Sunday, November 1st, 2009

How to Release a CD without a Record Label: From Start to Finish

The music industry is certainly in the middle of a paradigm shift, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. As labels are becoming more obsolete, many bands are taking this opportunity to learn how to get things done themselves. Putting out a CD is something that can be done by anyone, but we're here to give you some tips on how to do it right!

A successful record is nothing without the music. Phase one: the creative aspect.  Before selecting which songs you want to record, you need to decide if you want to put out a single, sampler/demo, EP, or full-length CD. There are several factors that can help you determine this, specifically purpose and budget. If the purpose of recording is to shop your band to venues, labels, etc., it's best to select your strongest songs and go with a 3-4 song sampler. Alternatively, if you want to put out a record simply to deliver your music to your fans and you feel like you have enough quality material and resources, go with a full-length. Just remember, putting out a full-length demands some more resources than a sampler or an EP. That brings us to budget. Putting out a record without label support costs money. Ideally, your band or someone you know has a studio set up with pro-tools, allowing you to do a quality recording without going into a state-of-the-art $100/hour studio. If the actual recording budget isn't a huge concern, it could potentially be more efficient to record a full length over an EP. Getting a CD pressed costs the same amount regardless of how many songs are on it, however you can sell them at a higher price if there's a greater number of tracks. This will allow you to recoup your expenses much faster.

Let's move on to the belle of the ball, the reason we're all here, what it all comes down to: the music. There are so many aspects that go along with putting out a record, but this should be the #1 focus, especially in phase 1. We all get anxious to put some tunes down, but don't compromise the quality of your record by rushing it.

Step one: look at your entire catalog of songs, and select your strongest tracks. Try to avoid too many filler tracks. If you're struggling to come up with 10 or more quality tracks for a full-length, you may want to consider just releasing a solid EP.

Step two: Pre-production. These songs are your babies, and when you're so familiar with them, it's often hard to hear the potential for small changes to improve them. If you can't afford a professional producer, ask someone you know with a musical background for input. The more fine-tuning you work out before you head into the studio, the more prepared you'll be (remember, more time means more money!). At this point you know what type of record you're putting out, which songs will go on it, and the songs are ready to be tracked. Time to lay those beats down!

Once the recording is complete and the tracks have been mixed, it's time to move on to phase two: The fine tuning.The final touches on the record aren't going to necessarily make or break the songs, but it will determine how professionally your songs will be presented to your audience. Three important steps come into play in phase two:

1. First, determine the track order.

Start out strong, keeping in mind that some people (namely labels, venues, etc.) won't give it more than a few minutes, or even seconds. If you have a single, place it early enough in the record so your audience doesn't have to dig for it. You want your CD to be an experience; spread out slower songs instead of bunching up tracks with a similar feel. Focus on the overall vibe of the record, instead of individual songs. Create playlists with several different song order variations, and listen to them as a whole. Ask outsiders for input. Consider the songs that work best as openers and closers at your live shows. Song order is important; it's how you and your fans will get to know and love your record for the rest of it's life, so spend some time on this step!

2. A crucial step in creating a professional-sounding record is mastering.

Having your record mastered ensures that all of the tracks will be a standard volume and will sound bright and full. You don't want your fans to put the CD on in their car, only to hear a mere muffled murmur of the songs you worked so hard on. By mastering the tracks, the sound quality will be comparable to any major label record. Details are important, such has having smooth and equal transitions between tracks. This process is imperative in giving your record a professional sound; consider it the finishing touches on your masterpiece.

3. We're told not to judge a book by it's cover... but some do, so let's talk about CD packaging!

You want your CD to be the full package. The goods are inside, so you want to make the outside match as well (this sounds like a make-over show). When it comes to art, there's really no right or wrong. Simple vs. detailed, black and white vs. full color, photography vs. drawn art, it's all up to you. However, there are some tips to keep in mind when determining how to wrap up these tunes of yours. First, keep in mind the style of your music when coming up with the style of the package. Obviously having an acoustic record with lyrics dabbling in the wonders of love shouldn't have artwork that makes people think they've come across hell's headlining metal band. So try to match the artwork with the overall vibe of the music. That's the only advice we'll give on the artwork itself; it's your creation! It's very important to make sure that somewhere in the packaging you include the credits (composers, musicians, as well as engineering, producing, mastering, etc. info), contact info, publishing company, copyrights, and any other pertinent information. And of course, don't forget the track titles on the back!

The last important thing to mention is a bar code. By including a bar code on your CD, you are allowing yourself to set up sound scan at record stores and at shows. This is a system set up to officially track how many records are being sold. When getting your CDs pressed, simply ask the company you're ordering them through to include a bar code, you'll be happy you did it!

You've accomplished a great feat by creating a record with the full package. Now onto phase 3: your CD's life.

The CDs are hot off the press and in your hands- what an amazing feeling! It took a lot of work to get to this point, but this is no time to rest! Celebrate, yes; rest, no. Now is when the work really starts (if you want to do this right!). In order to make the most out of your efforts and use your record as a vehicle to get further as a band, there are several important aspects to tackle at this point: sales, promotion, touring, licensing. Let's break them down.

