An Introduction to the Self-Released Album

This article is part 1 of a 4-part series by guitarist Cameron Mizell. For more information about self-releasing your album, visit the series home page: The Self-Released Album

In what seems like a past life, the only way to release an album was through a record label. The label had the money to pay for your recording, the ability to distribute it around the world, and the marketing resources to make sure people knew your album was hitting the stores. Today, any resourceful individual with a little bit of money and a lot of creativity can make an album commercially available to the same number of people as a major label.

I have been involved with coordinating the release of about 200 albums, ranging from my own self-released album to Herbie Hancock’s Grammy winning River: The Joni Letters (2008’s Album of The Year). My previous job at a record label taught me a great deal about this process, and it’s definitely helped me when I released my own albums.

This is knowledge that I’d taken for granted, but after several of my musician friends asked me things like, “How do I sell my music on iTunes?” or “How can I sell my CD from my website?” I realized I ought to put it all in words and post it on MusicianWages.com to help anyone that wants to release their own album.

This article is the first of several that will discuss the ins-and-outs of releasing your own album. We’re just covering an introduction today, flushing out the generalities that will help you navigate this end of the business. The articles are for everyone that has never done this before, or those that want to do it better on their next release. Let’s start with a little background.

Shifting Trends in Music Retail

When everyone used to buy their music from record stores, even the largest stores were limited by shelf space to the number of titles they could carry. It was in their best interest to fill their shelves with albums that would sell and make space for more product. Every album had to pay it’s own rent, or else it got evicted. This gave power to major labels and their distributors, who could offer large volume discounts and promise widespread marketing campaigns to send people into the store to buy their albums. This was simply a matter of economics, not a deliberate plot to keep the little guy out of the picture.

However, as more and more music is consumed digitally and the sale of space-consuming CDs continue to decline, albums released exclusively in digital formats are becoming increasingly common. Digital products have an unlimited inventory and require virtually no storage space. This allows major digital retailers, such as iTunes or Amazon, to sell an endless number of titles. iTunes has become the biggest music retailer in the U.S. without selling a single physical product.

Of course, the physical product is not completely obsolete. CDs still sell, and vinyl records have even seen an increase in sales over the last several years. But the overall decline in sales has shrunk the amount of floor space dedicated to music. Independent retailers like Tower Records have been shuttered while stores that sell music among many other products, such as Target, Walmart, or Best Buy, dedicate less shelf space for music. This essentially creates a downward spiral—music sells less, retailers carry less music, music continues to sell less.

Yet again, the internet provides a life boat for physical formats. Even the most obscure, out of print albums can be found online. When it comes to shelf space, online retailers can store their inventory in a wharehouse in the desert, from which it ships straight to the customer. Who care’s about foot traffic, we’re just talking about clicks now!

This new economic model, or the growth of niche markets for obscure products has been called the Long Tail, as discussed in a 2004 Wired article by Chris Anderson. If you’d like a more in depth, nerdy explanation of long tail economics, check out the Wikipedia article. If you want to skip the details about statistical distributions (can’t blame you), just think of it this way:

The shifting trends in music retail, from brick-and-mortar to online stores, means independently released music has access to many of the same retail outlets previously available exclusively to major label releases. 

And keep in mind that, even if your band sounds just like the most popular music on the charts today, you may still consider yourself in a niche market because you are independent. There’s a market out there for unknown, obscure music. People love to think they’re the first person on their block that discovered you.

What’s to come?

There are many factors I consider when releasing my own albums. They may not apply to everyone, but it always helps to know your options. Here are some of the topics I’ll cover in the ensuing articles:

Digital Retailers – You’re probably familiar with iTunes by now, but there are many other online stores that will sell independent artists’ music. At which sites should you sell your music? What is the difference between download, streaming, and subscription services? How much will I make from these stores? These are all the most basic questions that I’ll address immediately in the next article covering the basics. Learn more..

Distribution – This is the perhaps most important piece of the puzzle. A distributor takes your music and delivers it to various stores at wholesale price. They also collect the all the money from those stores and allocate payments to you and everyone else they distribute. In return for their services, they charge a fee or keep a percentage. For independent artists, companies like CD Baby and TuneCore have become popular digital distributors. I’ll also discuss some various ways of selling your music directly from your own website. Learn more…

Metadata – It sounds like an intimidating word, but metadata is simply the basic information for your album. Along with the title, artist name, songs, composers and publishers, you’ll need to get a Universal Product Code (UPC) for your album and International Standard Recording Codes (ISRC) for each track. These are unique codes that help track your sales so you’re sure to get paid. Don’t fret, they’re easy to procure and I’ll explain a few ways of doing it. Learn more…

The Production Schedule – Behind every album release is a production schedule. Independent artists are able to be more flexible when it comes to their release timeline, but it helps to know how long each step can take so you have your CDs in your hand in time for your release party. The worst thing that can happen is you rush a crucial step of the process and end up with a typo in a song title on iTunes. I’ll put together a sample production schedule and checklist to help keep you organized. Learn more…

Manufacturing – What goes on at the plant when my CD is made? What’s the difference between replication and duplication? What are the basic packaging opitons? I’ll explain some of the basics and define some of the terminology you will likely encounter when talking to printers and manufacturers. Learn more…

Legalities – Do you need to copyright your music? What about that legal line on the back of CDs, do I need one of those? How do I pay royalties on cover songs? I’ve dealt with these issues and more many times and will give you some guidance on doing it right. Learn more…

Resources – Finally, I’ll offer a number of resources and articles available on MusicianWages.com and other websites offering advice to the independent musician releasing his or her own album. See the Self-Released Album Reference Guide.

This article is part 1 of a 4-part series by guitarist Cameron Mizell. For more information about self-releasing your album, visit the series home page: The Self-Released Album

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Cameron Mizell

New York guitarist Cameron Mizell has been a working musician since he was 16. Currently, he is involved in a wide variety of musical projects ranging from the avant-garde to singer/songwriter, bluegrass to indie rocktronica. He recently released Tributary with his jazz/funk organ trio. His experiences as a musician and former record label employee give him a unique perspective on the musician industry, which he enjoys sharing on MusicianWages.com.

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