Last year around this time, I decided that I was ready to release an album. I briefly wondered about
trying to attract a record label, worried I would overlook something if I did everything alone with no
experience. But in the end, after putting a crazy number of hours into research and execution, I actually pulled off Secrets I Told to a Sound Hole, made a tiny splash, and I know I’ve put myself on track for the next album to be much bigger! Maybe my checklist and experiences can help you reduce your own anxieties, pull off your first album release, and save you some of the research time that I had to spend in the process.
It’s not fun to talk about, but if you are self-releasing an album, you will need some money to do it properly, whether it’s your own savings, a loan, or a crowdfunding campaign if you have the fan base. In total, I spent a little more than $7000 on studio/production, publicity, design, and administrative fees. (CD/merch manufacturing costs were an additional ~$1000.) It is unlikely you will spend less than that unless you cut corners, or perhaps get free or steeply discounted services from a friend. But depending on your requirements, you could easily spend more. Plan your budget early on!
2. It all starts with the songs.
You probably already know how important the songs are, since you’re
reading a songwriting-focused blog! Personally, I spent about a month and a half really focusing on
songwriting for this album, until I had a decent number of songs that I felt I could be proud of. I
surprised myself by inadvertently writing all songs on one topic – which was music and following my
dreams – and ended up with an unintentional concept album!
If, like me, you’re lucky enough to end up with more material than you need, you might want to do what I did and solicit feedback on which songs are worth including from friends, family, fans, and creative peers – whichever group is most accessible to you and you feel will be most honest.
Just as important as the songs is the performance, since most people (even experienced music pros) won’t be able to hear a great song behind a terrible sound. I spent over two months perfecting my chosen songs, rehearsing them and demoing in my room until I knew exactly how I wanted them to sound and could perform them consistently well.
5. Studio recording
You’ll want to choose an experienced, well-recommended studio if you can because, again, if the sound is bad, no one will care if your songs are great. I was lucky to find a producer I really liked not too far from where I live (Chris Badami at Portrait Recording Studios), who had experience with my genre, from a web search! Of course, direct recommendations from other artists are great, too. You may also need to hire backing musicians, and studios should be able to help with this. I didn’t need to, as Chris is also an excellent percussionist and I didn’t want much more than that for this album.
After you’re done recording, you still have to make sure the songs are in the right order, have the right spacing, and get properly mastered and formatted for digital distribution, CD manufacturing, and any other intended purposes. I got the engineering, mixing and mastering all done by the same person, but that’s not necessarily right for everyone. You might want to search and get recommendations for a good mastering house.
Now that you know the final sound of your new album, this is the time to get the branding pieces in place that you will use to market it. You will need a decent design or photo for the cover (even for digital releases) and a handful of varied, professional photos done. If you have the budget, a professionally written bio and professionally designed website are also ideal. If you’re on a very low budget, ask around for a talented friend who might do you a favor for a reduced cost (I was lucky to
have this for art and photography).
8. Social media and online marketing
This is an ongoing effort that should be in place before you even consider releasing an album, and should continue long after the album’s promotional cycle is over. Even if you just have a handful of friends and family following you like I did a couple of years ago, it’s a start. If your music is great and your content is interesting, word will spread and your following will grow, slowly but surely. Have a consistent presence on the social media sites where your ideal fans are as well as an email newsletter. And make videos – some great choices include music videos (even on a budget), video blogs about your journey, and covering songs that influence your current music.
This is going to be optional based on your preferences, goals, and fan base. Think about your fan base and what similar artists at your level are selling, if anything. I was determined to offer merch, so I ended up getting CDs, stickers, and T-shirts made, as well as making my own DIY USBs with loads of bonus content. There are a lot of options for where to get merch made and how and where to sell it (both on-demand and self-fulfilled), so give yourself time to research and set things up well in advance of your first sales. Even if you choose not to sell merch, it’s a good idea at least to have stickers and/or business cards to give away so potential fans and industry connections can look up your music after meeting you.
