Selling CD's-old school

Richard Monroe

Well-known member
I guess this is a little advice for those who are doing it, or those who plan to. It's also a philosophical statement about dealing with a rapidly changing industry, and doing what's right, for *your own* good. I notice that the biggest successes on this board rarely show up on this forum. They often expend more effort telling some clueless newb how to make a good recording than what to do with it.

First, my spin on the rapidly changing industry, and how it affects me and you:

Old school- You play in local bands until you can draw a pretty good sized crowd at any club. A recruiter from a major label decides you could be a product. He lies to you, gets you laid, makes sure you have plenty of whatever recreational substances you use, and gets you to sign a userous recording contract. You are handed over to producers and engineers who make an album that usually has very little to do with what you would have done if you were in control. Aside from your signing bonus, if any, you get 3-5% of *net*, so if the album doesn't make money, in the end you get less than minimum wage for your life's work.

Then you are booked on a tour, playing lead-on, if you are lucky, for a major act. It involves way too many performances, and way too much travel. You get laid and stoned some more. You also get a significant portion of the gate, more if you *are* the major act, and you actually make some money, if you are smart enough not to waste it. Of course, you probably collapse from exhaustion, and wind up in the Betty Ford clinic for drug rehab and treatment for your STD's. The record label really doesn't make a lot of money off this. The point is- The record exists to make money for the label, and to promote your live tour. The tour exists to make money for you, and to promote *the labels* record. This worked because no one could *make* a record without a ton of money, and no one could *get* a record without spending money. If you were lucky, you could make enough money to become your own label, of form a collective, like Asylum.

In between-the tribulations: Fast forward a few years- Common use of cassettes make it possible to duplicate the music on your own, with high-speed dubbing, and hand it to a friend. The record company hates it. Fortunately for them, vinyl records still sound better, on good equipment, and soon, digital recording becomes a standard, and the CD comes into common use. The status quo is maintained. Nobody can make a good CD without a ton of money, and you have to buy it, if you want to own it. And then, OH NO!, the CD-R is born, and the CD-ROM drive becomes something a regular Joe can afford. The transfer of digital audio data becomes commonplace, leading to WAV., MP3, file sharing, with widespread copyright infringement. Meanwhile, something else happens. The equipment for digital recording, based on the same technology as any computer, becomes affordable for the masses. This creates everything from phones that download MP3 files, to high-end digital recording consoles. The DAW is born. A demand grows for cheaper replacements for essential analog front end equipment. Soon cheaper mics and preamps become available. many based on cheaper modern electronics, and built on the cheap by the Chinese. Now the record label is *really* screwed, 'cause they can't close Pandora's box. Indie recording grows, mostly leading to the death or restructuring of major labels, flooding the internet with poor quality, badly produced independent MP3 downloads, and the industry scrambles to find a way to make somebody pay for the expenses of making good recordings. Their attempts at marketing MP3 downloads, and looking for ways to copy-protect digital audio files mostly fails.
Of course, a few of those indies figure out haw to produce good recordings, and some that didn't still gain a following, and manage to make a ton of money on line. (the Arctic Monkeys, for example). Net result- more money is spent than made, both by the labels and the indies. Good studios with high standards go belly-up, and labels produce assembly-line formula schlock on the cheap.

New school-I am the recording artist, the producer, the label, and the recording studio. All the money is mine, after expenses, residuals, mechanical royalties, etc., *if* I can get anybody to pay for the end product. If I could sell 10,000 copies of my CD, I could make more money than Paul McCartney made off of Rubber Soul! But of course, I can't sell 10,000 copies. Eventually the indie runs into the same problem as the big labels. Making high quality recordings takes time, experience, and money, lots of it, albeit less than it used to take.

How does this affect *me*, the independent recording artist? Well first, it places me, the rebel, indie, outsider, in the position of having to promote my baby, that I've sweated over for 2 1/2 years, as *a product*. It's like trying to sell the family dog! You figure out early on that you only have so many buddies, co-workers, and family members, and that selling a CD or download to somebody you don't know is better than selling 10 to your mother.

My CD, "Reunion" was released in 2004, and is now in the second run of production. It has paid for itself, and a goodly chunk of the studio that was built to record it. Current net is a loss, except I get to own the studio. The second album, "Horsefeathers", is now in the guide track stage, and will be a hell of a lot cheaper to produce, given that I don't have to build a studio to do it. And it will be better, because I have better gear and 5 years of experience tracking.

So what can I do to improve the quality of music recording and the economic outlook for the worldwide music industry? First, be the cream that rises to the top. Learn to make better recordings, and continue to improve my engineering skills. Build a better room, track a better performer. This is just what those old-school experts at the major studios did. Secondly, I can promote a mind set that acknowledges that good recordings cost money to produce. If we think that all music should be downloaded and the files shared for free, then we have to ask whose money will be used to make the next Sgt. Peppers. Most importantly, we have to support the work of other independent recording artists by paying good money for their products. I am proud to say that I own 2 CD's by true-eurt, just as an example. It didn't hurt that much, I paid by Visa. If we, independent recording artists and home producers, never buy anybody's CD, why on Earth do we believe that anybody is going to buy ours?

