[NOTE: This article is now four years old, and thus horrendously out of date. I mean, it doesn't even mention crowdfunding! So, due to its continued popularity, and the increasingly complex issue, rather than update this article I have decided to publish my first ebook! Watch this space for more details in the coming weeks.]
When I first looked up info on how to distribute my album online, the overwhelming number of sites I found almost caused my brain to blow a fuse. Songcast! Tunecore! CDbaby! The Orchard! iTunes! Amazon! Lala, Amiestreet, Pandora, Jango, it’s fantastic and mindnumbing at the same time. Add to that, the internet’s constant state of flux means many of the “help” sites out there are years, sometimes a decade out of touch. And let’s not even mention getting your physical CDs made! Horror!
As a musician who has been through it, let me tell you that it is a lot of work, but the payoff is very rewarding. It takes a lot of time and effort to put together an album by yourself, but don’t get discouraged! If you don’t follow through and release it out into the world, you’ll never know, will you?
I don’t claim by any means that this is the best or only way to release your album online, but here is a play-by-play of How I Did It and it has so far worked out pretty well. Let’s start from the beginning, shall we?
I leased a monthly lockout rehearsal studio in which to record, because I live in an apartment and found no other way to get full access to a quiet-ish room 24/7. I bought one decent condenser mic (Rode NT1-A), a transducer mic (Dean Markley), and a few cheap dynamic mics. I bought cheap KRK ST6 monitors off Craigslist. I recorded everything through the amazing MOTU Traveler into a laptop. I mainly used Reason rewired through Ableton Live and did all my destructive wave editing in Peak [R.I.P.] or Soundforge. That plus a multitude of pluginly hosts, a 12-string guitar, a MIDI keyboard, a fretless bass and a lot of sweat and heavy grunting gave me everything I needed to record my album.
During the entire process of recording and mixing (about five months), I constantly handed out burned CDs to friends and acquaintances and asked for feedback. This went for established DJs and the hopelessly tone deaf. I emailed MP3s. I posted to forums. I listened in the car. I played it for hitchhikers. There is no substitute on this earth for a different set of ears. As you play your rough tracks for people, carefully sift through the feedback to find what resonates with you. Always invite constructive criticism! A critique means they care about what they’ve heard, and that’s important.
Eventually, I reached a point when the feedback turned into, “My favorite one was such and such,” or “I don’t have much to say except I really liked it.” You’ll always have ideas about things you can change, but eventually you’ll realize that the “changes” are no longer “improvements,” only “something different.” When your songs and mixes reach that point, it’s time to put them on the shelf and look into getting them mastered.
If you are putting together a demo, promo, or a CD just for fun, I do not recommend paying someone to master your tracks. Mastering is for professional distribution only. As an exercise, you may want to try mastering them yourself, which is now possible with some of the amazing plugins out there (check out SoundOnSound’s Mastering Guide for starters).
If you are serious about your music career and want to make a living off of your music, however, you must get them mastered. If you are active in your local music scene you probably already know someone who masters as a side business or hobby. Ask around. If you find someone, ask them how much they’d charge for a mastering job — in all likelihood this will be your best and cheapest option. Plus, you help out a friend financially and will probably have a more relaxed and pleasant first mastering experience. It’s also super punk rock.
If that isn’t an option, search online for “cheap mastering [your city]“. If you find nothing suitable, broaden the search to state or country. Many indie musicians in Los Angeles use Golden Mastering, an industry standard and still relatively affordable pricing. Everyone accepts mailed CDs.
If that still seems like too much bread, some online distribution sites like Tunecore offer extremely cheap (we’re talking two-digit figures here) mastering through a service that is better than nothing and will at least get your track volumes consistent and up to where they should be. I’d like to stress my distaste for this option and take no responsibility for what a $50 master sounds like.
[Update: As Quincy expertly mentions in a comment below, be very careful not to get ripped off by a plugin bandit who charges you a buttload for smashing your tracks through a compressor. It's a waste of money and compression is only a small part of what's involved in the art of mastering music. If you plan on giving your hard earned cash to anyone, ever, always research their work and background first. John Scrip has some fantastic reading on his blog.]
