If you're not already immersed in the entertainment e-commerce industry, you could face an overwhelming number of choices. Consultants and web contractors may want to charge you hundreds of dollars a month to develop and host custom solutions for selling your music online. Dozens of competing websites make it sound like paying listing fees on their services will help you reach new fans.
You don't have to spend very much to get your music into iTunes, on Amazon, or available through any of the dozens of growing digital music retail stores online.
Likewise, adding custom merchandise to your website doesn't have to be a huge chore. For a few dollars a day, you can set up an effective system to track and ship purchases, without having to lay hands on a single shipment.
Depending on your situation, you may want to explore up to three different e-commerce options...
Digital Music Aggregators
Music distribution used to involve finding guys with pre-leased access to shelf space at record stores across the country. Today, that means digital music stores, like iTunes and Amazon. Retailers don't deal with artists directly, preferring to work with labels and clearinghouses instead. That's okay, since you wouldn't want to bog yourself down with the level of recordkeeping necessary to track sales, returns, royalties, and distribution fees. My favorite aggregators include:
TuneCore: If you're intending to focus on digital-only singles and EP releases, TuneCore offers great value for money. It's a basic, "does what it says on the tin" service that gets you on every major digital music store for ten bucks per song.
CD Baby: It's not quite as folksy as when Derek Sivers ran it from a warehouse, but under the DiscMakers umbrella, CD Baby continues to offer a compelling value for artists that want a hybrid of digital and physical sales. Ten bucks per song, or $39 per album gets you shelf space in their fulfillment center for online orders and for record store inventory requests.
The Orchard: It feels right that The Orchard survived to see the Web 2.0 reality its founders envisioned. The company started with a focus on physical distribution, and felt a lot of turbulence while shifting strategies. It placed a big bet on digital distribution, and has turned into a premium partner for independent labels with strong niche audiences. They're not as open as TuneCore or CD Baby, but they're good at leveraging multi-platform licensing for their clients.
Dozens of other aggregators have entered the space, and their lack of presence here doesn't indicate they're not good. However, these three services have the longest histories and the strongest track records among the folks I've worked with over the years.
Selling MP3s from Your Website
Here's a three-part caveat about turning your band's website into a digital music sales system. First, it's easy to let e-commerce become a huge timesuck. You'll have to deal with code, security, licensing, and customer service. Second, if you live in a state that collects sales tax, you'll need to account for that, which means getting licensed by the state and setting aside tax payments in escrow. (Are you that organized?) Third, you can enjoy huge benefits by pushing all of your digital sales to a single provider. A potential chart position on iTunes can lead to more sales, especially since new listeners may be more likely to find you there than to stumble across your own website.
That said, you might prefer to collect your own payments for MP3s for a few reasons. If you're in a very tight audience niche and you expect to sell only a few hundred tracks, you could make more money by reaching out to fans directly instead of going through an aggregator. Direct MP3 sales also work well if you want to offer a handful of bonus tracks to fans in addition to songs and albums available elsewhere. In those cases, I like:
E-Junkie: It's what I've used here for a while now. $5/month for basic services, and they handle the instant downloading. If you don't have a professional merchant account, you can use PayPal or Google Checkout.
Payloadz: Another great, simple service that ties directly to a PayPal account. Free when you're just getting started, then about $15/month after you're selling more than $50.
There are also a handful of plugins that will let you sell tracks directly from a WordPress site, but I often caution clients to get out of the habit of using solutions they have to manage themselves. Paying a third-party service five bucks a month will buy you back hours of free time from buyers who have trouble with downloaded files.
Running a Full-On Shopping Cart
Kudos to you if you're ready to graduate to full e-commerce impresario status. And I hope you're offering your fans real artifacts that let them extend your story. If so, check out:
Bandcamp: Fast becoming the go-to service for independent music e-commerce. Their MP3 sales system reports to SoundScan, while their shopping cart for physical goods rivals those of major service providers. No monthly fees, and Bandcamp keeps 15% of sales. The site adds some value by exposing other bands' audiences to your stuff through its fan-facing website.
Shopify: If you sell a lot of merch, Shopify's drop-dead-simple interface turns your site into a slick shopping service. Best of all, it plugs into third-party fulfillment services by Amazon or Shipwire, letting you run your online merch table from the road without having to worry about getting orders out the door. $29/month, plus 2% of sales.
Remember that just having your MP3s and merchandise on sale at your website won't immediately result in a windfall. You still need to develop a strategy that grows your audience and rewards them for your support. A solid e-commerce strategy greases the wheels, preventing a frustrating purchasing experience from casting you in a negative light. Better still, the right partners and providers can actually help expose your work to even wider audiences.