Personal experience and special packages help drive sales in a digital world
Just a few years ago, music was a significant category for Christian retailers. But what about DVDs? Except for VeggieTales, not so much. Now, entertainment sales have flip-flopped, with 2014 being called the “Year of the Bible” by Hollywood insiders and bloggers while stores struggle to sell in the music category.
“We do books quite well, but the music side has diminished,” said Rick Lewis, owner of Logos Bookstore in Dallas. “CDs—they just don’t work for us.”
Steve Pickering, owner of the Lemstone Parable Christian Store in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has had a similar experience.
“Music is pretty dead for us,” Pickering said. “A few years ago, music exceeded 20% of our sales. Now it’s down to less than five. We carry the new releases and a few oldies.”
Thankfully, that’s not the end of the story. With recent box-office and television hits like God’s Not Dead, Son of God, Heaven Is for Real and History Channel miniseries The Bible now on DVD and Blu-ray, many stores have seen home-video sales pick up.
“DVDs are continuing to sell because there has been so much good stuff coming out on the big screen,” said Martha Brangenberg, manager of Charis Christian Books & Gifts in Largo, Florida. “I keep placing orders. I am down to three God’s Not Dead again. People are wanting to own that movie rather than just watch it once.”
Indeed, God’s Not Dead and Heaven Is for Real have set the new Christian entertainment gold standard. With a budget of about $2 million, God’s Not Dead brought in more than $62.6 million worldwide at the box office, while DVD and Blu-ray sales landed the movie at No. 2 on Variety magazine’s sales chart in both categories in August. Heaven Is for Real had a larger production budget of $12 million and took in just over $100 million at the box office worldwide, according to boxofficemojo.com.
“I am constantly amazed when I look at the numbers,” Brangenberg said of her DVD sales. “It is very encouraging.”
REACHING MUSIC FANS
While DVDs still have some brick-and-mortar sales life, it is anybody’s guess whether physical music sales can ever be recaptured. The June 6 headline on the Generation-Y website Elite Daily was shockingly accurate. Accompanied by a photo of a forearm with an IV line, it read: “How One Generation Was Single-Handedly Able To Kill The Music Industry.”
Songwriter and entrepreneur Thomas Honeyman assessed the situation.
“The old music industry clung desperately to sales to survive, but that model is long gone,” he said.
In the past few years, CD sales have given way to digital downloads, which now have largely fallen to streaming.
Jimmy Wheeler, vice president of sales and national promotion at Provident Label Group, is in his 25th year in the music business and has seen significant change.
“We went from stacking dollars from CD sales to stacking quarters on digital downloads to stacking pennies now on streaming revenue,” Wheeler said.
Does that mean consumers no longer care about music? Quite the opposite. A recent Nielsen study found that 40% of U.S. consumers—those classified as fans—are responsible for 75% of music spending. These fans would be willing to spend an additional $450 million to $2.6 billion annually if they could participate in behind-the-scenes perks or get exclusive extras like in-studio updates, real-time emails, limited editions, autographed copies, vinyl records and lyric sheets handwritten by the artist.
So how can retailers persuade consumers to buy music at brick-and-mortar stores? Try the following four tips:
1. Consider the season. Christmas is coming, and it’s pretty tough to gift-wrap a download. Try creating tabletop displays with CDs, books and small gifts that complement the music, like Casting Crowns’ Thrive CD with singer Mark Hall’s book of the same title.
“Casting Crowns’ Thrive came out in January, and it has been in the top five every week since it came out,” Wheeler said. “We have not seen a Christmas with this record yet, so I am treating it almost like a brand-new release.”
Wheeler said Tenth Avenue North’s November release, Cathedrals, also should be good for the season. And he added that retailers can get customers excited about first quarter 2015, which will see new recordings from Third Day, Matt Maher, Red and Brandon Heath. For King & Country also released Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong on Sept. 16, with T-shirts, necklace, bracelet, drumsticks and a poster at retail.
Other ways to make it a musical Christmas include hanging CDs on a Christmas tree, looking at concert schedules to see who will be coming your way and playing music in the store.
Michael W. Smith teamed up with a bunch of A-list artists, including Amy Grant and Vince Gill, Bono, Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town, Carrie Underwood and Martina McBride, to create Michael W. Smith & Friends: The Spirit of Christmas, in stores Sept. 30. This fall Smith will launch The Spirit of Christmas Tour, including co-billed shows with Amy Grant in Dallas, Minneapolis and Atlanta.
Aaron Shust releases his first Christmas album, Unto Us, on Oct. 14. Relient K also has a new Christmas offering, Let It Snow, Baby. Let it Reindeer, on CD and vinyl. Newsboys will release a collection of hymns Nov. 4. Hallelujah for the Cross features 10 hymns, including the title track.
At Logos of Dallas, owner Lewis said he does see some sales generated from in-store play. Logos chooses hymns and instrumental music to create a soothing atmosphere.
“We play in-store music that is peaceful, that lends itself to that whole atmosphere of peace,” he said. “We play Chris Rice’s CD of hymns and things like that.”
2. Give customers a gift. Think of creative ways to give customers a bonus with purchase. Make signage offering a special coupon on future purchases with each CD sale. Create a “Buy 10, Get 1 Free” punch card or try a music club or CD-of-the-month subscription card where customers who pay a certain dollar amount each month receive a new CD of their choice.
