How To Self-Release An Album
Robbie Manson · Updated 05 June 2014
Before we get started
This is largely specific to the UK. I’m not a professional or an expert. I’ve written this hoping it’ll save you time, tears and/or money, but don’t take what I say as gospel. Certain details may eventually go out of date depending on how frequently I can make updates, so please hold the lawsuits.
Required reading: Song, by Toad’s Rough Guide to Self-Releasing an Album. A fantastic guide, particuarly with regards to the promotional process, which I don’t discuss in anywhere near as much detail.
- Write, record, mix then name your songs and album
- Create artwork
- Register songs for royalty payments
- Get album mastered
- Order CDs
- Distribute album to online stores and streaming services
- Sign up for any/all social media accounts
- Tell everyone you know and submit for airplay
Right or wrong, this was my schedule. Riots In the Rain was released in the UK on a label I created myself, digitally and with a small run of CDs. I’m going to assume you’re capable of (or have already finished) writing, recording and mixing your songs because I won’t be covering any of that.
Choose a release date. Almost every form you’ll fill in will ask for it. If, like me, you’re not planning a massive PR campaign and you’ve never signed up for PPL, PRS (more on them later) or any other associated organsations before, I’d advise you to pick a date at least two months from finishing your final mixes.
Artwork and photography
Start thinking early about your whole artwork package. Whether you’re going to be collaborating with a designer/developer on a dedicated website and artwork package or doing everything yourself, already having artwork to hand is naturally going to be of benefit. If you want to commission designers, photographers, illustrators or anyone else, it’s going to take time.
At a minimum, have your album cover ready to go as soon as possible. It’s considered good practice to have the cover embedded in certain digital formats (e.g. FLAC, M4A and MP3) that your mastering engineer will deliver, so all the better if you can finish the cover prior to the mastering process.
Artwork formats and dimensions
iTunes and other digital distribution/promotion channels normally want your album cover in JPG format, sized to 1600x1600 pixels at 300 dpi in RGB.
CD production companies will likely want your sleeve artwork as a PDF at 300 dpi and in CMYK. Most companies actually have their own template and submission guidelines, so download them and follow closely. More on CD production later.
Arrange to have group photos, live/action shots and close-up portraits taken, if you can. Album artwork isn’t enough for promotional purposes. At a minimum, consider landscape shots for Facebook and Twitter cover photos, and your BBC Artist page (which you’ll be invited to create if and when you receive BBC radio airplay). You’ll need square formats for profile photos and avatars, and some shots of your CDs once they arrive, for uploading to Bandcamp or wherever you’re planning to sell your CDs.
If your music is being performed at gigs of any level, being broadcast on radio or TV, being sold by a record label or through an online store or streaming service then you’re eligible for royalty payments — provided you hold the rights to the music. But there’s more than one organisation who can collect royalties for you, and it can get a bit confusing.
Who to register with
In the UK there are are at least three organisations you should consider registering with to collect your royalty payments: PPL, PRS & MCPS.
PPL pays the performers on songs and the record company that owns the recordings. They don’t pay the songwriters or composers. Membership is free. As noted in the PPL registration guidance, if you're self-releasing your music you should register as a performer and a rightholder. This allows PPL to collect your royalties for both roles.
You really want to register with PPL, for two reasons: 1) they assign you the ISRCs (International Standard Recording Codes) you’ll need at several other points throughout the process, and 2) it’s where you define who-played-what on the recordings.
PPL pay once annually for UK-generated income, and at intervals throughout the year for any income generated internationally or from additional rights. More about PPL payment schedules →
PRS pays the individual songwriter(s) or composer(s), not the artist. If you’re in a five-piece band but only two musicians write the music, they’d benefit by registering with PRS. Writer membership is £50.
PRS and their sister organisation MCPS distribute quarterly payments in April, July, October and December. More about PRS payment schedules →
MCPS collects royalties for you only if your music has been released by a record company you don’t own, has been used in a radio or TV show, audio-visual or multimedia production, or used online. You need to provide evidence of your songs usage, so this may well not apply to you. MCPS writer membership is £50.
I don’t have any personal experience with them, but an additional organisation to consider joining is US-based SoundExchange.
ISRCs (International Standard Recording Codes)
ISRCs uniquely identify your songs and allow royalties to be collected for them when they’re bought digitally or played on the radio. I got my codes from PPL, which they assign for free. Even though many digital distribution companies will offer to assign you their own ISRCs, PPL are the national ISRC agency in the UK and to me it felt like the sort of thing that was worth doing by the book.
