How to Release Your CD on a Modest Budget

With a little ambition and a crafty do-it-yourself attitude, you can release a disc on a modest budget. Using today's technology, you can make a product that rivals major-label releases for a fraction of the cost with a much lower break-even point, allowing you to start enjoying profits sooner. But before you consider releasing your album yourself, you need to have a clear picture of how much money it takes to get your CD into the hands of buyers.
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You've recorded and mixed your songs to perfection. As the saying goes, they are “in the can” and are ready for public consumption. With a little ambition and a crafty do-it-yourself attitude, you can release a disc on a modest budget. Releasing your music yourself allows you to maximize profits by eliminating the overhead that a major label brings to a project. The competition to get signed is fierce, which makes it less likely that your music will ever get released or see a large audience. Using today's technology, you can make a product that rivals major-label releases for a fraction of the cost with a much lower break-even point, allowing you to start enjoying profits sooner. But before you consider releasing your album yourself, you need to have a clear picture of how much money it takes to get your CD into the hands of buyers.

SETTING UP SHOP

If you haven't set yourself up as a legitimate and legal business already, it is a good idea to do it in preparation of a release. You'll need to look into getting a business license and a reseller's license. The following fees are based on my home of Portland, Maine; your city and state fees may vary. A Business License from the City of Portland costs $20. The State of Maine issues Reseller's Permits for free. Reseller permits allow you to sell to record stores and distributors within your state and not charge them sales tax. Finally, you'll need a tax ID number, which the IRS will issue for free. Also, you may need to file a Fictitious Business Name Statement or dba (doing business as), which will cost you whatever your local newspaper charges for classified ads. State and county laws and fees do vary considerably, so check with your local agencies. BusinessNameUSA is an online resource for purchasing business and reseller licenses as well as filing for your tax ID number and dba (www.businessnameusa.com). To read up on the legalities and details of setting up your own business, check out “Working Musician: Going Legit” in the February 2002 issue of EM.

Acquiring a business checking account allows you to easily keep track of your expenses. Get an account that has a debit card, which makes purchasing goods and services easy and swift. Make sure that you save all of your receipts and print out records for online expenses. Many credit unions and banks have free checking accounts, even for businesses, so take the time to shop around. (For more on bookkeeping, see “Working Musician: Hit the Books” in the January 2004 issue of EM.)

When it comes to organizing your project, a simple file box and folders, available at most office supply stores for $10 to $30, should suffice. Good accounting software is worth its weight in gold. Intuit Quicken and Microsoft Money are two examples of financial software that should serve you well. Prices for accounting software generally run from $30 for a basic model to $90 for deluxe small-business versions. Take advantage of these accounting tools. The task of documenting finances will be much easier for you and your accountant. Saving your accountant time could also save you money when it's time to do your taxes. Regarding taxes, many of the expenses involved in releasing your CD may be tax deductible, which is another reason to stay organized and keep good records (see “Working Musician: Tax Tips for Musicians” in the March 2003 issue of EM).

PREPARING YOUR SONGS

It is important for your songs to have a coherent sound (technically, not stylistically) from one song to the next. If you complete a group of songs over time, then they may have subtle differences in sound quality that become more obvious when you listen to them back to back.

If you have a great ear and the proper tools, you can create a more uniform and professional-sounding release by tweaking the songs yourself at little or no cost. If you feel that mastering is best left to a professional, which is what the pros and smart indie artists do, you should hire one. Most good studios employ engineers who have an ear for mastering. At about $50 per hour and one hour per song, a full-length professionally mastered disc should cost only $500 to $600.

DESIGNATED DESIGNER

You may be a great lyricist, but writing effective copy for a disc sleeve, a bio, a press release, or an advertisement is another story. If you're not good at writing effective copy, then it is in your best interest to get someone with experience to create good copy for your release. Expect to spend between $100 and $200 per page for that service. Depending on the amount of material you need, you could spend up to $400. Anything more than that may be overkill for an artist doing an independent release. If you pay anything less than $100, you are probably selling yourself short, unless you are a friend of the writer and are getting special pricing.

If you are going to have pictures of yourself on the disc, then good photography is the most important aspect of your design. Pictures stand out and are worth getting done professionally. You should be able to hire a good photographer for a half day for about $400. If you have a plan and are well prepared for the shoot, you will make it easy for the photographer, thus saving time and money.

Next, you'll need to combine your text and images and layout the design of your release. A good graphic designer can take your materials and create a package that is greater than the sum of its parts. You may be able to call on talented friends to help, or you could solicit the services of disc manufacturers, who often have staff designers with an appreciation for music products. If you go with a manufacturer that offers this service, you can expect pay about $100 per page for package design.

Remember, presentation is key. It is unlikely that you are a great songwriter, instrumentalist, engineer, copywriter, photographer, and graphic designer. At best, you may have friends and family that can help out with a variety of tasks and assist you in putting out a sharp-looking release on a limited budget.

You should consider having a UPC bar code to record sales to SoundScan and to make it easier for retailers that scan items at the register. The Uniform Code Council (www.uc-council.org) issues UPC bar codes to businesses for $750. There are also online companies that distribute bar codes for a fraction of what it costs to get one from the UCC. As an alternative, your manufacturer may supply a bar code for free, or you may purchase one from an online CD distributor, which I'll cover shortly.

CD Production

You have many options for making CD copies, and the method you choose will depend on how many you need. If it's only a few, you can burn them yourself in your computer and print your own graphics. If you're going to be making copies of a single project-with quantities up to 1000 CDs-and you need pro-looking CD packaging including printed tray cards and inserts, consider professional duplication services. However, if you're going to be duplicating CD projects on a regular basis, and printing relatively short runs (say, anywhere from about 15 to 300) think about buying a duplicator/printer and doing it yourself. These units will duplicate fairly large quantities (many can duplicate about 30 CDs per hour), and will print an image right onto the CD. (If your CDs need tray cards and inserts, you'll have to get those professionally printed or print them yourself on another printer.) Once your needs exceed 1000 discs, replication is the most cost-effective option. The process is technically different from duplication, and requires that a glass master be made prior to the copies being produced. Due to the expense of the project setup, the more CDs you make, the cheaper the cost per disc.

