It’s that time again.
Sound fx library Black Friday promotions have begun to appear. Naturally, sound library fans and sound editors are thrilled with discounts and promotions. Who doesn’t love a good sound library deal?
Black Friday deals seem like an obvious win-win scenario: audio fans get sound libraries for a bargain, and publishers have their best business all year. That’s how things appear on the surface. What isn’t as clear is the effect of this on sound publishers themselves and the sound sharing industry in general.
This is an article for the field recordists that share their sound libraries online. Have you noticed your sales dropping? Bombarded by distributor sale requests? Getting less of a return with each discount you share? This article explains why this is happening and what you can do to help reinvigorate your sound sharing business.
Please note: I explore this concept in detail. This post should take you around 15 minutes to read. No time now? No problem. Click the button below to email the article to yourself to read later.
Mixing Art with Commerce
I’ve been selling sound effects for nearly 20 years. In that time I’ve seen the market change a lot. Prominent field recordists have retired. Major websites have risen and collapsed. My point? The ideas here are not taken from the past two years. They’re part of a broader effect of injecting commerce into the art of field recording.
While I wrote this post to help everyone, I expect some may perceive the ideas as controversial. Keep in mind they’re not intended to talk about any one particular publisher or distributor. After all, most field recordists are creators. They have no experience with marketing. It’s understandable that people will lack experience merging art and commerce.
Instead, this post is about a trend: a shift in the way field recordings are being created, shared, and used. My hope is that the ideas help generate discussion about what is happening to sound selling strategies now, and how they may be affected in the future. It’s something I hope you – as a publisher – will consider during the holiday sales season.
I’m sure every independent sound library recordist remembers their first bundle sale. It’s inspiring to know others appreciate what you create, and to know – in some small way – that you’re helping spread better audio across sound projects worldwide. The goal of this post is help keep that alive.
A Brief History of Sound FX Bundles
It wasn’t too long ago that indie sound libraries arrived on the scene. Now, over ten years later, these themed bundles of clips from independent sound pros have become incredibly popular. They offer boutique recordings of specialized subjects – from cameras to Kalashnikovs and parrots to Paris sounds – crafted with exquisite detail just the way game audio and post production pros prefer. As of late 2020, Sound Effects Search, a non-profit index of indie libraries, lists over 3200 libraries from nearly 250 Web shops.
As the market for these libraries have matured, so has the method of sharing them. While they were once offered only from a field recordist’s own website, more recently they have been hosted from distribution sites such as A Sound Effect, Sonniss, and We Sound Effect.
The field is incredibly competitive. As a result, each of these distributors – as well as the recordists themselves – offer discounts, perks, and promotions to tempt customers to their websites.
You’ve probably noticed that sound library sales have become predictable. They’ll pop up in the spring, summer, and of course on Black Friday and during Christmas. Many vendors have deep discounts when they launch their collections. Other shops offer torrents of hundreds of gigabytes, free of charge.
The are benefits to sales, especially for new publishers. It’s the path most people take when they begin selling sound. However, I’ve seen how sales and discounts have affected the growth of those new sound libraries, as well as the industry as a whole. I now am convinced that the current pattern of sound library discounts are having a destructive effect for indie sound libraries and the industry in general. Why?
3 Sound Library Sale Pitfalls
There are three troublesome sales strategies that are common in the sound library sharing world. Each of them is slowly eroding the viability of independent sound libraries. They are:
- Consistent sales. Some Web shops have sales every year during spring, summer, Black Friday, and Christmas. Similarly, some vendors have sales every time they launch a new library.
- Low-priced sound libraries. These are vendors that sell content at 20% (or less) of the average sound library price. Some libraries sell hundreds of gigabytes for less than $20. In essence, these sound libraries are the same as a holiday sale that doesn’t end.
- Mass giveaways. Shops or recordists that share torrents of hundreds of gigabytes all day, every year.
Why are these a problem? The main trouble is that they are predictable and unlimited.
Let’s learn more.
J. C. Penney and Sound Libraries
Department store J. C. Penney had been in trouble for years. By the time of the Great Recession in 2008, they had been losing market share and had been forced to close stores. They hired Ron Johnson to restore their brand. Johnson had led Apple to great success for over ten years before. Within 2 years, he was fired. Why? The reason shares an excellent example why sound library sales are troublesome.
Before Johnson, J. C. Penney had become known as a discount store. People shopped there because they knew they would always find deals. When Johnson began, they offered 590 promotions a year. He changed it to 12. What happened?
