So you just finished your new album? Congratulations! Now what?
Before you release it to the world, take a couple days to prepare your music and artwork for all the opportunities that may present themselves. When I talk about an album being finished, I mean the audio has been mastered and the artwork is complete. If you’re pressing CDs, you’ve probably just sent everything to your manufacturer. This is stuff you can do before you have CDs in your hand–in fact, it’s a great way to pass the time before all those boxes arrive. And I’ll be honest with you, none of this is all that fun, but it really does help and you’ll probably never get around to it once the album is released.
Note that this article is not about how to release your own album, it’s about everything else you can do before it’s released so all the effort you’ve put in up to this point, and all the marketing and promotion you’ll do later, will have maximum effect. If you’re looking for information about releasing your album–digital distribution options, production schedules, CD manufacturing, and legal considerations–check out our 4 part series on the Self-Released Album.
Create a Metadata Document
Metadata is a fancy word for all the information about your album. It’s your track list, your credits, the barcode, catalog number… basically everything that isn’t the music itself. Create a spreadsheet or text document (or perhaps a Google Doc that you can access from any computer) and put all this information in one place:
The Album Basics:
- Album title
- Artist name
- UPC or barcode
The Track Basics:
- Track titles
- Writer/composer and publishing credits
- Performer credits if they differ from track to track
- ISRC (International Standard Recording Code)
- Performer credits for the entire album (however you would list it in the liner notes)
- Additional liner note credits inluding recording, mixing, and mastering engineers, designer, photographer, etc.
- The legal line, or the information that shows up in small print on the back of your CD
- The rest of your liner notes, such as thank you’s, essays, or any other words
- Marketing blurbs, or short descriptions you plan on using online or in press packets
Why do this?
Once you start uploading your album to different websites or digital distributors, it’s helpful to have all the information you could possibly need in one place and in a format that easy to copy and paste. Ultimately, you will benefit from consistently putting as much information as you can alongside the album wherever it appears online. You never know when somebody might be searching for examples of the mix engineers’ work, find your music, and unexpectedly become a fan.
Most of this information can also be embedded in your MP3 files. For example, if you select a track in your iTunes library and choose “Get Info” you’ll find plenty of fields for information. Fill out as much of this as possible, especially on the tracks you intend to give away for free.
Encode Your Audio
Once you have your final, mastered version of your album, it’s a good idea to rip, or import, the audio onto your computer in several different file formats. I have found that virtually every site I upload my music to asks for a different file at a different bit rate. To make my life easier, I have a space on an external hard drive that stores all of my music in at least a few different formats.
There are several different file formats associated with digital music, identified by the extension at the end of the file name. Most popular are .wav, .aif, .mp3, .m4a, .wma, and so on. As a musician, you probably understand the difference. If not, here’s a quick and simplified breakdown.
WAV or .wav and AIFF or .aif – These formats are the equivalent to CD quality. They are uncompressed, and have a large file size (25 to 50+ megabytes, depending on the length of the song).
MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3, aka MP3 or .mp3 – This is a compressed audio format, meaning some data has been discarded to make the file smaller. It is very common and can be used on virtually any computer by any music program or portable music device.
Apple Lossless or .m4a and Windows Media Audio Lossless or .wma – These are proprietary audio compression file types that typically only work on certain devices.
Compression? There are different ways audio can be compressed, and it can be compressed at different rates (described in bit rates such as kilobytes per second, or kbps). More compression results in a smaller file size but sacrifices audio quality.
There are many other formats of compressed audio files, but for the sake of this discussion, we will only deal with the uncompressed formats and MP3 compression.
The formats I suggest are:
- MP3 128 kbps
- MP3 192 kbps
- MP3 256 kbps
- MP3 320 kbps
Create separate, clearly labeled folders for each file type. All those MP3s will have the same extension and will try to replace each other if you’re saving them to the same folder.
Before you begin, encode as much metadata as possible onto the uncompressed files and if possible, add the cover artwork as well. This is all easy to do in that “Get Info” window in iTunes, especially if you’re just copying and pasting from your metadata document.
Now, when you create the MP3s from the WAVs or AIFFs, all the metadata will transfer, saving you extra data entry.
Why do this?
For starters, it’s good to know where you’ll be uploading your music and what file types they require. Sites that sell and distribute your music, such as Bandcamp or CD Baby, will require the uncompressed, CD quality files so they can do the encoding themselves. Sites that can help you license your music, such as YouLicense, usually ask for both uncompressed formats and compressed formats at various bit rates.
However, I’m willing to bet the most common places you’ll upload your music are sites where people simply go to listen, such as MySpace, Last.fm, The Sixty One, Fairtilizer, Tumblr, etc. Some of these sites will ask for a minimum bit rate quality for your music, and it’s generally a good idea to upload the highest quality file possible. In my experience, they always ask for the MP3 compression format.
Uploading my music to all these sites is a slow, tedious, time consuming task. But if you want more people to hear your music, it’s a necessary chore. In a nutshell, starting with all the file types you need makes it much less painful.
