Illustration: Michael Haddad
These days, releasing music with an established record label isn’t the only way to get your foot in the door—many artists are taking a DIY approach, and you can too.
If you’ve been met with crickets after sending out your tracks to every record label under the sun, don’t fret. Decades ago, you couldn’t even get on the radio without backing from the music-industry-men-in-suits, but now, thanks mostly in part to social media, the landscape of releasing music—and the potential for self-releasing in particular—is markedly different.
Although it definitely helps, you don’t need a huge budget or a roster of important contacts to see your release in physical or digital form. You can make it happen, regardless of your situation, in your own time and on your own terms. However, be prepared to put in the work and climb over some hurdles—it’s going to be a wild ride.
Set realistic goals for self-releasing
First things first, you need to establish what you want from your release. What do you want your release to achieve? Who do you want it to reach? Who is it made for?
“If you’re releasing totally independently, you have to be very realistic about what you can achieve without label backing, without mainstream press opportunities, without a marketing budget, and without a team of people,” says Welsh-born, NYC-based electronic pop musician Rod Thomas. Performing under the moniker Bright Light Bright Light, Thomas has collaborated with Elton John and Scissor Sisters, with two of his albums reaching the top 20 on the UK Independent Albums Chart. “You want to set achievable goals so that you get to enjoy successes instead of lamenting the lack thereof,” he adds. “Identify what you want to do for the release, how you’ll release it (digital-only vs. physical too), who your allies and helpers may be, and how to make it as rewarding as possible.”
It’s important to remember that all releases are different. There’s merit in any way you want to showcase your music—whether it’s a small batch for just family and friends, or you want to try and go all-in for a career-starting journey. No matter which route you choose, it’s a key part of the process to not set yourself up for disappointment.
After you’ve cemented some of those initial thoughts about what you’d like your release to look like, musician Caleb Cordes, who performs under the name Sinai Vessel, says there’s a second batch of questions to think about:
- How much music are you releasing?
- When do you want it to come out?
- Would you like to release it all at once, or would you like singles to come out ahead of your full release?
- Do you want it to be on streaming services?
- Would you just like to release it digitally, or do you want to make a physical product? If the latter, how much of that product do you think you can sell?
- How much money are you comfortable with spending?
- Would you like to tour, and if so, would you like to have extra physical copies (if any) for touring?
“You don’t need to know all of this ahead of time, but researching costs and brainstorming as much as possible is helpful with managing your expectations and not getting too overwhelmed,” he says. Cordes likes to keep a journal and lots of post-it notes handy to process ideas and write down dates, as well as maintain several up-to-date spreadsheets that make it easier for him to know where he’s at in the process at a glance. “It’s also important to note that talking about your release with other musicians can be a vital lifeline, both for gaining helpful perspectives and sharing resources,” he adds.
Establish a fanbase
Fans are imperative to your success and can even help out with the release itself. Harriet Doveton, one-third of the punk-pop trio The Tuts and owner of her own DIY label Dovetown, says that establishing and knowing your fanbase is the first part of a successful self-release. “We first mostly built fanbases by managing to get booked for tours with bigger artists such as Kate Nash and The Selecter (and later The Specials),” she says. “The process for this wasn’t easy, and being a three-tone band of women, we often felt like we had to stand up extra tall, yell extra loud, and work extra hard. But what is also incredibly relevant here is we’re all from working-class families, so there was no trust fund to help fund expensive things like recording. As a DIY band, we were really relying on investment from our fans, opposed to a label.”
The band launched a crowdfunding campaign for their debut album, and soared past their goal within the first five days, thanks to their imaginative exclusive items in the campaign and their positive social media presence. By the end of the campaign, they raised over £20k, which was over 200% of their original target. All of this money went into studio time, mixing and mastering, two music videos, the album photoshoot and artwork, vinyl costs, merch costs, and other expenses like uploading the songs for digital distribution.
“Recording an album is expensive and we did everything to a high standard and offered our fans a lot of merch options,” Doveton says. “But, the way we kept costs down was doing the majority of the tasks ourselves—such as getting our own press, booking our own tours, sending off our own merch, and handling all of the admin. As for artwork and music videos, we really utilized the people around us.”
Make a marketing plan
If that kind of successful crowdfunding campaign sounds like a distant dream to you, there are ways you can start to build up a fanbase. Aside from getting out on the road and playing as many shows as you can muster, British singer-songwriter RJ Thompson says it can be worthwhile to sign up to educational platforms that offer courses on ways to market your music.
Thompson has been self-releasing for over ten years, and his 2021 album Lifeline reached number five on the UK album charts and number one on the download charts. “It all comes down to social media and email marketing really, but it’s wise to learn how to do it properly,” he says. “You can start by spending $5 per day on Facebook or Instagram and see decent results, or you can scale it to hundreds and see much bigger results. As your own little music business grows, you can start to afford to put more money into it if you wanted to.”