Johnson noticed that people stopped buying. They had become so accustomed to sales that they wouldn’t purchase at regular price. To make matters worse, Johnson noticed that the discount had to be increased for each successive promotion to capture their attention. So, while the first few sales at 10% were a success, it later took 15% off to capture customers’ interest. Eventually, Johnson discovered that no one would buy unless a product was 60% off. Of course, each sale would give the store a big boost of cash. However, the profit remained the same. The result? To achieve the same amount of cash, J. C. Penney had to discount more each time.
When Johnson replaced the 590 discounts with “fair and square” regular pricing, customers faded away. They had become addicted to discounts. When the prices were normalized, they felt their purchase wasn’t worth it. Of course, the prices had merely returned to their original rate. But that didn’t matter. What mattered was that customers felt that without the perpetual sales, the perceived value of J. C. Penney’s products had decreased.
The Risk of Sound Library Sales
This is what is beginning to happen to sound libraries right now. Of course, sound clips are completely different from clothing. That’s true. What is the same is how people respond to incentives.
What problems do discounts, sales, and promotions have create for sound fx libraries?
- Price wars.
- Eroding trust & questioning value.
- Lack of confidence in your sound library.
- Setting problematic precedents.
- Defining your creations by price.
Let’s learn more.
1. Price Wars
You’ve just released your new barking dog sound library. You decide to price it at 50% off to create some buzz. However, another field recordist introduces his own puppy sound library, at the same price, but 60% off.
What do you do? Or course customers prefer to save more money with the 60% discount. In a desperate effort to regain attention, you offer 65% off. They respond with a 70% discount… And so it continues: a race to the bottom.
Price wars are repeated price cuts designed to outdo a competitor. Unless your catalog is large and can withstand endless deep discounts, price wars will erode profits with endless oneupmanship.
2. Eroding Trust & Questioning Value
At first, a customer may be delighted to purchase a discounted sound library. However, when sales are frequent, they may begin to lose trust in the publisher or Web shop. After all, a customer may wonder how it is possible to discount sound libraries. Surely the publisher is still profiting, even during sales? If that’s true, then why charge a regular price? It leads the customer to question: what is the real value? The sale price, or the regular price?
This is especially true for sound effects. After all, sound libraries don’t take up floor space like retail products. There’s no need to clear out old stock to make room for more. They don’t spoil. So why are they discounted in the first place? Unlike physical products, sound libraries typically don’t have a good reason for a discount. If they can happen at any time, why don’t they happen all the time?
In addition to this, unlike physical products, sound library costs are hard to quantify. For instance, a mobile phone has a minimum component price. The price is guided by the price of the screen, the transistors, chips, and so on. There is a known, absolute bottom level that a phone can be sold at without losing money. This isn’t as clear for field recordings, for either publishers or customers. This is exacerbated by discounts. The recording costs are already nebulous. When a sale reduces the price further, customers question the real cost of producing sound for sale. Are the prices real, or merely what a recordist feels they should earn?
The customer may even feel deceived. Imagine that they purchased a collection at full price on Monday. Then, there’s a 50% sale on Tuesday. They’ll feel cheated. Why? Well, customers can understand that a store will create a sale to clear out winter clothing to prepare for the arrival of fully-priced spring attire. There isn’t a similar justification for digital products, or for sound libraries in particular. After all, the content rarely changes before or after a sale, it is just more expensive only due to random days on a calendar. Customers feel penalized by an arbitrary timeline. Feeling deceived is especially pronounced with expensive collections where the customer may feel they have been shortchanged more.
Overall, the most troublesome aspect of sales is that they become “a statement of what you should really be paying for something.”
3. Lack of Confidence in Your Sound Library
Are iPhones ever discounted when they are launched? No. Does Apple ever heavily discount them? No. Whatever you think of iPhones, it can’t be denied that Apple is utterly confident in their value.
Sound library sales introduce a problematic perception. They indicate a lack of confidence in the value of the field recordings. In a way, sales convey that you don’t believe enough in your recordings to sell them at full price.
4. Setting Problematic Precedents
It’s a long-standing joke that Waves plug-ins are always on sale. And, if they’re not on sale now, they will be soon. Nobody buys Waves plug-ins at regular price.
Sales create an expectation. Many indie sound fx distributors have sales at the typical times: spring, summer, Black Friday, and during the Christmas season. When this pattern becomes common, customers become accustomed to discounts. Why is that a problem? Well, fans become reluctant to pay regular price ever again. New customers who purchase virtual goods at the lower price come to expect that, and rarely purchase at the normal (higher) prices.
After the Great Recession, Time magazine found that 87% of people won’t even consider purchasing unless there was a discount of 20%. A quarter of consumers expected at least 50% off during the holidays. While the Great Recession may have kickstarted this, Time found that people have continued to expect it even after the economy recovered.
