This article should give you a good level of information about what you will need, what processes you should follow, and whether self-releasing or starting a label is the right choice for you.
Have you thought about releasing your own music? Are you keen to know how it all works, and whether it’s the right solution for you?
I’ve put together a top-level overview which will give you a perfect intro to self-releasing (and starting your own label if necessary) that you can use to find out about the process of putting out your own music.
After reading the content, you should be much better equipped to figure out if self-releasing is for you. You should also have a better understanding of how it all works, and what you can do to make sure you succeed.
Since 2008 I have been releasing my own music and running labels in various formats. I have a number of albums, EPs and remixes as DFRNT and also as Stillhead. Some of which were released on my own label digitally and physically, some of which went out on my subscription-based label (which also started as a free label and is now a regular label) and I have also been fortunate enough to release on many other people’s labels too.
I’d like to think that in my years of being both artist and label-owner, I have managed to pick up enough experience and make enough mistakes, that I can help you to avoid the same problems, and in turn give you the foundation to build your own releases or label to a level where you’re successful (whether you measure success in monetary terms or otherwise).
If, at any point in the blog you have questions or comments, there is a comments box at the bottom, and I will be reading everything that gets posted there, so please do not hesitate to share your thoughts.
Releasing your own EPs, albums and singles online is a serious and pretty common option in this day and age.
With so many tools and services available to artists for cheap or even free, there’s no reason why you can’t self-release your music and make some extra money on the side.
There are of course benefits to working with a label for this, from reputation and association, to having someone take care of financials for you, and handle everything from promotion to artwork and mastering. There is also the flip side, where self-releasing may allow you to take a higher percentage of sales, and control more of the details yourself.
Of course there are also advantages to having your music on physical format, but that’s another topic!
I’m going to take you through the process of releasing your own music, to show you what’s involved and how simple it can be, but also to show you that there are a multitude of options at every step of the way.
This is quite a long guide, so I have tried to put in sensible headings and break things up as usefully as possible.
There is a lot to be said for being prepared, and for being mindful in the early stages of your process.
Taking the time to think things out now, can save you time and money in the long-run, and the more you front-load the work and prep yourself with the knowledge you need, the more confident you’ll be jumping into it all when you’re ready to push “go”.
This unit is about considering your situation. Thinking about your music, and how you’d like to approach things.
Of course, it all starts with making your music, and having something that you think is worth putting out there.
Only you will truly know if your music is ready to be released – and you may decide to release singles, EPs or to wait and compile albums – but thankfully this process is essentially the same, regardless of how much you intend to release.
This lesson is mostly down to taking a moment to think about your own music or the music you intend to release.
Is it really good enough?
Listen to it alongside other tracks that you respect. Put it in mixes and see how it feels. Are you ready to risk your time, money and reputation on putting it out there?
A good test is to think about sending it to your musical-hero. I used to idolise a few producers, and so I’d sit with my music and think about whether I’d be comfortable sending my tracks to them. If I was happy to do so, it was sometimes a good test of whether it was good enough to release.
Another thing to try is to get a mate round and play them your tracks. How do you feel when you hit play and watch their face? Are you embarrased even before the track starts? That’s not always a good sign.
If you’re struggling to figure out whether your music is good enough to release or not, then you are welcome to send it to me on Fluence I will gladly review it for you and give you some pointers on how you might be able to improve it, or whether or not it’s the sort of thing that sounds good enough to release.
Fluence is a simple concept. You pay a tiny amount to send your track or content to someone – they get paid to listen to it, so the incentive’s there to provide value in their feedback.
Audiokite also offer the opportunity to run reports on your tracks, which you may find useful.
Audiokite is more about getting feedback from a crowd of people, as opposed to one. You pay them to run a report on hundreds of people, and get the feedback and information from them in an easy to digest format.
Note: If you use the code AK-HTSR – you can get 30% off any Audiokite product at the checkout (aside from Audiokite Pro).
At this point you should know whether or not your music will stand up to the scrutiny of being released.
Most people who self release, tend to release more than one thing by themselves. This means a series of EPs, albums, singles or at the very least more than one.
If you are planning this, it would be a wise move to consider creating some sort of label to release them on.
your music may be “self-released” but it is a good idea to still use a name for the entity which will release the music. It will make more sense when you get to the distribution stage and will help you group releases if you are releasing to Beatport, iTunes or other larger stores.