ISRCs are another piece of metadata you’ll need prior to the mastering process, because they should be burned onto the final master disc by your engineer. They should also be embedded in the digital files your engineer delivers, wherever possible. Certain digital formats (like WAV) can’t have that metadata embedded, so just make sure you provide a note of your ISRCs whenever submitting track to a radio station.
The sooner you can apply to PPL for your ISRCs the better, as they’re required when registering your songs with digital outlets like iTunes and streaming services like Spotify.
Register as individual or label?
Even though I (kind of) created a record label as part of this whole process, I registered with PPL and PRS under my own name because I’m the sole writer and rightsholder of the music.
There are actually two or three fields in both the PPL and PRS repertoire registration forms where ‘Label’ or ‘Marketing Label’ are required, so it’s worth at least thinking up a label name and perhaps buying the domain name(s) for it, short of actually creating the label as a full-blown legal entity.
I called my label Junior Moon Records, bought the domain names I wanted and have redirected them to mademountain.com until I decide to do anything more with them in the future. ‘They’ don’t hold the rights to any of the music anyway, so aren’t eligible to be paid anything.
Once you’ve finished your final mixes, registered your songs with PPL and PRS, got your ISRCs and finished at least the album front cover, you can send your album off to get mastered.
Mastering is the last step in the process prior to physical production and digital distribution. I’m generalising a bit, but it’s is the process of squeezing the most out of your songs sonically and getting them all to a consistent, healthy volume. It’s a specialised field that requires great ears, and can absolutely be the difference between a good sounding record and a great one.
Needless to say, it’s worth hiring a professional mastering engineer. Kenny MacLeod of RedBlock Mastering mastered Riots In The Rain and I was delighted with the results. Typically you’ll be offered the chance to attend the mastering sessions yourself, which you should do if at all possible. The various quotes I got ranged from £150 up to £800+ for the album; it’s up to you how ‘high end’ you want to go.
What your mastering engineer will expect
Each mastering engineer will have their own specific requirements, but in general they’ll be looking for your final mixed renders from your recording sessions, in either WAV or AIFF format, and the following:
- Artist Name
- Album Title
- Track names and numbers
- Barcode number (if you have one)
- Album cover (JPG, 1600x1600)
I also sent the whole album as a single audio file, with guide spacings between each track for reference.
What you should expect from your mastering engineer
- A physical master disc of the album, which will be used by the company you hire to duplicate or replicate your CDs.
- The album in multiple digital formats: WAV, Apple lossless and MP3 at a minimum. Optionally also AAC, FLAC and Ogg Vorbis.
- A document summarising the album metadata: exact track lengths, disc duration and lead out time.
They may also offer additional items such as lacquer or dubplate, depending on whether or not you’re going to be ordering a vinyl run.
Even small runs of CD packages can take 4-5 weeks to manufacture, depending on who you get to print and press them, so have everything ready to go after receiving your physical master disc and digital files from your mastering engineer.
ACDsleeve made our run of 100 hand-made natural card sleeves and full colour Watershield CDRs. They were really friendly and helpful, and we were delighted with the results. I’ve also been told good things about Disc Factory. Song, By Toad suggests a number of others in his guide. Including postage, my 100 sleeves and discs were £356.
To reiterate an earlier point, CD production companies will likely want your sleeve artwork as a PDF at 300 dpi and in CMYK. Most companies will probably have their own templates and submission guidelines, so be sure to follow them closely.
Duplication vs replication
You have two options when it comes to ordering CDs: duplication or replication. Duplicated discs are more or less burned CD-Rs like you’d produce at home, but production companies will offer on-disc printing for a more professional end result. If you’re looking for less than 500 discs, duplication is likely to be the most cost-effective solution.
By contrast, replicated discs are manufactured from the master disc provided to you by your mastering engineer. They’re the “real” CDs you see in shops. Print quality on the discs is better and the cost per-disc is lower, but the up-front costs are much higher. If you’re serious about this music thing, get replicated discs.
Do you need a barcode? If you’re not expecting your album to chart or to have your CDs sold in high-street shops, you could decide not to bother. But they’re relatively easy and cheap to acquire, and online stores you sign up to may require one, so why not just get one so you’re covered?
