If you’re going to share the product of your hard work with the world, make sure you do it right.
Becoming a successful band doesn’t happen overnight. And it’s rarely accomplished by the artists alone. Though the bands may be rocking onstage or on a record, there are a lot of people backstage or on the sidelines that help them get there. “Making the Band” will examine these unsung industry players to find out how their work ultimately paves the way for the headliners.
If the music industry is a machine with many parts, this series will be its schematic.
Part Four: Releasing Your Music
Sure, there are almost limitless digital and physical outlets offering avenues to quickly get your product in people’s hands or on their hard drives, but there are benefits to resisting the urge to release your music hastily. New music is only “new” for so long, and setting up that release for maximum exposure, coverage, and consumption is nearly as important as having a good product to begin with.
Take a deep breath, take your time, and get to work.
18. Pick Your Physical Formats (Maybe)
It might seem out of order, but before you even think about your release schedule you need to think about the formats you plan to deploy when releasing your music. Vinyl can take three to six months from start to finish before you have stock in hand. Cassette (yes, people still sell and buy them) can take one to two months. CD duplication can be done fairly quickly – days to weeks depending on the service and the size of the order.
You might also want to consider whether you should have a physical release at all. Jeff McCoy, owner of High Dive Records, advises against spending the money on physical formats unless your band is playing live shows or touring. Physical copies require a substantial investment that can turn sour fairly quickly if there is no way to push them. Bands signed to larger labels typically have distribution deals. Everyone else is going to be making the majority of their physical sales at shows. Without one or the other, those shiny jewel cases will start amassing a reputable dust collection.
“Sometimes people just want to put out a CD or put out a record on vinyl. And there’s nothing wrong with that,” says Nathan Reusch of local label The Record Machine. “But the cost can be substantial and maybe you could spend that money to get T-shirts or something else. Having a better spread of things that people actually want may be more important in the long-term.”
Vinyl tends to be the most unpredictable, as major labels have jumped on the resurgence bandwagon and started reissuing albums on the format. McCoy noted that this can often lead to smaller orders like his getting bumped down the list — thereby ruining his release schedules. Jim Netter, who handles licensing and manages the in-house record label for Quality Record Pressings, a vinyl pressing plant located in Salina, Kansas, said a lot of these kinds of issues can be avoided by simply doing your research and finding a trustworthy pressing plant to work with.
“If you’re trying to get a set release date and communication is a problem up front, it could really bode ill for even knowing exactly when your records are going to be produced,” Netter said. “Understand that you have choices. And if you get that kind of feedback from somebody, maybe they aren’t that interested in your business and check somewhere else.”
Because production time can vary greatly amongst these formats, first decide how your release will be available, work with pressers and plants to get a set date for the completion of your initial run, and then calendar the remainder of your release schedule around that date.
Who wrote the songs on your album? More often than not, an album is a collaboration among the whole band — in which case, all band members are considered authors by industry standards. Cool, right? Yes, but that means you’re all entitled to copyrights for the works and publishing royalties if and when those songs are played, unless you have an agreement otherwise.
Work out your splits as a band, then take the time to go to Copyright.gov and get your individual songs, or the whole album, registered. Doing so gives each of the authors statutory rights to protect your works when other people try to use them without your permission.
You’ll also want to protect your public performance rights, and the corresponding royalties, in those songs, and you’ll want to set that up before any of the music is released to the general public. The internet moves fast, and any of today’s nameless tracks could become tomorrow’s “Harlem Shake” simply because some stoned dorm-dweller thinks it’s “dope AF”. Register your tracks with BMI or ASCAP and you won’t be kicking yourself when your song becomes the soundtrack for the “(hashtag) Barney Rubble Challenge” or whatever else these kids come up with.
20. Make a Release Plan
Now to the fun part. You should think of your album release date as an event. And that event needs to be planned in detail and buttressed by a calculated and steady crescendo of anticipation.
For McCoy, if you’re putting your work out there just because it’s ready, you’re doing it wrong.
“The biggest mistake I see people make is not having a plan. Everybody gets antsy, but whatever level you do it at, you want to do it right,” McCoy said. “You have one shot. Once [the album] is out there, it’s out there. So, whether we’re talking about a full on physical offering or just throwing it on Bandcamp, think about your goal first and plan it out.”
