What Are You Worth?

Maybe the weather was particularly bad throughout much of the country Saturday, because what started as a humorous Facebook comment from Out With the Kids' Jeff Bogle turned into a full-on thrashing of music award sites, both by Jeff and others in the family music business.

[Note: I've edited this post with some additional comments, noted in italics.]

Now, the weather in Phoenix was lovely on Saturday, and we were tired from hosting a large party the night before, so we spent a lot of time being lazy or being outside. Not, in other words, in front of computer. But I thought I'd add my two cents' worth to the debate.

The first thought I had was, "this isn't new." If you read through the Facebook comments, you'll see more than one person reference always-good-for-a-money-quote Kathy O'Connell, who at the 2009 edition of Kindiefest called programs that give awards out to good CDs, "sticker scams," based on the fact that winning CDs receive (or get to buy) rolls of stickers that the artists can put on their CDs. But unease in the kindie world predates Kathy's two-word distillation. Nearly three years ago, I discussed these types of awards, programs such as the Parents' Choice Awards, who currently charge $250 for an audio entry (not to mention fees for use of the seal and their stickers). I didn't take a strong view one way or another other than to say such awards are useless to folks like myself who've heard just about everything they'd be considering. My purpose in publishing the post was more to solicit opinions from musicians and others on the value of such awards. People willing to respond had a more negative view of the process, but that could be just as much due to people's tendency to complain rather than to comment, "yeah, it seems fine to me." I would also note that even I wasn't the first -- Amy Davis tackled the issue way more than four years ago.
But beyond that, if you're an artist, what do you do? Well, I'm not an artist, but I might suggest some math.

Hey, wait -- where's everyone going?

Seriously, allow me to explain.

Awards such as these should basically be considered as part of an artist's overall promotional push and therefore should be evaluated as whether or not the cost of the potential additional notoriety is less than the potential benefit.

Let me subject myself to the analysis. As you probably know, I occasionally review kids music for NPR's All Things Considered (which I'm still totally geeked about). For sake of argument that I review 2 albums a year on air. Also for the sake of argument that I get about 200 albums each for which the artists harbor some small dream that I might pick their album to review on the air. (I get more than that, but some just aren't thinking about NPR.) So that means, all else being equal, an album sent to me has a 1% chance of being reviewed on NPR.

I know, I know, all else isn't equal, and though I try my best to be fair, you (the artist) might feel I'm not going to give your album a proper shake. Or maybe you think I'm particularly predisposed to like you. Whatever -- the key takeaway here regardless of who you're submitting to is that you have to know your audience and adjust the percentage accordingly. Feel free to say that I'm being overly generous to my sense of fairness and that your percentage is too high.

Or maybe it's too low. Again, you have to know your audience, just like I have to know mine. I like to think I'm fairly broad in my coverage of subgenres and artists, but I can't be too broad. I have to provide some editorial focus. That focus is different from other sites. Your job as a reader is too find the sites which either: a) cater to your musical interest, or b) cater to your reading/viewing interest, making you interested in stuff you might not be otherwise. (There are a ton of articles in "The New Yorker" that I would never read if the subjects were covered in a different magazine.)

Your job as an artist... well, as the saying goes, on the internet, all you have is your word. (Well, the saying also goes, on the internet, nobody knows you're a dog, but I'm digressing into "The New Yorker" again.) Which is to say, getting a review on a site that reviews pretty much anything and everything favorably is pretty much worthless. Your trick is to find a curated site that most closely aligns with your music.

What does that 1% chance of a review at any site cost you? Well, for me, it costs you, let's say, $3, which covers the cost of reproducing a physical album and the cost of mailing it to me. (Free mp3s sent across the internet make this equation impossible, and are also generally prohibited by these awards organizations.) Again, your cost may be higher or lower.

And what does that 1% potentially get you? Well, I have no hard data on the number of albums sold post-NPR piece, but I think that 500 albums is probably a good ballpark figure. Assuming that you're netting $10 per album (another figure you're welcome to change), then that's a 1% shot at $5,000.