1. You don't need a big distribution deal to sell records.

Bands often get so caught up with the idea of distribution deals that they forget about the more important “D”: demand. As an up-and-coming artist, it's not important to have your CDs in as many stores as possible, rather just a few right places. These days, the Internet is your absolute best resource for selling your CD, both for digital and physical sales. When a digital track is purchased, it costs no money for you (as opposed to a physical CD), so the money that goes to you is 100% profit. When fans want to buy a physical CD from you, they can do so online; therefore, you're only sending out CDs that have been purchased. One of the most efficient ways for bands to sell their music is CDBaby.com. The way it works is you'll have your own page on this site where fans can order CDs (CD Baby will even send them out for you, so you don't have to worry about anything). They also submit your tracks to all the major digital download sites, including i tunes. You can use the links they provide to sell your music on your website, Facebook, Myspace, etc. The best part is, when you have a certain amount of money in your account, CDBaby.com will wire your profit right into a bank account. Doesn't get much easier than that! In addition to covering the online angle, you could also go into your local record stores and sell your disc on consignment. You simply walk in with 3-5 CDs, they'll give you an invoice indicating how many records you left there, and if someone buys a CD, you go in and pick up your money. As long as your music is available to any fans that want to buy it, there's no sense worrying about getting your record into stores across the country where there's not demand yet!

2. Your record is out in the world, now you just need everyone else to know it!

Marketing and promotion: perhaps the most important tools for making your record a success. Once your music is available for fans to buy, you need to let them know about you. There are several ways to do this, that we promise aren't too intimidating! Let's start with the basics, which I'm sure you already have covered, and that of course is the web. Don't do what a lot of people do and mistake social networking sites not as a great resource, but as the only resource. Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, etc. are fantastic tools that you should be updating regularly, but don't rely on them as your only form of promotion. Make sure that you have a website full of information, especially links to buy the record (don't ever make a fan search your site to figure out how to buy your CD! Make it easy for them). Blogs are also a great way to link your product to the outside world. Keep a journal online documenting everything that your band is doing, and include useful information that people outside of your existing fan base would like to read. This will hopefully draw them in, introduce them to your great music, and expand your fan base! Now remember, there are many other ways to promote your record outside of the Internet. We strongly recommend getting postcards and posters made with your album artwork and information. Send these promo materials to venues where you'll be playing (or even ones you're not!), in record stores, tattoo parlors, and any local hang outs you can think of. Send your CD and a nice cover letter to local radio stations. Also, don't underestimate the importance of press. Getting a review or setting up an interview for an article can go a very long way. Put together a spreadsheet of local, regional, and even national music rags and send a CD to them (be sure to include a letter and one-sheet with info about the band). No one can expect up-and-coming artists to be able to afford a full page ad in one of these magazines, but press is free. Good press in a credible magazine can single handedly create buzz on a band, so it's worth the effort you put into sending those discs out!

3. Being a hero is something to be proud of, but let's take this to a national level!

Many will agree that touring on a record is a necessity. You want as much heat on your record as possible, in as many places as possible. This is a grassroots effort, and involves playing local clubs around the country to slowly build up that fan base and the popularity of your new CD simultaneously. In my experience, you sell more records on the road then you do playing local shows. Think of all of those CDs sprinkled across the country that will plant seeds for the next time you visit that city. Having a CD is the most important aspect of touring, because you have something to leave behind that properly represents you. Each time you go back you'll have a bigger fan base, until your popularity has spread across the nation! Don't know how to go on tour without label support? We've got a blog about that which gives you all the support you need!

4. It's all about the music, but it's nice to collect a paycheck for your hard work!
We know you're doing all of this because of your love for music and faith in your band. But without a label putting money and resources behind you, we know this can get expensive. Think of it as an investment; you believe you've got the goods, and you've put in the work and money to see it through. The positive side of not having a record label is that you don't have to share any of your rights, royalties, or revenue with anyone! So let's figure out how to recoup your expenses, then get some additional money rolling in for the band. The first step is not the easiest to understand, but it certainly is one of the most important, and it's called publishing. We've put together a nice long blog to help you set up your publishing, so we won't go too deep into the logistics here. Basically, you set up a publishing company for your band, send out some CDs and put the effort into getting your songs played by anyone and everyone, and in time collect royalties. This isn't the best way to make money in the short term, but it'll pay off for years to come! For short term income ideas, let's look to the most obvious, easiest, and beneficial ways to make money: merchandise! As a band, you get great rates on custom merchandise, then you can mark it up however much you'd like to sell to fans at your shows. Not only will you be making your fans happy and recouping money, you'll also have free marketing!

This may seem like a lot of work, and to tell you the truth, it is. But hey, if it was easy everyone would do it. It often takes one great record to break a band, so if you think of the potential outcome of your hard work, isn't it worth it?

Nina Chiminec is the marketing director at BandsOnABudget.com In her previous life she was the head of new media at SPV Records. Her clients included Motorhead, Type O Negative, and Skinny Puppy. She also spent 8 years recording and touring with the NJ rock band Avery. She can be reached at nina [at] bandsonabudget.com.