An industry guideline that McCoy and High Dive employ is a two-month promotion schedule with a single release, a music video, and another single release, followed by a stream of the full album the week before the actual release date. Cap it all off with a banger of a party (or parties), stocked with physical copies for fans to buy.
For Claire Adams, bassist for Katy Guillen & the Girls, who released an album this year, the release party is an important part of the process — even for the band itself.
“One of the main reasons to have [a release party] is to celebrate the culmination of all of the work that goes into completing a record, which is so much work,” Adams said. “So in my opinion, even if it’s just a band dinner, or a small gathering of supporters, everyone should have some kind of release party. For those looking to put on a good show, I would suggest planning it way in advance, and doing something special that is specific to the work being released.”
21. Promote It
Put together a press release and a private link for the stream to the album and get it to as many people in the media as possible.
Better yet, employ a publicist to help you get exposure and airtime. Younger bands should start local, but if you want to grow, you need to press outside of your market. Reusch and McCoy recommended print publications, music blogs, and college radio play as being crucial to exposure to that wider market. The difficulty is that you may not be able to afford targeted promotion in all of the areas until you are more successful.
Regardless, central to these promotional efforts is initiative on your band’s part to generate content assets.
“You have to have the materials lined up and ready to go, otherwise nobody has anything to pitch.” McCoy said. “Ultimately, I make the decisions on vetting the bands we work with and it’s not always just about the music. Obviously, they have to have something that I like musically, but if I don’t like the people or I don’t think they’re going to hustle, that means absolutely nothing.”
22. Give It To Them How They Like It
You need to consider how your listeners like to get their music. Aim for the big three formats (digital, CD and vinyl) if, and only if, you can support the market for them. Getting your album into potential listeners’ hands is harder than you may think.
For the majority of independent bands, almost all sales from physical formats come from the merch table at live shows. Otherwise, you’re going to have to be your own salesperson and make the rounds to the record shops.
“So you have to pound the pavement. You get into local stores on consignment, you can call stores in cities you’re playing at on tour.” — The Record Machine’s Nathan Reusch on getting a distribution deal
“It’s almost impossible for a band with one record, that is completely independent, to get a physical distribution deal without a certain amount of hype,” Reusch said. “So you have to pound the pavement. You get into local stores on consignment, you can call stores in cities you’re playing at on tour. But it’s tough to really get wide distribution that way.”
Your better bet in expanding the geographical footprint of your music is in digital distribution — which will effectively put your music anywhere there is an Internet connection.
If you want to have complete control over every element of your digital distribution, including revenue, you’ll want to use Bandcamp. The user-friendly site allows you to keep the largest possible chunk of your sales. The drawback is that people have to specifically seek out your music on that site to hear it or buy it.
The alternative (or complement) to Bandcamp is a subscription-based digital distribution service like CDBaby or Tunecore, which can get your music on hundreds of digital retailers and streaming providers like iTunes/Apple Music, Google Play, Amazon, Spotify and YouTube. These distributors also typically provide a host of other services like web tools, CD pressing, and publishing in exchange for a subscription or one-time fee.
Digital distribution services also save bands a lot of time by using a single account to sign up with multiple retailers and streaming sites. And that should be your goal. The wider your reach, the easier it is for people to find your music.
“It’s a positive route to get [your album] up in as many places at you can. People are digesting music in so many different places and those services make sure you’re up to speed everywhere,” McCoy said. “It can be very time consuming to set up accounts for each of those things, so it’s a lot easier to work with the digital distributor to get on them.”
Yes it’s convenient, but it comes at a price. Digital retailers take a big bite out of your revenue in exchange for the pleasure of hosting your music. And if people can stream your music for free or cheap, they probably won’t pay to own it. Conversely, if people don’t have easy access to your album, they may never hear it in the first place. And therein lies the independent band’s conundrum.
While it may seem frustrating, Reusch warns against being jealous of the perceived success of others.
“Everybody wants to hit that next level. They want to accomplish their goals of creating and putting something out in the world. And that’s definitely one of the most important and coolest parts about music,” Reusch said. “You’re getting to put something out there that’s hopefully positive and has a good effect on somebody else. And that’s what I would hope for any artist that’s out there — that that’s their attitude about what they do.”
“Making the Band” is a six-part series appearing Thursdays on The Bridge. Follow along with #makingthebandkc Next week: Step 5 — Touring
— Dan Calderon is Kansas City native, an attorney, and contributor to Flatland. You can contact him by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or on twitter @dansascity.