Here’s a step-by step guide to releasing and promoting an album in time for the holiday. I won’t make wild promises, but if you follow all these steps, your release will be significantly more successful than if you just launch it into the wild without a plan.
Your music, like that of many artists during the pandemic, has probably lost momentum in the past few months. Live performances are non-existent and, let’s be honest, it’s been difficult to feel motivated. That said, there are also a few points of light: You may have had more time to engage with fans on social media and streaming numbers have continued to trend up.
But streaming doesn’t pay the bills like concerts do. So how do you, as an artist, make up some of that lost revenue? How about with a special album release this fall to make the most of the holiday music selling season? Don’t forget, 40 percent of physical music sales happen between Thanksgiving and Christmas!
If you haven’t made it to the studio yet, there’s still time—though not a lot. I’ve included a release calendar you can download that spells out (day-by-day) what you should be working on between now and Christmas to give you a blueprint for a successful holiday album release.
Make a plan
You’ve probably heard the saying, “Plan the work, then work the plan.” While planning a fall album release is not rocket science, you’ll want to spend an hour or two figuring out how you’re going to get this done. How much time can you spend on it? How much money can you invest? How are you going to get the word out to make your album a success?
Make it special
If you want people to buy your album, make it special enough that they will want to buy it. Yes, a standard CD is great, but can you create special deluxe packaging that allows you to sell it at a premium price? How about ordering CDs from Disc Makers without poly wrap so that you can autograph them and sell them as a special limited edition?
Or what about vinyl LPs? Vinyl takes longer to manufacture (8 to 10 weeks), so if you still need to record your album, it’s too late to hit the streets with vinyl before Christmas. However, if your recording is done, there is still time for a premium vinyl release to delight your fans with this Christmas.
Then, there’s exclusivity. Do you want to go narrow (i.e. physical only) or broad (physical plus streaming)? The advantage with doing a physical-only release is that the ONLY way a fan can get your music is by buying it from you. A physical-only release also allows you to tell a different story: How this is a special product JUST for dedicated fans and how it goes to support you directly during the pandemic. That exclusivity makes it a great holiday present.
Conversely, going broad with physical plus digital distribution has its own advantages. After all, it gets your music in front of more fans more easily, which can help broaden your fan base. But why not go hybrid? Before your album comes out, release one or two digital-only singles to get your fans excited and follow up with a physical-only album that can only be bought from you. The choice is yours, but be clear about your distribution strategy before you start this journey.
As with any project, planning only gets you so far if you don’t execute. The execution of a successful holiday album release comprises four main components.
1. Creation. The composing, recording, and mixing of your recording will take time. Ideally, by now, you have a selection of strong compositions to pick from. Carefully curate the songs you’ll be recording to put your best foot forward. If you still need to record, get moving fast. The release calendar assumes you can get into the studio early in October in order to meet an early December release schedule.
Other parts of the creation process are photography for your album artwork (and promo and social media and videos), the writing of your liner notes, and, for a special holiday release, your lyrics. I highly recommend you work on these while you are in the studio recording.
2. Manufacturing. Of all the components of a successful holiday release, manufacturing is the simplest… Just call Disc Makers for your CD, vinyl, and t-shirt needs (800-468-9353). However, there are several decisions you’ll need to make beyond just which product you’ll be offering your fans.
Will your project be mastered by a professional? (Note: the answer should always be an enthusiastic, “Yes!”) Every professional release is mastered to optimize the sound for commercial release, and so should yours. There’s a cost to this (you can get an instant online quote here), and more importantly, it takes time—especially if, for some reason, it takes multiple rounds of corrections.
Who will design your album cover? Of course, Disc Makers offers fast, professional album cover design, but many of our clients choose to work with an independent designer. Whoever you choose, make sure they can work within your tight timeframe.
Plan your manufacturing turn time carefully. Working with one company (like Disc Makers) simplifies the process, and because we are professionals who do this all day long, our turn times tend to be the fastest. If you use an independent designer and mastering studio, remember that we generally won’t be able to make up any lost time during manufacturing.
(An additional piece of advice: Disc Makers offers three turn times: Priority, Standard, and Economy. While our Economy turn times are the most affordable, they take the longest and we cannot offer a firm due date because we make your product when we have capacity after the Priority and Standard turn projects are completed. Therefore, when working on a holiday release with a tight time window, opt for our Standard or Priority turn times.)
3. Sales. Selling your product is a challenge when you can’t perform live or do any in-person appearances. However, there are quite a few effective ways to get your fans to buy your product online:
- Bandcamp is the biggest, most indie friendly store on the web. It costs nothing to set up, so make sure you have a Bandcamp site and that the content there is up to date. Send your fans to your Bandcamp site to buy your music and then do your own mail fulfillment. (And, since you’re fulfilling your own orders, make it special by including a personalized note in the package.)
- An alternative (or complement) to Bandcamp is CD Baby’s Hearnow service—a customized eCommerce page for your album. For $2.95 a month, your fans can buy your physical album there, or you can direct them to any of the streaming services.
- Sign up for digital (and physical) distribution. While most physical albums are not sold in brick and mortar stores any longer, Amazon and other online stores sell physical media. There are many capable digital distributors, but I like CD Baby because they are the only ones who distribute physical product in addition to supplying your music digitally to all streaming sites.
