Vinyl is booming. There was one year about 10 years ago that I heard that one model of turntable (Technics 1200’s) outsold all models of electric guitars combined. The industry died down a bit after that, but recently vinyl has seen a resurgence and has been setting sales records (no pun intended).
I’ve released my own records in the past, and thought that I would share some of my experiences in the hopes that it may give you some ideas or insight into how it all works. Please keep in mind that my experience is mainly with electronic dance music, but most of the information here could be applied to other genres.
Remember that this article is really only one man’s opinion and based on my own experience in dealing with distributors and what I have learned from speaking with other people in the industry. If you have any comments or don’t agree with something that I say here, then please don’t be shy and add a comment to the bottom of this article.
Arguably the easiest way to get your music out there is to get signed to a record label. This means sending demos to established labels or better yet having friends who can introduce you to labels. There have been volumes written on this subject so I will not go into them here (perhaps in a later post). Suffice it to say, labels make your job easy because they do all the work that would normally take you away from making your next big track. Labels often have good distribution deals & can promote your record far better than you would be able to on a limited budget. They can get your record into the hands of Big name DJ’s, to magazines for review, and scope out the playlists to see who is playing your track. They can also get your track onto compilation CD’s which can result in some half-decent revenue. My first records were all released by labels.
So, why the heck do it yourself? Some possible reasons for wanting to do that are:
- you can’t find a label to release your music
- you are sick of dealing with labels and fighting to get paid
- not wanting to give away any of the profit to labels
- you don’t care about the expense, you just want a release!
- you think it would be fun to do
Releasing a record yourself
What to expect
Expect that unless you really work your butt off, your record will not sell, and you’ll lose all your money you’ve spent. Even if you do work your ass off, it still might not sell. The market is constantly saturated with new music. Everyone is fighting for sales and for distribution. In fact, most vinyl releases *lose* money. Unless your track is a hit, expect to lose money on your first release. Why would anyone want to press vinyl then? Because the release might be picked up on a DJ compilation CD, a TV show, movie, etc and there can be some big money there.
The steps to getting your record out there
1. Create a Label
Ok, you’re going to have to deal with distributors, and they deal with labels, so you’re going to have to start a record label. Choose a name, register the business, and that’s about all you need to do. Make up a snappy logo, and make some letterhead on your inkjet or better yet, get some printed it’s not too expensive & looks a lot better.
If you’re feeling creative, make a small website, but you can always leave that for later. There are thousands of free website templates out there.
2. Getting tracks
Ok, now you’re a big-shot record label executive. You need some music. There are 2 choices here, use your own music, or find someone else’s (or a combination of both). For this example, we’re releasing our own music, because that’s the reason you’re reading this.
Find your absolute 2-4 best tracks. Make sure they are great tracks. Talk to your dj friends, ask them what they honestly think, and if they would buy them (ask them to play them out if they can & let you know the reaction). Don’t ask your mom. Maybe your DJ friends can help you pick your best tracks. Make sure the tracks have good lead-ins & lead outs & are DJ-friendly. I won’t go on about how to make dance tracks, because again there are better places to find this information.
Now, the absolute maximum running time you want on each side is 14 min. Many people would recommend a lot less. The shorter it is, the louder it can be on the record, so check your times. If you have only 2 really good tracks, get your friends to remix them and use those in addition to the original mixes on your record. Two extra remixes are better than 2 other mediocre tracks.
OK, so you have your music. Now you need to get it sounding as good as possible. There are 2 choices here: doing it yourself, and paying for a pro to do it.
I would strongly recommend against doing it yourself if you can afford to. You’re too close to your music, you’ve lost objectivity because you’ve likely listened to it 1,000 times. You need fresh ears. You need good monitoring. you need good gear. If you decide to do it yourself, A/B your music with commercially released records that you think sound really good. There have been volumes written on doing your own pre-mastering, so again I won’t go into it here.
Paying someone else to do it for you will cost between $200 – $500 USD for an EP. Listen to records and CD’s that you think sound good, and find out who mastered them (sometimes it’s written on the CD case or record jacket, sometimes you have to Google it. Make a list of all the mastering studios & contact them all. Many will negotiate. Make a decision, but hold off getting them to do it for now, because you now need to make an important decision:
4. What do I send to distributors, vinyl or CD?
There are 2 choices here, you can either send them a test pressing of your record, or you can send them a CD. By a wide margin, distributors prefer vinyl, or even better – a copy of the finished product. Many record labels send out test pressings (or white labels) because it’s cheaper (white labels can’t be resold) and because they haven’t released the record yet. The problem with sending vinyl, is that you’re going to have to eat some cost before you even know if any distributors even want to order your record.
If you want to dramatically reduce your speculative cost, you can send them CD’s. Some won’t accept CD’s, but many will. Sending out CD’s will definitely reduce your chances of your record getting picked up by a distributor, but you may be able to see if there is any interest without spending too much upfront cash, and then send out test pressings if there is a good response.
