Producing and Publishing Your Music
I’ve had a lot of questions over the last few years from aspiring musicians about what it takes to create and publish music as an independent artist. The questions are usually along the lines of “I wrote a song, but what do I do next?” or “how do I get my music into iTunes or played on the radio?”
So, I decided to put together a semi-organized brain dump of my experiences. It’s intended for those who are just starting out and hoping to make music into something more than a hobby. Though written mostly from my perspective as a pianist and composer, it outlines some basic steps that can be used by pretty much any musician, has a few hints/tips/tricks, and gives you a quick overview of what to expect when producing and publishing your music.
The list below is certainly not meant to be exhaustive, but hopefully it will provide enough guidance to get you going and maybe even make you think about parts of the process you’ve never considered before.
Recording & Mixing
- I used to do live recording with mics, but over the years I switched to MIDI, VST’s (virtual instruments and plugins), and mostly all digital stuff. This means I can record the song via a MIDI keyboard, edit the notes and such as needed afterwards, and then play it back for the final recording using a high-end virtual instrument. This workflow is especially great when composing orchestral works.
- To do recording on your computer, you’ll need a digital audio workstation (DAW). I use Cubase, but there are quite a few other professional programs out there as well, such as ProTools, Logic, Ableton Live, and more… and a ton other basic/entry-level programs. Your DAW will allow you to add effects to each instrument, have lots of tracks, mix them all, and so much more that it can easily give you a headache. The professional DAW’s often require you to have a decent modern computer… so make sure to check that out, too.
- If you go the MIDI route, you’ll want some decent virtual instruments. Some audio software packages include nice virtual instruments, so check there first. I also use East West / Quantum Leap virtual instruments. Good quality virtual instruments can get expensive, though (i.e. hundreds or thousands of dollars).
- If you go the live recording route (i.e. using regular mics instead of MIDI cables), make sure to get good mics and read up on proper recording techniques. A good instrument mic is the Shure SM57. It is troublesome and sometimes impossible to fix a live recording, so make sure you have a good setup. Depending on what you are recording, I would suggest looking into getting a good hardware compressor as well so as to make sure to get a good, strong signal.
- To record music onto your computer, whether live or through MIDI, you need some hardware that takes the cable inputs and converts them to info your computer can understand. For just a couple hundred dollars, you can get a decent external audio interface. I use the M-Audio Fast Track Pro because it is all I need, since I record most everything through it digitally. And when I do record live, I can usually get away with two 1/4″ inputs. The 11ms latency on it is probably my only big complaint. What you should get will depend on how many simultaneous tracks you need to record. For two mics on a piano, you can get away with using an audio interface that has two 1/4″ inputs. Audio interfaces like the ones I’m talking about usually connect to your computer through USB or Firewire, and then your DAW can understand the inputs for recording (that is, you can assign each line in to a separate track). Whatever you end of going with, make sure you have a strong, clear, clean signal.
- You should always render your final mix as a lossless audio file, such as WAV or FLAC. Then, from that lossless file, you can create all the other encoded and compressed lossy versions, such as MP3′s. You never want to re-encode a compressed MP3 into another MP3 version, since it will add a lot of sound artifacts and ruin the quality.
- For physical CD’s you’ll need some high-quality images for the inside/outside covers, etc. For digital downloads, almost everyone wants a square image. I usually make several versions of the images, such as 100×100, 200×200, 500×500, 1000×1000, so that I can give each person what they need. I usually do my own artwork, so it is free for me.
- The “old” way of doing things is finishing a CD and then printing hundreds or thousands of CD’s, which then sit in your garage for years. Yes, you can have too many coasters. I prefer to use the new on-demand technologies that are available now. In particular, I use CreateSpace to create my physical CD’s. There are other on-demand companies, but I prefer CreateSpace. They create the CD when someone buys it, and then they ship it off. That means you don’t have to keep any inventory and you don’t have to deal with shipping and mailing CD’s to people.
- CreateSpace’s whole process is pretty straight forward, but a little time consuming. You create an account and then set up a new CD: they ask you a bunch of info, such as title, descriptions, tracks, genres, etc. You can either send them a burned CD of your songs or upload them online. I’ve always used the online option. You will also need to upload your album artwork. When that’s all done, they can send you a physical proof copy of the CD. If everything looks good, you click a button and then in a few days, your CD is available for sale on Amazon.com, both as a physical CD and through their MP3 store. Where they make their money is when you sell a CD: they take a big portion. In fact, you will probably only get a few dollars from a CD that sells for $15. In general, you will make a lot more money on digital sales. Until you are selling thousands of CD’s, on-demand printing is much more economical. And it is risk-free!
- With CD Baby you can sell physical CD’s through their partners like Super D, which allow people to special order your CD from thousands of stores around the world. You just need to send CD Baby the physical CD’s, so that they have them in stock. They take care of the rest. In fact, they can also send you a credit card swiper so that you can sell physical CD’s at events; you just send them the receipts, and they process everything (for a fee).
