What Digital Can Learn From Physical?


Who wants to know the difference between North American and European pallets? Anyone?

If you don’t get it, it’s ok. Many aspects of physical distribution are lost in the digital world. However, some aspects of music distribution transcend format. While many labels have strong digital strategies in place, below are some of the more recurring areas where the digital world could at times learn from physical. 

Timing is everything. 

You can not release an album in the physical sphere with two weeks’ notice. Even if stock is manufactured, it needs time to ship to its various destinations, hit the stock room and be processed. Sell in times for physical retailers are 6-8 weeks, more in some territories. If sales information is provided late, retailers have already allocated their budgets for a release date and have moved on to the next. Exceptions happen of course. If you have the new Beyonce album, things have a way of moving faster. But if you have the release of a developing artist, proper release set up time is best heeded.

In the digital world, we can release an album with much less notice. Deliveries are faster and pitches are sent later. But what more can be achieved with a longer set up time? The most common question I receive from digital accounts is not about what is out in two weeks, but what is out in two months. Greater and more creative promotions with retailers can be set up with a longer lead time. Give time for editorial teams to live with a release ahead of street date, maybe become fans. The more time, the merrier.

Okay, timing isn’t completely everything. Music is pretty darn important.

In the physical world, retailers order stock from the distributor and are then invoiced on the units shipped to them (with some exceptions). This is what is considered to be a sale, though units can subsequently be returned. Shops are not likely to spend their limited budget to rack an album they have never heard. Promos or listening links are sent to sales teams so that they can send to key retail buyers. Retailers often see a lack of music as a signal that a label is not fully supporting a release, and they won’t support it either.

Although the editorial teams at digital retailers are not buying titles as they are sent, they still need to determine whether a release will be successful for their store and whether it is worthy of their limited and valuable editorial placements. Don’t forget that the editorial teams at digital services are also music fans. If you want them to support your release, let them hear it.

Have an artist on tour? Don’t forget to tell your distributor!

Anyone who has worked in physical distribution has at one time or another received The Call. The dreaded Call. An artist is on tour, the manager has gone into the local record shop and has not found the album. A number of reasons may be to blame, but The Call is one of the most uncomfortable and worst conversations to have as a distributor. Not only have you missed a prime opportunity for sales, but you also have a damaged relationship.

Thankfully, unless something goes horribly wrong, The Call mostly does not happen in the digital sphere. Fans can largely return home from a gig and find the artist’s music on their preferred digital service. But what more can be done? Tour dates are an excellent time to re-highlight an album to digital retailers. Perhaps you could have extra placement, or special pricing around the dates may encourage more sales. Also, why not invite the services to the show? Show them why your artist is awesome.

Don’t over-ship

As mentioned, unsold physical units can mostly be returned by shops. Physical distributors thus have to strike a delicate balance between shipping enough units into the marketplace to have visibility and fulfill demand, but not over-shipping above demand and have returns come flooding back. No one wants a warehouse with more units than have actually been bought by fans.

We of course do not ship stock in the digital world and thankfully, units do not come back. However, digital marketing teams likewise need to be credible in their pitches. Why is the release going to be successful for a service? Are there marketing and promotional plans? Are there tour dates? Is it just freaking brilliant? We need a reason to push releases with services and ask for their support. If we tell them something is going to be amazing and it is not, we lose our credibility in pushing future releases. We may not have returns flood back to the warehouse, but some of the results are the same.

And lastly:

Whatever the retail landscape is now, it will be totally different in five years.

Look ahead. Adapt.


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