For now, you can get away with only creating the name of the label, and think about a catalogue numbering system, but it would also be worth thinking about whether you want to officially register your label, get ISRCs, and everything else associated with running your own label.
Coming up with a catalogue numbering is something you have flexibility on. Often it’s a series of letters and numbers to identify the release, which help you and others recognise each one.
For Echodub’s digital releases I used EDUB001, EDUB002 etc. For our free releases I used EDUBF001, EDUBF002 and for our free albums I used ECHO001, ECHO002 and so on. This was just something I chose because it made sense to me.
You can opt for this approach, or stick with just incremental number values. There are no hard and fast rules here, but it’s wise to have a quick search on Google to make sure your numbering system doesn’t conflict with others. You’ll have to remember it from one release to the next and quite often it’s something that will get asked for on release sheets, distribution forms and even Bandcamp allow you to add it for reporting purposes.
An ISRC (International Standard Recording Code) is a unique code assigned to every recording. In the UK, the PPL is the appointed agency for them, but you may be offered ISRCs from your distributor if they are already set up to generate them.
I would recommend registering with your relevant ISRC provider and getting your own prefix (the first few letters of the code) so you can keep control of a logical numbering system for each track.
If you decide against your own label – you may still need to use your own name or producer name as a “label” at some stages of this process.
Take a moment now to think about your label. Will it be a label in everyone else’s eyes or will it just be your own name or a placeholder of sorts?
When labels release music, one of the main steps, after they have signed the agreement with the artist, is to take the pre-masters provided by the artist and get them mastered.
Pre-masters are your final mixdowns. The final mix of your track elements which you’re happy with, rendered out into an uncompressed file. Often this will be a .wav file, and in some cases it may be multiple files for multiple elements of the track (vocals, drums, synths etc).
With your mixdowns / pre-masters, they then get mastered. Essentially polished for official release, so that they stand up on big systems, sound good in the club, and represent the sound you’re making in the best way possible.
I’ll take you through my mixdown process and then discuss a couple of mastering options.
Generally my process for mixdowns is to get the whole thing working well in my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) – Ableton Live – and then I make sure that a few things are done before I render the “pre-master” file.
When that’s all fine and I’m happy with the mix – I’ll render off the track master (“File>Export Audio/Video” in Ableton Live). I opt for a .wav file. Some people use a bit depth of 24, but I generally use 16. (This may be specified by your mastering engineer.)
Have you or your artists rendered your pre-masters? How do your mixdowns sound? Take a moment to look at the waveforms of your rendered wavs. (You can use a free program like Audacity to view the waveform) Do they look like solid bricks? You might have compressed them too much. Is there enough “headroom”? What do the volume levels peak at?
Make sure even once your mixdowns are rendered, that you’re still able to jump back into the files and tweak levels, so that if the mastering engineer comes back with requests, you can still edit things for them. If the music is someone else’s, it’s worth checking with them to make sure they’re not just rendering things off and forgetting about their source files. (If you use Ableton, “Collect All & Save” is your friend!!)
Now, finding a mastering engineer is something you may have already done, but there is a huge range of engineers and their prices also range quite a bit. I have seen mastering for as cheap as €10-20 per track, but also hundreds per track. It really depends on the engineer, their location, how busy they are, their setup, their experience and so on.
I can heartily recommend my mastering engineer, Bob Macc who is based in the UK and can be emailed at macc[at]subvertmastering.com his prices can be found online here and he is one of the most helpful, friendly engineers I have ever had the pleasure of working with. Please tell him you were sent by Alex/Stillhead!
Generally with mastering, you send pre-masters off, you get a preview of the track/s and then after payment the final uncompressed mastered files are sent to you.
Self mastering is an option that I would really only recommend to those who have some form of engineering experience. It’s a very fine art, and isn’t just about making everything louder.
If you’re not a keen audio engineer, and you care about the audio quality of your releases (especially when played on club systems or anywhere loud) then I’d recommend skipping this particular section.
Often mastering is about what can’t be heard, examining the space between sounds, the frequencies we can’t always hear, and having an incredibly well-tuned ear for sounds across the whole spectrum – as well as the right equipment and a strong understanding of how it all works, from simple volume and EQing to compression and limiting and beyond.
If you intend on risking it by self-mastering, then you may find something like LANDR (an online instant-mastering service) helpful. You may also wish to consider software such as iZotope’s Ozone plugin.
Both of these options still come with a cost however. Ozone costs $249 to buy, and LANDR will cost you $39 a month to get wav files (essential – forget mp3 files – you can’t upload them to Bandcamp or send them to stores).