- You will also need a UPC (barcode number). CreateSpace can make one for you, or you can purchase your own for $10 or so from various sites. I usually use the UPC from CreateSpace.
- For digital distribution on places like iTunes, Rhapsody, Spotify, Last.fm, etc., you will usually need to use a company that already has relationships with these places. The two big ones for independent music are CD Baby and TuneCore. They represent two different models of distribution. CD Baby only charges you a small one-time fee of $49 or so to set up a new CD, but then they take 9% or so of each sale. They distribute it to all of the major sites. TuneCore works the other way around: you pay an annual fee for each distribution channel you send to (i.e. iTunes is one, Rhapsody is another, etc.), but then you get 100% of your sales. When I do the math, CD Baby is much better for me, since I want the widest distribution. It will probably be the same for you, unless of course you are a rockstar and are selling a ton.
- Often what I do is order my CD’s from CreateSpace and send them to CD Baby for wider distribution. In the end, you will have your physical CD’s available on Amazon.com, CD Baby, and through lots of their partners and in-store via special order. Your digital songs will be on Amazon.com, iTunes, Rhapsody, Spotify, eMusic, and a ton others.
- Then are lots of other sites, like GrooveShark and TheSixtyOne for example, where you can submit your music to separately, almost always for free. Just make sure to read the agreements, so that you know what you are getting yourself into.
Copyrights & Royalties
- To get royalties when someone plays your music, you will need to register your work with a performing rights organization (PRO) such as BMI or ASCAP. I use BMI. It’s free to register new works and can be done from their website. They take care of most all royalties such as radio, movies, TV, etc. However, in our digital age, there is now another type of royalty collection agency that takes care of internet radio and such. In particular, you should register with SoundExchange. They make you fill out a bunch of forms and also have a small fee.
- Once you create a CD, you can go to the copyright website to fill out the forms to register your work, if you like. Depending on which way you submit your material, you may need to send them two physical CD’s for their records. There is a nominal fee ($35-$65, I think) for each album that you register with them.
- If you are distributing your version of someone else’s song (also referred to as a “cover”), you will need to pay the appropriate licensing fees. Luckily, CD Baby has made this easy through a partnership with a company called Limelight. There are other companies that you can go through as well. Make sure to get this part all squared away BEFORE releasing your song to the public.
- I sell digital versions of my music on my website. I highly suggest you do the same on your own website. Also, in case you are curious, sheet music sales is a major portion of the revenue I generate from my website.
- I would suggest making accounts on all of the major social network sites (such as Facebook, MySapce, YouTube, and Twitter) and then link everything together. Each site has its own audience, so you don’t want to miss out on any of them, and it also helps your SEO.
Radio & Internet Radio
- Radio promotion will usually cost thousands of dollars, take a lot of energy, and doesn’t have guaranteed results. If you are interested anyway, check out ZoneMusicReporter for lots of info and charts for instrumental music. There are other sites like this for other types of music. Also, another site to check out is AirPlay Direct.
- Once you are selling your physical CD on Amazon, you can submit your music to Pandora internet radio. Note: it is not a guarantee that Pandora will accept your submission; it will depend not only on the quality of your music, but also on other factors, such as whether or not Pandora has a need for the type of music you are submitting.
- There are a ton of online radio stations/systems (including companies that power music played in physical department stores) that you can manually submit music to. Each one has their own forms and/or approval process, such as MusicChoice, DMX/Spafax, Muzak, TruSonic, Whisperings, and a ton of Live365 radio stations, just to name a few.
- Lots of people and sites out there will gladly write a review of your music, if you just let them know about your music and give them a free copy. Start with ZoneMusicReporter or a similar type of website for your genre to get a list of reviewers to consider contacting. Also, you can contact reviewers that you find directly via email or from their websites.
- If you are interested in getting your music heard on TV, Movies, commercials, etc., check out music licensing companies such as Broadjam, MusicSupervisor, MusicDealers, Taxi, Music Xray, PumpAudio, and hundreds of others. Additionally, CD Baby recently added a feature to easily submit your music for licensing opportunities as well as to receive income when your music is played in someone’s YouTube video.
- Another route to getting your music used in projects is to submit your music exclusively to royalty-free sites, such as AudioJungle. If you go this route, you won’t receive any royalties from your performing rights organization, but you will receive payments every time someone purchases a license for your music. As with all music placement agreements, just make sure to understand what you are getting yourself into before you sign on the dotted line.
- Make sure to keep track of all of your expenditures directly related to marketing, distribution, production, and publication of your music. Most all of it can usually be used as a write-off during tax season, as long as what you are doing is more than just a hobby. Of course, check with your accountant first to make sure.
Phew… that’s a lot of stuff! But, if I forgot to go over something or you would like more information about a particular area, let me know. If there is enough interest, I might follow up with more in-depth explanations about these or other areas.