PRESSING ISSUES

Releasing an album can do a lot of things for an artist. First of all, it allows more people to experience your musical talents. Second, it provides a
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Releasing an album can do a lot of things for an artist. First of all, it allows more people to experience your musical talents. Second, it provides a tangible source of income through sales you make at gigs, by mail order, on the Internet, and in retail outlets (such as book and record stores). But most important, your record propels you into the elite stratosphere of "recording artists," opening new avenues of publicity through radio airplay and record reviews.

Another significant aspect is the "cool" factor: an album is far more impressive than a demo tape when you're negotiating with clubs and trying to get good gigs.

Simply put, an album can be a very good tool for the serious musical artist. It's even better when it's on a major record label-but until they call, doing it yourself is the next best thing.

PLANNING FOR SUCCESSNo matter how you record your tracks, start thinking about the album before you mix. Take time to strategize. Begin by putting together a budget, accounting for all the costs of the project: mixing; editing; mastering; design charges, including materials; photo shoots and prints; preprinting charges, such as color separations and matchprints; printing; pressing; packaging and shrink-wrapping; sales tax (if applicable); and anything else you can think of. Now add a 10 to 20 percent contingency fee for those unexpected emergencies.

When budgeting, keep in mind that most pressing plants and printers have a clause in their contracts stating that all orders are subject to a +/-10 percent over- or underrun. This means that a 1,000-piece order could theoretically yield anywhere from 900 to 1,100 pieces. The norm usually is in the +/-5 percent range. In either case, you will be billed for the exact quantity shipped.

In the worst-case scenario (assuming you are using a separate printer and CD plant), you could wind up paying for 1,100 CDs and have only 900 booklets and tray cards! However, if you are wise enough to order more booklets and tray cards than CDs, you won't run the risk of getting shortchanged.

INITIAL CAPITALPressing your own CDs isn't as expensive as it used to be. But the question remains: where's the money going to come from? A common solution for the band on a budget is to have each person in the band contribute an equal share of the costs. When the product arrives, each band member gets some of the discs, and the remaining copies are used for sales and promotion. For example, from an order of 1,000 CDs, each member of a five-piece group could get 100 to give to friends and relatives (all of whom want free copies, of course). This leaves 500 copies for in-store and offstage sales and radio/press promos. Priced appropriately, the CDs that are sold will pay for all the production costs and then some.

Whether you're in a duo or an orchestra, the aforementioned scenario is a great way to divide the financial responsibility of producing your own release. It's interesting to note that a shared financial commitment in a release promotes a shared commitment to see it "sell through"; everyone hopes to get a return on their investment, whether it be a direct financial payback or the funding of a new release. Just make sure that everyone in the group agrees beforehand (it's advisable to get this in writing) on how the money collected from sales will be used.

TIMETABLES AND THE RELEASE PARTYArtists releasing their first disc tend to want to start booking a record-release party while the CDs are still in the manufacturing stage. But before you set the date in stone, get out a pencil and paper and do some planning. Otherwise, the biggest no-shows at the record-release party might be your own records.

You will need to have firm answers to questions such as: How long will the entire process take, from design to delivery? What is the promised turnaround time from the replicator? And how much shipping time is required with every step of the process? Be conservative. Demand the quickest turnaround time, but expect the longest. Even if your broker guarantees that the project will be finished in three weeks, don't book your record-release party on the exact day the CDs are due to arrive; you'd just be asking for trouble.

Here are a few examples of things out of the artist's direct control that can cause a CD project to arrive late:

* Another band's CD-label artwork is printed onto your CDs.

* A flood in the Midwest delays all cross-country shipments, including the entire run of your discs, by one week.

* The computer disk that has your design files is found to be corrupted and the printer (which is across the country) cannot open them.

* The designer put the wrong bar code in the design.

* The colors on the matchprints are not what they should be.

* The wrong CDs arrive on your doorstep, which means somebody else probably got yours.

Another potential timetable bug is the time of year. The months of July through October are the busiest for pressing plants because everyone is getting releases ready for the holiday season. Don't expect to get a rush job done during these peak production months-in fact, expect orders to run late. Usually, the manufacturer or broker will tell you if they expect orders to take longer than usual.

The best way to make sure you have problem-free product at your record-release party is to wait until your CDs arrive before booking the gig. By waiting patiently for the process to come to completion, you will be able to concentrate on the other important tasks at hand: publicizing and playing the gig.