The reaction to a good mastering job should be, “I have no idea why, but it’s just better.” The moment I heard the first second of the first track of my newly mastered album my face lit up like a Christmas tree. (The masterer extraordinaire in question was the remarkable Brian Saitzyk.) It’s a wonderful experience and will really help your listeners appreciate your music to its full potential. And that’s the goal, right? Right?
So now that we’ve got the finished audio product, we’re ready to release, right? No, for several reasons that all include annoying legal and financial issues. I read a lot of articles about this so you don’t have to, but the gist of the gig is if you aren’t careful you’ll get screwed and your songs will be stolen, they’ll take your home and your shoes and leave you cold and alone in a gutter somewhere. COPYRIGHT YOUR SONGS. You are technically protected the moment you create them, but this way you won’t have any trouble proving it. It is incredibly easy and cheap. Simply go to the U.S. government’s Electronic Copyright Office, pay them $35 dollars and tell them the name of your album and all your original songs contained and boom, you’re bulletproof. They are all originals, right?
You can copyright them just to yourself or you can simultaneously copyright through a company you own. For accounting simplicity and tax purposes, I started a record label at my local County Clerk’s office for very cheap. File a Fictitious Business Name (or DBA, “Doing Business As”) (seriously, who comes up with this stuff?) and put an ad in the local paper to make it legal. Don’t pay more than $50 for your ad. When you get all that paperwork take it to your bank, who would probably just love to start a separate business account for you, sir or madam, and link it to your personal checking.
Why go to all that trouble? Well, you don’t have to, but if you are serious about this you will have to deal with the money sooner or later and doing all your transactions and money transfers through a separate account really helps you keep track of income and expenses. Additionally, you can finally start writing off all that gear you get giddy over around tax time, and if you spend more than you net, well, report a loss to your tax guy and see what happens.
Lastly but certainly not leastly, register with BMI or ASCAP. Those companies do a lot to protect the rights of the musician, as well as help you get paid when your first single hits #1 on the charts (or gets played that one time on Pirate Radio). Either way, register your album and quit fussing already. You’re almost there!
After a long, long quest I went with Tunecore [update: BANDCAMP], for several reasons (not the least of which being Trent Reznor and Aretha Franklin both use it). First, I like that you pay a low, flat, annual fee that never changes. They don’t take a percentage of any sales, and that’s amazing. They don’t charge you for your ISDN, your barcode image, or any of the other random fees other sites charge, and that to me is an indication of proper mindset. I looked at Songcast, The Orchard, and CDbaby, and while CDbaby still might be a viable way to release a physical CD they do take a percentage. So, for your first year, unless you truly plan to not sell many units I feel Tunecore makes more sense.
Tunecore (and I imagine any other distribution service) works basically like this: You sign up, upload your (mastered!) files, and label them very carefully. You supply the image for your artwork to be displayed in a tiny corner like an orphaned child (or if you want to be boring you can use one of their supplied templates). You write your liner notes. You give them your paypal info. You tell them which services you’d like to use in addition to Amazon MP3 and iTunes (each additional service is 99 cents). The whole thing cost me $34, roughly. They tell you it’ll take six weeks for your stuff to go live, but every bit of evidence points toward this being a complete fib as it’s actually much faster. I checked ten days later and my album was live. Tunecore also offers numerous other deals, none of which I went with. As mentioned earlier, if you haven’t gotten your tracks mastered you can pay them $50 to do it for you. They have shwag deals like buttons and T-shirts. They have tons of information about how to market your music and way more articles than I have time to read.
I looked for a while into distributing through a sales app or writing code directly through my site, but decided against it for security reasons, logistics, frustration at the apps, and honestly just to be impressive. There is a lot to be said for ease of use and brand recognition, and I’m thoroughly convinced I have made back much more than I’ve lost in the fees the distribution sites charge just by being associated with them.
As I said earlier, I’m sure the other services are great. Tunecore only works for digital distribution, they don’t distribute physical CDs. If you ever stop paying the annual $20 fee they will apparently remove your music from the distribution sites. Do your research, and choose wisely.