Among my greatest marketing victories- I sold a copy of "Reunion" to the toll taker on the Massachusetts Turnpike *at the tollbooth*! I sold a copy to the waiter in my favorite Chinese restaurant. I have records of everybody who has ever bought my CD, so I can send them the release announcement when "Horsefeathers" is released. When people ask me, "How can I ever repay you?". I say, "Buy my album. It rocks". Instead of looking for payment or services for things I've done, all I ask is that folks consider giving me a fair price for a product that took me thousands of dollars and countless hours to produce. Ha! Want to find me? I'm probably on, helping some clueless newb to make better recordings...or at:

Good read. I'm on the cusp of releasing my first album.....1000 CD run. This is a band-less recording, meaning I wrote it, played a few instruments, and hired others to fill out the rest. Meaning that I won't be gigging with this, which makes it incredibly hard. Not to mention I've kept this hidden from my band (who probably wouldn't be too happy that I've been concentrating my time on this album and not with them....heh).

So I got a really tough road ahead of me.

If I can sell even 700-800 CD's, that will pay off the musicians and the studio equipment in terms of net. After that I personally start pulling ahead. I'm in the planning stages for my next album, but I'll still be putting another $2000 in studio and instrument upgrades, and will still have to pay musicians, so I'll still be in the same boat, but it'll look to be more like 400-500 CD's before I pull profit.

Regardless, yeah, there's only so many family members, co-workers, and friends I have that'll buy this. If I'm lucky, I may be able to sell 40-50 to that group. One of my plans is to always carry 10-20 CD's around in my car wherever I go, that way I'll always have some available.
You know, something about this is catching in my craw... that being, one person attempting to do everything (or thinking he can ): writing music, playin/singin it, being all the back up musicians, recording it, re-mastering it, creating the cover art, reproducing the music, reproducing the cover, packaging it, promoting it, distributing it, selling it, etc.: really, I don't think on person can be good at all those things. I support the democrazation of music, for sure, but I think collaboration is better than an iron-hand, "I WILL do it all myself" approach: better for the music, for the musician, better for the result, better for the industry.

This is the model I would prefer (which happens to be my basic situation- go figure, eh?) I write some songs. My buddy/collaborator writes some, too. We share what we have with each other, sometimes directing the other as what we want him to do, other times asking the other to help out with a piece that is not where we want it to be. Credits are worked out on a case-by-case basis. We use self-contained recorders (DP-01's and such) to get the stuff down so we can listen to it and tweek it, but none of that is intended or released for sale. We invite others to sit in with us, and record their contributions, keeping track of what we like and what does not work for us. NOTE: This is where we are at the present time.) Once we are feeling good about what we have created so far, we plan to go into "The studio," it being my son's professional but struggling recording studio in New Orleans (the rehersal space side of his business is doing fine...). I, and any group I am affiliated with, get free studio time/engineering as repayment for all the gear I fronted the $ for/money I loaned him over the years. We invite some of those musicians I mentioned earlier to go into the studio with us. Their compensation is low-key- perhaps the experience of being a contributing musician in a pro studio environment, and a weekend in a very cool city- we spend the days in the studio, the evenings on the town. Maybe the promise (codified, in a contract) of residuals if the resulting album sells beyond "X" number of copies. (NOTE: If you are not me, you get to do the same thing, but must pay for studio time/engineer's time- hey, don't sweat it, you will probably get by a LOT cheaper than I will, I have bought a king's ransom worth of gear over the years...) We barter for, or flatter friends into doing, the cover art, cast about for reproduction, and then have a professional sounding, professional looking product to sell.

Now, if YOU are in that picture instead of me, sure, you pay for the studio/engineer's time, but you save thousands of dollars and lots of time by not buying and learning to use expensive, complicated and quickly-obsoleated gear. Your buds get the experience and ego-strokes of being credited session musicians (don't under-estimate this- you would be suprised how many folks would die happy if the studio roof caved in on them... ,) AND have a peak experience in a cool city. My son gets another paying recording client, and I get paid back a little sooner on the loan I am carrying on part of his business.

Everybody's happy, everybody wins.

