USB drives

Is it time to sell your music on USB drives?

While CDs and vinyl records are a major revenue source for indie musicians, custom USB drives are the latest merch table draw when it comes to physical product music sales.

Now that the world of recorded music is thoroughly entrenched in the digital age, indie musicians everywhere face an evolving challenge: how do you best sell your music in physical packaging at gigs?

Physical product, such as CDs and vinyl records, is still going strong, particularly for indie musicians, but that doesn’t mean audio discs are the sole vehicle through which to physically sell your music.

An option that more and more indie artists of all genres are looking to is custom USB drives (aka gig sticks or custom thumb drives). Here are a few key things to keep in mind to determine if music USB drives, alone or in addition to CDs and other physical options, are a good option for your music, audience, and career.

Your band, your brand

When you order customized USB drives with your band name or logo printed on them, you’re doing more than creating a way to physically distribute your music. USB flash drives are handy, flexible devices that people use over and over to store information, transport data from one machine to another, back up key files, share photos or videos, and so on.

Long after your fans have copied your amazing digital content onto their hard drives or cloud accounts, they’ll use your promotional USB stick for all sorts of other purposes. And every time a fan engages with that thumb drive and sees your band name or logo — regardless of the context — he or she will be reminded of just how awesome your music is to begin with.

Fun form factor

USB drives can come in a wide variety different sizes, colors, and shapes. You can have your drive swing out of a metal sheath, shaped as a key, housed in bamboo, or even printed as a music card with your album cover on it. Other design options include having your drive integrated into a wearable USB bracelet or encased in a velvet pouch or gift box. And the choices for creative variations go on.

The point is, the more fun and unique the physical packaging of your music is, the more attractive and marketable it can be to audience members and fans who may see it not just as a way of taking home your music, but a cool and interesting object in and of itself.

Fill up your gig stick

Standard CDs store just under 740 MB of music, while USB drives generally start with a minimum of 1 GB storage; if you order through Disc Makers, you can get USB drives with up to 32 GB capacity. That’s enough space to load your entire catalog of songs on one custom thumb drive. When it comes to music, that’s a lot of space to work with.

Want to sell a multi-album release at your next gig? How about adding photos, videos of live shows or recording sessions, a collection of short stories inspired by your music, instrumental stems, or nearly anything else that can be digitized? Custom USB drives have the capacity to make it happen — and empower you to create a one-of-a-kind package to offer to your fans in the process.

Appeal to the audiophile

While CDs are the benchmark for great sound — especially compared to streaming or compressed audio files — CDs store audio with 16-bit PCM encoding and a sampling of 44.1 kHz. USB drives will ferry whatever audio files you put on them — including high-res audio. If your audience includes fans who value truly pristine sound, load your large, high-resolution 24-bit / 96 kHz WAV files up and you’re good to go.

Portability

Whether you’re biking, driving, or flying to your gig, the smaller and lighter your merch set-up is, the easier for all involved. USB sticks are extremely light (around 12g) and take up very little space, making them a tour- and travel-friendly option. The form factor can also make them an easier sell for fans who might not want to tote a CD around after the gig but could easily fit a USB drive into a pocket or small purse.

Tech evolutions, new audiences

Whether you’re looking at a MacBook or a Chromebook, more and more computers are being made without built-in optical drives that can read CDs and DVDs. Many are even designed without significant internal storage, meant solely as passageways to allow you to access the Internet and your cloud-based data.

What do such computers (and many cars) have? USB ports. By offering your tracks encased in a USB flash drive, you open the possibility of new, digitally-minded audiences engaging with your recorded music with ease.

Flexible pricing

Since bands, artists, and labels have been selling CDs for over three decades, expectations about what is appropriate to pay for a physical disc are pretty much set in stone.

But how much should an artist charge for a blood-red USB drive attached to a cool-looking bracelet that includes a brand new album, three recording projects from the back catalog, and behind-the-scenes interviews with the artist and producer? Good question.

Since the market for music-bearing USB gig sticks is much newer and less defined, how much you can charge is largely based on how much you think your fans will happily pay, and what you’re comfortable charging. Don’t hesitate to experiment and customize a package and a price point that will work the best for your music, project, and community.

Mix and match

Just because you decide to create USB thumb drive versions of your latest album doesn’t mean that you can’t, and shouldn’t, have standard CD versions available as well. Offering your music in multiple physical formats will maximize the chances that audience members, new or old, technologically traditional or digitally progressive, will be able to walk home with your music in a format that works for them.


Disc Makers’ regular contributor Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download through iTunes, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant or on Facebook.

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7 thoughts on “Is it time to sell your music on USB drives?

  1. Several things:

    1. Due to them being a common vector for malware, flash drives are being banned more and more in work environments.
    2. Laptops are currently being released with nothing but a single USB-C port.
    3. Flash drives are not write-protected like CDs and Vinyl. This means that the customer can just dump your music to a hard drive, and re-use the flash drive for whatever they want. If there were a way to mount the drive in a Red Book CD method, where the visible files are just pointers to the actual content, the artist would be better off.
    4. USB is being supplanted by USB-C. This won’t happen for a while, but it is a concern.
    5. Would the audio files on the USB key be 16/44.1, or would they be a lossy type?

    1. Hey Jeff. In response.
      1. Really? Either way, people wanting your music/videos, etc. would likely not be using them in a work environment.
      2 & 4. Yes, things are always changing, but how many computers being used today do have USB ports? 99+%? And how many people are using multi-ports? USB drives are an effective and common way to transfer data.
      3. That’s part of the idea. If you customize the USB drive with your band/company name/logo, people are using that for lots of other purposes but still have your branding all over it.
      5. Totally up to you. You can include MP3s, hi-resolution music files, and everything in between depending on the capacity of the drive and what you want to deliver.

  2. A catch-22: price it too high, good luck. Price it too low, not only are you in negative profit but some will be tempted to buy just for the drive and erase the music.

  3. Thanks for the great info! I’m wondering though, with the shift to the smaller usb ports, will the larger ones be phased out? Would it be better to go for the smaller ones now?

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