A few days ago comedian J-L Cauvin wrote a great blog post detailing the results (and frustration) generated by his recent album release.
He expressed some thoughts I’m sure a lot of comics share when it comes to the challenge of monetizing their art and in particular when it comes to releasing albums, so I thought I’d share some of my own thoughts on the subject here.
But before I get into the specifics, I’d like to say that I’m a fan of J-L’s, think he’s a great comic with a bright future, and think he’s doing a lot of things right. I’m not criticizing what he’s doing, but rather sharing my take on the things he brought up in an effort to help comics see a different perspective on things.
You should definitely read J-L’s full post, but here’s a few excerpts that caught my eye, along with my thoughts.
View Counts Are Not Fan Counts
“I embarked on a plan to raise my profile and when my name recognition was at its highest (at least relative to my own career) release my best album and hope for the best. So the plan started off with a bang with “Louis CK Tells The Classics” the viral video of my Louis CK impression. I then made subsequent videos (Alt Wolf, Scared Straight) that got spread all around and promoted within the comedy world.”
J-L’s Louis CK video was certainly a hit and got him a lot of attention. But, I have to wonder how much of that attention he actually converted into an ongoing connection to potential fans?
The video has more than 300,000+ views,but I wonder how many of those viewers wound up subscribing to J-L’s email list? I assume not many.
And his YouTube channel still only has 300 subscribers, so it’s not like they connected to him there either.
I also noticed that aside from a mention of his website at the end of the video, there’s no plug or links in the description or anywhere encouraging people to connect with him – either by email subscription (ideally) or some other method such as subscribing to his YouTube channel.
So this means that likely a lot of people who saw and liked the video, never had any idea that his new album existed because he had no way to reach them. He had no “connection” to them. As a result, the success of his video was nothing more than a blip and some missed opportunities.
The video had exposed him to a lot of people, but that exposure is meaningless without a way to reach those people again.
Free Is More Powerful Than You Realize
“Also giving me hope was the fact that my previous album was downloaded 1000 times (granted it was a free download) and received 70+ ratings/reviews on iTunes. So the only barrier to reaching that level (if not beyond) was the price tag on iTunes of $9.99 (or $8.99 on Amazon). I figured that might create a dip from 1000, but at the same time I thought it might not be as big a dip because I am more well known in October 2013 than I was in February 2012 when Too Big To Fail was released.”
There’s literally been books written (I highly recommend this one) about the impact/value of free so I won’t bore you by getting into all of those details now, but here’s one important thing to understand – the biggest price point hurdle for people to get past is the difference between free and not free.
It might not seem like a big deal for somebody to spend $10, but it is compared to spending nothing, and it was probably a faulty assumption to think there wouldn’t be a huge dropoff between the free album and the one he charged for.
In general, a targeted audience who is interested in what you do will convert about 2% of the time into purchasing a specific product. Obviously that’s a generalization, but it’s a decent rule of thumb to think that 2% of the interested people that you can reach with a product will buy that product. If you buy into that ratio, then in order to sell 1,000 albums J-L would have had to expose his album to 50,000 fans.
I have no idea exactly how many fans were exposed to J-L’s album, but I’m guessing it wasn’t anywhere close to that number and therefore his estimates were off.
Taken a step further, I wonder how many of the 1,000 people who had downloaded his previous album were aware of the new one? Did he have email addresses from that first 1,000? If so, how many bought this one? Those would be really informative metrics to better understand what happened with this new album.
You Have To Sell What People Want To Buy
“This is not me wondering why KMEC is not above Eminem and Pearl Jam on the iTunes chart, but rather how a better product (even if you think I suck at comedy (i.e. idiots), this album sucks least of anything I have produced) with better name recognition and better promotion can fare so much worse all for adding an $8.99/$9.99 price tag? This year has sort of been an experiment by me – if I offer quality products (blogs, videos, podcast appearances, podcasts, etc.) for free and then ask for people to pay for one comedy thing (the album), then all the free stuff and the effort would pay off with one nice pay day. But it did not really pan out.”
There’s one huge thing that J-L may have missed in this equation – he’s trying to sell a product that people may not want to buy.
People don’t really buy albums any more – certainly not in the numbers that they used to. Albums are essentially a product people don’t want to pay for – regardless of how much they may like J-L and his comedy, they just don’t value them as being worth their money.
The entire album industry has crumbled – both comedy and music. So no matter how great J-L’s promotion would have been, he was still going to be fighting an uphill battle to sell people a product that they’re not inclined to buy in the first place.
This Wall Street Journal article has some stats that you might find eye-opening: The 200 best selling comedy albums in 2011 combined sold just 2 million copies total, with the Lonely Island’s album selling the most copies that year with 215,000 sold. That means the average sales for a Top 200 comedy album (not counting the Lonely Island album) was less than 10,000 copies.
And that was two years ago – the numbers are probably worse this year.
So no matter what he would have done, it was going to be an uphill battle trying to sell an album in this climate.
A Failure Doesn’t Mean You’re Not On The Right Path To Success
“All things equal I have had 50,000 unique visitors to my website in 2013, had my podcast listener average increase from 200 to about 400+ people per week, gained over 310,000 YouTube views to name a few metrics, which were huge increases from 2012 and yet by charging $9.99 for an album instead of free, led to a massive drop off in downloads. I know this sounds like complaining, but it is really more confusion than anything else. I long ago gave up on getting rich from comedy, but this year has taught me that producing high quality content, building your circle of fans/viewers/listeners means little in increasing your bottom line, if you are truly a do-it-yourself artist.”
It’s great that J-L’s getting more traction to his website, podcast, and YouTube videos and I understand his frustration, but I think there’s a different way to view this. J-L’s been doing comedy for a while and is a veteran performer, but it’s only relatively recently that he’s committed to online content and growing his fanbase in a grassroots way.
And, just like it takes years to get good on stage, it takes years to build a fanbase online.
Most comics understand that it’s going to take the better part of a decade to get any traction with their act, but they seem to expect that building a fanbase online can happen much quicker. It doesn’t.
I understand why he would be frustrated by his album sales, but he really shouldn’t be. He’s making great progress online, getting better at creating and marketing his content, gaining attention, and learning how to convert that attention into fans. But no matter how good he is and how much progress he’s making, it takes time.
Hopefully, this frustration won’t get in the way of the progress he’s making because I really do think he’s on the right track to some pretty good stuff down the line. And the irony is there’s a lot of comedians out there who would be well served to do half of what he’s doing even in “failure.”