Four Ways to Sell Sound Effects – What to Avoid


Hard Drives

A long time ago I was offered a position as a staff editor at a post facility in Toronto.

At the time I had just moved back to Toronto after living in Montréal, France, Los Angeles, and Vancouver. I was broke. I had no clients. At the time the Airborne Sound library was tiny, and appeared in few stores.

I turned down the offer.

Today’s article is about choosing the right way to sell sound effects. After all, beginning selling a sound library is daunting. There are dozens of companies and scores of websites. Each sells sound effects differently. How do you do it? What’s the best way to get started?

It’s far easier than it seems. I’ve shared sound in various ways since around 2000. Despite the abundance of stores and libraries, there remain only four ways of selling sound effects. I’ll share them with you today. It’s important to know these before you begin selling sound. Why?

The first two methods no longer work. You must avoid these. The third, however, is thriving. And the fourth? It is the future of selling sound.

So, the goal of this article is to show you the advantages and hazards of each. This will help you make the best choice so you can share your sound library without risk, and reach the greatest amount of fans.

This week I’ll share two ways sound effects are sold. They’re dead, or are dying. Next week I’ll conclude the series by showing the future of selling sound effects.

What does this have to do with me turning down a job offer? I’ll explain at the end of the series.

How Sound Effects Are Sold

All sound shops sell libraries in one of four ways. This is true whether a company has a street address, or lives entirely online.

It doesn’t matter if they sell cars collections, cat sounds, or creature roars. That doesn’t particularly distinguish one shop type from another. After all, anyone can add sounds to their library to expand their repertoire.

Instead, the largest difference between the shops is:

  • How the libraries are packaged.
  • How the libraries are delivered.

They are closely linked. They determine the type of shop, and how sound effects are sold. The options are:

  1. Physical sound libraries.
  2. À la carte Web shops.
  3. Bundle Web shops.
  4. Crowdfunding.

Let’s look at each.

Physical Libraries


Sound effects were first sold and shared as physical libraries. In the 1980s, Sound Ideas sold sound effects on vinyl LPs. This evolved to CDs, and then DVDs. DVD libraries still exist, but they are being replaced by external hard drives packed with thousands of sound files.

This shop is the preferred choice for large sound libraries. It’s a way of selling sound effects in bulk.

At first, this would seem a good choice for both customers and the shops. Customers buy many sound effects for a low price. It also benefits the shops because it reduces their delivery cost: many sounds are delivered easily and cheaply.

However, the problem is that customers are forced to gamble. They will spend thousands of dollars, but may only use 40% of the sounds they buy. The percentage may vary. However, the main point is that there will always be a portion of the library that customers aren’t using. The lower bulk price is attractive. But think of it from another perspective: customers are wasting money paying for sound effects they don’t want.

Some shops still believe this is a good way to sell sound. It’s lucrative, after all. They can charge large amounts for selling a sound library packed in a physical form. There are considerable drawbacks, though. Production requires high design, manufacturing, and storage costs. Also, shops often need to manufacture a minimum of thousands of copies before they know if the collection will sell (this is a less harsh with hard drive libraries).

Also, these libraries must be physically delivered. I consulted for a company that shipped sound libraries. It was a nightmare. Shipping is often accompanied by logistical problems. Packages can be lost or damaged. It’s expensive to ship, and often companies must absorb the cost.

Selling sound on physical media is anachronistic. After all, sound files are intangible, and easily transmitted via the Web. Services like DropBox, YouSendIt, e-Junkie, and others make sending even large libraries easy. Also, sound editors often need clips quickly. Long shipments drag. It’s strange that some shops continue to ship physical collections.

A shop clinging to physical libraries is a sign they are irrelevant, or will be soon. Blockbuster tried the same technique and now no longer exist. It’s true that Netflix straddles both digital delivery and physical shipments. But, wisely, they want out of the physical delivery game. On July 11, 2011 they attempted to sever their physical and digital services, most likely in an effort to de-incentivize physical delivery. They reversed the decision later that year. It’s only a matter of time before this happens again, though. Netflix accounts for 33% of North American Web traffic, and is growing.

The days of delivering physical media are dwindling.

À La Carte Web Shops


In the early 2000’s, selling sound effects evolved. It became easy to digitize and store sound. The Internet allowed companies to share sound effects to thousands of customers with no delivery cost.