Here is a short list of methods I’m using to market my music:
The Big 3 – Email, Facebook, Myspace. First, email everyone you’ve ever known, I don’t care if it’s your old boss who beat you or whatever, and let them know your album is available and link them to it. Be honest and let them know how hard you’ve worked and ask for their support and tell them you’ll mow their lawn if you have to. If people ask to buy directly from you, well, that’s up to you, but I prefer higher numbers and a clean transaction rather than avoiding the minimal fees on the online sites. It will help you muchly when garnering support from industry types or labels to have concrete numbers to show. Facebook is currently the goto tool for networking (sup future), so use that to its full extent. Hold a CD listening party and invite everyone you know. Spam them, within reason. They will mostly support you and be happy for you and give you feedback. Myspace, well, that’s pretty much dead in the water, but we still can’t ignore it. A lot of fellow artists and industry types still use it and we can’t afford not to try every avenue available.
Business cards – Make a business card with your name/band name/pseudonym, your album name, contact information, website address, and whatever awesome graphic you’ve branded yourself with. On mine it says “available on Amazon and iTunes” under the album title. Hand these out as if they were fliers for a show.
Physical CDs – Do a lot of research and find the right package for you. Getting a small run of CDs made is a tricky business and can run anywhere from $0.79 per unit to $5.46 per unit. Depending on how snazzy you want your CD to look, you can get it all in one package or get it all in parts and put them together. You can print them out yourself, but be warned: Everyone can tell you printed them out yourself, so make sure that’s the image you want to project alongside your music. Check out sites like PrintPapa and the like for cheap, large runs of CD covers and inlays. Sites like DiscMakers and AbetDisc both do short run prints with a large choice of how elaborate or simple you want your CD to be. Remember to put your contact info on both the case AND the disc itself if you ever plan to use these as promotional tools. [Update: I went with IndyPendy, who have been absolutely amazing. Thanks for the tip, Big Moon!]
Review sites, magazines, labels, radio stations – Once you get your CDs made, it’s time to start mailing them to people. There are a lot of helpful websites about what to do when mailing out discs. The destination itself, whatever form it takes, usually also has a website with submission guidelines. I won’t get too into it except to say always be polite and try not to brute force it. Research your destinations to ensure they are into your style and are okay with receiving unsolicited material. In some cases it may be a good idea to email them first asking if it’s fine to mail them a CD, but always include a link to your online player in your signature. I use Lala‘s awesome streaming MP3 player, which you can sample at my promo page. I used vodpod to get it to work in WordPress. [Update: LaLa's player continued to be finicky, so I switched to Soundcloud and the Soundcloud widget for WordPress.] Unless they email you back and specifically tell you not to, send them a CD via snailmail, in a press package if possible. Review sites like Pitchfork and about a zillion others can help get your music out there as well. If you like, can also submit a Listmania! to Amazon, which is both fun and useful.
[Update: Paul Moffett of Louisville Music News comments below, "PR that only points to a link where the music can be heard suggests that the publication already has some notion about who the artist is. We could spend all day doing nothing but listening to music we aren’t interested in. Time is money and we spend ours carefully. A physical CD has a better chance of being listened to."]
Online radio – Radio sites like Last.fm, Pandora, Jango, and imeem will accept music with an ISDN. Those sites have different requirements for submissions, so research them first before sending anything.
Perform – To some this is a no brainer and an early step, to others it’s terrifying and difficult. In the modern age music becomes more like a painting on a wall than a visceral, engaging live show, and there are upsides and downsides to that. If you can easily perform your music or already have a band, get out there, do shows, promote yourself like crazy, practice like crazy, always seek to improve and be relevant in the scene you value most. If you are a solo electronic act like me, read my article about how not to perform electronic music live and do your best. Use loopers and friends and be interesting. Technology is really getting to the point where we can replicate what’s happening in our heads out into the real world in an authentic fashion and it is wonderful. If you have lyrics, get a version of your song you can perform at open mic nights. Whatever you do, get your music out there, and like Laura tells us in High Fidelity, as soon as one person hears your music you’ve made a difference in the world.
Now get out there and create!