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Promo envelope

As a result of the Humphreys and Keen thing over the past week, I’ve been thinking a fair bit about promos – free copies of albums sent to people in an attempt to find and build an audience – with the end goal of selling some records.

When I ran an independent jazz label back in the late 1990s, conventional wisdom was pretty simple: press 1000 CDs, and send out 100-200 of those copies as promos to influential people with radio shows, television programmes, newspaper columns and so on.

It was a bit of a lottery, and usually your record would either get a cursory mention in passing, or – most often – no mention at all.

2-step theory
Whenever you did get a mention, however, it was cause for celebration. Because we knew that despite the fact that the people who browsed the record review section of the Howick and Pakuranga Times were a reasonably select group, and that probably hardly any of them acted on what they read in any economic sense, there was a principle working in our favour.

The 2-step theory of influence suggests that people would read the review, and even if they did nothing about it, maybe they’d mention it to a few of their friends. And when those friends saw the record in the CD store, they’d recognise the title, think to themselves ‘Oh yeah – I think I’ve heard that’s good’ – and give it a try.

That was the theory we were working with, and we were sticking to it. All the same, you were always far more likely to fall at the first hurdle. I dread to think how many copies we sent out that never even made it to the top of the listening pile.

And that’s the problem when you’re dealing with the traditional tastemakers and gatekeepers – there’s a huge amount of competition for attention, and the whole thing’s a complete lottery.

Planting seeds
But when you’re dealing with 500 copies of vinyl, and an ostensibly limitless supply of digital downloads, it’s time to work with a new theory. You can still play the lottery, of course, but you can also use another metaphor: gardening.

With the Humphreys and Keen record, instead of simply taking a punt on people with massive audiences, we’ve taken the decision to plant a lot of seeds. Conversation, when used well, is a much more effective tool than broadcasting.

I’ve sent promo copies of the album – in its entirety as 320k mp3s, or as full lossless CD-quality files if they prefer – to people that fulfill the following rigorous criteria:

1) I already know and like them personally; and
2) I think might enjoy the record.

Most of these people do not have radio programmes, newspaper columns, or TV shows. Most of them have fewer than 100 friends on Facebook, and many do not have MySpace accounts. Several are on Twitter, but by no means all of them.

These are actual friends and acquaintances. I’ve at least met and chatted with every single one of them. Most of them I’ve had a drink with at some point, and the vast majority of them do not work in media. All of them, I would happily invite into my house.

They’re just good people who like good music.

And you know what’s most different about them? Hardly any of them EVER receive album promos. It’s noteworthy. Remarkable. Something to talk about with their friends.

And it’s that sort of conversation (and the fact that the H&K record is a really marvellous album) that starts buzz.

I’ve asked everyone else directly involved with the record to come up with a list of as many people they know and like who would appreciate the album, so we can send them a download code too.

We have to know them personally, and be able to send them a unique, personalised message that pretty much just says:

“Good to catch up with you on Friday. By the way, I’m working with this record. It’s really great – I think you’ll like it. It’d be really cool if you had a copy. Hope you enjoy it.”

Or (appropriate) words to that effect. And that’s it. Not “please tell everyone” or “here are a few tracks, and if you like it, please buy it”. Just “I really like this, and I think you will too. Here y’go…”

It’s just a theory
Conventional lottery-thinking would see this as madness. If you don’t get the five star Mojo review, the write-up in The Observer or the review slot on a cable TV show, the last people you want to be giving freebies to are your friends. They might end up being the only people in the world who’ll buy the damn thing.

But my theory is that there is virtually no end to the potential market for a really good record. It needs to find people and connect with them, and it has to be out there in the wilderness, outside of your control, in order to do that.

Fortunately, there’s also no end to the number of promo copies you have in stock. In fact, when you do it this way, they’re not ‘promos’ – they’re gifts for friends.

Worst case scenario, people you like will also have an album you love. Brilliant.

Best case scenario, they’ll mention it – or even play it to their friends. It’ll show up in their Last.fm profile. They might do a Facebook status update or send out a tweet. They could put it on in their car while they drive someone somewhere.

I tell you what they’re not going to do: leave it under a pile of other un-listened-to albums that turned up this week and are all competing for their precious attention.

Gardening is harder than the lottery
I should probably mention: it’s hard giving albums away like this. It’s not just a case of simply printing out mailing labels from a database of press contacts, and stuffing CDs in envelopes.

It’s about going through your personal contacts (real, proper, personal friends – not ‘MySpace friends’), thinking about the people involved, and whether they would actually appreciate the record.

Then it’s about contacting them in their preferred manner – mine were mostly emails and Facebook messages – with the digital equivalent of a hand-written note that says ‘I thought of you for this – and here’s why’.

But I suspect, like gardening, the results are worth the effort. That’s not to say you shouldn’t still do the lottery thing – but I think that’s a game with diminishing returns.

Organic, naturally-occurring word-of-mouth recommendation is an incredibly powerful thing – especially when amplified exponentially online.