Plan It Or Damn It: Why Album Releases Matter

image from productshopnyc.com Album releases can either be a burden or blessing.

For major label artists, it is normally an effort coordinated in a matter of months or years. For independent artists not signed to a major label, the biggest decision they face is distribution: physical, digital or both. No matter where an artist fits on the spectrum, an album release is a stressful and very time-consuming process.

With the success for the independent artist entirely dependent on themselves, choices for distribution and press partners can make or break a release.

The disadvantages of being on a major label during a release outweigh the advantages. The release of an album is a process most labels spend months planning. They set up listening parties, execute direct to consumer packages, have press days in Los Angeles or New York City and have a number of mindless meetings with label executives. These are just a few of the myriad tasks major and indie label artists must go through during the album release process.

All in support of avoiding the artist and label’s ultimate fear: failure.

A failure, according to newer music industry best practices, is an album which doesn’t recoup the expenses spent on the making of the album. To avoid the artist from ever recouping expenses—enough to make a profit for themselves and not the label—the label partners with hit songwriters or producers, sometimes at exorbitant fees, all to ensure a product that is going to be socially relevant and musically inclined to the masses.

When an independent artist releases an album the process is the same but a more concentrated effort, mostly on their part with the definition of success set by the artist’s expectations. The artist functions like their own indie label handling all facets including press, manufacturing, and distribution.

Choosing A Distributor

The most important choice of an album release for an independent release is the distribution model. Distribution controls where it goes and how it is placed on digital distribution sites like iTunes, Amazon and many, many more. Artists get to decide to go with mass distribution sites like TuneCore or more catered to their needs with sites like Rocket Science or DashGo. Both offering completely different models to independent artists but equally good if worked over.

The core of my hesitation with business models like TuneCore is because they do not embrace the artist. Instead they offer the same thing to everyone and insist on charging for merely distributing music to online digital distribution outlets (something an artist can do for free!). As someone who used to work for a music management company, part of the reason I look at this and immediately take notice is because most of my daily work was looking at things that would be beneficial to the artist and to their music (a benefit of working in management versus a label). Sites like TuneCore are great and do offer a significant number of independent minded musicians the ability to put their music out there but they are missing the same ingredient as the major labels are: caring about the music.

At the the company I used to work for, I was fortunate enough to get to see and experience many different sides and perspectives of the music industry. One of those parts is getting to see how albums are released on different scales: major labels and independent artist releases. One of the things I got to work was an independent release, and for the one I worked on the plan was simple:

Manufacture x amounts of physical albums (EPs in this case) and then release digitally via distribution partners all on the same date.

We planned out the release five weeks in advance. Over the course of those weeks we worked with both companies strategically targeting different DSPs for placement and different online destinations for press and contests. When the EP was actually released, it went up without any trouble to the major DSPs (iTunes, Amazon, etc) and the minor ones as well. We even had a placement on iTunes for an independent musician who had not ever released a complete EP. The experience was a success. I think part of the success of the EP, despite it being an amazing piece of music, was because of the work put in to make sure it was placed and distributed properly. The companies we used are two of the better known online distribution companies and because of their experience with artists and music they were able to contribute greatly in making this independent release a success. The definition of success in this case was based on the recoup of expenses spent to produce and release the artist’s EP.

Results May Vary

I believe if the distribution partner had been a more generalized distribution portal instead of something which offered a service catered to the artist, the success of the initial EP sales would have been drastically different.

Sites which offer artists more services than a 24 hour iTunes turnaround offer more satisfaction to their customers enabling them to have a higher retention rate for the artist/band’s next release. What matters at the end of the day with digital distribution and album releases is really the music.

Upon an album being finished musically the artist needs to shift their focus from thinking of it as art to thinking of it as a product. If the artist created a good product they should have enough sense to want to position that product in a way that makes it easily more accessible to their fan (a.k.a. consumer) than being put on the hundredth page of iTunes buried under alternative rock section. Their choice of distribution partners or services helps them enable complete autonomy for their album release ensuring success if chosen carefully.

All of these album release business models have to remember that at the end of the day without the artist they wouldn’t have a business. Offering the same thing to everyone without the artist being able to customize their menu to the their needs, makes the blue plate distribution partners as effective for independent artists as incessant radio play does for major label artists.

The new music industry calls for artists to be at the forefront of their releases and being able to effectively market and execute distribution for their product is crucial. If the artist is ineffective at realizing their album needs a good plan for release, then they might as well put up their album on Myspace with links to their album on iTunes and pray for a few sales.

Written by Hypebot intern Corey Crossfield (@popqueer), author of Blog It: How The Web Changed Music Criticism and Why Email For MP3 Exchanges Fail.