FORMAT CONSIDERATIONSOne of the first decisions you will need to make is which format to press. It was once customary for independent artists to press equal numbers of CDs and cassettes because many potential customers didn't have CD players. Now, almost everyone has a CD player, and for both independent and major labels, cassettes have become difficult to sell. Many distributors no longer carry them. Consequently, boxes of unsold cassettes fill the closets and basements of artists and labels that were pressing both formats well into the mid-'90s. As a top independent distributor recently stated at a national independent music convention, cassettes are dead.

On the other hand, vinyl is back with a vengeance for many styles of music, thanks primarily to the DJ and indie-rock scenes. The major labels (and their distributors) haven't been able to kill the venerable "record" as quickly as they had predicted over a decade ago-and oddly enough, they've been getting back into the vinyl market as well. Many audiophiles prefer the sound of a high-quality vinyl pressing over a CD. And for many listeners and recording artists, the large-format graphics of a 12-inch LP jacket are far more appealing than the standard 4.75-inch-square CD booklet.

Still, there's no denying that compact discs are the common currency in the music biz today. This has much to do with the convenience they offer: because it's a random-access medium, listeners can play the songs in any order they choose, skip songs they dislike, and easily repeat their favorite tunes. In addition, CDs are more robust and sound better than cassettes, which are notorious for hiss, wow and flutter, and potential breakage.

If the purpose of your release is in-store sales in the major chains, CDs are a must. But if you're catering to a niche market that collects both CDs and vinyl, you might consider doing a split release.

If you care about the sound and image of your project, and you're willing to make a little greater financial commitment, releasing it on both vinyl and CD might be the way to go. Otherwise, put your hard-earned money into designing an outstanding release in the format that best suits your music.

PACKAGINGNow the real fun begins. Armed with your edited analog or digital master tape, you're ready to start hunting for a CD duplicator, tape replicator, or vinyl pressing plant that suits your needs, budget, and patience.

Keep in mind that the final package will probably be assembled mechanically rather than put together by hand. The size tolerances of automatic packaging equipment are extremely tight, often +/-0.5 mm or less. That means the designer, printer, and manufacturer have to be on the same page when it comes to size specifications for the various elements, including CD booklets and tray cards, CD labels, LP labels, and cassette J cards. Usually, the designer and printer must meet the manufacturer's specs and machine tolerances. With that in mind, let's look at a couple of different approaches to pressing and packaging your music.

Brokers. The easiest way to go is to use a broker, especially if this is your first release. Brokers can handle every step of your CD/LP/cassette project, including editing and mastering, artwork design and printing, pressing, packaging, and even drop shipping the final product to distributors, retailers, and other customers. Brokers may not actually do each of these steps in-house-which is why they're called brokers-but they have relationships with specific printers and manufacturers and get volume discounts by ganging your order with others.

Although using a broker is not always the cheapest way to go, there are several key advantages to using one. First, you can be sure that their designer has templates that meet the manufacturer's standards and that the printers are used to working with them. Second, brokers do this on a daily basis and know where problems are likely to occur in the production process. Third, reputable brokers stand behind their work; if there's a problem with the order and it's their fault, they will remedy the situation quickly. (Brokers rely heavily on word of mouth to get new customers, and good service is the best form of advertising.)

Other services that brokers provide are small runs of CD-Rs with printing and packaging included; UPC bar codes, which you will need if you want your product to get into the major stores; and custom CD packaging, such as cardboard sleeves.

There are dozens of brokers to choose from, and many are eager for your business. A good place to begin your search is in the classifieds section of EM or Mix magazine. Brokers usually have Web pages that describe their services and give the cost breakdowns. Many brokers have special rates for package deals such as combination runs (for example, CDs and cassettes, or CDs and 12-inch vinyl).

DIY a la carte. In some cases, the cheapest way to get your music pressed is to carefully price out and select the right person for each of the steps yourself. That means finding the designer, printer, and manufacturer, and coordinating them every step of the way. This can be a tricky feat for the novice to pull off successfully because of the various requirements each party has. And any mistakes along the way will prolong the process and eat away at the money you're trying to save.

As mentioned earlier, everyone involved needs to have the same set of artwork sizes and machine tolerances in mind. The best way to begin is by finding the manufacturer you want to use and getting their specifications for the label size, booklet or sleeve size, tray card size, mastering preferences, and any other specs they have. They may also recommend a printer that specializes in CDs, cassettes, and records. Once you know the dimensions for each of the packaging elements, you can present them to your designer, who will make sure they are followed to a T.

The biggest mistake many musicians make with their first record is having a friend or family member with no prior record-design experience do the layout. Don't let this happen to you! It's okay to use artwork created by a close friend or relative, but have a professional who has lots of experience doing record design create and refine the layout. Any money you save by letting an inexperienced friend do the layout will be spent many times over when you have to have it modified (by the printer's staff designer at $50+ an hour) to fit the exacting specs of the manufacturer.

