December 2005

Selling independent music on Ebay

Sean McManus interviews Robin Cowpertwait about how he sold over 100 copies of his independent CD on Ebay.

If you haven't heard of Ebay, you're either new to the internet or you've been living under a rock for the last ten years. Founded in 1995, Ebay is the world's car boot sale with virtually everything available to buy there, either at a fixed price or by auction. Ebay users trade more more than $1,381 worth of goods every second, across sites in 33 countries. Books, movies and music accounts for 22% of Ebay's trade by value. Wouldn't you like to tap into this market of 157 million registered users?

Robin Cowpertwait, who records as 'Crazy Quilt Bouquet' has done just that. In six months, he's sold 126 copies of his Midfielder CD (pictured, right) to paying customers via Ebay. Although that is some way off winning a gold disc, it is a long way ahead of most people who contact me through this site. The CD is advertised at 99p and costs a total of £2 including post and packing. Robin doesn't make any profit on the sales, but his priority is to distribute the music without being out of pocket.

CD Cover: Crazy Quilt Bouquet's Midfielder "The reason for selling at break-even level is primarily because I want my stuff to get heard over and above making money out of it," he says. "There may actually be a chance of someone forking out two quid and liking what I do - which is better than asking for a fiver and not getting any interest. As long as I'm not losing money, then I'm happy to know that my music is perhaps occasionally being played in someone's house or head and that my tunes and words might actually be being sung by someone as they walk along the street (although I've not come across this yet!). I'm still at that innocent stage of getting a thrill from the idea that just one person might be listening to something I've created - and that it could be happening now!"

"I'd been recording my own music for many years and was frustrated at the lack of opportunities to get it heard," he says. "The two choices available seemed to be sending copies off to record companies and if I was very lucky getting back standard replies along the lines of 'Thanks for thinking of us, we get loads, not really our cup of tea, best of luck for the future, etc' or playing stuff to friends & family. That always results in either uncomfortable silence and the shuffling of feet or undeserved and overwhelming praise!"

Looking for an audience, his first idea was to leave CDs in cafes, bars and shops for people to pick up. "I quickly realised that firstly I'd be out of pocket," he says, "and secondly, a completely untargeted audience was probably not a good idea. I wouldn't receive any feedback or even know if anyone had listened to them or liked them. That is the same as sending it off to record companies really."

Robin was already familiar with Ebay, having used it to sell other artists' DVDs and CDs from his collection. He put two and two together, and decided to start marketing his own CD on Ebay.

Crazy Quilt who?

The first challenge Robin faced was convincing Ebayers to plump for his CD. On Ebay, you're up against some of the world's best and most famous music, often at bargain basement prices. How do you get someone to discover your unsigned masterpiece?

While nobody is searching for 'Crazy Quilt Bouquet' yet, there are plenty of people searching for acts that are similar or that have similar influences, and Robin uses that to ensnare them. "I now advertise under things like 'Billy Bragg, Neil Finn, Squeeze? try CQB' and then if people get as far as checking it out, state in the blurb how this is a way of promoting independent music as opposed to trying to sound like anyone else. It's taken a long time and many attempts to get this anywhere near right. But unfortunately, if no one's heard of you it's down to hitching a ride on the back of others."

He adds: "It's important not to advertise your own stuff through using names of artists that really have no connection or similarity at all. If you sound like Mary, Mungo and Midge perhaps don't advertise yourself under Motorhead, Meatloaf and Megadeth!"

You need to take care not to fall foul of Ebay's listing policy, which says:

Keyword spamming, using inappropriate brand names or other words referenced for the purpose of attracting buyers to a listing, is not permitted...

Examples of keyword spamming that are not permitted...The inclusion of words as a means to attract viewers via eBay search engines that do not truly describe the actual item.

