Countdown to Your Album

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10 things to do for your next CD release

Originally published in the July issue of Electronic Musician.

It’s easier than ever to release your music to the world. And there is now a wealth of online services that will help you promote, distribute, and share your music. But even though musicians can release material whenever they want – and many fans are happy with the idea that they can download singles – the press, fans, radio stations, podcasts, and even digital distribution stores still ask the same question: “When’s your next album coming out?”

Of course, an album in today’s music world is more than just a physical object. It’s a concept that helps promote your music; it gives everyone something to focus on. Having an album enables events such as a record-release party, gives you a story to tell to help get you reviewed or mentioned in the media, provides you with a group of songs for sale in a digital music store, and gives you something tangible to sell fans after a live show.

No matter what you plan to do with your album, you want to put out the strongest product you can. While many articles in EM delve into the recording and mixing aspects, here we’ll focus on what happens after the mixing is done, but before you actually release your project. We’ve put together a list of steps – presented roughly in the order you’re likely to deal with them during the process – that will help make your album release successful.

10. Put Your Best Song on Track 1
There’s more music out in the world than ever, which means that musicians have to fight even harder for the 30 seconds of consideration that they get from any media outlet, radio programming director, or reviewer that gets their album. In a recent interview in EM, Bob Boilen, the music reviewer for NPR’s All Songs Considered, said that the show receives 200 to 300 CDs per week. Their review method: toss the press release in the recycle bin, slot the disc in the player, and listen to track one. If that doesn’t grab them, they put it on the giveaway pile and move on to the next disc.

Don’t lose the opportunity to reach far more people by leading with a weak track. The rest of the music on the CD won’t matter if no one hears it. Although the actual sequencing of the song order for your CD will likely happen during mastering (see step 8), it’s something you want to decide on before that point.

9. Get ISRCs for Each of Your Tracks
Your songs may make it onto webcasts, ringtones, and all kinds of other electronic distribution methods. Because of this, before you distribute your music to anyone, get an International Standard Recording Code (ISRC) for each of your tracks. This is an international serial number that will uniquely identify each song and can be digitally embedded in the disc subcode (you can do this with many 2-track editors and some CD-burning applications, or your mastering engineer can do this for you) or even into the ID3 tag of an MP3 file. The ISRC code is widely used in digital commerce sites and by collecting societies, so it may affect the royalties that you get for your music.

Note that you need an ISRC for each track separately. In fact, if you have multiple versions of the same song, each of those tracks should get its own ISRC code, as well.

8. Get the Album Mastered
Many musicians are tempted to save money by skipping the critical mastering process before sending their music off to be reviewed, played on the radio, or replicated 1,000 times. Don’t make that mistake. Mastering is a critical and very specialized process, and it is best done by an experienced engineer with the right gear in an acoustically treated studio. Evening out volume between tracks, smoothing out EQ, adding compression and limiting, and getting the benefit of an experienced pair of ears with a fresh perspective on your project is key. It will add that critical polish to your album and help it stand out from the crowd. Listeners and reviewers will look negatively on problems such as jarring volume changes between songs, too much bass, or overly bright or dull mixes, and these problems can’t easily (or cheaply) be fixed once the CD is made and the songs have been put up for sale at digital music stores. To learn more about Mastering services, visit the new SoundLAB website to see and hear all of the ways our mastering experts can make sure your music is ready for commercial release.

7. Legally Protect the Music
Although U.S. copyright law doesn’t require that a work must be registered with the government to get copyright protection, you can get statutory benefits, such as the ability to recover your legal costs if you prevail in a lawsuit, if you register it within a few months of publication. For musicians, that publish date is usually when a CD is released. Take a little time before the album is released to register both the music (form PA) and the recording itself (form SR) with the U.S. Copyright Office as a collection so you get the full benefit of registration as it is more cost-effective to register them as a whole than each song separately.

Also, before the album release, register the songs with a Performance Rights Organization (PRO) and the sound recording with SoundExchange so that if it’s played and picked up in their surveys, you can get paid for it. If you wait until after it’s been released, you might miss out on their surveys if it’s played.