Even replicating the process of mastering “in the box” with Ableton Live may not be ideal. The EQ8 plugin does not allow for effective brick walls, the multi-band compression only allows 3 frequency ranges, the reverb plugin is often criticised, there’s no standard “maximiser” and often people feel that Ableton’s plugins may colour the sound somewhat.
When I say “packaging” I don’t mean the CD case or vinyl sleeve. I’m talking about the collateral for the release. The artwork, the release sheet, the promo materials, artist photos and any extra things you want to include in your release.
At the very least you will need:
This stage is not something to be glossed over. The artwork on your release can be the difference between somebody scrolling past your release, and somebody taking a listen to your tracks, based on gut-reaction.
Your artwork should try to encapsulate your sound in some way, as well as represent your brand as an artist. It can be a photo, an illustration, or whatever you like really, but here are a few things to remember.
You can always ask a friend or a designer to create the artwork for you if you don’t have the skills or software available. There is no shame in that – make sure to take a note of their details so you can credit them in the relevant places.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that many artists and label owners go by the rule “make sure everyone gets paid”. It is important to be up front about whether someone will get paid for their work or not. If you expect somebody to work for free, then what do they get from the experience?
Your success in the music industry, or even just your local scene is based on reputation and contacts. Make sure you don’t get a bad rep’ by failing to pay someone for their work if they were expecting it.
For this section, have a think about how you’d like the release to look. What sort of mood do you want to represent. Will the artwork amaze people? Will it intrigue people? How will they respond to it? Will it look like the music sounds?
A release sheet or one-sheet for your EP, album or single is highly recommended. It’s often a first point of call when somebody is looking for more information about your music, so make sure it contains everything they need to know.
At the very least your release sheet should contain:
And if you want to really make sure all the info is there, you could also add:
Formatting your release sheet should be done with care and attention. Spelling mistakes or bad design decisions here could scupper your chances of getting heard.
I create my release sheets with Adobe InDesign (but my day-job is a designer, so I’m familiar with this application). You may wish to use a word processor, and then save to PDF (or sometimes “Print to PDF” is the option).
The one-sheet is used when you promote the release. It’s often sent in the press pack or along with the promotional copies and mp3s of the album to those who are going to be promoting. The PR company, or radio hosts, DJs, journalists etc.
You could effectively make it available for everyone, but it’s common practice to just including it in the package when you are doing promotion.
Take some time to pull together all of the above information and decide how you want to present it in your release sheet.
Some stores, like iTunes or Bandcamp allow you to include other things in your release, aside from the music. This could be some samples, shorter edits, an acapella, or it could be something like a video, a PDF of exclusive information or an interview. The limit with this stuff is really only your imagination (and file-size limits on each platform!).
Think about other things you might like to add to your package. Are there realistically things you can put in which will add value? There’s no shame in keeping things simple.
Our next section deals with some of the management type systems you may want to put into place.
Namely, distribution, but you may also want to try and source label management services (offered by some, who also provide distribution as part of those services).
The other key thing here is to figure out a schedule.
Everything we’ve talked about to this point has not been time sensitive – there has been no deadline on anything, and it’s all been a case of “whenever you can manage”. Essentially, no pressure.
Once you set a release date and schedule, that’s when you need to make sure you (and anybody else involved) sticks as much as they can to the dates set out, so that you know you’ve always got enough time for things.
One small side-note here is that, were you doing physical products, your timeframe would be somewhat determined by the manufacturing time of the vinyl, CD, tapes or whatever your medium is – but you have the flexibility of being digital, which means things have less of a tendency to over-run or become dominated by processes outside of your control.
The next basic step to take, once you have your tracks mastered, your artwork complete and anything else you wish to add to the package ready to go, is to find your distribution method.
Every release that goes on Spotify, Beatport, iTunes, JunoDownload, Digital-Tunes, Amazon and all the other places is “distributed” to those stores.
Some stores allow you to sign up and add your own release to the store, but most of the big ones (including iTunes and Spotify), require that you have a distribution company for that. They only want to deal with the big guns.
I personally started by distributing my own releases. I had accounts with a number of stores – junodownload, digital-tunes and a handful of others which allowed labels to sign up directly. It was one of the most messy and complex things I had to do when it came to the label. Every platform was different, needed different things, setups, timings, uploads, and when I managed to get a digital distributor to handle all this for me, it was a huge load off, and I cut my workload, and boosted my label’s reach.