If you want to maximize your sales, your release schedule is critical. You can’t just drop an album and expect it to be successful—there are just too many new releases dropping every Friday (the day most new music is released). So you need to prime the pump by releasing one or two digital-only singles before your album comes out. This allows you to get your social followers excited about your new single and about your new album coming out early December.
One important way to maximize your sales is to set up a pre-order period for the physical product on Bandcamp and direct your social and email subscribers to pre-order your album. (Our client, Ninja Sex Party, did this with great success by offering to only autograph pre-ordered CDs.) For streaming, CD Baby’s www.show.co offers easy tools to set up a Spotify pre-save campaign that automatically adds your album to every fan who pre-saves your album to their Spotify songs.
4. Promotion. Of all the work needed to drive a successful album release, promotion is by far the most difficult. There is no magic formula that guarantees a successful album. However, there are a number of components you MUST execute.
Budget. While you can do a lot without spending money, a successful release should be supported by a promo and marketing budget to be spent mostly on paid social advertising and digital display ads. Luckily, these ads are so affordable, you can easily reach many thousands of potential fans without spending a lot. How much should you spend? That depends. I’ve gotten advice that the budget for a full promo push for a commercial album release should equal the cost of recording, manufacturing, and distribution. That’s a sizeable budget. If you don’t have that kind of headroom left on your credit card, you can spend significantly less (a few hundred bucks) and still get a bang from paid social and search display advertising. For a pretty simple way to do this kind of advertising, check out www.show.co.
Channels. Much of your marketing can be done for free (or virtually free) through social media and email, which will be your two main channels to generate buzz and excitement about your new release. To be successful you’ll need a steady stream of social content—stories, pictures, video—and, as you get closer to your launch date, email content with offers and links to your Bandcamp and streaming profiles. You’ll want to post online at least three to five times a week with engaging content on the platforms your fans are most likely to be on (probably Instagram and Facebook at the very least, plus Twitter and others, depending on your music). Some artists also use PR to promote their new album, but I recommend against that. PR is like yelling into a storm—there are so many other releases happening at the same time, it’s almost impossible to get noticed by readers.
Messaging. One thing many artists get wrong when they post on social media and email is that their messages end up looking something like this: BUYMYRECORD! BUYMYRECORD! BUYMYRECORD! If you want to get your fans to tune you out, that’s the best way to do it. If ALL you do on social media and in emails is tell people to buy or stream your music, they’ll quickly unfollow you. Instead, you need to think of yourself as a storyteller—your stories need to engage, entertain, and interest your readers. What can you post? Here are some ideas:
- Photos and videos from the studio
- Rehearsal pics and stories
- Origin stories of how a song came to be written (or what inspired it)
- Anecdotes from your daily life
- Pictures of your dog (people love pet pics)
- Touching stories
- Funny stories
- Sad stories
Of course, in many of these posts, you can also link to your music, but it almost has to come across like an afterthought… EXCEPT once or twice when your new music has just come out. Then it’s OK to do a big “new music out, buy it here” announcement.
When you email, you want to do similar storytelling. However, since an email can easily contain multiple parts, you can (in fact, should) include a call-to-action telling the client where they can buy or stream your music. After all, getting them to buy your music is the goal of all this effort you’re putting in. So, make sure you include links to your Bandcamp, Hearnow, Spotify, Apple, Amazon, and other profiles.
One final suggestion: Since you’re looking to grow your fan base, feel free to ask your fans to share your posts and emails to help you expand your reach. There’s nothing wrong with asking: if you don’t ask you don’t get.
Live streaming. This one’s not for everyone, but if you have new music coming out it’s a great time to start experimenting with video live streams. Artist live streams on platforms like Twitch, Facebook Live, and YouTube Live have generated huge concurrent viewership – usually MUCH greater than what an artist would draw in a club. A platform like Twitch makes it accessible to not just live stream your audio and video, but it allows you to interact with your fans, sell merch, send them to your streaming sites or website, and even charge for attendance (which I don’t recommend for most emerging artists).
There are two main kinds of live streams you might think about for a new album release: 1) a live stream listening party (possibly broadcast from the recording studio) that allows fans a sneak preview of your new album, and 2) a live stream album release concert, where you play the album live (and get fans to buy it online). Just make sure you have links to buy your album (and stream it) set up, and make sure you’ve practiced ahead of time how to do a live stream successfully. If you Google “music live streaming” you’ll find lots of online resources to learn from.
So how long does this whole process take and how much work is involved? The release calendar we created is ambitious but doable and models recording, manufacturing, distribution, and initial promotion in about 60 days (with an extra week or so built in for inevitable delays), with several weeks left for pre-holiday promotion to drive sales. But… you need to be on your game, approve any and all proofs promptly, and make sure you take the necessary steps to get your distribution, sales, and promotion all set up in advance.
Does following all these steps guarantee success? I wish I could promise that, but in music, there are no guarantees. What I CAN guarantee is that if you follow all these steps, your release will be significantly more successful than if you just launch it into the wild without a plan.
Christmas is around the corner… are you ready to make the most of the fall music season?
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