Mike Levine

DISTRIBUTION DETAILS

After your design is complete and before you start distributing your CD, it's necessary to copyright your release. It's affordable and more of an effort rather than an expense. You can register your sound recording as a whole by submitting a Form SR to the United States Library of Congress for $30. Registering the entire work at once spares you the $30-per-song charge of registering them all separately. Furthermore, to register a work as a sound recording, the copyright office requires an actual printed and pressed disc from the manufactured lot. (You can learn more about copyrights and download and print forms by visiting www.copyright.gov.)

Most retail stores will distribute your release on a consignment basis. The good news is that this costs you nothing up front. The bad news is that you have to wait until you actually sell discs to get your money. For a $35 setup charge, you can sell your release online through CD Baby (www.cdbaby.com), one of the most popular Web sites for independent artists to sell their works. The artist sets the price of the CD, and CD Baby keeps $4 per disc sold. If you don't get a UPC bar code from your disc manufacturer, CD Baby can get you one for $20. Amazon's Advantage program (www.amazon.com/advantage) is another option for selling your music through a third-party site. You must apply and be accepted into the program. There are no up-front fees, but Amazon pays you 45 percent of your CD's retail price.

PRESS KITS

Thanks to desktop computing, you can print many of your own materials. Most computers come with basic publishing software that usually has predesigned templates for a variety of documents. You or a friend can design pretty nifty bios, press releases, flyer sheets, and envelopes. For the price of an ink cartridge ($35) and some nice paper and matching large envelopes ($45 to $65), you can make a nice-looking press kit on-demand from the comfort of your home. Stay away from plain white paper and envelopes; you can do much better by spending a little more money.

You'll need publicity photos to round out your press kit. You can get 250 publicity photo reprints from your original for less than $100, so shop around.

ADMINISTRATIVE COSTS

Often forgotten and seriously underrated are the basic costs of phone calls and postage. For long-distance calling, I've found that prepaid calling cards have the best rates. You can get 600 minutes for about $22. Six hundred minutes should be sufficient for the phone calls that you'll inevitably make in anticipation of a release.

A basic press kit — press release, bio, photo and CD — will cost $1.52 each to mail. Sending out 100 press kits to key publications, radio stations, and venues should be enough to get the ball rolling.

PROMOTION AND MARKETING

If you don't want to have a million discs sitting in your cellar, then promotion is a key part of your release, perhaps the most important part. Major labels are essentially marketing and promotion companies that spend a significant amount of money promoting artists. Sales are directly related to marketing, and as an independent artist, it is imperative that promotion is a big part of your release budget.

If you already have a Web site, you can add the new text and photos that you recently acquired for little or no money. If you don't have a Web site, get one; it's one of the best ways for your fans to learn about you, buy your disc, and contact you. Starting a Web site from scratch, however, can quickly become expensive. Ask around about Web site design, as there are many talented Web designers out there. Many of them would be happy to cut a deal to get their work featured on an artist's site. You should be able to build a nice starter Web site for $500 to $1,000. If you already have a site, you may want to give it a new look when releasing a disc. Changing the look of an existing site should only cost you a few hundred dollars if you need to hire out. (For more about online promotion, see “Working Musician: Pounding the Virtual Pavement” in the December 2004 issue of EM.)

Advertising is a necessity, and the cost can vary greatly depending on location and level of publication. When it comes to budgeting for advertising, the sky is the limit. For the sake of this article, I'll assume that you cannot afford newspaper ads, which can be very expensive. If you place smaller ads in local entertainment publications, you can usually get artist rates for $50 to $100. A half dozen to a dozen ads should be enough if strategically placed.

REAP THE REWARDS

Using the examples in this column, expect to pay a minimum of $2,400 for the most basic release and up to $7,400 for a moderate release. A basic release means fewer discs, fewer pages of artwork, and a smaller geographical area of distribution and promotion. A moderate release would mean bumping up the budget to accommodate such things as better art, more pages in the CD booklet, more ads, and so on. Knowing your budget and spending it wisely is as important as the quality of musicianship and songs. A release is an investment that can very well yield good returns. Welcome to the music business and good luck!

THE COST OF DOING BUSINESS

When releasing your own CD, every penny counts. While working out your budget, you should take a good look at the various costs side by side so you can decide where it might be worth spending more and where you can cut back. For example, the scope of your release will determine how much you spend on CD pressing and advertising. Or, if you already have a Web site and can update it yourself, you can cut that cost out of your budget. Also bear in mind that the costs listed here are for releasing a CD. Depending on your sales goals and how much of your income is dependent upon your music, you may need to factor in the recurring costs of running a music-related business such as accountant fees, business cards, promotional items, insurance, and so on.

Incurred Cost Low End High End

Fictitious Business Name Statement $25 $50 Business License $20 $200 Reseller's Permit $0 $200 Office Supplies $10 $30 Accounting Software $30 $90 Mastering $0 $600 Copywriting $100 $400 Photography $350 $500 Graphic Design for Disc $0 $400 CD Production varies varies UPC Code $0 $750 Copyrighting Sound Recording $30 $30 Press Kit Supplies $180 $200 Phone and Postage $175 $200 Web Site $0 $1,000 Advertising $300 $1,200

David Phillipsis a musician, media artist, and music marketing consultant. He can be contacted through his Web site atwww.fivemasks.com.