Ultimately, distribution companies come in two main formats:
There is a growing number of self-managed distribution companies which all work on slightly different pricing models, but ultimately provide a similar service:
The regular digital distribution companies often work more on a commission basis.
If you intend to go down the self-managed route, there are a huge number of websites to choose from. Google is your friend.
I’d suggest at this point, putting some research into which distribution platform might be best for you. It may be the case that starting self-managed is a good way to go, so that you are able to keep things on your own terms for now.
Take a look around at the available options. Big players like CDBaby and Tunecore are not always (in fact, rarely ever) the best value for money. Keep an eye out for hidden costs, like recurring yearly fees. It may look cheap to put out an album, but if that fee is recurring, then it’ll soon add up and if you don’t sell enough then it stops becoming a viable option.
Something you may wish to do right at the very beginning of your process, is set a release date. This may provide you with the motivation to get tracks done, and to push forward with promotion and suchlike, but there are a few thing to bear in mind.
If you intend to use a PR company, they prefer to have at least 4 weeks to work their magic, and more often work better with 6 weeks or more to run a promotional campaign. You may also want at least a month to do your own promo and chase up any contacts about coverage.
If you are pressing physical items, this will be your big time-consumer, since vinyl pressing can take up to three or four months (at busy times) and will almost certainly take at least 8-10 weeks.
Luckily, digital has no manufacturing time, however if you are using a distribution company, they may require a 4-week lead time, in order to be able to set up the release on all relevant stores in time, and if you use a self-managed option, you may want to allow a week or so, for the site to propagate to stores (all of them should also allow you to set a future release date).
So, with mastering and artwork times, times for promotion and time for distribution, often you should give yourself at least 6 weeks to release your music – but generally aim for 8-12 weeks (or more).
I’d like you to think now about which processes and systems you want to have in place for each release, and what you’ll need to do at each stage of the process.
Remember that some of these processes can overlap, and if you want to release regularly, then the entire process can overlap too. e.g. Your next release may be getting mastered while this first one is being distributed.
Promotion is a huge undertaking, and can be as big a job as you want it to be. The more you put in, the more you will likely get out of the process.
If you have money to spend, you may wish to pay a PR company to run a campaign for you – so you will need to approach them about your release, and provide them with the release date, any other relevant dates, as well as artwork, promo audio files, and a one-sheet. Most should also ask for artist bio, pictures or your EPK (Electronic Press Kit).
PR companies will most often run a 1-3 month long campaign (depending on timings and plans) for your release, which generally includes a staggered release to their network of tastemakers, DJs, producers and journalists. They’ll usually then follow-up with people who showed an interest, and act as a point of contact for anybody wishing to feature the release, review it, or do any sort of writing about it.
In my experience, PR companies are pretty useful for getting DJ feedback, and getting your music into the hands of the people who may support it – and some are pretty good at getting blog and magazine coverage – but these days, when everyone is promoting something, you can never be guaranteed coverage, and so convincing those who like the music to support it is another thing altogether.
Think about how you talk when you’re talking about blog coverage, or when you talk to somebody who can get good coverage.
Quite often a phrase like “oh, yeah I know a guy who writes at XLR8R” or “Ah, there’s my friend at FACT Magazine who can help us out”.
Notice what these phrases are saying? These are *connections* – an already established relationship with somebody on the inside.
Nobody ever boasts “oh, well I can send it to their submissions email address and we’ll see what happens!” with confidence.
Because surprise surprise, nothing ever happens! It’s almost always who you know.
I have various methods of promotion which I like to employ, but some of the things you will probably want to do are:
The key things here are to build connections. Spread your network, and don’t be spammy.
You should have thick skin at this point, since there will always be people who don’t rate your music – it will never be for everyone, and that’s OK. It’s normal. Just shake off any issues and keep going.
For now, I’d suggest making a list of places you’d like too target – do a bit of browsing and researching on them – read up on what they like and don’t like, and then start thinking about ways to get involved in the discussion. Can you comment? Can you email the authors? Keep it light and non-commital for now, there will be plenty time to push your music to them down the line once you’ve built up a bit more of a rapport.
Keep track of who you’ve spoken to and what you’ve said, and just try to have some fun with it. As with most promotion, there are no hard and fast rules!
When you are looking to get press coverage, it is often commonplace to put together a “press release”.