Another common mistake is using a printer that has little or no experience printing CD booklets or record jackets. For example, some printers might not be able to (or want to) cut your booklets to the exact size you specified. The exception to this rule is, of course, when you are using custom packaging (not to be confused with "custom jobs," which is how some manufacturers refer to small orders, such as 1,000 units or fewer). If you have grand design ideas that go far beyond the usual CD jewel case or 7-inch single sleeve-such as a folded paper sleeve with elaborate printing-you will want to find designers and printers that can do custom packaging (see Figs. 1 and 2). Because the products will have to be stuffed into the packages by hand, the standard sizes and tolerances do not have to be met.

By now you may be wondering whether there's any reward to the DIY approach. Well, it's like taking apart an automobile engine and reassembling it: going through the process will give you a clear understanding of how the different parts work together. If you don't already know about color separations, matchprints, blueline proofs, drum scanning, and Quark files, you will by the time your album is done.

PRODUCTION RUNSBy their very nature, CDs are well suited to large production runs. Typically, CD plants and brokers have a minimum order requirement of 1,000 units. Some companies will do runs of 500, but the rate per disc increases dramatically, and often you will be charged for items such as the glass master. Even companies that advertise great deals for runs of 500 may end up making 1,000 discs of your title and scrapping half- or worse, warehousing the extra 500 copies until you return to reprint, and then charging you the 500-disc rate again.

The situation is similar for printing CD booklets and tray cards. With small orders, the majority of the printing costs include the labor for prepress, setup charges, printing plates, and so on. Therefore, you might find it advantageous to print beyond the minimum order to bring the unit cost of the job down.

Let's say you plan to make 1,000 CDs. The minimum order for the booklet and tray card might be 1,000 units, with the next price break at 2,000 units. If you think that you might one day want to repress the disc, it would be wise to print the larger amount of booklets and set aside the extra copies for the future.

For example, take a typical printing run of four-page booklets and tray cards. The booklets will be 4/1 (which, in printing lingo, means four colors on the outside and one color-usually black lettering on a white background-on the inside) and the tray cards will be 4/0 (four-color printing on one side and unprinted on the other side, because it will be under the CD tray). Let's say the cost is $417 to print a quantity of 1,000. That comes to 41.7 cents per unit. However, you might find that printing a quantity of 2,000 units costs $528. That means you're spending an extra $111, but the unit cost declines dramatically to 26.4 cents.

If there is even a remote chance that you will reprint (and if you're in this for the long haul, you can bet on it), it is wiser to go with the larger print order and store the extra amount; to do the print run of 1,000 twice would cost you almost double what you'd pay for a single order of 2,000 units.

It can be tough to decide how many units you will need. A thousand discs may seem like a lot of units to move, but if you're gigging regularly, hitting retail outlets, selling discs over the Internet, and sending promo copies to radio stations and the press whenever you play, you may go through your supply in a year or two. If you happen to have a hit on your hands (whether from airplay, concerts, or retail sales), you may find them flying out the door in no time-it does happen. Both the Hooters (in the early '80s) and Hootie and the Blowfish (in the early '90s) sold tens of thousands of their self-releases before getting label interest.

CDs ONE BY ONEA growing trend in self-released music is creating CDs one at a time with a CD-R machine. Whether you do it with a stand-alone unit or a computer peripheral/software package, creating the CDs yourself may be right for you.

The obvious advantage is that you can make them as you need them, so you never have to warehouse large quantities of product. In addition, the price of the blank media has fallen below a dollar a unit when purchased in bulk quantities, and jewel cases can also be purchased in bulk. If you plan carefully, the cost of your CD-R release may be comparable to that of mass-produced discs.

Furthermore, customized packaging may be the perfect complement for a CD-R release. This can range from simple cardboard sleeves, decorated using rubber stamps, to elegantly folded origami-like envelopes (see Fig. 3).

The design concept can be carried over to the disc itself (see Fig. 4). The most common method of labeling a CD-R is with an adhesive label. The design and layout are created on a computer and laser printed directly onto an adhesive label. Some manufacturers of blank media suggest using the paper labels because they add an extra layer of protection to the top of the CD. On the other hand, the disc can be decorated using permanent markers; water-based inks are recommended over solvent-based inks, which can damage the dye layer of the disc. Be careful not to write on the discs with sharp objects. The pits and lands that the laser reads are closer to the top of the CD than the underside, so poking into the top layer may render the disc unplayable.

The downside of burning and packaging your own CD-Rs is that it's labor-intensive. Most people are surprised to learn how much time it takes to duplicate, print, cut, and assemble a dozen CD-Rs.

