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D.I.Y. Musician: Format and Function

September 9, 2010
Randy Chertkow

Randy Chertkow

Jason Feehan

Jason Feehan

Releasing music used to be simple: You''d make a CD and hand it to someone. But today, thanks to the Internet, music has been reduced to digital files. Choosing the right formats, settings, and fields can have some surprising benefits if you do it right. It can win you more fans, bring more people out to shows, let you find out who is playing your music, and even get you more income from Performance Rights Organizations (PROs).

When it comes to the format, most musicians make just one version of each song, but it''s better to make two. One should be an MP3 because it''s still the most popular format for music fans and it plays on more devices than WMV, AAC, or OGG. Make sure you encode your MP3s at decent quality settings (192kbps or better, with variable bit rate), but keep in mind that even with such settings, the data compression of the MP3 format will compromise quality somewhat.

Dedicated tagging software such as MP3Tag (Win) let you keep your ID3 tags consistent across your whole catalog in many formats.

Dedicated tagging software such as MP3Tag (Win) let you keep your ID3 tags consistent across your whole catalog in many formats.

Because of this, it''s a good idea to make a second file for each song in a lossless format. Although most musicians use uncompressed WAV or AIFF files, consider using a lossless codec like FLAC. Not only is FLAC a perfect reproduction of the music, it produces a much smaller file than does WAV or AIFF. FLAC also allows you to embed information into the file itself so it can be displayed by a music player. For instance, you can add artist, album, song, and international standard recording code (ISRC) information, which is not possible in most WAV formats.

Before you distribute any music, make sure the ID3 tags in your files are completely filled out because they are used by more than just MP3 players. For example, once you sign up for a free account on Eventful and add your shows to its calendar, fans that use the site''s Artist Tracker feature and who have your songs in their iTunes or Last.FM collections (assuming you''ve properly tagged them) will be automatically notified when you''re playing in their area. Or perhaps you want to know who your fans are and when they are listening to your music. The popular music service Last.FM uses the ID3 tags to record the song plays of each of its users, and it can show you who your fans are and what songs of yours they''re listening to.

You can use players such as iTunes or WinAmp to fill out ID3 information. When you do, make sure at a minimum to fill in the artist, album, copyright, genre, and lyrics, and add a blurb to visit your website in the comments section. Don''t forget to also embed album art in the tag information, as most players now make listening to music a visual experience. The more fields you fill out, the better connection you provide to your listeners.

Possibly the least known, but most advantageous, ID3 field is the ISRC tag, which performance rights organizations like ASCAP or BMI use to more easily find out where you are being played. This could result in earning you performance royalties. You can''t add the ISRC tag with regular MP3 players; you often will need to use dedicated tagging software such as Tag and Rename, MP3Tag, or ID3Renamer—some of which are free. These programs also make it easier for you to keep the tags consistent across all of the music you distribute. Most of these programs will allow you to also tag other formats such as FLAC.

If you do this right, your own music will act as a promotional tool—keeping your name front and center with your fans, and even earning you more performance income. And when your fans want more music, they''ll know where to find you.

Randy Chertkow and Jason Feehan are the authors of The Indie Band Survival Guide.

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