Bringing it home then, for $3, you have a 1% shot at $5,000. If you do that math ($3 gets you $50), it's pretty good, I think. Now, it's a lottery (sort of), and so those benefits are distributed unequally -- meaning, 2 artists will get $5,000 and the rest get nothing. But the equation is same for every system. You could do the equation for a review on this very website (or any other website or magazine, or radio station, for that matter). You have a higher likelihood of getting a review on this site than on NPR, but I'm pretty sure that a glowing review on this website doesn't immediately translate into an additional 500 albums sold.

How does that compare to Parents' Choice? Well, I don't what goes into parts of their equation. But if you're willing to make some assumptions, you just need to solve for this equation:

Cost of entry <= Percent likelihood of award * Increased sales from award * Amount of sale returned to artist

If you look at the site Jeff refers to (which will go unnamed here and which, when I was first tipped off to it more than a couple months ago, I decided to ignore entirely and hadn't visited since), you can also do this equation.

Cost of entry = $78 ($75 + $3 for mailing CD) vs. 33% chance of award (some of you may feel I'm being generous) and increased sales of... what?

Well, you can flip the equation a little bit -- if $78 gets you a 33% chance of winning, then you can also solve for x as follows:

$78 / 33% = x / 1%... x = $2.60

So, $2.60 buys you a 1% chance of an award from that site. $2.60 is about 87% of $3.00, so if you think winning an award there will generate you $4,333 of additional sales, then that site's a better deal than sending your disk to me. Even if you assume that paying your fee will guarantee a review, it had better generate $1,300 of additional sales to be a better deal than sending it to me and taking your 1% NPR chance.

FidsAndKamily.jpgOK, for those of you who checked out during the math discussion, you can come back now. One of the purposes of creating the Fids and Kamily Awards was to honor good family music in a way that didn't require the artists to pay a fee. So while I don't know how much impact doing well in F&K has, it's a no-cost opportunity. (I'd also suggest that albums that doing well in F&K are doing well elsewhere -- after all, Justin Roberts not only placed first in this year's award, he was also nominated for a Grammy.)

I suspect that PR folks would believe that submitting albums for review and award submissions is part of a portfolio for artists and their music. Nobody cares about one review, but get fourteen good ones, and then folks might start paying attention. (That's sort of the philosophy behind F&K, for what it's worth.) It's the portfolio of positive press that gets people's attention, not the single review. I mean, I assure you that reviewers "in the industry" don't care one bit that I or Jeff or Bill or Amberly reviewed or played your album when they get your PR materials. I suppose that others who don't necessarily follow this genre on a daily basis are more impressed by a series of pull-quotes. But it's that series of quotes, not the individual reviews, that matter.

But you, artists, need to think wisely about what you're worth, and where you want to put your time, talent, and treasure, to use a phrase from another setting. You've spent a lot of time putting music to paper, and then to disk. Where do you hustle to get people to listen to that music, to buy that music? Time sending music to me (or whomever) is time you could be doing something else with your musical efforts -- playing live? Writing songs? Practicing? And only you can decide how to balance all those different parts of your musical life.

To put it another way -- could you spend that $250 entry fee in another way that, in the long run, makes a bigger impact on sales? Could you spend it on, say, an hour of recording time with a couple extra string players or horn players? Would that $3 CD sent to a random reviewer be better served given to someone locally, like maybe the booker at the local indie rock club or the local children's media librarian? Or would you get more value from that $75 entry fee by putting it toward Kindiefest registration. (Let me answer that last one -- most definitely you'd get more value from the Kindiefest registration.)

There is no right answer to those questions, and they'll be different for every artist. I have no doubt that many artists think about these decisions every week. But I think it's important that artists really consider how they're going to make their music as good as it can be, and then how they're going to get that music heard. And the only way to do that is to make explicit these choices and the returns they're going to get from each decision.

As for me, I've had a couple ideas in the back of my mind for awhile that would address the information asymmetry the general public has regarding kids music (and which leads to people thinking that they need awards programs to guide their selections). Perhaps this will spur me to get those balls rolling. And those balls are now starting to roll.