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Music Print Ads: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

by Bob Baker

Whether you've spent thousands on four-color ads in national magazines or just $50 to place a small display ad in your local music rag, chances are you've advertised your music at one time or another. Maybe you advertise a lot. Either way, the more successful your band or record label becomes, the more likely it will be that you'll steer your promotional budget into ad dollars.

Some bands and record labels simply slap an ad together at the last minute and run with it -- all the while feeling good that they are "advertising" their music. Others go crazy with cutting-edge artwork or a quirky idea that amuses the band members. But do these ads serve the real purpose for advertising in the first place?

To be effective, your ad needs to implant your band name and identity into the minds of music consumers (or industry types, if you're advertising in a trade paper). If it's not, it's dead weight. Your ad needs to make a compelling offer and inspire people to take action to get or hear your music. If it's not, you're simply spending money to stroke your ego instead of get results.

Here are my thoughts on some display ads I randomly found while flipping through some national music magazines.

  • Tooth & Nail Records -- based in Seattle -- ran a full-page, four-color ad in Alternative Press to promote 11 of its releases. The page had the label name at the top, all 11 album covers with band names, titles and formats listed. Address, phone and web site were displayed at the bottom.

I guess if you're having your recordings distributed to retail outlets, you don't want to rub store owners the wrong way by being too blatant about asking for direct sales from consumers in ads -- even though they are more profitable for you. You can gain more clout with indie distributors by backing up your records, tapes and CDs with "national advertising." But if you encourage buyers to make purchases from you instead of them, why should the stores bother?

I'm certain that's the case with Tooth & Nail -- and if so, this ad performs its marketing function while also including enough contact info for serious fans to reach the label directly. However, if your label were not relying heavily on retail distribution for sales, this ad would provide only generic "image" promotion a bad move for a record company on a tight budget.

  • Here's a great one. A full-page ad from New York City's Grass Records. Apparently, the powers at this label took 10 of their bands and put together a 20-song sampler CD called Grass of '96. Then they put it on sale at Best Buy for only $1.99. (Great strategy: Get the music into people's ears cheap up front, then make your money on the back end through future sales.) The ad points out that each sampler CD contains a $3 mail-in rebate good towards the purchase of any full-length Grass Records CD. Of course, those titles are also available at Best Buy.

The ad then shows four of those full-length album covers with blurbs from the press under each describing the music. (You should know I'm a big fan of marketers who let consumers know what kind of music a band plays.) The ultra-hip labels might like to shroud their ads in mystery, but the bands and labels that clearly communicate and provide sales incentives are the ones that will come out on top. (This should go without saying, but here it is anyway: Of course, the music has to be good and meaningful for any band to truly succeed. Okay, I feel better now.)

The Grass page ends with a plea to contact the label and join its fan club. Web site, toll-free 800 number and address options are provided. All the ingredients are here for a very effective ad.

  • The first time I glanced at the full-page ad from San Diego's Re-Construction/Cargo Music, I had serious doubts. Graphically, it was far too busy even for an ad that promoted industrial and sythcore acts. Lots of various, disjointed artwork and type mushed together in an uninviting visual stew. But upon closer examination, it fared far better.

What I liked most about this ad were the descriptions of each band. Not only did they describe the music, but most weren't squeamish about making comparisons to other bands (example: "...should appeal to fans of Cop Shoot Cop and Filter"). When introducing yourself to the public through ads, don't be afraid to give people a point of reference. The small type at the bottom of this ad did ask fans to write for a free catalog. Address and web site info were included.

  • Epitaph Records' half-page, black and white ad in the Illinois Entertainer scored some points. First, the headline for the ad reads "You scratch my back and I'll STAB YOURS." That's clever and attention-getting. Second, the ad promoted the Epitaph Hotline, which you could call to hear song samples of any of the five bands shown in the ad. Now there's a fresh way of getting people to hear new music by only risking a long-distance phone charge. When you call to hear the music samples, let's assume that complete ordering info is provided (since no other contact info is in the ad). By the way, the number is (213) I-Offend.

Now here are some problems with the ad: There are no descriptions whatsoever of the bands' music. Sure, the hotline is there so you can find out for yourself, but I'd be a lot more inclined to call if I knew some of this music was anywhere near the ballpark of what I already like. Sorry, but the back-stabbing reference in the headline doesn't quite narrow it down. Also, the hotline is mentioned in relatively small type at the bottom of the ad -- almost as an afterthought. It should be the primary focus of the ad, especially since few other labels are doing it.

I hope this critique inspires you to start getting a lot more bang for your advertising buck.


Bob Baker is the author of "Guerrilla Music Marketing Handbook," "Unleash the Artist Within" and "Branding Yourself Online." He also publishes TheBuzzFactor.com, a web site and e-zine that have been delivering marketing tips and inspirational messages to music people of all kinds since 1995. Get your FREE subscription to Bob's e-zine by visiting http://TheBuzzFactor.com today.

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