These shops host thousands of clips. They’re characterized by secure, powerful servers, complicated databases, and a checkout integrated within the site itself.

I call these à la carte Web shops. The term refers to picking single sounds from a vast collection, like selecting maki rolls from a sushi lunch menu.

This was the natural evolution of the physical library method. It makes sense. Packaged libraries force customers to pay for sounds they don’t need, although the disadvantage is offset by a compelling price. With these Web shops, customers could now select and pay for only the clips they want.

À la carte Web shops have another great advantage. They offer specialized sounds not offered elsewhere. These shops are often used to supplement existing libraries. Does your collection lack a Testarossa? Log onto your nearest à la carte website and fill the gaps in your library.

It seems like a great idea. However, this way of selling sound is dying. Why?

Well, these shops are difficult to maintain. A good à la carte Web shop is expensive. Fast Web servers are pricey. Bandwidth costs are startling. Often website code must be customized, and needs a dedicated programmer to maintain the shop. There’s also the matter of ensuring a checkout is secure, and that purchased files are delivered privately while the remaining library is safely hidden.

There’s another concern with these shops. Their highly sophisticated technology is impressive, but can also be a liability. Servers die, code breaks, hackers prod for vulnerabilities, and interface bugs appear. The price to fix these problems is immense.

And that’s only the technical requirements. Shops without sound librarians to curate them become a tangled flea market of audio files.

This contributes to a problem also seen with packaged libraries: bloat. Most à la carte libraries have merely dumped their libraries online. These shops become packed with hundreds of thousands of sound effects. Sure, a customer can choose a clip from amongst the collection. They problem? It’s hard to find the right track.


  • Accuracy. While Google is able to provide accurate results for website searches, it’s not the same with sound effect shops. Sound effect search engines are primitive. Results are often inaccurate. After all, search results are returned via text. The relationship between the text description and the audio may be fuzzy. It depends on the collection’s librarian’s descriptive skills, if a librarian is even on staff at all. A way of searching via sonic qualities (waveforms, amplitude, density) would solve this problem, but is hard to implement.
  • Lack of context. Most database search engines are designed for searching text documents. À la carte websites don’t accommodate for critical industry-terms. While text can return results for specific terms like “POV,” “PZM,” or “medium-distant,” their context to the audio is rarely accommodated in search results.
  • Unreliable search engines. Many sites stack the results so their native library is displayed before others. That’s like Bing showing only Microsoft websites for the first ten pages. Some à la carte websites do this too. That benefits the Web shop, but how does it help the customer?
  • Poor previews. Digitization is a double-edged sword. While it allows audio to be stored accurately and easily, this means it can also stolen. Because of this, many sites lower the quality of their previews to discourage piracy. It’s hard to tell what you’re buying.

The result? À la carte sites become packed with thousands of substandard sound effects that are hard to find. No one has time to peck through hundreds of metal impacts.

They remain relevant in some ways, however. À la carte Web shops are a destination. They’re the Walmarts and Targets of sound effects. You know you can visit them and have a reasonable chance of finding a usable clip, even if it does take some time to do this.

All this traffic is attractive to independent libraries. Distributing your libraries on these Web shops is still a good bet, if only for the amount of people that will arrive there. This carries little risk for independent sound designers who wish to sell their collection online. Their only requirements are a decent sound library, preparation, and agreeing to split sales of your sounds with the Web shop.

Many toy or clothing companies see Walmart as a goldmine. It’s the same with sound libraries. À la carte Web shops make it easy for a small sound library to reach millions of people. In fact, I’m convinced this is the best way for new recordists to begin selling sound. My upcoming book, Selling Creative Sound, explains how to do this.

But owning an à la carte Web shop? Not a great idea.

While they are still common, their peak has passed. I’ve watched traffic trickle away from these sites, and from physical distribution shops. Some stores attempt to cut losses by blending physical with digital distribution. This diffuses their message, and only accelerates the decline.

Making the Right Choice

Don’t mistake me. Thousands of people crave sound effects. The audio isn’t the problem. It’s the way that sound libraries are packaged, presented, and shared.

A successful solution demands you use a better way of creating sound libraries, and giving them to people eager to support you.

In the next post I’ll describe how this is done. I’ll share the two final ways of selling libraries, and why they are the future of sharing sound effects.

And I’ll explain how you too can chose the best way to place your collection in the hands, and ears, of your fans.

Learn more next week.

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