Creating an Album Release – CD or Digital

Roxy Music

irrelevant sexy image

So you got a collection of tracks and want to have a go at releasing your album to the world. Brilliant and well done.

Seems quite a few people get confused at this stage with all kinds of arcane formats and options. Easy enough to do. So let’s step through the things you will need to know and do to get your album out, ready for fans.

A CAUTION: most bloggers would hide this so as not to seem negative. If you build it they won’t come. Yes the film was nice but wrong. The universe doesn’t work on entitlement, just because you dropped some dope choonz doesn’t mean that anyone will be, or has to be, your fan. That particularly includes family. If you can accept that even if your art is up there with Vincent it may not get a single fan, then please carry on.

Return To Sender

Let’s start with a list. People like lists and it will lay the roadmap for you:

  1. Write and record great songs
  2. Compile running order
  3. Master the Album
  4. Decide where/how you are releasing
  5. Create cover art
  6. Upload album
  7. Promote, promote, promote, promote, promote, promote…

Cute list but doesn’t tell you much so let me expand those points. If you already follow me you know I write a lot. Tempting to skip most of it but that is most likely when you will miss something key. If you get the basics wrong then I can guarantee that your sonic letter will come back unopened.

1. Write and Record Great Songs

This seems like a silly and self-evident thing to put in the list. You have dope choonz and their world changing dopeness is clear for all to see, once they get heard. Maybe. Perhaps you and maybe your mum/girlfriend are the only people to have heard these songs. Maybe they aren’t as great as they could or should be?

This is not to get you questioning yourself, or even in a pit of depression, but to check that your album is special. Even if you are writing Jingly Pop, Trance, Rap, Country… your tracks need to be uniquely you. If you set out to write a record that sounds like the last three years on the charts (but not quite as good) then you are probably in for a dunking. If you want a helping hand in knowing if your music is ready then bring in a Producer.

#1 is always deliver what makes you and your story unique or your record will sound bland and forgettable which means people will switch it off and leave, never to come back.

2. Compile Running Order

The number of songs you want on your record is about 12. My average number of tracks is 12-13. I can write 12 minute pieces so that means I commonly deliver over an hour of music. If you write 3-4 minute songs then still probably best to focus on about 12 songs even though that delivers as little as 30 minutes of music. Far better to have a punchy 10 song (30 min) record than a sprawling segue of senseless strumming.

Generally speaking you load singles at the front of your record. Get the punters in and get em happy based on what they know and expect. When records had two sides it was common to pop a later single at the start of side two. Another common thing with older albums was that more unusual songs were at the end. This was a great thing as you got to walk away with a sense of uniqueness and mystery. The exception was pure pop records that finished with a stormer. Past that it is really up to you.

Note that changing the order of songs can really change the feel of your record. I have had times when I am really unhappy with what I am doing but then something causes tracks to be heard in a different order and suddenly they fall into place, like the music itself changes. Even your 10 random songs tell a story, a meta-story so do try different pairings and flows till you get one that clicks.

Bonus Tracks are common on Digital Releases. There is extra space and you can give fans that bit more. Traditionally that was done as a Special Edition CD. Lets the fans buy the record then as sales are slowing down release a special edition with bonus tracks and maybe even videos. Clever as serious fans buy again and more casual fans jump at the added value (maybe they liked the video more than the song). These days if you are trying to establish yourself then pop all that material in there from the get go (and doesn’t play with people).

If you do include bonus material then try to make sure the fan can choose whether it plays or not. I hate it when an album ends nicely and then starts again playing stuff that is a bit interesting but not the album. If releasing a CD consider adding a silent track for a minute to let the fan get up and hit eject. Or look into Mixed Media format so the bonus material goes in a folder accessed through Windows. With a digital release let the fan know the material is there but that they don’t have to include/keep it in the album.

What to bonus? Alternate versions of tracks, tracks that didn’t make the album cut, rare live versions. What not to bonus? Things that are just plain bad or not of interest to fans. Make this decision based on how you would feel if this track was on the next [insert favorite band] album.

3. Master the Album

CD-R

CD-R

There is a lot of jabber about Mastering as being some dark secret mystery. It isn’t. Simply put, Mastering is the process of preparing your tracks and album to be a cohesive whole ready for release. There is nothing harder than that. If you can mix a track then you can Master it well enough for a Digital release. You only truly need a Mastering Engineer if you are going to Vinyl – which I won’t cover here as while I love vinyl it is not a thing I expect to ever release to.

CDs use the standard 16 Bit 44.1kHz Sample Rate. Unless you are releasing one of those “audiophile” re-releases designed to con us into buying “Breakfast In America” again then ignore any other rate. Ignore any twat rabbiting on in forums over how 24/96 is the only way music sounds remotely good (I bet their music sounds poor at any sample rate). If well mixed your music should sound good on AM Radio with a 4″ Mono speaker. Worry about the quality of your song but not the bitrate.

Remember the aim is to have an album that flows. If your tracks are well arranged then they flow. I generally don’t master my album as a whole in a project but Finalize each track on its own merits. As I listen to prospective running orders (in bed, as I type etc) I go back and adjust the track mix for anything that stands out as too loud, too sharp, etc.

I will however pop all tracks in one Project if I intend to have overlapping tracks. This used to be a bit of a no-go as mp3 would have a little gap between tracks so the transitions would be botched. Now any decent media player will have “gapless” playback so you can overlap tracks to your heart’s content. Just be sure that the album still flows well. Spaces are like a palette refresher so use them if even remotely unsure. If you do overlap tracks then make sure you Burn any physical CDs using “Disc At Once” or the standard 2 second gap will be put back in.