Let’s assume you are sending test pressings, because your tracks are simply amazing – Send off your tracks to get pre-mastered. If you’re not happy with the results, tell them and send it back. They should make the changes without charging you, but make sure of this first.
5. Deciding on labels, jackets, etc
If this is your first release, stick with plain white jackets. It keeps the costs down and makes one less decision, expense and task that you have to worry about. Center stickers are cheaper if they are 2 color, but more colors isn’t much more expensive. Do up the graphics for the center sticker yourself to keep it simple, or get a friend who is good at graphic design to do it for you. Put all the important info on it, your artist’s names, track names, website, label name, release number, contact info, etc. Take a look at a released record & put the same info in it that they do.
6. Pressing white labels or promo copies
These will be records with plain white labels. You will be pressing these for 2 purposes: as a test pressing to see if any pre-mastering/mastering changes need to be made, and to send out to distributors and as promos.
You need to decide how many of these to print. You will need 1 or 2 (some distributors want 2) records for every distributor you send a demo to, plus some for promo purposes. Look at pressing 40-200 test pressings based on how many distributors you will be contacting & how much (if any) promo you want to do (see below)
I’m not going to go into the process of printing, as again there are many excellent resources here. Many pressing plants will want 50% up front and 50% before they ship them to you. Shop around, get some prices, try and negotiate a bit, and maybe talk to some labels who deal with them for references.
7. Getting the word out
A great way to get distributors interested in your release is by showing them that the world is eagerly awaiting it. To do this, many labels deal with promo companies who take payment to send your record out to magazines (for review) and big name CD’s. Some will also monitor DJ playlists and top 10 lists and report back to you. This stuff is gold for getting distributors interested. Some of these companies are better than others, and it’s best to try and get some references.
Expect to spend $200-$500 doing this & expect to have your release 2 months or so after you get your promos out.
This step is not crucial, and it’s easy to get ripped off. If you don’t have the money, then forgo it, but a little money here can go a long way if you’ve got a really good record.
You can also take a grassroots approach & send your record out to mags and CD’s yourself, but it’s tough, time-consuming, and there is no guarantee anyone will actually listen to it!
This is the tough part.
Acting as a label & dealing with distributors is very similar to being an artist and dealing with labels. You need to send out demos and wait for some interest or response. Distributors of vinyl are having a tough time of it lately, – they often have stock they can’t move, and the industry is in a bit of a slump (other than the really big guys who are selling like mad) and you are asking them to take a risk on your music by buying it from you. Expect a lot of NO’s.
Be careful with who you send demos to. Look at your own records that are similar to your new release and find the distributor. Get on the internet. Do some searches. Compile a big list & start checking them out. Don’t send a demo to a distributor who doesn’t distribute your kind of music or who only deals with a select group of labels. It’s a big waste of time and money, test pressings are not cheap!
Write a letter to the distributor telling them that you are sending your latest release for consideration (they usually have an A&R department sound familiar?). include a bio of the artist (you!), an order form, and of course a copy of the test pressing (or CD).
You need to tell them the release date and the pricing. Records are usually purchased for $3.75 each from labels. That’s right. What, you expected to make more per unit? Also include reviews (if any), who is playing your record, where, and details of any publicity campaign that you have undertaken for this release.
Since you have already pressed some test pressings, you will have made a commitment to the pressing plant for the total amount pressed. Usually 500-2000 copies. If you sell out, you will likely break even on 1000.
10. Filling orders
If you are at this stage, you’ve likely gotten orders for your record from distributors. If not, you’re going to have a heck of a lot of copies of your record, and maybe now to need to re-evaluate your promo campaign!
Some pressing plants will drop-ship (for a fee) right to the distributors. If not, pack them up (you can buy record boxes off the internet), and send invoices for the cost of the records & the shipping costs. Expect to get paid in 30-60 days. You may have to chase payments, but it comes with the territory.
Something you need to realize is that if a distributor doesn’t sell all your records, they can send them back to you for a refund. Make sure you are ready (and budget for) for a 10-20% return rate. You’ll have to come up with this money.
12. Retiring rich/cost analysis
Here’s a sample calculation of the costs of doing all of this, assuming you get your friends to help with art, etc.. this is based on 1000 records, including promos, and doesn’t include letterhead and other business costs:
Center labels: $150
Pressing (1000): $2000 includes jackets and paper sleeves
Demos to distributors: $100 (mainly shipping costs)
Shipping from pressing plant: $40
Now, let’s say you are sending out 150 records to distros and for promo purposes. This gives you 850 records that you can sell. Let’s assume you completely sell out (it was a great record, wasn’t it?), that will net you $3.75*850 = $3187.50
Expect 15% returns, which means you have to come up with $478.12 for returns
Costs: $478.12 + 2790 = $3268.12
Income: = $3187.50
Profit = – $80.62
As you’ve just found out, pressing a record isn’t going to make you rich unless you get some licensing deals for TV or compilation CD’s. You can also get paid for radio play if you register with your country’s tracking agency. Nevertheless, it can be a lot of fun (and work), and it’s really nice having your track on vinyl to put up on the wall!