6. Obtain a Bar Code
Although getting a bar code sounds like a trivial commercial step, it’s more important than some musicians think. Music sales are tracked within the United States through Nielsen Soundscan, which uses the bar code as the unique identifier for the album. Without it, the album sales won’t be counted. Also, some musicians forget that bar codes are also part of the album art. They usually need to be obtained ahead of time or it slows the entire process down while waiting for it. Click here for more information on obtaining a Bar Code.

5. Choose an Appropriate Method for Making Your CDs
When you’re ready to make CDs, there are lots of options for manufacturing them. To choose the right one, estimate how many CDs you’ll need for each of these categories: CD sales at live shows, physical CD sales online, PR campaigns, free CD giveaways, college or commercial radio campaigns, and CD review campaigns. Each of these can affect the size of your run, as well as help you determine the quality of disc that you’ll want. If you need a rough guide, just assume that you’ll need at least 100 for each of the aforementioned uses.

Once you know how many and what you’re going to do with them, you can choose the best method for you. Consider one of these options:

Make It Yourself. You can always use your own computer to burn CDs and print covers and liner notes. This method is certainly easy for demos but very time-consuming. (Think of using scissors to cut perfectly square fold-outs for the CD case 20 times in a row.) Also, it usually results in a low-quality product that is not appropriate for PR campaigns, radio, and CD reviews. It costs approximately $2 per disc if you buy in bulk, use color ink for your cover, and buy empty jewel cases. These prices get closer to $3 to $3.50 if you get a printer that can print on the CD itself and you use higher-quality paper for the insert.

Buy a Duplication Machine. If you need to be able to make a large number of CDs on demand, bulk-duplication machines may be an option. These machines will usually both duplicate CDs and print reasonable-quality images on the CD face itself. On average, a decent machine costs approximately $1,200; the lower-priced ones aren’t worth buying as they don’t last as long. Figuring in the insert, the toner, CDs, CD case, etc., your cost is around $1.80 per CD once you’ve paid for the machine. This option is probably best if you need to be able to handle a lot of different CD runs on short notice. If you have just a few albums, you’re usually better off going with one of the other methods.

Duplicate It. There are two major methods that are often confused for making a large number of CD copies: replication and duplication. The latter is for short runs between 100 and 500 CDs. It creates CD-Rs that don’t last as long as replicated CDs do (although they’ll usually last a couple of years or so), and they don’t play in some of the very oldest CD players. The final product looks just as good as a replicated disc, however, because it’s usually made using the same printer for the insert and on-disc images. The result is perfectly good for publicity, music reviews, and submitting to radio stations. The cost per CD is typically between $4 and $5 if you add in the shipping costs to get the discs delivered to you.

Replicate It. Replicating CDs involves making copies from a glass master disc, and creates the highest-quality product. Most CD manufacturers don’t even offer replication unless you’re going to make 1,000 copies or more (Disc Makers offers replication at quantities of 300). Although this method has the highest up-front costs, it also has the lowest cost per CD with the best result. The prices are usually around $1 to $2.50 for each disc after shipping costs are figured in.

4. Clear the Rights
When you hire a CD manufacturer to duplicate or replicate your CD, the company will ask you to sign a form that you’ve cleared the rights to the music on the disc and the art on the disc and inserts. As always with copyright law, this is more complicated than it seems. If you want to do it right, you need to spend a little time tracking down the info and clearing the rights.

For cover songs, you are required to pay a mechanical royalty for every single copy of the music that you make. This royalty is due when you make a copy, regardless of what you do with the music: sell it, give it away, or even just leave it in your basement. This is why CD houses are required to ask about clearance when they make your discs rather than when you sell them. To clear the rights, start by going to Limelight or Harry Fox. Otherwise, you’ll have to contact the copyright owner directly. Click here for more information on clearing your cover songs.

There are only two pieces of good news about this process. First of all, the maximum rate is capped by law, currently at 9.1¢ per copy. Second, cover songs usually are a great way to get people interested in your music as people search for them in popular online music stores. A purchase of a cover that you recorded can turn into a purchase of your entire album.

