Releasing an album independently can get very complicated, very fast. The first time I released an album, I wish that I had an album release checklist, but there was no such thing. Luckily I’ve put one together to help you out! For the sake of not overwhelming you, I’m going to focus on the non-music aspect of releasing the album right now. I’m also going to assume you already have contracts sorted out between you, your band, hired guns, and any band whose song you covered. If you don’t, you might want to hold off on releasing your album.
…Are the contracts written and signed yet?…
Yes? Okay, good! Now we can get to the parts that a large percent of DIY musicians forget.
1. ISRCAn international standard code used to identify song recordings and music video recordings.
The single most important thing you need to have before releasing your album are the International Standard Recording Codes (ISRCsAn international standard code used to identify song recordings and music video recordings.). These are like fingerprints for each of your songs. This is how computers and the people who collect your money are able to tell which songs belong to you.
To get started you will need to apply for your Registrant Code. For those of you in the US you can go here. For our international friends simply Google “YourCountryName ISRCAn international standard code used to identify song recordings and music video recordings.” and you should be able to find it. Once you have one, you will own that code for the rest of your life. Sadly, they now charge a $75 fee, whereas it used to be free to obtain one. Luckily it is a one-time fee. And trust me when I say YOU ABSOLUTELY NEED ONE.
After you have registered, they will issue you a unique 3 letter code that looks something like “S1Z.” And from then on, it’s all up to you to keep track of everything. They have some good documentation on how to use them properly here.
Copyright is a strange thing. Technically you own the copyright to a song as soon as you’ve put it into a fixed form – a recording, scoring it out, etc. However, if there were ever a dispute, you would have to be able to prove that you owned the copyright to the song before someone else “stole” it. Turns out that can be EXTREMELY difficult. So the easiest way is to submit it to the U.S. Copyright Office (or your country’s equivalent). Simply head to the Copyright website and start filling out the form. You can find it here.
You won’t need a lawyer to do this, just $35 for the registration fee. Be ready to read a couple of their help files or Google some terms if you don’t know them. If for any reason you get stuck and can’t find an answer, you can always email me as well.
Once it’s registered, you’ll now have a very simple way to prove what songs you own the copyright to, and when they were submitted. No court will argue with that!
Trademarks are often times confused with Copyrights. Copyrights are a protection for original works of authorship. In a musician’s case, you are copyrighting the songs. Trademarks are words, names, symbols, or devices that are used as a way to recognize goods. In this case, it is the band name or logo.
You should really have your band name copyrighted LONG before you ever release an album. When it comes to Trademarks, you actually have to be using them before you are legally able to claim them. There are ways to file under an intent-to-use scenario, but most bands won’t really need this. If you’ve played a show, you’ve already used the name, so you’re entitled to ownership of the Trademark…. assuming that someone doesn’t already own it. Regardless, if you really want to ensure that your band is protected from someone else using the name, you will want to register with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. You can file online here.
Keep in mind that your band name and logo are 2 different things. If you’re worried about someone else using your band logo, you’ll need to get the Trademark for that as well. Be careful not to register the name only when presented in a certain way. You want to trademark the name by itself. This way it won’t matter what the name looks like, you own it. You won’t want to go too crazy with trademarks though. Last time I checked, it cost $275 per trademark. Unless you have some cash burning a hole in your pocket, just focus on the ones you’re sure you absolutely need.
4. Seller’s Permit
This is definitely something that is overlooked by almost every indie band. In certain states, like California, you can’t actually sell goods legally without a state-issued seller’s permit. By law, you are supposed to pay a tax for most physical goods (CDs, shirts, stickers, and buttons included). However, you are allowed to pass that tax onto the consumer, which is why YOU get charged whenever you buy something at the store. But in order to do any of that you have to have a seller’s permit.
In California you can register for a Seller’s Permit through the Board of Equalization (BOE). You can either go to your local BOE office or mail in the form. To find out more head over to the BOE website here. For any other state, you will probably want to check if you really need to obtain a permit. Chances are that if you pay Sales Tax when buying things in your state, you will need to have one.
It does need to be said that the likelihood of you running into any problems with the law early in your career is fairly unlikely. But if your band starts doing well (which is what we all hope for) and you start selling a lot of merch, then you should really consider getting one. The government doesn’t mess around when it comes to you giving them money. It’s only when they have to give YOU money that they could care less.
5. PROsCompanies that act as an intermediary between copyright holders and the people that want to use copyrighted works publicly. Their primary function is to collect royalties from the use of music./TuneCore Songwriter Service
If you are the songwriter for your songs, and are planning to do anything more than sell physical copies of your album, there’s a fairly good chance that some of your payment will come in the way of royalties. In order to collect those royalties you will need to sign up with some form of royalty collecting agency to find and collect all your money for you. Without going into too much detail, most of the time people won’t ever pay you directly to use your music. Instead they give them to these agencies that collect royalties and let them divide it up. (If you want to know more you can always check out our article on Music Royalties.)
The agencies that collect these royalties for you are called Performance Rights Organizations (PROsCompanies that act as an intermediary between copyright holders and the people that want to use copyrighted works publicly. Their primary function is to collect royalties from the use of music.). In the US there are 3 of them – BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC. All of them do the exact same thing for you. And all of them offer different perks for signing up with them. Usually it’s as simple as discounts to certain music stores, but they are ever changing, so you might want to take a look at all of them before making a decision.
