How to release a record...

I quite often get asked if it's easy to release a record. The answer is no, but it's hard to get people to listen. Potentially this could be a very boring blog and no doubt I'll gloss over a few of the parts involved. If you have any questions, or corrections, please comment below.

In 2007 I set up a record label 'Cheeky Chimp Records LTD' with my best buddy Joe. We did this so that we had an official company that we could release our music through as at the time we had just started a band called 'The Rileys' so it all made sense. At the time I was part time studying for a masters in Audio Technology (I never completed this due to the band consuming me), and the module I was taking that semester was about setting up a record label. 

The hard bit is obviously creating something worthy of being released, although recording at home is now a real possibility and I've done that for everything I've ever released other than my first full length album 'Love, Life, Loss and Tea' and the new album 'Tennessee and 48th' which is out on November 2nd. Studios can cost a lot of money, as can hiring musicians etc. But recording the audio is just the first part of the process. Once you've recorded whether that be at home or in a studio, you have to mix it and then master it. Mixing is a complicated process in which you're trying to find space for each of the parts you've recorded so it doesn't sound messy and that the balance between all the different parts is correct. It's not as easy as you might think. Mastering however is a different kettle of fish all together. I've "mastered" a few of my EPs but i don't really know what I'm doing. Dean, who produced the new album, explained mastering to me as the same process as mixing, but instead of looking it from the point of view of the different parts, you're looking at it from the point of view of the different frequency ranges. It's a mathematical art basically. 

Now, the truth is that these days, you don't have to formally set up a limited company or do anything as formal as what we did back in 2007. I still release things through the name Cheeky Chimp Records, but I closed down the limited company a few years back as it was becoming a bit of a burden. 

These days, any individual can go on to the internet and find an online distributor who will upload their album, single or EP onto all of the online stores and streaming sites. There are a variety of companies that do this, and they all have different ways of working. Some ask you to pay an annual fee per release, some just take a cut of your earnings and some have a small one off fee followed by a take of your earnings. You have to work out what one you think works best for you. Since 2013 I've used a company called AWAL (Artists Without A Label). They take a 15% of all my online earnings, but they are by far the most efficient and useful of all the distributors I've used in the past. I also love the way they report sales and the way they break down the numbers for you. It's better than the others in my opinion. They're also quite picky about the artists they want to work with. Some of the others will take money from anyone out there regardless of the quality of the content or whether you're actually taking this seriously. There is nothing wrong with that of course, there's no reason why someone who writes and records songs as a hobby shouldn't be able to release them, but it's nice to have a distributor who is focused on those who are trying to do this as a career.

These companies will assign all the appropriate codes you need in case you don't have the ability or knowledge of how to create those, and you can use them else where as you need to. There are unique codes per song and per release which help with tracking a record. Each track has an International Standard Record Code (IRSC), which gets embedded into the track. When you register your label with MCPS, they assign you a unique three letter code which becomes part of the 10 digit code, or your digital distributor will allocate this for you which you can use for your CDs. 

In order to have a CD or vinyl made, that's down to your budget. CDs are fairly straight forward and not that expensive even for smaller quantities. The biggest error you see in artists who are starting out is that they get too many of their first CD made and they're stuck with boxes of hundreds for years. It's very tempting as the unit cost comes down, and the visions of big success can blind many into thinking they'll sell 1000 copies easily. We definitely fell into that trap in The Rileys, although somehow we did manage to sell 1000 of our first EP over a three year period, but in truth by the end of the first year, we wanted to have a new CD and our sound had developed and improved, yet we were beholden to the CDs we had to sell.

CD manufacturers are pretty easy to find. I've been using for a few years now though and they do a great job. The process is all really easily explained on their site and they provide artwork guidelines which are easy to follow.

After making the music, the artwork is probably the hardest part to get right. It's really important that the product looks as good as it sounds, and typically musicians aren't that great with Photoshop or similar pieces of software. At various times I've outsourced this job to my friend Nick Kent, normally even if it was just a simple idea which I've done most of the work. He'll add some sheen and polish which I don't know how to do. Money well spent!

The vinyl manufacturing is slightly more complicated and I'm still getting my head round it as I'm going through it for the first time. It definitely takes a lot longer than CDs so bear that in mind if you're going down this route. The costs for smaller runs are considerable, but if you can scale up you really do see the benefits from a cost per unit point of view. The way it seems to work is that you send your mastered digital files and they cut a master lacquer and then send you some test pressings to check. If you're happy you approve the final order, but there will still be some breakages or ones which don't go to plan so you have to factor that into your costs. You also have to master your digital files slightly different than for release on CD or digitally. If you've paid someone to master your recordings, then this may cost you some more money. You also have to factor in the length of your album. Ever wonder why the old albums are all around 40 minutes long? It's because that's all you could fit onto the 12 inch record without compromising the sound.

The one other thing that you're supposed to do, but I'm the only person I know who has ever done this. For every production of a CD of physical product, you're supposed to get a licence from MCPS (Mechanical Copyright Protection Society). This is so that the songwriters can get paid for the release. A small percentage (6.5% of the RRP) goes towards the songwriters. The manufacturers are supposed to insist on having this license before starting their work, but I've never had one ask for this. It may seem counter productive if you've written all the songs yourself and are releasing it yourself, and in those instances you apply for a licence which won't cost any money, but as I do a fair amount of co-writing, I always do this. 

Once you've got your CDs or Vinyl made, you just need to be able to sell it. There are loads of different ways you can set up and e-store these days. I use a company called Selz, but I used to use BigCartel and I know plenty of musicians who have used Bandcamp. Even most website hosting sites now offer e-commerce as part of their packages. And of course, take some out to your gigs!

If you're looking to get your CD in a record shop. I'm pretty sure for most of them you'll need a distributor. I've been trying to contact these myself, but I've had no luck getting a response, so I don't know the process. I believe that certain independent stores will take a small amount from you on a sale or return basis. Worth looking into if you have a good relationship with those stores, or know enough people who use them, but you'll be giving away a big percentage of your income to the shop.

As for the "how do you get it heard?" questions - I'm not sure I'm that qualified to answer that, although my next blog post is going to be about all the different jobs I'm currently doing for the current record release.

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