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Countdown to Your Album

June 25, 2010

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 (see “Industry Insider: Bob Boilen” in the February 2010 issue of EM). 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 through each reviewer 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.

Any cover tunes on your album must be licensed, and the first stop for that should be the Harry Fox Agency (harryfox.com), which administers licensing for music publishers in the United States.

Any cover tunes on your album must be licensed, and the first stop for that should be the Harry Fox Agency (harryfox.com), which administers licensing for music publishers in the United States.

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.

If you want to get an ISRC code for your music, head to usisrc.org. While you''re there, you can also get codes for any prior recording. Additionally, some CD stores will supply you with ISRCs.

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 such problems 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.

If you use a mastering engineer, try to choose one in your area so you can attend the session. If you already know who will be mastering while you''re mixing the album, ask if it would be okay to send this person a couple of your mixes so that if there are any glaring sonic issues (such as too much bass or harsh EQ), you can try to correct these problems yourself while mixing. This can save you a lot of expensive hourly charges when you do get to the mastering phase. (To hear advice on this and other mastering issues from renowned mastering engineer Greg Calbi, listen to the “EM Cast Greg Calbi” podcast.)

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 (see the “D.I.Y. Musician” column in the June 2010 issue). If you wait until after it''s been released, you might miss out on their surveys if it''s played.

6. OBTAIN A BARCODE
Although getting a barcode sounds like a trivial commercial step, it''s more important than some musicians think. Music sales are tracked within the United States through Neilsen Soundscan, which uses the barcode as the unique identifier for the album. Without it, the album sales won''t be counted. Also, some musicians forget that barcodes 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.

Most CD duplicators or replicators offer barcodes, often for free. They can also be purchased as a service from some indie CD stores such as CDBaby.com.

5. CHOOSE AN APPROPRIATE METHOD FOR MAKING YOUR CDS
Assuming you''re going to make physical 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 five 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 usually only 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.
  • Use a Print-on-Demand Service. Print-on-demand services such as CreateSpace or CD DVD Fulfillment offer a no-up-front-cost option. This allows you to make a profit on every sale. The print-on-demand disc is a good-quality CD-R that can be used for any purpose: PR, radio, or promotions. If all you''re trying to do is sell physical CDs online, there is no cost to you. If you are trying to make discs for PR or reviews, you can also make a short run with these services (and the prices get cheaper the more you make). For that, the cost is around $4.50 to $5.50 per CD. If you think you''ll need more than a dozen or so CDs, consider the next method instead.
  • 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. There are many companies around the country that offer duplication services. Some of the larger ones include DiscMakers and Diskfactory.
  • 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. 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. Most of the companies that perform duplication also offer replication.

The U.S. ISRC agency (usisrc.org) is the website to go to when applying for ISRC codes, which are digital identifiers for your songs.

The U.S. ISRC agency (usisrc.org) is the website to go to when applying for ISRC codes, which are digital identifiers for your songs.

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 Harry Fox Agency and using its online SongFile service to see if it handles the rights for the song you want to license. Otherwise, you''ll have to contact the copyright owner directly. (For more on licensing, see “Show Me Your License” in the September 2006 issue).

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 cents 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 that such errors should 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.

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.

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 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.

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