As we saw with J. C. Penney, discounts will also need to be increased to keep a customer’s attention, reducing profits more and more. Here’s a diagram of how sales ruin a product’s value over time:
Sale amounts aside, predictable sales train a customer to shop only on discount days. They’ll wait for a bargain before buying. Purchases between sales events will become fewer and fewer over time.
5. Defining Your Creations By Price
You’re driving along a highway. You pass many farms with thousands of cows. Does any one of them stand out? Of course not, they all seem the same. But would you notice if one was purple? Absolutely! Distinctiveness captures people’s attention. This is the idea behind marketing guru Seth Godin’s book, Purple Cow: distinguish your work so it sticks out from the pack.
Due to the technical nature of field recording, it’s not common for sound libraries to appear unique. Usually they’re only defined by the subject. Also by quantity. Sometimes by recording purity. The problem? None of these are unique. In essence, when defining sound effects by objective qualities, any recordist can duplicate the work of another. For customers, it’s worse. Those qualities are rarely enough for customers to make the distinction between similar collections. One bundle of gunshots appears the same as another. How are they different? What makes your collection more special than another?
How then is it possible to get people interested in a sound library when it lacks a defining feature? By using discounts. This introduces a significant problem: that price becomes a sound library’s only defining feature.
At best, discounted or inexpensive sound libraries take away the focus from the sounds themselves. At worst, they indicate that there is nothing valuable about the product other than the price. It makes it difficult to talk about the other great features of the sound library. In most cases though, it’s likely that the price is the only distinctive thing about it.
Appealing to customers by price, sales, or discounts is common with inexperienced field recordists, as well as distributors who sell sound libraries but have no experience with field recording or sound design themselves. Why? Well, since they don’t understand the craft or artistry of the work, they have trouble conveying the value of those things. Instead, they assign the value of the sound bundle by one thing they do know: that people like deals.
As mentioned in the Harvard Business Review:
When selling a relatively undifferentiated product, the only lever to generate higher sales is discounts.
Constant discounts take the focus from the value of the sounds and put them on price alone. Endless promotions tell customers that there is nothing different about a sound library other than price itself. It smothers the special, creative aspect of field recording and replaces it with cold commerce. When price is a publisher or Web shop’s only competitive advantage, the value in the field recordings or designed sound are forgotten.
An Uncertain Future
In the short term, discounts create substantial revenue. It’s tempting to create a sound library sale and earn big on Black Friday. And customers love the savings. However, the long term effect is concerning. Over the last three years, the five problems above have become more common.
What happens when these 5 problems occur? For each publisher, they risk damaging the sound library brand. They set a pattern of a downward spiral of increasing discounts yet lower revenue. It lowers the perceived value of any one sound library, and a collection of bundles as a whole.
For the larger indie sound library community, the risk is more pronounced. It becomes harder and harder for small publishers to succeed. It also devalues sound effects in general. If a recordist is selling 400 GB of sound for $20, it makes it that much harder for any other sound pro to articulate the value in a more expensive bundle – even if the quality is better.
People who share sound are creators and designers. A field recordist is successful when they balance inspiration with technical skill. Few people have these skills, and fewer excel. How can one expect that these inspired people will have marketing and sales aptitude in equal measure?
For myself, I had no idea about this when I began working with Web shop Sounddogs.com in 1998. It was only after working there, consulting for other Web stores, and sharing my own collections across two decades that I was able to learn from the decisions sound fans made. I saw Web shops thrive, and some fail. I read thousands of customer emails. I saw new strategies promoted and their results. And still I’m learning.
The point is that knowing these things isn’t expected. Sales and marketing are completely different disciplines from creative audio arts. In the scope of selling things, independent sound libraries are just newly born. Sharing sound has evolved so quickly in so little time that there has been no time for reflection. It’s understandable. Every field recordist sharing sound knows the thrill of having what they love to do be appreciated by thousands – and it supporting their lives, too. It’s natural that the sound strategies in this post have been overlooked. However, there is an opportunity to think more deeply not just for the market as a whole, but for a sustainable way of sharing your creations with others.
This post is meant for inspiration. It’s designed to help field recordists learn more about how to share sound: how fans respond to incentives, and the effect of those incentives not only on their catalogue, but the industry as a whole.
As a field recordist, you know each second of sound you capture is precious. That’s why you share it – so that it will inspire others and be useful to the projects they join. That’s not easy to remember that when we’re bombarded with sales, promotions, and discount coupons. Recall the value of your work. Highlight that special nature to your fans. Promotions can be useful, it’s true. Use them wisely to ensure your creations will be enjoyed for years to come.
- Custora hosts an excellent three part series on how discounts affects brands and products (article one, two, and three).
- Another good Custora article about how to stop discounting problems.
- How discounts create problems for digital goods, and some ideas to fix this.