Resize the Cover Art
Along with uploading your audio files to various sites, you’ll need to upload the cover art as well. This will go faster if you have cover art already optimized for the web. First make sure you get a full size, high resolution cover image from your designer. You can do all the resizing very easily with Photoshop. If you don’t have that Photoshop or a similar program, just ask your designer to do this.
Save your cover image at the following sizes, all at 72 dpi:
If you are doing this yourself, here’s a brief How To:
- Opening the file from your designer. Then open the “Image Size” menu or the equivalent in your image editor.
- Make the sure the image is perfectly square. Note that digipaks are not square, so the cover image will need to be adjusted.
- Set the resolution to 72 dpi, which is the optimal resolution for the internet. This step will help your images load faster online.
- Now “Save As…” and save this image as a JPEG. Use a file name that includes the dimensions, like albumname-cover-1500.jpg. From this point on, use this image for resizing and preserve the original file from the designer.
- Does your image need an outline? If it has a light colored background, an outline will help define the edges on many websites. Simply add a single pixel line of medium or light grey around the edges.
- Now re-size your image to the dimensions listed above, and “Save As…” for each new size.
Why do this?
Much like your audio files, different sites will require different dimensions of your cover art, and the vast majority of the time they’ll ask for a square image. While many sites will resize the image for you, sometimes their methods will distort the image. This is the first thing people will see when they find your album, and nothing screams amateur like a pixelated, poorly cropped, or squashed looking image. Make sure your image always looks great by having properly sized images on hand.
Create a Digital Booklet
Many major label albums online now come with digital booklets. These are simply digital versions of liner notes and artwork that you get when you buy the CD, but miss out on when you just download the album. Even if you can’t get your digital booklet on iTunes, you can still make it available on your own site, or bundle it with sites like Bandcamp.
Why do this?
Major labels often use extras, like a digital booklet or a video download, as a way to leverage placement with a particular online retailer. In other words, give iTunes an exclusive version of an album with extra goodies, while everybody else just gets the standard version, in exchange for a big feature on the iTunes home page.
You can do a DIY version of this by offering the booklet, or other bonus items, exclusively on a site that pays more to the artists. Bandcamp is a great example of this because they don’t take any of the purchase price; it all goes to you less the Paypal transaction fee. Just tell your fans that they get extras and put more of their money towards the cause by buying your album from the site of your choosing.
Will you need Instrumentals or Stems?
If your music has potential for licensing or remixing opportunities, I highly recommend creating instrumental versions and stems* of your songs. Music supervisors and their clients often want instrumental music behind dialog, and then vocals to appear later, when the dialog stops. Other times they might want to trim an arrangement down so it less distracting, in which case stems are extremely handy. The licensing process, especially for commercials, moves extremely quickly. You could be asked for instrumentals or stems on very short notice, and if you don’t have them on hand, you could miss out on a big money making opportunity!
Creating instrumentals and stems will require working with the original recordings. If you hired somebody else to mix your album, it might be necessary to get them back on the job. Additionally, these new versions will need to be mastered again so they sound as good as the album versions. This might cost you more money, so use your own judgement and only create these versions for the songs with the most licensing and remixing potential.
*Stems are the individual parts of your recording, isolated. In other words, a track of just vocals or just drums.
Why do this?
For every reason mentioned above, it will simply help create more earning potential for your recordings!
Having stems on hand could also be an opportunity to engage your fans. When Radiohead released In Rainbows, they also released the stems for their song “Nude” on iTunes. Fans were encouraged to download the stems, create their own remix, and upload them to Radiohead’s site to be voted on by other fans. More than 2,000 remixes were submitted. Do you think you have enough creative fans that want to play with your music?
Prepare Your Promo List
If you plan on sending free copies of your album to reviewers, bloggers, or anyone else, take some time to make sure you have correct addresses, and maybe even let the people on your list know a CD is on it’s way.
Along with checking contact information, prepare a One-Sheet that says a little something about you and the album. While some people send a lot of information with their CDs, such as a full press kit, I think it’s better to send writers no more than one page of information. As long as your website and contact info is included, they can find out more as needed.
Why do this?
When writers receive a new album, they want to know it’s new. If they get your CD and find out it was released two months ago, what is their motivation to publish a review? When you send it to them ahead of the release date, you’re saying their opinion matters enough that they should get an advance copy. And lets not forget that you want as much buzz surrounding your release date as possible, so make sure your promo copies get to the right places and on time!
The preparation will also save you money. When I released my last CD, I used a promo list that was only 6 months old. Even so, one out of ever four CDs I mailed came back to me because the address was wrong, or the writer had a new assignment. A little extra work would have saved me some money.
There you have it!
__ Create a metadata document
__ Encode your audio
__ Resize the cover art
__ Create a digital booklet
__ Create instrumentals and stems
__ Prepare your promo list
Now make sure you remember how to play your songs!