At the time of writing this article, TuneCore had also started a new service called the “Tunecore Songwriter Service” that functions very similar to the PROsCompanies that act as an intermediary between copyright holders and the people that want to use copyrighted works publicly. Their primary function is to collect royalties from the use of music.. It is still in its infancy state though. So I can’t promise how well it works, or if it will really cover ALL of the royalties that the PROsCompanies that act as an intermediary between copyright holders and the people that want to use copyrighted works publicly. Their primary function is to collect royalties from the use of music. do, but if it’s anything like the rest of TuneCore’s services, it will be the best choice an unsigned musician has. I would at least recommend checking it out.
SoundExchange functions much like the PROsCompanies that act as an intermediary between copyright holders and the people that want to use copyrighted works publicly. Their primary function is to collect royalties from the use of music., except that it collects a different set of royalties. Specifically they collect certain digital rights royaltiesRoyalties paid for simulcasting, webcasting, streaming, downloading, and online "on-demand service" as well as performance royaltiesRoyalties paid for the performance of the compositions/songs on stage or television through artists and bands . They don’t collect ANY of the same ones as a PRO, so you will need to sign up with BOTH to get all of your hard earned money. Head over to SoundExchange and register. Keep in mind that ALL of your band mates will need to register as well.
7. UPCA barcode symbology. It is used to track information on trade items. Most commonly seen as a black and white set of bars and numbers.
Universal Product Codes (UPCs) are the barcodes that you see on EVERYTHING. If you are releasing a physical version of your CD, you’ll want to get one. You’ll need one if you want your music on Pandora, in any brick-and-mortar store, and various other facilities. They’re cheap and easy to get, so there’s no reason not to. The easiest and cheapest way to get it is through your CD manufacturer. I don’t think I’ve ever run across someone who prints CDs that doesn’t offer to add a UPCA barcode symbology. It is used to track information on trade items. Most commonly seen as a black and white set of bars and numbers. for $20 or less. If you do happen to find one, you may want to reconsider using them!
8. Digital Distribution
Ever wondered how to get your album onto iTunes or any digital music store? It’s pretty easy actually. There are a ton of companies that specialize in helping independent artists get their music into the digital stores. I’ve mentioned them once already in this article, and I’m going to recommend them again – TuneCore is the way to go. It’s simple, it’s easy, and they don’t take a percent of your sales. You only have to pay a small fee for each store, and then a yearly fee to keep it live in all the stores. At most you’re probably looking at $50 (although they often have deals for $20 to release an album) for the initial release and $20/year thereafter.
You’ll be able to pick which stores you want your album in, including iTunes, Amazon Mp3, Rhapsody, Spotify, and many more. They also break down your sales extremely well so you can see who’s actually buying your album, and from where.
9. Physical Copies
Printing physical copies of CDs is surprisingly inexpensive. Generally you can get them for under $1.50/CD(packaging included). It’s easy to find out how much it will cost you to get exactly what you want since a lot of them have a Live Quote feature where you can play with the options until you have what you want.
Your main concern should be with quality when choosing who to use to print your CDs. There are a lot of options out there, but my favorite has been DiscMakers. But you don’t necessarily have to use them. You may find that someone has a better deal for what you’re looking for. In that case I would just ask for a sample. Most of them will send you a sampler pack with previous projects they have done. That way you can see it for yourself.
10. Encode Versions
You’ll want to encode your songs into a couple different versions. You should have a copy of every song in WAV, AIFF, and MP3. WAV and AIFF are lossless formats for Windows and Mac respectively. MP3 is a compressed audio format that comes in different bitrates (kbps).
Simply put, the higher the bitrate of an MP3, the better it will sound, but the larger the file. The highest bitrate, 320kbps, will be almost indistinguishable from a lossless format, but only be about 1/5th of the size. You’ll need to encode your songs in different bitrates so that they can be uploaded to various places. To do this, you can use Audacity – a free and simple music editing program. It will allow you to pick what bitrate you want to export the song at. Chances are you won’t need anything lower than 128kbps. As a general rule of thumb you should try to use the highest bitrate possible so that your songs sound the best they can. If you can use 320kbps, do it.
11. Gracenote (CDDB) and All Music Guide
Have you ever popped an indie band’s CD into your computer and not had your music player give you all the CD info like it does for the big bands? That’s because the artist forgot to submit the CD info to the organizations that music players read it from. The 2 big CD information organizations are Gracenote (formerly CDDB) and All Music Guide.
To get your CD listed in Gracenote:
- Open iTunes
- Insert your CD and wait for iTunes to recognize that a CD is present.
- Type in the Artist, Title, and Track information for your CD.
- Make sure you don’t have any typos.
- Click the Advanced tab, then click Submit CD Track Names.
- The info should be available within 48 hours of your submission.
To get listed on All Music Guide go to Product Submission Page and follow their submission guidelines. Usually all you have to do is mail a physical copy to them and they’ll add it within 4-6 weeks.
If you have any questions about anything, please don’t hesitate to contact me at any time. I remember how confused I was the first time I did all of this. Plus my current billing rate of Free-fifty/hr is much lower than the average lawyer!