Ideally, if you’re at a level where it’s practical, an actual tour is still the best way to promote music, so it’s worth putting in a bit of effort to make it happen. If you’re just starting out, at least ask around to see if you can book an album release show. I booked one at a local coffee shop. If even that sounds a bit daunting for you, see if a friend with a big house would be willing to host an album release party at their place, where you can play a few songs, sell a bit of music and merch (or give away promotional items), and celebrate the fact that you released an album!
Whether you’re doing an all-digital release or getting CDs made, digital distribution is one of the most important steps for a modern album release. There are many different distributors to choose from and they all have their pros and cons (Ari’s Take has a great breakdown on them). I went with LANDR because their features were best for me, and their services were free with my ASCAP membership! Be sure to set up your distribution well in advance of your release (at least 4 weeks) to ensure it gets posted by the right date. You may also want to upload it to user submission websites such as Soundcloud and YouTube, where you may not make money, but could be discovered by new fans; and Bandcamp, which isn’t where most people will choose to buy downloads, but they take a smaller cut than the major digital stores.
12. Administrative submissions/registrations
This step may not be necessary for every artist, depending on what your goals are and how much visibility you want or expect. But usually, the first things you will want to do is copyright your songs as an album, submit them to your PRO (if you don’t have one yet, look into signing up at ASCAP or BMI), and submit them to the Harry Fox Agency. SoundExchange is also essential for collecting royalties if you expect to be played on any type of online radio or streaming. All Music, Discogs, and Musicbrainz are good online databases to submit your details for better visibility. If releasing a CD, Gracenote and freedb will ensure that details about your music come up correctly where available, for example, in cars. Soundscan is only really necessary if you expect a chance of charting, but it never hurts to submit your data!
Getting some press coverage, even if it’s just a few small music blogs, is a good way to make the most of your release so more people see it and to build some momentum for the next one. Hiring a publicist who is experienced in your genre and level is ideal, and I was able to budget for that. If
not, you will want to check out the websites and social media of some artists similar to you, close to
your level, and see if they have shared any small blogs that have covered them. You may also get lucky with online searches or networking in Facebook Groups and Twitter. Be prepared to get a lot of non- responses because journalists and bloggers are usually swamped with emails. To maximize your chances, be genuine, polite, and focused on how you can add value to their blog/site rather than them just helping you. And always read submission guidelines very carefully and follow them to the letter, or your email will probably be summarily deleted without consideration!
You can hire a radio promoter for this, particularly if tapping into the college market is a big priority for you, but I did not have the budget for it, so I did it myself. In this case, search online for college, public, and independent radio in your city, as well as online radio in your genre/niche. (You will not get played on commercial radio without a major label or enormous amounts of money, so don’t waste time or money on that dream.) There are plenty of people running independent radio stations
online in every niche you can imagine, who are happy to consider your music for airplay, and have loyal followings eager to hear new independent music, so do not overlook this opportunity. It is worth the time to research them, make a list, and send off a slew of submissions.
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So there you have it. If you put some effort into each step on this list, I can’t guarantee that your album will be a huge success, but you will end up with a finished product you can be proud of and will maximize your chances of getting heard. And as I like to say, as long as I know I’ve done my absolute best with the process, then I can’t regret anything!
Amanda Rose Riley has a special way of cutting through the noise of every day life with her music.
Guided by a career-defining persistence, determination, and an appetite for making her dreams her
reality, the New Jersey-born- and-bred artist has spent the last few years showing the world what she has to offer, creating eclectic acoustic songs and playing numerous shows throughout NJ and NYC. Secrets I Told to a Sound Hole, recorded at Portrait Recording Studios in Pompton, New Jersey, harnesses Riley’s blossoming signature style and puts it on full display for listeners everywhere. Comforting, calming, and, at times, even cathartic, it is an insightful collection that draws on the experiences she has lived on her musical journey so far, a journey that has taken her on the seas two years in a row aboard the Flogging Molly Cruise, to the stage at Asbury Park’s famed Stone Pony, and that has allowed her to perform with one of her biggest artistic inspirations, Frank Turner. Secrets I Told to a Sound Hole is out now. Listen on Spotify.