A new service provided by CD brokers includes manufacturing short runs (500 units or fewer) of CD-Rs packaged to look like mass-produced CDs. The service includes printing on the CD-R (usually one color only); a four-panel CD booklet (4/1); a tray card (4/0); insertion into a standard jewel case; and shrink-wrapping. All you have to provide are a master and print-ready artwork. The replication in this case is usually done with an automated CD-R burner. The CD-R is then sent through an ink-jet printer, which prints directly onto the disc. The booklet and tray card are done on a color laser printer.

Obviously, it's going to be a bit more expensive per unit to have this done-but not prohibitively so. A survey of prices for this service averaged $4.50 per unit for a run of 250 copies; $5.25 per unit for 150 copies; and $8 per unit for 50 copies. Compare this with mass-produced CDs at $2.40 apiece for 500, or $1.25 apiece for 1,000. In both cases there is enough markup potential to make a profit on the discs.

The advantage of using a broker for CD-Rs is the quality of the final product. A packaged CD-R produced by a broker will probably look more like a commercially produced CD than one you could make at home, which may be appealing to some buyers.

THE FINAL WRAPReleasing your own album is one of the most rewarding aspects of being a recording musician. Enjoy the process as much as possible, and revel in the knowledge that people all over the world will get a chance to hear and appreciate your work.

This article is an excerpt from the upcoming EMBooks release Making the Ultimate Demo, 2nd edition, by Gino Robair, distributed exclusively by Hal Leonard Corporation. For more information, visit www.mixbooks.com.

As you may know, most CD manufacturers have 1,000-piece minimum orders. However, in the past few years, replicators have begun offering 500-unit rates. If you compare the per-disc cost of 1,000-unit and 500-unit runs, you will notice that you are paying more for each disc when you make 500 discs.

One reason for this is that small runs increase the replicator's production costs. The way any manufacturer makes a profit is by keeping their machines running and making the largest quantity of products possible per shift. By doing this, they keep the unit cost down because things like setup time and labor are maximized. Time spent setting up a machine for a new product is time taken away from actually making something. This is referred to as downtime.

Another big factor in the price of short runs is the cost of making the glass master. The glass master is used to create the stampers from which the CDs are duplicated. It has been customary for replicators to waive the fee for the creation of the glass master (which ranges from $250 to $600) with orders of 1,000 units or more. Although it may not be stated as such in a company's written estimate, you can be sure that you are paying for the glass master when you order fewer than 1,000 discs.

It takes up to 24 hours to create a glass master. Setting up the machines that mold CDs (that is, mounting and checking the stamper) takes a half hour or more. Actually molding the 500 discs takes less than an hour. Then it's setup time again, which means more downtime for the machine.

The same goes for the offset printing of booklets and tray cards. Again, the major costs are in the setup time, and printers usually have a 1,000-piece minimum so they can keep the presses going for as long as possible. Even if they get an order for fewer than 1,000 units, they will often print the extra and recycle or throw away the overage. Spend a bit more by ordering more than you need. You'll save yourself some money down the line.

If you have to mail your master tape or artwork, spend the extra money to send it by an overnight service, fully insured. If possible, get a signature request as well so you know that someone's going to have to sign for it. Be sure to contact the person who is receiving the package and find out which delivery service they prefer; sometimes a studio or printer will have an account with a delivery company and will prefer them over another company. Tell the recipient when they should expect your package to be delivered, and ask them to let you know when it has arrived.

Another type of "insurance" is to make sure that everything you send out has your name, address, phone number, and the project name on it. This is especially true for your log sheets, graphics, and master tapes (which should be marked inside and outside of the tape box, and on the tape itself). And of course, make a copy of the master before it leaves your hands.

Whether you get mass-produced CDs, LPs, or cassettes, or make a small batch of CD-Rs, good-looking product is a prime consideration if you plan to sell your music to your fans. Begin thinking about design and packaging during the recording and mixing stages-don't wait until the last minute to begin this process. A well-conceived design that fully integrates with the music can take weeks, even months, to bring to fruition.

If you don't know where to start with the process, don't worry. A little window-shopping and research may get the ideas flowing. Take an hour or two and visit a record store that caters to your particular style of music, and also comb through your own music collection. Keep an eye out for what you consider to be successful designs within your genre, making note of design elements that work and don't work.

If you have colleagues who have released their own records and you like the packaging, ask them to recommend their designer. It's important to find a person who is sympathetic to your kind of music and is willing to use your suggestions. Remember that this album is going out in the world to represent you and your music, so don't be shy about making comments or changes to the design.