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  1. Can you clarify how, when referring to Tunecore, you say, “Something an artist can do for free”?
    I’m aware that CreateSpace allows you to do digital distribution on Amazon for free, however, I’m not aware of any service that allows you to do digital distribution on iTunes for free (except for Routenote, but reviews are so poor that that’s probably not a legitimate option).
    Tunecore (and similar services, like CDBaby, Reverbnation, etc.) do handily aggregate all the major digital distribution stores, but let’s face it: Amazon and iTunes are the biggest and most important. So how does one distribute on iTunes for free?

  2. Absolutely agree that planning and promotion are keys to a release’s success.
    Can you discuss the costs for the artist in this scenario – if they wanted to have a management team, was a publicist working the release, was there a sales team, label salaries, distribution fee or % of sales?
    And were the upfront or billable costs paid by the artist?
    Do you feel management played a significant roll in the success of these releases?

  3. @Moon Unfortunately I can’t really delve to much into the financial aspect of the release but I can answer a few of your questions. This artist did have a manager, there was no sales team, at the time of the release he was not signed to a label, distribution fees were worked with two companies I highly recommend, DashGo and Rocket Science, and the physical EPs did sell out. The majority of the sales have been on digital outlets such as iTunes, Amazon and surprisingly Bandcamp.
    In my opinion, I think the management played a key role in this case. The role of the manger is key in any artist’s career because in the new music industry (in my experience) management functions as a small indie label. I was fortunate enough to work for a very experienced manager who has worked in the industry for a while so I got to learn a lot about many different facets of the industry. This release was successful because of the hard work put in and because the manager really believed in the product and artist.

  4. It’s true, Corey, anyone can go to iTunes and have them place their music on their shelves for sale. But it means writing iTunes, getting a contract, entering into an individual relationship with them, reviewing the contract, and then comes a wait that can be 6-8 months. All of this culminates in whether or not iTunes accepts you as a new partner, which is by no means guaranteed, and can be especially difficult if you’re outside the U.S. Then, of course, you’d have to do the same for eMusic, Rhapsody, Amazon, and so on, which becomes a nightmare of contracts and individual accounts. TuneCore and other services like us simplify.
    But you see that, and you mention that we and others like us are valuable, thank you! The one thing that concerns me is your impression we don’t “embrace the artist” or “care about the music.” We do. The measure is how many artists we feature and have had featured on stores like iTunes.
    We’ve had hundreds of artists featured on iTunes alone. We did this for the artist, since we don’t take a percentage. There’s no reason for us to help artists get featured, except because we care. How did they get featured? In most cases, because they asked us. It starts there. Every one of our artists and labels are our partners. It’s why we built our widget–so they can play their music free anywhere on the Internet, collect vital fan data, drive sales and more.
    Caring has always been about providing tools for the artists: guides to help them understand their legal rights, how to promote themselves, license their music for film, TV, video games and beyond. These tools and more are free not just to TuneCore customers, but to everyone who wants them (they’re all on our site, in handy guide form), because we’re all musicians first, and have all been there. It’s definitely a “do it yourself” world, and we try to be the best partner to the most artists as we can.
    Music distribution, like music marketing and music vending and ultimately music consumption, is changing radically, and helping people–even caring–has to scale or it won’t help at all. That’s what a good distributor tries to do. It’s why we started TuneCore in the first place.

  5. This is a very good post.
    As a musician and a label manager up until two months ago (see the wonderful Anova Music records), I can totally agree – the planning ahead is the bread and butter of any project, and an album release is a project.
    However, one thing that I still haven’t figure out, and that’s maybe because I don’t live the US market, I’m in a tinier marker here in Israel – is the importance of physical distro.
    I’m now the manager of a free jazz saxophonist Albert Beger. I had his new album out with Anova Music before I left the company(www.peacemaker-thealbum.com). now, i’m interested in having his album(S) spread around the US shops, but if the distro asks me to produce 1000 copies, in the dead-cd-market of today, it just doesn’t make sense. I’ll go and print the cd’s and may end up having them back because of stores that were closed or just lack of interest.
    on the other hand, if you don’t have a distro and you’re a small label from the other side of the world, the press will overlook you, as if you only exist if you’re in the physical stores, and we are in 2010 today.
    Albert’s music and the entire Anova catalog is digitialy available with IODA to all digitial stores, but again – if it’s not plastic – it’s not there according to the press.
    so what should I do ? stick to a distributor anyway, pay the printing costs and take the risks, or follow my own logic, stick to international distro, digital only, and cross my fingers for a review?

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