Thompson adds that it’s important to be smart with whatever budget you do have, and to steer away from the “vanity metrics” like Twitter followers or your Spotify monthly listeners. “What matters is how many people you are connecting to on a level where they become a genuine fan—someone who buys a record and comes to a show,” he tells us. “So, my advice is to not get bogged down in spending money trying to better your vanity metric. Rather, focus on reaching people who are most likely to turn into true fans.” Although this kind of marketing talk might sound a little disheartening, in ways it’s the reality of the industry. But fear not—you can get as creative as you like with it. “Bring the same level of passion and creativity to your video content and marketing as you would the music,” Thompson suggests.
How much will self-releasing cost?
The amount of money spent on self-releasing is different for different artists. Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Nnamdï, whose Black Plight EP was the highest-selling record of any format on Bandcamp Friday (raising over $10K in 24 hours), stresses that as long as you have something to record the sounds, you’re halfway there. “For folks trying to go the route of a full-scale release, the level of funds you spend increases with each added factor,” he says. Physical formats like vinyl, plus marketing and PR are just some of the aspects that you’ll have to decide how much you want to invest in.
“Given that the average album campaign leading up to a record is usually around two – three months and from what I’ve experienced and seen with indie labels and artists, it’s very easy to spend at least $20K – $25k in the release process. But there is no definitive way you have to do it,” Nnamdï says. “You can really find ways to work within your budget and still release dope things in the world.”
For Sinai Vessel’s 2020 album Ground Aswim, Cordes says the record cost almost exactly $12k. His goal was to have a full-fledged record release process akin to what would be standard on a small label. So, that’s a full-length record tracked, mixed, and mastered, released on all streaming services, pressed to 500 vinyl copies, and supported with one month of a PR campaign and radio promotion. “There are also smaller expenses factored in, like travel, groceries for the recording session, artwork and design costs, photography, a press bio, and social media advertising,” he says. “I’m also a solo artist, which means that I pay the other musicians that record on my songs as session players. That wasn’t all paid upfront, but rather over the course of the year as each expense came up. We kept costs down by doing as much as possible ourselves (design, mail order, record assembly, etc.) and working with people who were within our budget.”
He stresses that without the ability to tour during the pandemic, his financial goal has been to get as close to breaking even as possible. “Even though we’ve had what I’d personally deem to be a successful release, we’re still working on getting ‘into the black,’ or having made back all of what we’ve invested in the project. This is not atypical for independent music releases,” he explains. Roughly a quarter of the costs come out of his own pocket (Cordes works full-time at a cafe), while his manager and friend donated money to be paid back as the band recouped expenses. “This can be a deeply gratifying process, but in my experience, it’s not a very profitable one, especially when we intend to invest all of the income into the next record! This isn’t to frighten someone off, but to note to expect that self-releasing at that level is a labor of love akin to starting a small business. At this stage, this is a dream I work to support!”
No matter your budget, you have to make sure your money goes to the right areas. For example, if you’re just starting out, is it better to hire a PR rep, or spend money on online advertising? Thomas knows that while you need to reach people, you also need to have some coverage; you want people talking. “You need a timeline for any press to really be interested unless you happen to have a super viral song, so think about how you pitch yourself,” he says. “Don’t pay for radio promo teams before you have enough momentum or press awareness to really validate the costs, as without some awareness they’re not likely to play you.”
He adds that you should put your cash into the presentation of the music and building your identity. He suggests steering away from needlessly spending money on expensive studios or celebrity mixers / producers unless they are going to absolutely change your world. “I hear a lot of bands / artists talk about where they recorded, or name drop someone mixing a song; nobody will care about that name unless there’s enough else to the project to get people on your side,” he says. “Choose very wisely. I recorded my album in my bedroom!”
How long will self-releasing take?
Depending on how you want your album or EP to roll out, your release could take anywhere from two months to a year. For The Tuts, it took five months; for Nnamdï, it was nine months, and for Cordes, once he decided he’d be going down the self-releasing route, it took around four months. You’ll need to decide if you want to release singles ahead of the release, and how you’d like your promo to play out.
Planning things well in advance is imperative and you need to be prepared to push back an initial release date in the case of unforeseen circumstances (hello Covid). For Thompson’s album Lifeline, he put out five singles, each one around two months apart. “That gives you time to pitch to everyone you might want to pitch it to (blogs, Spotify, radio, etc.), and also gives you time to give each song a proper period of focus: putting out music videos, live videos, interviews about each track, etc.,” he says. “Once you’ve released as many singles as you want, drop the album—and maybe have a few alt versions or remixes up your sleeve for after the album is out in the world.”
“You need to be very detailed and also very fluid, which is a tricky balance,” adds Thomas. “You have to be good at mapping out your own trajectory without being fixated on minute details in case a conflict comes up, or radio likes a song and you need to shift your timeline slightly. But, always focus on the big picture—which is created by little details—and the path that joins them together, to make the big picture come to life.”
Building a team
Self-releasing isn’t as scary as it sounds, especially if you have the right people around you. There’s a lot of tasks involved in the process—recording, management, distribution, PR—and while you can do many of these yourself, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Figuring out who will be a part of your team is one of the biggest and most important parts of this whole journey. You need to find people you’re comfortable with, and who believe in your vision as an artist. If you’ve got no idea where to start, Cordes says sourcing from your own musical community and asking for recommendations is a great way to find like-minded and trustworthy people. “You can trust your gut here, much in the same way you would doing anything else,” he says.