For any art that you don’t create yourself, you’ll have to negotiate separately with the owner. Often forgotten is that photographers own any photographs they take unless you hired them under a “work for hire” contract. If you don’t have such a contract, it might be necessary to pay the photographer for the use of his/her work in your album.

3. Proof Your Discs
It’s embarrassing if you have discs made that have text mistakes on them. There is no reason for such errors to get through. The best way to avoid such a problem is to get a proof copy from the CD manufacturer and hand it to as many people as possible. Although it’s tempting to skip this step because it usually costs extra, it’s worth it.

No matter how much checking you do on your computer screen before you submit it, there’s something about having a physical proof that forces you to truly look at every word. You will also get a chance to see the alignment of all of your images and the overall effect of the art. These types of mistakes are the kind that can lead to the music being ignored, no matter how good it is.

2. Make Sure Track Names Automatically Come Up In Music Players
When you pop a CD into iTunes or other computer-based music players, the track and artist names usually come up. This makes it easy for listeners to know what they’re hearing, and it is used for the titles in MP3 files when people rip the CD. But for new CDs, all that comes up are generic titles such as Track 1 and no artist name. Fortunately, this is something that you can fix yourself before you send it out to anyone.

The track information is stored in two services: Gracenote MusicID and FreeDB. Both do the same thing: They get a fingerprint of the CD (based on the combination of length and order of the songs) and compare it to their databases. If they have an entry, the track names come up. If they don’t, you will need to fill the track information out yourself, and then use the Submit button in your player. For example, in iTunes, choose Advanced/ Submit CD Track Names after typing in the names, which submits the information to the services. [Note: Disc Makers’ Mega Distribution Bundle includes registry with Gracenote and AllMusic.com.]

1. Build In Appropriate Lead Time for Publicity and Promotion
Although some musicians like to release their album the instant that they get it in their hands, that can sometimes interfere with a coordinated media campaign. If you are planning to promote your disc through traditional media (newspapers, magazines, and radio), new media (blogs, podcasts, and websites), and social media (MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter), you need to build in the right lead time to coordinate these campaigns.

Traditional media outlets typically need lead times of three months to schedule their articles. They expect press releases and sometimes require a lot of callbacks to get their attention, which can be time-consuming. If you plan a traditional media campaign to have articles coming out around the same time you release the album, have your discs in hand and ready to go before you even start the campaign.

For social media, it’s best to make it an ongoing communication through the entire process. New media needs just a week or so of lead time for news about a release show. And for the album release itself, you should approach them just before or just after release to announce the news.

As for social media, it’s best to make it an ongoing communication through the entire process – including during the album’s recording – so that your fans feel connected to you and your latest work. By the time the album comes out, they’ll be excited to see the final product. Putting together a street team and finding ways to get them involved is a great way to keep the excitement going while you build up to a release party.

Fade Out
Imagine you’re a music reviewer holding two CDs in your hand: One is a burned CD in a sleeve with magic marker written all over it, and the other is a professional-looking replicated CD. Better still, once the professional-looking CD is played, it’s mastered and the band’s name and song titles automatically pop up in your music player. Which would you pay attention to? Which artist do you think put in the time to want to be reviewed? Considering that most artists only put out a handful of albums, it’s worth the effort to follow through on all of these steps. After all, your music is worth it.

Randy Chertkow and Jason Feehan are quite experienced in the art of putting out CDs, having released 18 of them with their band, Beatnik Turtle.

Check out more features, hear great podcasts, get gear reviews, and more at Electronic Musician online.

Story Links:

“Industry Insider: Bob Boilen” (from the February 2010 issue of EM)

International Standard Recording Code (IRSC)

EM Podcast with engineer Greg Calbi about mastering

Disc Makers SoundLab mastering

U.S. Copyright Office

BMI

ASCAP

SESAC

SoundExchange

Nielsen Soundscan

Disc Makers CD packages

Disc Makers Short-run Duplication

Limelight cover song clearance

Gracenote

FreeDB

Disc Makers Mega Distribution Bundle

Planning your album from beginning to end

Make Your CD Release Gig A Special Night
10 Great Tips to Help You Fail as an Independent Artist
10 Marketing Basics for Musicians
Take the Risk Out of a Risky Business
CD Release Tips

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57 thoughts on “Countdown to Your Album

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  15. Thank you so much for this information. I didn’t have this information when I completed my first album now I know what to do for my second release.  This article has been a great help, thank you again.

