then again my music isn't garage rock, and I've never performed in America, but maybe it's like you wrote: It's regional. Don't know where I could even have cassettes made nowadays, and as for Vinyl, OK, I know one or two persons who prefer it.

    • Well, I know many many people who love CDs. I know many people who love vinyl. And I know about 3 people who love cassettes. Only place I know you can get them still is truck stops, and they're usually greatest hits collections from the 70's and 80's.

    • Noah_holt3

      Cassettes are a recently revived trend among hipster crowds here in the US. It is probably happening elsewhere in the world as well. I am all about giving an audience what they want. However, I see this trend dying very quickly, as the ‘irony factor’ just isn’t going to hold up when matched with the inconvenience that Cassettes possess.

  • Nice. Thanks for sharing.

  • Good call, for sure.

  • Haha. Yeah. Just store your discs in someone else's house and you're golden!

  • Great. Thanks for sharing your experience. Always good to hear how things work in other countries.

  • Sure everyone still wants CDs but getting people who want to actually pay for them is another thing. I don't know how it is in other parts of the country but in the north east US I run into countless people who walk up to us at the stage and our merch table who are like "Hey, you guys have a CD I can get?" (why yes we have three of them for sale right here sir. They're $10 each) "Do you have anything that's free?"

    Nothing ticks me off more than the masses of people who expect stuff for free. And not a show have we played in the last decade have we not had someone come to us for freebes. One time when I went around asking people in the club if they wanted to buy our CD, a guy smugly tells me "Why should I buy it from you, I already downloaded it off the internet for free?"

    • Madisonatwarren

      I agree – or how about the guy who says – “why should I buy your CD when a friend of mine just made a copy of it for me?” There is no real protection against this. I put stickers on my CDs which say – “Think twice before copying this CD for a friend. It’s stealing from me, Thanks Bill” And the other thing is, I think I made the mistake of putting to much of my material on free-streaming internet radio sites. People tell me they can listen to my music all day long for free. But, I still believe, by and large, most people would rather have the hard copy CD. I’m not selling any downloads, either.

  • Blue tunes

    As former music columnist it was one too many times in the editor's office with this rebuke: "Don't repeat the same phrase to establish your point". So when reading your twin lines 'What They're used to', I realized the detraction. Thanks for your otherwise thoughtful and well expressed read.

  • Blue tunes

    Cassettes are extinct for sure and you can bet the cd will follow the exact same path and very soon. The music business is acive from day to day seeking out a new way to repackage and sell as new the Beatles music through the latest technical format. Best advice for musicians is to sell your cd’s now before getting the garage storage blues (if you don’t already have them)

  • AS

    I have to point out that the reason CDs sound better is NOT because they're 16-bit/44.1. (Most mp3s are 16/44.1 too, just like CDs.) The real reason is that mp3s have lossy data compression applied, and CDs do not. This data compression has nothing to do with bit depth or sample rate!

  • Laura

    I record children's music and the CD is still alive and well in this genre. So many parents say they listen to my CDs in the car. My CDs are in a 4 panel cardboard wallet, so it looks like a little storybook that the kids can hold and look at and the kids get excited for an autograph!

    I did use a digital download card through "Bands on a Budget" to give away a free song that was released previous to the new record and that got some hits. Worth it I think, while you are waiting to finish your record, give them a little taste of what's to come.

  • To be honest, about a year ago, I was handed a stack of unused cassette tapes by a friend… I put my album on them for sh**'s and giggles, printed some inserts, and put them on the merch table.

    My better half had a good laugh at me when I was making them up… sure enough, first show I had them, they all sold.

  • Martin

    After reading the responses, I think that it all depends on your target audience. My target audience wants CDs. I have been giving away my download cards pretty much as a promo/giveaway thing. Digital downloading is going ok, but if it weren't for my CDBaby credit card swiper, I'd be sunk. I know for my music, people want CDs and they aren't carrying cash.

  • egg

    I would press anything I wouldn't buy. What do I want from my favorite band? A download, a cool ass art-lyric book or poster and a t-shirt. CD's are a total waste of space and not bio-friendly. The new macbooks dont even *come* with cd/dvd player in them. Now downloads have incredible options for all kinds of critical listeners. Offer them a wav file. And a poster. Time to gracefully turn to the future, fellow artists!

  • Don't forget to put the digital download sticker/card in with the CD's too. There's nothing more valuable than a fan's email, plus it helps to sell CD's, knowing that the fan there's a bonus track or some photos, etc. included as a digital download.