You can also look to your own fans and followers as resources, as Doveton did. “Sometimes they’re right under your nose—I found it hugely beneficial to go through our own followers we had on our social media accounts just to see who was following us and what they did,” she says. “This is how we secured loads of our press and also festival bookings. See who is there and reach out to them; they’re following you for a reason! I managed to establish some great relationships with distributors outside the UK and also record stores like Rough Trade, who always stocked us.”
Setting up your own record label
Another route to go down is by setting up your own record label like Doveton, Nnamdï, and Bright Light Bright Light did. “The label I co-own, Sooper Records, was lucky enough to team with Secretly Distribution, established distributors who were very involved with the release of the project,” says Nnamdï. “Distributors are the ones that get your records into stores and help you get pitched for playlists and much more. Selling the records to record stores is also really great because so many people love that crate-digging life, and you’re also getting a nice chunk of the money you spent on manufacturing back right away. That’s why you sometimes see folks only sign distribution deals and not record deals, because distributors usually wear so many hats. For PR, I worked with Biz 3, who do several artists on our label. My management team is really only me and my label partner, Glenn Curran.”
Thomas worked with a label partner—Megaforce Records—through his own label YSKWN! “I would say… distributors are not very indie friendly. Many dress up as being the artist’s friend, but often their rosters are super full and they simply don’t have the time or capacity for truly independent artists, so you want to identify:
- Distribution: a smaller company that has access to playlist pitching, editorial, and worldwide outlets
- Press: someone you click with who gets your ideas, references, and goals.”
“Distribution is the main concern, so make sure you use a distributor who lets you retain all your rights, takes a small fee, and has actual reach for your music,” he says. “I have a huge team overall with US and UK PR, UK regional and national radio pluggers, distribution, a TV plugger, a live agent in the UK, and a live agent in the US. This was not always the case (it grew with each release), but this is where being careful and realistic with budget comes in. You can’t afford all these people all the time, so if you follow my path, you often notice the main press activity around the album release, and subsequent singles are more fan-focused, as either the budget is needed elsewhere or, very transparently, you have no more money.”
Thomas adds that you should only work with people you trust and with people who share your vision. Also, don’t expect traditional promotional techniques to work the same for everyone. “Be very aware that reaching the same audience as a major label artist is not achievable without that kind of budget, so don’t fixate on something unattainable,” he continues. “Focus on what is achievable within your budget, audience size, and musical style.”
Key things to remember
Self-releasing is a huge undertaking. With all the planning, plotting, and execution, you’ll be stretched pretty thin, so be sure to give yourself healthy limits and healthy goals. “It’s an intense crossover between your passion and your job, so you don’t realize that you’re over-working,” Doveton says. “I don’t think I truly rested for many years while running releases and touring, and although I’m proud of it all, it wasn’t sustainable. So, be careful with your energy! Do not glamorize overworking like I probably did, and don’t be scared to ask for help from others. Utilize the creative and talented people around you, but pay them! Also, know your own worth when it comes to getting paid.”
Don’t rush the process. While you’ll be excited to have the release out in the world as quickly as possible, these things take time. “When you’re doing it yourself, you have to hold yourself accountable and talk to people you trust to make sure you’re giving your release the care it deserves,” says Nnamdï. “You especially need patience when you’re working with a team that’s trying to make sure you have the best release you can have. Work hard to make sure it’s something you’re proud of and make sure all the art, videos, and everything else—the overall experience—is something you can look back on and say you were happy to do.”
Plan everything thoroughly and get everything lined up in the right order. You shouldn’t release a song if you haven’t got a website up yet, so try not to jump ahead of the process. Also be mindful of where your money goes; it might not always be the right time for you to invest in PR or pluggers no matter what others are saying you should do. “Be really, really proud of what you make so that whenever you’re asked about it—in an interview or from a Twitter troll—you know exactly how to explain it or elaborate on it,” says Thomas. “Don’t fixate on radio play or broadsheet press. Start small, cultivate a loving fan base, support other artists and interact with them, and create a music family—which is equally as important as a fanbase. Do things that make you happy and fulfill you with your art, as there will be times of darkness and disappointment as an independent artist, and your love for your work is what will keep you afloat.”
It’s a continuous journey
No matter how successful or professional other artists out there look, everyone who self-releases is pretty much learning along the way. With that in mind, try not to put too much pressure on yourself. “There’s no part of this process that’s mandatory or something that you ‘have’ to do,” urges Cordes. “You can create a self-release that, like your art, is unique to you—one that fits your vision and comfortably suits what you’re able to financially and emotionally invest. All forms of releasing music are legitimate—every single one. Whether you’re texting a voice memo to a pal or releasing a record on every platform with a full press campaign, it’s all legitimate, all valid, and all essentially the same thing.”
Do you have any questions or tips on self-releasing music of your own that you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below.
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September 29, 2021