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  16. This was an excelent article. Thanks for the information. As for some of the detractors, they may not yet have come to the point in their career where they have to choose between making an artistic decision and a business decision. If being an Indie artist is more important that making a living on it, then this article won’t help. If the artist plans on being financially successful (at any level, whether just scratching a living or being rich and famous) then understand you’re in a music BUSINESS. This article’s sole purpose is to help sort out the confusion that comes from trying to tackle the business end of a CD release INDEPENDENT of corporate assistance. The indie philosophy is simply this- control your destiny, control your career. Presented here are some steps to help you, if this is the direction you want to take.

  17. Thank you for all of this information. I’m actually preparing for a meeting with a PR person tomorrow to discuss my upcoming release. I will definitely use this as article as a check list. Thanks again!

  18. Nice article
    Great info for fledgeling artists
    Most people usually learn from mistakes
    But this article thrusts a stake through the heart of many potentially foolish mistakes
    Thanks for the good work

    Gus

    1. Gus, this article isn’t a vampire killer. In fact, it’s a bit of a bloodsucker itself. It has some useful info, but it also points us in a direction that assumes too much for the independent artist it’s aimed at. At every turn of those unexamined assumptions is a bias toward the powers that be. One of the great things about being independent is that you’re independent. Maybe some of us like it that way and aren’t heading towards a big sellout payday. What is the indie artist independent of? Corporations that dominate to make money.

      PROs, bar codes, copyrights, etc. aren’t necessarily the right way for every indie artist. In fact, for the seriously independent they’re a mistake.

  19. As for “Put your Best song Track 1” I can’t help but find it nasty to say such a thing. If you have a “best” song, then your album sucks. You can favorites, but you should not be able to say one single song is the “best.” At least half of the songs should be able to be hard-hitting numbers that could be singles. And if you don’t already know that you should open with a great track, you probably not ready to make an album.

    1. NC, I completely disagree. One, it’s not a “nasty” thing to say, it’s the truth. Give me a Chick Corea, Paul McCartney, even Beethoven and 99% of the listeners will agree on the “best song”. If everyone who puts out a CD had, as you put it, “At least half of the songs should be able to be hard-hitting numbers that could be singles” then you and I are living on different planets, especially since this article is geared for independent artists. I have 12 Jazz CDs; my about-to-be-released project has 2 Grammy-Award winners and and one Grammy-nominated artist on it. I love every track on this but I can certainly point out the strongest track that is in the #1 slot.

      1. Best for what? To hook listeners? What if the catchiest song works best as the number 3 song when you listen to the whole collection? Do you sacrifice the synergy of the whole to keep from losing listeners with a short attention span? Don’t we know enough already about what’s lost when we put business first? Putting business last makes the most sense. Fear makes crappy music. It’s not suicide to say that marketing sucks. It does. Just because we live in a capitalist economy and have to indulge in it a bit doesn’t change that. Put the creativity first. Making the best music we can is the most important thing. Don’t compromise that.

        1. @ paulsprawl: You wrote “It’s not suicide to say that marketing sucks. It does. Just because we live in a capitalist economy and have to indulge in it a bit doesn’t change that.”

          Name any of your favorite famous bands. I don’t care who it is. The Beatles on down. If it wasn’t for marketing and the capitalist economy that has been around for 100+ years, you never would have heard of them, heard them or ever ben inspired by them. The writer’s point, AGAIN, is to help the person hook the listener. “Making the best music”, I agree with you. But that has little to do with the order of songs on a CD. OF COURSE, the musical order needs to make sense! But I think you’re confusing the definition of compromise.

        2. My producer tells me that the track I have been getting the greatest attention on should not appear first, but rather somewhere between 4 and 6 (out of 12). We have several strong tracks but he feels we should draw the listener “up” to thehighest artistic point, not kill ’em with it first. The old vinyl formula was to put the first “hit” as Title No. 1. But isn’t it better, from the point of view of listening to the CD as a whole, to build up to a certain point? Jac Holzman used to program Elektra LPs by putting a very strong song first, ending side one with a song that would make the listener want to flip the LP over, open side 2 with the BEST overall song (most commerical; most accessible; best quality songwriting) and end with a song that would make the listener wanna flip back to side 1 and play the album again. Other thoughts?

