Releasing your music to the world

Got a great question from someone a couple of weeks ago:

Michael, I wanted to ask you a couple question about the procedures one has to encounter when releasing a CD with his own music. I have three classical CDs released where I perform music of different composers, but I am not sure how it works when you release your own music. Do you have to copyright it or not?

Also, I wanted to ask you about labels. I know that a lot of people prefer to release material under their own labels. I saw that practically all of your CDs have been released under earspasm. Is there just no point trying to release music on some relatively famous label?

I'll take the easy one first:

Copyright

Copyrighting your music is very simple. As soon as an original work of authorship is fixed in a tangible form and published, a copyright exists. If you would like to go one extra step do this: If it's sheet music, put it in an envelope, take it to the post office and put it in the mail to yourself. That's it! The postmark from the post office is all you need to prove the date of copyright. If you want to be extra-special careful, you can send it certified mail, but all that does is make you 1) go to the post office and 2) pay a lot more money for the same thing. If you want to copyright a recording, just take the recording and do the same thing as you would printed music.

Of course, there is a more official way of registering with the copyright office here in Washington, but really, this "common law" copyright is legal and binding.

Releasing your own CD

So, yeah. Lots of different advice from many people on this one. I guess I can just tell you why I chose the route I did, which is to self-release. This is the story of my five CD's and how they got released:

Spasm came out in 1996. The first conversation I had with New World Records (a GREAT company, by the way) took place around the early summer of 1994. I offered them the proposal of a "recital" sort of disc, where I would commission a bunch of composers to write for me, I'd record them and give the master to New World. New World liked the idea, and they went ahead and wrote a much of grants on my behalf to fund the release. Back then, the cost of releasing the disc -- not recording, mind you, but releasing -- was over $15,000. That covered Mastering, the liner notes, cover art, manufacturing, distribution, PR, and overhead.

I went ahead and recorded all of the pieces not knowing if the project would ever happen, but I was in grad school with access to good equipment, so it was all good. Finally, in the winter of 1996 (March-ish), I got word that the grants came in, and Spasm would be released. I signed the contract (which gave New World the rights to the recording for 10 years, and would pay out royalties only). I was entitled to purchase the CD's at a discounted rate of $7 after the first 100, which were free.

Total time from recording to release: 30 months.

On 1985 I decided to go a different route, because I didn't want to wait over two years to release the next record. I contacted Capstone (NOT a great company, I'm afraid), who's deal was this: you give us the CD's (yes, I had to get them printed myself, but then again, I got to control everything from the artwork to the notes), and $500 and we'll do the PR for you. Well, the good part was that I got all the CD's I wanted (I had to warehouse them). But, the bad part was that Capstone did no PR, was terrible at bookkeeping (I hounded them for almost 6 years and finally got paid a fraction of what they owed me). I canceled the agreement and re-released it myself.

Total time from recording to release: 4 months

Ok, so for Ten Children I had heard about CDBaby (another GREAT company). Their deal was: whatever dude. Sign up for $35, pay us a little more for a barcode, send the discs when they're ready and we'll get them up on iTunes (and everywhere else). You set the price yourself, they take $4 per disc, and manage all the fulfillment (i.e. they ship it). When they run out of CD's you send a few more. In 2003, this was an amazing thing -- the democratization of CD recording/releasing/distribution. For Ten Children, I bought my own CD duplicator which recorded and printed the disc in batches of 20. I could buy jewel cases in bulk, I had the covers/inserts printed in bulk, I bought the blank CD's in bulk, I purchased a shrink-wrap kit and bought the shrink sleeves in bulk. I got the the per-unit cost down to about $1.06 (Spasm, again, cost me $7 per unit to buy from New World; 1985 cost me about $4.40 per unit). This also allowed me to release the following 2 CD's (Fade and Spin Cycle) and use the same bulk equipment. So at any given time I could produce batches of whatever recording I needed to with one set of bulk blanks (except, of course, for the inserts, which were printed in lots of 500).

The good parts about this is many-fold: 1) I'm in complete control of the recording/PR/distribution -- talk about vertically-integrated! 2) I carry no significant inventory; 3) My stuff is on EVERY digital channel but also is available from a few channels as actual CD's; 4) I can release a new CD whenever the hell I want to.

The downside is this: I have to do everything myself. And it's time-consuming. But if you have the will, you can release a disc, get a lot of free press & reviews, and your outlay of cash is relatively low.

Total time from recording to release: 3 weeks.

But ultimately, you have to decide for yourself if you think your music is something a label will "pick up" and run with. Just having them release it is nothing. It's worthless. They need to back it with some PR & marketing, and you have to make sure your contract is something that you're comfortable with.

Oh, and you can ALWAYS release it yourself and RE-release it with a bigger label if you get one interested. But having a CD to sell at a show always beats not having one.

Hope this was helpful.

Mike

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