Releasing music

0 · Friday 23 December 2016 · Sounds

In the process of releasing my EP Happy Now? I learnt some useful lessons about what to do and how to do it. Most of these lessons I learnt by doing it wrong the first time, so the following notes are as much for the benefit of my next release as for anyone else’s. I’m a novice at this, but I think there are probably a lot of other novices out there too.

Mastering

You’ve recorded your music in your spare bedroom on equipment you already own. Apart from your time, the process hasn’t cost you much. Why would you then lay out hundreds of dollars for professional mastering? Why isn’t a good freeware mastering plugin enough?

Listen to the difference. Most professional mastering studios will provide you with a free sample, and when I heard the difference Mercury Mastering made, I knew I had to find the money. I’d tried online mastering tools like Masterlizer, and they certainly achieved additional loudness, but a professional studio does much more. Mercury lifted my recordings to a new level of definition and cohesion as well as loudness. They turned a home recording into a professional product (or at least as professional as the source material allowed).

If you’re going to pay money for professional mastering, follow the instructions carefully. Mercury Mastering, for example, has a seven point checklist for preparing your tracks for mastering, and adhering to these rules does make a difference in the result you get.

One unexpected outcome for me was that professional mastering boosted the apparent level of the vocals by about 3db. Next time I’ll mix the vocal a little lower, or I might get the release mixed professionally. You can upload your stem tracks and a demo mix to any number of  studios where they have the equipment and experience to get the best out of the work you’ve put in. In the past I’ve had good results from Goran Rista. But this is a far bigger cost than just having your music mastered, so if you have decent monitors and honest ears you may prefer to mix your music yourself.

Digital distribution

It’s cheap and easy to get your music onto almost every online platform there is. There are several services available; I used RecordUnion. Thirty dollars later my EP had UPC and ISRC codes, and it was on iTunes, Spotify, Deezer, Google Play … every major platform and several minor ones, for both streaming and sales. OK, you need to pay twenty dollars every year to keep your music out there, but after the first year it should be a straight business decision: do the sales justify the cost? If there are sales, RecordUnion takes a cut for managing the process, but you get a full breakdown across all outlets and can easily transfer the money to your own bank account.

I also listed my EP on my Bandcamp account because it’s a great promotional tool. You can generate promotional codes to get your music to reviewers, you can sell digital or physical media easily if that’s what you want to do, and it’s free.

Physical media

In this digital age, is there any merit in producing a CD? My answer is a qualified yes: it’s useful for those reviewers, radio stations etc which still prefer receiving a CD. Depending on what age range your music appeals to, you may also sell a few.

For my EP I opted to burn a limited number of CDs myself. I have an ink-jet printer that prints onto CDs, I bought some blank cardboard sleeves and a stack of A4 sticky labels which I printed and cut to size myself. The resulting product was adequate for mailing to radio stations and reviewers, and giving to friends and family as Christmas gifts.

Next time I’ll have copies of the CD made professionally. Printable CD blanks are cheap, but the cardboard sleeves, A4 sticky labels and printer ink cartridges mean I could have had a bunch of CDs professionally produced for less than I spent on raw materials. There are plenty of companies that will create professional CD packages for you; one low cost option I particularly like is the eco-pack from Atomic: fifty CDs for less than a hundred dollars (plus the inevitably expensive trans-Pacific shipping costs).

Vinyl? It depends on your target audience, and whether you’re confident the inventory will sell.

Promotion

I can’t speak highly enough of SubmitHub. This is a fantastic tool to get meaningful exposure for your new music at a low cost. You can submit a song to dozens of blogs and opinion leaders for less than a dollar a time. The best thing is that you always get feedback within 48 hours or the submission is free. Paradoxically I gained the greatest benefit from the reviewers who declined: their reasons for doing so gave me a fresh understanding of my music’s strengths and weaknesses.

By the time I discovered SubmitHub I’d already spent a lot more money through MusicSubmit. I found that MusicSubmit submissions often result in a request from the blog or radio station for physical media. New Zealand Post charges me thirteen dollars for each CD I mail overseas, so this quickly becomes even more expensive. If you have a better product than Happy Now? MusicSubmit could be a good tool, but personally I wish I’d spent that money through SubmitHub.

Ideally you need a good video for that radio-friendly song you’re hoping will get some airtime. I don’t have the skills and requisite patience to put a video together myself, but you might. Otherwise prepare to spend at least a thousand dollars to have someone make you one. You could crowd-fund to cover the cost, or apply for funding … or just not have a video.

And social media: these days it’s critically important. I’m not the right person to ask for advice on this, but there are plenty of articles and resources available online to help shape a successful social media strategy.

Speaking solely of the local New Zealand market for a moment, there are online music magazines, radio stations and newspapers that should always receive a copy of your new music. Again, they mostly prefer physical media, and their websites will usually tell you how many copies and where to send them. Don’t forget to send two copies to The National Library for their collection. And most importantly, hook up with NZ On Air. There’s funding available to create video clips and cover recording costs, and they still send out New Tracks to radio stations, which is a great promotional boost.

Finally, you need to put some effort into a promo kit. I pulled together a bio, release notes for the EP, a lyric sheet and photographs. I used these as separate PDFs and images, as a single downloadable PDF, and hand printed them into a CD-sized eight page booklet for inclusion with promotional CDs.

Planning

Don’t do what I did – or more correctly, what I didn’t do. You need to plan your release carefully. Next time I’ll be creating a project plan that lists all the steps and dependencies and gets them into the right order. A preliminary list might look something like this.

  1. Finish recording. Don’t do anything else until you’ve fully completed all the tracks that will be in the release.
  2. Identify the first single and get it mixed and mastered.
  3. If you’re in New Zealand, apply for NZ On Air funding to cover video production for the single and mixing/mastering costs for the entire release. Also apply to have the single included on the next New Tracks (if successful, the date of the New tracks release then becomes your release date).
  4. Determine the exact and final track order. Put some time into this: it can definitely impact the effectiveness of the release, and you really don’t want to have second thoughts any later in the process! In my opinion you want your strongest two songs at the start, but you have to pace the listening experience, provide light and shade, and keep the listeners’ interest.
  5. Prepare the artwork.
  6. Start teasing the release on social media, and continue promoting it with each of the following steps.
  7. Get your video made.
  8. Have the entire release mixed and mastered.
  9. Create promotional CDs.
  10. Prepare your promo kit.
  11. Set a release date, and complete the remaining steps on or as close as possible to that date.
  12. Digitally distribute your music (using RecordUnion or a similar service).
  13. Publish the music on Bandcamp.
  14. Get the video of your single online.
  15. Crank up the social media campaign.
  16. Submit for review with SubmitHub.
  17. Mail CDs and promo kits to local radio and television stations, newspaper review columns, local music blogs etc.
  18. Have a cup of tea and a little lie down: you’ve earned it!