Mastering the album is about the meta-story of the record. Also remember loud is not a good end in itself. Render tracks to 16/44.

4. Decide Where/How you are Releasing

Mostly your choices are CD for physical distribution or Digital for web distribution. Of course you can mix and match too. Essentially these are the same format and your 16/44 Render will be all you need.

First thing to establish here is that whatever channel you choose they will not handle promotion for you. If you are reading this then I assume it safe to say you don’t have Mr Sony handling this for you so promotion is on you. Don’t mix Distribution and Promotion (and don’t pay for it as an “extra”).

I use Bandcamp for my music as they have a very album-friendly format and don’t charge anything up front (or too much per sale). Bandcamp simply let you build your music store. You can also embed tracks and albums on your web site. You upload your tracks and Bandcamp allow the fan to download in a choice of formats from Wave & FLAC to 320 or 128kbit mp3. Easy peasy.

I have also used CD Baby to get an album on iTunes, Spotify and every other outlet in the known universe (give or take a Pandora). The set up is about the same as Bandcamp only this time they charge you to Aggregate your album out to all the other channels. Tempting to use this if you want to be on iTunes etc but before you do step back a bit:

Why do you need to be on iTunes?

  • So your fans can buy your album? You fans will buy your album from anywhere that there is a Buy Now button they can see. Sure they may have heard of iTunes and not Bandcamp but the sale will happen exactly the same. Matter of fact you can sell your album to your fans for less money (whilst making more yourself) on Bandcamp. When I released “Berlin to Dusseldorf” I priced as usual $5+ on Bandcamp, CD Baby were $10 and iTunes started me off at $17 (now dropped to a mere $12.29). I made $0 from being present on iTunes. I sold one copy on CD Baby. All 4 other sales came from Bandcamp. Also realize that most of the people of the world do not have iTunes accounts which makes your record a hassle to hear and own. Bandcamp are easy to embed in your site and there is a Buy button right there in the embed – even better no account is needed to hear and buy.
  • So you can say you have arrived? Sure it is nice to think I have a record on the same shelf as my hero but does it matter a whit? Nope. It really doesn’t. I have my records on the same internet as Vangelis, on the same planet as Tangerine Dream, in the same universe as all my heroes. I am that grand. Buy the vanity if it amuses you or if you really have proof that being on iTunes will increase your bottom line.

It matters little where you are selling as at least until your are famous you are effectively driving every sale personally. I’m not anti iTunes but don’t see the point in spending money that won’t bring (you) a return.

5. Create Cover Art

Jack Broadbent - Trail of Tears

Jack Broadbent – Trail of Tears

The album is not dead. Anyone who tells you that is 13 years old. Albums have covers and that is a lot of their charm. The cover is where the record starts to tell you its story. Here’s a great example:

Getting the Bandcamp link I saw this cover. While I personally think: have a bath, get a haircut, shave, stop smoking and iron your shirt; the cover tells me what to expect. I hit the play button and blow me down if the music doesn’t sound exactly like the cover tells me it will – and it is good music too – Jack Broadbent‘s cover of Canned Heat’s “On The Road Again” is worth hearing. This album will get owned by me and others. Jack already has fans. Also worth noting how simply this was recorded.

While it is tempting to want to do complex booklets etc, for now use Jewel Cases for the few CDs you need so you only need to make the single page folded cover. All the extra info can (and should be) on your website.

A CD Front Cover is 12cm by 12cm or 1470×1470 pixels at 300dpi. See from the template below that the front face is on the right. Seems odd till you fold it. Click the image for a link to a template that will open in the open source GIMP art package (like Adobe Photoshop). Make sure your final artwork is just as neat as this (unless you want it to look scruffy).

Album Cover - click for GIMP Template file

GIMP Album Cover Template

I tend to create my front face in Inkscape which is an open source vector art package (like Adobe Illustrator). I export that and then compile the rest of the cover in GIMP as GIMP handles text better. The full album cover JPEG image should be included with your album for fans who want to make their own CD. Note the template has a single pixel line around the outside, this is to help people with scissors.

When designing your front cover make sure that it will look good at the small sizes you see in media sites and players. If your art is too complex it may not scale well. Also be sure to leave space at the edges for text etc.

If you aren’t comfortable that you can make a good cover on your own then get someone else to do it for you.

6. Upload Album

This is so easy. Simply follow the instructions on the service you are using – they want your album to sell so they get their cut. Remember to upload stereo wave files at 16/44, your cover art (and the printable cover), and fill in all the fields. You may feel like writing words is unnecessary when you make music. Mistake.

Add plenty of story to help fans get into your music. This edencane example is great. Scroll down to the lyrics. I copy & pasted them from Bandcamp. See how most songs have a simple line that puts you in the scene. Powerful stuff and greatly increases the chance of someone getting into the song. If people don’t want to read it they will just ignore.

Before you start promoting, triple check that everything is right. Last thing you want to do is find you uploaded track 3 twice and missed tracks 4 & 5 completely.

7. Promote

Your album is live and in the public. Ready to get fans and be bought. Of course none of that will happen if you don’t get out there and promote it. Not just one little Facebook post but a steady, concerted, real world, effort. Day after day after day after… If you don’t want to do that then accept that your record will not sell well (and there is nothing wrong with that if that is your choice).

If you haven’t already, please consider reading (and actioning) my suite of articles on marketing you music.

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