Wheeler said Provident is seeking ways to connect customers with CDs, and is considering tying physical-music purchases to special giveaway experiences, such as offering concert meet-and-greets, a personal phone call from an artist or other artist connection to customers who purchase a CD with a winning ticket or online code.
Try tying two CDs together at a buy-one-get-one price or package an artist’s CD with the same album for one price. CDs may be struggling, but vinyl records are coming back. The retro factor has customers of all ages looking for LPs. According to the Nielsen SoundScan mid-year sales report, overall CD sales were down almost 20%, but LP/vinyl sales were up more than 40% compared with last year’s sales.
3. Stay savvy. Keep up on trends and technology. Visit newreleasetuesday.com and Jesusfreakhideout.com to keep track of new releases, concerts, reviews and news.
“It’s tough for busy retail managers to wade through the flood of new releases that hit every week,” said Marcus Hathcock, executive editor of newreleasetuesday.com. “We’re already doing the hard work, and we’re trusted for our read of the scene. We can provide the expertise for special displays or endcaps.”
Connections with local radio stations, concert promoters, big churches and social media are also a must. Brangenberg said she recently saw music sales spike somewhat when she switched signage and displays from the national Top 20 charts to her local radio station’s Top 20.
“We have the Top 20 CDs on our wall,” Brangenberg said. “We recently switched to JOY-FM’s Top 20 because that is what our customers are hearing. We have moved some CDs through that.”
If you are not connecting on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, it’s time to get started. Not only can you get up close and personal with artists, but also you can catch customers’ attention.
4. Initiate an experience. One successful way bands have been launching new projects is through crowdfunding sites like kickstarter.com, indiegogo.com and pledgemusic.com. Artists ask fans to pledge toward a new recording and offer “incentives” for different levels of donations. For example, a $20 donation might get the donor a T-shirt or CD, while a $5,000 donation might get a donor a trip with the band or a private concert in the fan’s living room. Christian music crowdfunding has been successful overall. For instance, Haste the Day’s August IndieGoGo campaign reached 124% of its $65,000 goal in the first 12 days (with $80,906 pledged).
Retailers can learn a lesson from crowdfunding. Fans want a personal experience.
“Stores need to find ways to make the Christian store shopping experience just that—an experience,” Hathcock said. “In my opinion, it needs to be almost like being at the merch tent at a Christian summer festival—that excitement, that atmosphere.“
He also suggests asking local artists to play in store.
“Create a venue, and you’ll create a scene. Create a scene, and you’ll have a movement. And that movement will be loyal to you, and you’ll see sales increase.”
Hathcock recommends hosting in-store, live online chats with artists, hosting Dove Awards watch parties and keeping YouTube playing in the store.
CAPTURING DVD SALES
On the film front, most retailers say their 2014 sales were on the rise. Several theatrical releases should keep DVD sales spiking, including the City on a Hill Productions’ The Song (having opened in theaters Sept. 26); Left Behind (due in theaters Oct. 3) starring Nicolas Cage; Exodus: Gods and Kings (Dec. 12); and the final installment of The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies (Dec. 17).
“I prescreened The Song and loved it. It was so very different,” Brangenberg said. “The intentionality of the curriculum is very helpful.”
Mary—a film that speculates on Jesus’ mother Mary’s life as a girl and young woman, including her marriage to Joseph and struggles to raise Jesus under the reign of Herod—is expected to land in April. An as-yet-untitled fifth movie from the Kendrick Brothers (Fireproof, Courageous) is also due out next year. For family fun, VeggieTales’ Beauty and the Beet releases Oct. 11, featuring songs by country artist Kellie Pickler.
New to DVD is Mom’s Night Out (Sept. 2) and Holy Ghost (Sept. 16). Holy Ghost was created after a crowdfunding campaign brought in more than $300,000 to fund the project. It included a digital premiere in August, a two-day live stream in early September and a Holy Ghost tour running Sept. 6 through Oct. 10.
“We threw out everything we thought we knew about releasing a movie and recreated a film release from the ground up,” said Braden Heckman, CEO of Wanderlust. “What we came up with looks very different from traditional DVD releases, but we hope this will become a new model for other independent filmmakers in a world where all the rules are changing.”
On Oct. 17, Creation Ministries hosts a premiere in Atlanta to celebrate the in-store release of its documentary and companion book Evolution’s Achilles’ Heels. It features commentary from 15 Ph.D. scientists aiming to expose evolution’s weaknesses.
Fans of prairie novelist Janette Oke and the Hallmark Channel TV series based on her “When Calls the Heart” series can expect the fifth (Change of Heart) and sixth DVD (Rules of Engagement) to hit stores Oct. 14 and Nov. 11, respectively. A 10-DVD boxed set will release in November as well.
To capture sales, connecting with fans is important, with church congregations an easy place to pitch small-group studies and congregation-wide viewing events. Consider partnering with churches to sell out a showing of an upcoming Christian film, and gather contact information for future marketing e-blasts when the DVD releases. Pitch DVDs for small-group studies and churchwide focus to pastors, and host in-store movie nights. Check for book tie-ins, and invite authors to sign the book at a movie party. Find film trends, upcoming releases and box office numbers at christianfilmdatabase.com and imdb.com.
A Nielsen study revealed in April suggests that retailers display DVDs prominently during the Easter season, when sales of faith-based DVD/Blu-ray titles spike. In 2013, stores reported sales were up 61% in the three weeks prior to the holiday and remained positive for seven weeks following Easter.