Back in the late 1980s when Jane's Addiction was in its prime, I saw an interview where front man Perry Farrell was asked about sales figures for their albums. His response: "If I wanted to sell records, I'd work in a record store." He knew that the key to success was touring, which the band did almost incessantly for about three years.
Flash forward 20 years, and it's harder than ever for artists to make a living selling CDs. According to a report in the Chicago Tribune, a speaker at the Future of Music Coalition gave a breakdown of album numbers that will be particularly shocking to young independent bands who hoped they'd be able to make a living selling discs. More than 115,000 new albums were released in the U.S. last year. Of those, 110 sold more than 250,000 copies in the U.S. last year--that's not such a surprise, as big stars have always been rare. But only 1,500 titles cracked the 10,000 mark, and fewer than 6,000 sold a paltry 1,000 copies.
To give you some idea what 1,000 copies means, that used to be the standard manufacturing run for self-produced CDs. Indie bands imagined that they would use a hundred or so discs for publicity--sending them to radio stations and reviewers, for instance--and then sell the rest to local fans and on tour. Selling 900 CDs at $12 a pop would gross almost $11,000, which would be enough to cover low-budget recording and manufacturing expenses and perhaps buy some new guitar pedals and drumheads. Nobody makes a living selling 1,000 CDs. (Nowadays, bands can order reasonably priced smaller runs from companies like Disc Makers, and even use manufacturing-on-demand from services like Audiolife and Amazon's CreateSpace.)
What about 10,000 discs? If you're just starting out, making over $100,000 from CD sales sounds like a dream. Of course, you have to split that money among the band members, and anybody else who gets a cut, like the producer and manager. And if you're signed to a label, you might already be that deep into the hole for your advance and recording expenses, so forget about royalties and just hope they'll pay you an advance for the next one. At 10,000 copies, you're probably getting a little radio play somewhere, so you might earn a few small paychecks from publishing royalties, and if you've got a good live act and are willing to tour endlessly, you might be able to sell more tickets than CDs over the course of a year. So perhaps 10,000 is the low-end baseline for making a living playing music.
Of the new titles released last year, almost 99 percent of them didn't sell enough copies to let their creators earn a living from CD sales, and almost 95 percent of them didn't sell enough copies to cover the most basic expenses involved in their recording.
You still think your unsigned band's good enough to be in that slim line? Remember that these figures include CDs released by well-established artists like Bob Dylan and new artists who are the lucky recipients of massive publicity pushes by major labels.
For an unknown band just starting out? Better polish those chops and gas up the van, then get ready to live on ramen noodles for a couple years. And don't worry about devaluing your recordings by selling them cheap or giving them away--worry about getting enough fans to hear them so they'll be interested in coming to your shows, and dragging a few friends with them.