        3. mcjon, all good thoughts. I had older friends that were in Vaudeville (most are gone now) and tons of professional musicians, actors, etc. They all had a slogan, which I agree with: START STRONG AND END STRONG. I could agree with placing your most popular track in the middle. But energy-wise, I would put the strongest up front, like the writer suggests. If your “greatest attention” tune has the most energy, if it were me, I’d put it first. Then, IMHO, it draws in the listener for the rest of the project. Hopefully, you do have other stronger tunes in the middle, as well. Everyone has an opinion. I can just tell you what I’ve learned from the greats before me and I know what works for me. At least, I’m trying! 🙂

        4. The only point the writer was trying to make about putting your best song #1 is due to the fact that many of the VIP’s you send it to; promotors, record execs, radio program directors, reviewers, etc., get 100’s of submissions per week and if the music doesnt grab their attention in 30 seconds they move on to the next CD. Everyone is so offended by that, but its the truth, and if you want this creation to be something more than just a masterpiece in your own mind, you have to make it in such a way to give you the best chance at being noticed. If it were Metallica on the other hand, sure you can put your songs in any order you want and chances are the same people listed above are going to give the CD more than 30 seconds of a listen.

      2. It’s simply a matter of purpose. In my experience as an independent musician, I have always made two different copies of a musical release. One for the fans that has the songs in the most artistic order. The other for promotions, which has only snippets of songs on it. On the promo disk, I will lead with the strongest portion of what I feel to be my strongest song. Although I feel that all of my songs are strong, I can definitely pick out which ones have the most potential to grab attention of listeners and promoters. It’s a known fact that promoters do not have a ton of time to devote to listening to your stuff. Providing only snippets lets them know you don’t expect them to listen to everything. I have gotten great results with this.

  20. Regarding the “register your copyright as an album ’cause it’s cheaper/easier”, I was told you shouldn’t do just that because that only protects that specific compilation of songs, not the individual songs themselves. So your album would be protected, but individual songs from that album used in any other setting would be unprotected/fair-game. Can you clarify that at all?

    1. @D

      It is perfectly acceptable to copyright a collection of your songs to save money. All of the songs that you send for this compilation protection will be legally copyrighted under federal and international laws. However, know that your copyright will only exist in the lyrics and the melody line for each song. To protect the music portion, as a whole, you will need to register separately a sound recording copyright for the compilation.

      Put together, both copyrights will protect your compilation.

      1. The PA form copyright’s the song.
        The SR form copyright’s the music and underlying song.
        But now, they’ve combined it as a CO form. So, it’s even less complicated (hah) than before.
        But, you may have to also file a first usage form on top of that (for collecting royallties).
        Copyright office has it good, no?

  21. if what you are looking for is just an announcement, perhaps the media lead times suggested here are workable, though they seem a bit short to me. speaking as someone who writes reviews and profiles for both traditional and new media, I’d suggest longer lead times for both. four to six months for traditional media, and while it is true that there are many quick turnaround sites in new media, that for them as well. would you rather have an instant review or a thoughtful one? you can have both, of course, if you take the time to find out what’s needed at different outlets. for what I do, I prefer three months or more for new media as well. there are scheduling issue to take into account, as well as the fact that listening to music and writing about it thoughtfully — which is what you want — really does take takes time.

  22. For submitting track names to Gracenote, if your disc was burned or replicated with CD-TEXT (so track titles come up in a car CD player), then you can use an AppleScript to get iTunes to “read” the CD-TEXT and fill it in as “CD Info” in iTunes. This saves typing time and prevents typos!
    Install this free script:
    http://dougscripts.com/itunes/scripts/ss.php?sp=cdtexttocdinfo
    Go to the Scripts menu in iTunes to run the script after you pop in a disc.
    Voila! The track names will show up in iTunes. Now just check them for accuracy, and submit to Gracenote via iTunes.

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