Robin had his knuckles rapped once. "I once put a search heading containing 7 short names - which would of course have got a lot more hits - but I got pulled up on it," he says. "It seems that 3 or 4 different names in a search heading is okay as I've not been stopped doing that. Although it maybe just a matter of time."

There was an incident where a customer misinterpreted the advert 'Like Neil Finn? Try CQB'. Robin says: "Unfortunately, and I guess understandably, this was taken by this one person to mean 'This is like NF' whereas in fact it was saying 'Do you like NF?' A subtle but potentially damaging difference!"

Satisfaction guaranteed

Robin offers a money-back guarantee with his auctions, and extended the offer of a refund to the unhappy Neil Finn fan, who declined it. "I suppose the offer of a guarantee, if I'm honest, is an attempt at guaranteeing a smaller chance of any negative feedback getting on Ebay if someone doesn't like what I do," says Robin. "Music after all is very much a personal choice and no one can really tell anyone else what he or she should or shouldn't like. So far (touch wood) I haven't had to give a refund. It's very hard to get people to look outside the box, so I guess you have to offer them something they cannot possibly lose out on."

Positive feedback

Ebay has a system where buyers and sellers can leave feedback for each other when a sale concludes. The feedback can be rated as positive, neutral or negative and can be supplemented with a short comment. All the positive feedback is added up and the negative feedback is subtracted, leaving all Ebayers with a score. The higher the score, the more credible the trader appears to be and the easier it will be for them to attract future buyers.

"If you do sell any copies you can expect feedback, good and bad, that will affect your status as an Ebay seller and your confidence and moral if you're oversensitive about your unrecognised genius!" says Robin. "Fortunately I've been lucky enough to receive a lot of positive feedback, which I have to say is still very very exciting to me. At the last calculation 67% of Midfielder buyers left positive comments specifically about the CD, which I find astonishing, and an overall 85% left positive feedback. To have people posting encouraging comments has been one of the most amazing and uplifting things I've experienced since I started writing and recording music. It's a risk to put your stuff out there and fragile egos don't respond too well to criticism - but they react fantastically well to unprompted praise."

Sparking Solarise sales?

So are these sales a one-off, or are they the start of a happy relationship with CQB? "I have to say that the Midfielder CD on Ebay has not been very successful in attracting people to my other CDs," admits Robin. "There are two available on Solarise Records (site down as at June 2009) and I've only sold two each of these on the back of Ebay. A few people can be persuaded to leave positive feedback on the Solarise site after having done so on Ebay - but only a few. I've recently sent out emails to 84 buyers of Midfielder offering them the two other much longer 17 & 18 track CDs at £4 each (an advantage of Ebay selling is that you build up an emailing list) but so far I haven't received a single reply. So it doesn't do to build your hopes too high."

He concludes: "Having said all that - I'm really happy to have got my stuff out there to some people and to have got such a positive response. 126 takers might not seem many in the big scheme but in my very small-scale scheme it's more than I had hoped for. Just getting the positive comments has made it worthwhile. And you never know, one day someone with influence might buy Midfielder on a whim, promote me beyond my wildest dreams and turn me into a 'Super Ego' with money to burn. In the meantime just the occasional purchase of a 'home-made' CD and some kind words will suffice."

If you'd like to follow in Robin's footsteps, your first step is to register on Good luck!

Update: 1 June 2006

Robin has now sold over 300 CDs on ebay, but has had to revise his strategy. He writes: "I've fallen foul of the Ebay keyword spamming policy a few times. It seems that it's not ok to have two or three accompanying names in a listing title after all - and I've now been reduced to just one. Additionally, I've realised that 'they' don't want the words 'like', 'try', or 'similar', or any other so-called comparison words to be used. Oh and they don't like anyone using the term 'feedback' in a title for some reason! I'm currently using listing titles such as "Billy Bragg. Something Else. See Comments!", which is a bit convoluted but seems to still work."

In a more recent article, you can find out how to sell your music on iTunes and Amazon.


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