I found out late in the game that EmuBands (the distribution company I used) assign barcodes for free, which seems to be common amongst many digital distributors. Although I only found out about this late in the process, it’s considered good practice to have your barcode number burned onto the DDP master anyway, so you may want to weigh that up.
My barcode was £25 from GS1, a not-for-profit that “develops and maintains supply chain standards”, including those for bar codes. They have two accounts aimed at musicians and labels, both of which waive the normal £117 joining fee: Single track or album application (if you’re only releasing a single track/album and your turnover won’t exceed £10,000) and ‘regular’ music registration (for when you’re already a member of AIM, BPI or MMF and your turnover will be less than £100,000).
Further reading: BPI Guidelines on Bar Coding
Distribution and sales
With your CDs ordered, you can go about distributing your album to digital stores and streaming services.
Digital stores and streaming services
There are a myriad of digital distribution companies available to those of us looking to self-release. When considering your options, think about:
- Whether they take a one-off up-front payment, an annually recurring fee and/or a percentage of your sales
- If they allow you to enter your own existing ISRCs, or make you use their own generated ones
- Whether you get full control over how your release appears, for example: can you specify your own label, or is it the distributer’s name that appears on release pages?
- Whether they actually distribute to all of the stores you want to appear on
I went with Glasgow-based EmuBands. They charged a £49.95 one-off fee per album (meaning I keep 100% of my royalties), they let me use my own ISRCs assigned to me by PPL and gave me full control over what people see on release pages because I registered with them as a label rather than an artist.
EmuBands have been quick to answer any of my questions and I’ve got exactly what I wanted, so I’d highly recommend them. If you’re considering signing up and this article has helped you at all, please enter this promo code on the form: GZXE3A5Q
You might also consider applying to become a verified artist with a profile on Spotify, if you’re distributing your music there.
While most dedicated distribution companies will require at least a month lead-time prior to your release date, many availabe-to-all online distributers like EmuBands don’t. You can still enter a release date to prevent your release being visible before a certain point, or you can opt to leave the date out and your release will simply appear as soon as it’s ready. My own timings were:
- iTunes: 24hrs
- Google Play: 5 days
- Spotify: 6 days
- Amazon: 8 days
- Rdio: 10 days
I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t really check any of the other stores.
Revenue share and pricing
I sell Riots In The Rain on CD and in digital formats using Bandcamp. Accounts are free to create — they simply take a 15% cut on digital sales and 10% cut on physical merchandise, which nets me the most money out of any ditribution channel. Buyers can choose from a whole load of digital formats, you can customise the look of your page, you get purchasing stats, embeddable widgets and loads more. Highly recommended.
If your album has less than 11 or 12 tracks, most digital retailers like iTunes, Amazon and Google won’t let you define your own price. Instead, it’ll be set automatically according to: Number of Songs x Standard Song Price = Album Price.
At the time of writing, an artist’s share of digital album sales vary anywhere between 60% and 85%. Share of streaming revenue is more typically 50%. You should be able to view the specific contracts with each retailer when signing up for your distribution service, so take a proper look when you get the chance.
By now you should have your promo photos to hand, CDs ordered and album submitted for digital distribution. If you’ve been building your own dedicated site, hopefully that’s about ready to launch too.
Social networks and other useful sites
It goes without saying that you should sign up for and populate your profile for any relevant social networks or other sites. Here are a few for your consideration:
- MusicBrainz (More info: 1, 2)
- Amazing Tunes
I’d also recommend signing up for a Bitly account. This way you can create shortlinks for any of your URLs and view stats on how many people have actually clicked/used them.
If you’ve bought your own domain name and want email addresses using that domain, I’d recommend signing up for Google Apps. You’ll get Gmail for your email, along with Google Drive, Calendar and more.
I’ve received some airplay on BBC Radio primarily by submitting tracks to Fresh On The Net. I don’t have much advice to impart here, other than: submit your tracks to an individual or station where you know they’d actually be a good fit.
My good friend Alex, who is far more experienced in these matters than me, has some really handy tips about how best to send music on his site How To Send Me Music.
I didn’t hire a PR agent or agency, but I’ve read of many other self-releasing artists who absolutely believe it’s a worthwhile investment — provided you find the right one. Check out The Hypebot’s article for pointer on what you should be thinking about. Either way, remember that word of mouth never goes of fashion and needn’t cost anything.
Please email me if you have any questions or feel I should be mentioning other stuff.