Now, who here wants to be first?
That is true. I'd rather hire a bassist to play on my album, but I ended up buying it and learning my parts after months of dealing with flakes. I also did my cover art, which is alright, but still borderlines on almost amateurish art. But for the parts I couldn't do, I freaking paid session musicians for. And it really paid off.
Yo StevieB! Be advised that producing "Reunion" was no one man operation. That comes under the heading of "expenses" and "residuals". My wife is a former accountant and an award winning graphic designer. She handled executive production, artistic design and graphic layout, as well as copyright, work-for-hire agreements, mechanical royalties and residuals. Overdub staff were flown in from all over the country. The bass player is in Binghamton, NY, the percussionist an art teacher from East Meadow, NY, who also did the original cover art (Homerec's own Rimshot). The lead guitarist is a music professor at Oregon University. The backing vocalists are in San Diego and Boulder, Colorado. Violin/Viola was handled by Audrey White, a strings professor at the New England Conservatory of Music. Mixing was done by Homerec's own Littledog (David L. Sparr, Littledog studios, Malden, MA). Mastering by Homerec's Sjoko (NGS Production, Santa Barbera, CA). That doesn't cover the staff photographer, engineering consultant (Aidas Kupsinskas), legal consultation (yes, that was necessary), and duplication by Artist Development Corp. in Framingham, MA.
"Reunion" was an excercise in learning what a record label does, and how. It was never my plan to make a demo. It was my plan to make an album, right down to the release party. After all that, can I afford to give it away as a free download?- No.-Richie
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Good read and interesting points from all. I've been down the one-man-band road, for the most part, and it's not easy. I "released" a country album in 2007 (I'm a rock drummer and rhythm guitarist, but my damn voice is Garth freaking Brooks...) after 18 long months of writing, producing, recording, mixing and co-mastering. I wrote every song and lyric, played the drums, rhythm guitar, lead guitar, bass, keys and percussion, and performed all vocals - lead and backing. I hired a fiddle player and steel guitar player cause I can't play those insturments, and I spent those 18 months in virtual isolation in my basement studio grinding away. I brokered a deal with my employer to have them pay for a 1,000 CD run in return for a large portion of the profits going to a charitable organization. This was not a ploy, I really wanted to help others and get some CD's for my freinds and family in the process. Aside from the expense of paying for the 2 hired guns, all I really invested was blood sweat and tears.

Here's the crappy part. Since I was a solo "act" and did not perform live to promote my music, the sales were comical. For what it is and the resources I had, I'm extremely proud of the album, but like most of us here I sold maybe 40 or 50 copies to friends, family and co-workers (I detect a pattern here) and managed to move another 50 or so through CD baby and a website I created.

My employer didn't even break even. They shelled out maybe $1,500 and got back around $1,000. Our deal was that I would not have to repay the company; they took a chance and surely used it as a tax write-off anyway.

Now, about 18 months later, I have about 900 CD's still boxed up and lining one wall of my studio - I have no way of selling them really, and no clue what I'll ever do with so many.

The moral of the story is that you can do it all if you have the skills and determination to put yourself through it, but the end result if you're not in a performing band (unless you create a stellar, world-class masterpiece and somehow get it out there) is that you better start drinking beer, cause you'll have a lot of coasters! The only question is, did you lose a ton of monay and want to kick yourself, or were you fortunate like I was and minimized the bruising...

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Among my greatest marketing victories- I sold a copy of "Reunion" to the toll taker on the Massachusetts Turnpike *at the tollbooth*! I sold a copy to the waiter in my favorite Chinese restaurant. I have records of everybody who has ever bought my CD, so I can send them the release announcement when "Horsefeathers" is released. When people ask me, "How can I ever repay you?". I say, "Buy my album. It rocks". Instead of looking for payment or services for things I've done, all I ask is that folks consider giving me a fair price for a product that took me thousands of dollars and countless hours to produce. Ha! Want to find me? I'm probably on, helping some clueless newb to make better recordings...or at:

That's badass, I've got to start selling to waiters/toll booth guys. Love it.
Yeah Jack! As I drove past the tollbooth on my way home from work, about once a week for 3 or 4 weeks, I handed him a copy of the latest update on the guide tracks/rough mix, because he always had ear buds on. As soon as duplication was done, as I drove through the booth, I just held up the finished disc with the original cover art and said,"done". All he said was, "How much?". Done deal on the spot. That's my rule number one- You can't sell somebody a CD unless you get them to listen to it, or they owe you something. I've sold 5 from fender benders. You dent my car, well, I can call my insurance company, or- "buy my album. It rocks!" I hate insurance companies anyway. The last lady that hit my car bought 3. What the hell? I didn't get to the second run of production by accident.-Richie
Great posts Richard. I suppose we're all in the same boat as you.

Though it might seem like a good idea, I think you should take it easy on the fender benders.:)

Music business will alway be there, from majors to indies no matter what medium the music is/was delivered. Since start of music, it has been replicated through any means from humming the tune, to digital copies. Music for the business is music for the listeners, though supporting your local artist is good, it does not pay the bills unless your servicing a need for that. These days with these new mediums, you have people who used to spend $500,000 on a good record for recording to manufacturing by a label, to spending $25K for recording lesser manufacturing & the licensing you got with it. Sell 10 second clip ring tones @ a buck. At the end of the day, recouping isn't as bad, and your black is easiest to reach.

Great read richie