Almost all the non-breaking news stories in the world stem from press releases. The papers, nightly news on TV and other places that deliver news to you often get it from “wires” which are basically a stream of press releases which they are able to take, re-purpose as a news story and publish.
Getting into the politics of press releases and reliability, confirming sources and suchlike is a bit of a rabbit hole, but if you’re interested in the jaded nature of modern news reporting and how press releases are ruining traditional reportage, then you should find and buy “Flat Earth News”. It will blow your mind, and lead you to distrust just about everything we see in the news these days.
Anyway – for the purposes if the course, I think it’s worth touching on press releases (AKA “PRs”)
The press release is often formatted in a particular way, so make sure you follow the right guidelines, and if somebody prefers to have the PR as the email body, or an attachment, following their preferences will go a long way in helping people notice and check your music.
Generally a regular PR will have:
Some labels provide a press pack along with releases, including everything from artist logos and brand guidelines, to label photos, artist photos, label history documents and more. It’s up to you what you think is an appropriate amount of information to provide, but bear in mind that people don’t want huge email attachments clogging up their inbox.
If you have built up any rapport with the people who you ended up emailing, then you may find this stage is redundant, but even the most engaged of people may still need a gentle nudge in the right direction.
Following up on press releases and messages you’ve sent to people is important. I often appreciate a reminder email, although make sure not to pester people. One reminder is enough.
I often find that a polite reminder a couple of weeks after your initial contact is a good move – but I don’t send a third reminder, and often if someone doesn’t reply – they may have checked your tracks, but just feel the music isn’t right for them or their audience.
Often this is the slightly sad point where you may realise that getting traction on your release is much harder than you first imagined.
If it’s any consolation, everyone goes through this. It’s rare that labels and artists get huge swathes of promo and press these days. Blogs and journalists seem to be harder to get through to, and higher volumes of music seem to be getting released every day.
The general consensus seems to be that unless you’re generating some serious hype through something super-unique, or you’ve got some wild collaboration with a big name, you’ve got a tough job ahead.
Remember earlier when I said it’s all about who you know? Well that thinking should be paying off in these promo stages, so if you’re struggling for results – try to work on building better connections, and worry less about trying to hype your release, and more about trying to build communities, connections and networks.
Your release date rolls around, and you excitedly check all the stores for your release.
Often stores can take some of the day to post the release, so don’t expect it to be online one second after midnight. I often check stores a day or two later and gather up the relevant links for the release.
On the release day you’ll probably want to shout about the release on your social networks, your artist website, label website, the newsletters you have and anywhere else you can.
The real challenge starts to come following your release.
The music is out there in the world, you’ve done what you can to make sure people know, but is that where your process and campaign stop?
Usually yes, and many labels will make sure the release is out, do a little more promo, perhaps in a delayed newsletter and then move on to the next release – revisiting that one only for reporting and sales figures.
Where you can get the advantage over others is by making sure not to forget about the release.
Consider follow-up promotion a week or a month after the release. Try pushing it out to some of the supporters with purchase links this time.
You can add the links to your bio on social networks (especially Soundcloud) and add the buy link to your sample tracks and free promo tracks wherever necessary. Why not even add a buy link to your email signature? Every place that people see you, they should also be able to find a buy link to your releases – otherwise you’re missing opportunities to round up sales, and every little bit helps.
Often albums or EPs get noticed years after they have been released. This can be spurred by inclusion in an advert, a mix, or a compilation. It could be that someone influential finds the release and shouts about it – there are many reasons, but it’s important to make sure that when they do – you can capitalise on sales.
You may end up releasing more, and so you can tie in promotion with other EPs or albums as you go, but this is where things really tie back in to the very first thing I said about making sure it’s music worth releasing.
One of the biggest mistakes labels tend to make is to sign something with limited lifespan. They sign a track because it’s “on trend” or just on a whim, without considering its longevity or how well it might stand the test of time.
If you can’t enthuse about the tracks you’re releasing after a couple of months of promo, then how do you expect to be able to continue to push and sell the releases a year down the line?
Releasing music is a fun process and it can be rewarding and exciting – but don’t consider it flippantly, because really you’re just adding to the already saturated market of mediocre releases. Instead take a little more time to plan things, and really sit on the music and make sure it’s right for you, your label, your release and everything else.
If you can be sure it’s good to go – then set it free. Get that music out there!
If you would like to dive way deeper into all of the stuff I’ve covered, or get your hands on a bunch of bonus content, then you can check out my premium course offering here.
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