After my initial slightly ranty post on Classical Music and Streaming I’m going to do a slightly more practical guide to self releasing in the digital age from a composer’s perspective. This is based on the assumption that you are self funding or have received support from an arts council or similar body (for example Creative Scotland, ACE, RVW Trust, NI Arts Council or PRSF). This is an overview of my experience and it might be missing things that I just haven’t learnt yet (I still am!), so it is not meant to be exhaustive. Be warned though self releasing is a lot of work. You have to do all of it (or pay someone to) but it does mean you keep all the financial reward.
Edit (July 2019): I am also blogging about the process of releasing my second album Entangled. Check out the blog here, where I got into a lot more depth on releasing that the below blog post, and you can listen to Entangled here.
Edit (November 2020): I am now offering one on one mentoring and occasional webinars on self-releasing. Find out more here https://www.matthewwhiteside.co.uk/webinar-mentoring/
- Write some interesting music
- Book players and studio time
- Pay for players and studio time
- Mix and edit
- Register the recordings
- Release music
- Market your music
- Make playlists!
That’s the process in a nutshell but there is a lot more nuance in those points. So below I’m going to try and walk you through.
Though before you go further, have a listen and follow me on Spotify, Apple Music or Deezer. You know you want to, plus you’ll get notified about my new releases. Also, if you find this article useful there is a button at the bottom to say thank you 🙂
1. Write some interesting music
Ok this is well out of the scope of this blog. I’m assuming if you’ve found this blog you’ll already be writing interesting music. However what you might not have done is register your music with PRS for Music (or your country’s equivalent like ASCAP in the USA or IMRO in Ireland). If you are writing your own you should register every piece with PRS the moment you finish it. This enables them to collect royalties on your behalf every time the piece is performed in public. ‘Performed’ in this case means in a concert, on radio, streamed, on tv etc.
2. Book players and studio time
This is probably the most straight forward part of the process. You’ve written a piece for string quartet, you book a string quartet and agree a fee. In the UK there is the MU/BPI agreement stipulating minimum fees for various lengths of sessions and how much music can be recorded in that session. In a 3h session you can only record 15 mins of music. If you record more you have to bump up the fee.
So say you’ve written a 20 min string quartet the players will cost you £960 (£120 x 4 players x 2 3h sessions). Though string quartets are classical the ‘classical rates’ are for orchestra rather than chamber music. Even if you get through all 20 mins in one 3h session you are still obliged to pay for the two sessions. You can then do almost whatever you want with the music you recorded (in line with the MU/BPI agreement) however there are some extra things that will come up in point 5 like PPL.
You need to book somewhere to record the music and someone to record it. This is where artistic choice comes into the recording process. What kind of acoustic do you want? What kind of recording style do you want? Are there live electronics, how should they be recorded? Mic choices? And numerous other things will influence your choices on where. As for the who I like to use someone who can read music and is an exceptional engineer. This is because they know what’s going on and can be a second pair of ears to pick up any mistakes. I wouldn’t suggest you ask Jane from the pub who does live sound every Friday night, you need someone who knows how to mic classical instruments. But find someone you are comfortable working with and is good at what they do. Timothy Cooper has recorded almost everything of mine. A producer might also be useful but I’ve no experience with that.
Finally make sure your parts are clear. So much recording time can be wasted by unclear parts or notation. Get the music to the players well in advance of the recording so they can get back to you with any questions. 3 hours is not a long time when you are in the studio. Make notes constantly do not think you are going to remember take 34b is better than 32d.
Edit June 2020. Timothy Cooper has created a series of video tutorials for chamber music Chamber Music Scotland. They are really good and geared toward recording at home and live streaming. Check them out here https://www.chambermusicscotland.com/projects/resources-for-chamber-musicians
3. Pay for players and studio time (plus engineer and producer)
Make sure you pay people and do it promptly! Be someone people want to work for by paying as soon as you can. No excuses!
4. Mix and Edit
This part of the process can take as long as you want it to. I’ve found it food to wait a few weeks from recording session to do this just to come at things with a fresh par of ears. You can do this yourself, if you are proficient in ProTools, or get someone else to do it for you.
Congratulations you have just recorded, edited and mixed your first recording. You are now a master rights owner!
5. Register your Recordings
Now we are coming to a more in-depth part – registering your recordings. If you’ve already registered the composition with PRS then give yourself a pat on the back, if not why not!? But if not you can hold off a little bit because there are other things to do now.
You are now a master rights owner. This means you own the right to the recording and can exploit it however you feel fit. You might decide to give it away or you might want to make a some money from it. Either way you should register yourself with PPL. They are pretty much the PRS for master rights owners and performers. Whenever a recording is broadcast PPL collects money for the rights owners and the performers. So when you register a recording with them it will also ask you about who performed on the recording so the musicians earn some money whenever the piece is performed, in certain circumstances.
PPL will give you a unique ISRC code. It is made up of four letters followed by a series of numbers. The letters are assigned to you and the numbers you choose, though there is a kind of standard format. The ISRC code is a unique identifier for THAT recording. So every recording of a Bach Partita, even by the same performer and record label, has a unique ISRC code. Once you have the ISRC code go and put it on your PRS registration.
You can also mandate PPL to collect international royalties for you however to do this in Germany you need to ask them for a GVL Label Code. More information on this here.
Because you have composed the music and you are about to release it you should register with MCPS. They deal with the mechanical (goes back to player pianos) reproduction of the music.
So you need to:
- Register your piece with PRS and MCPS
- Register the recording with PPL (Sound Exchange in the USA)
- Register with GVL or do it through PPL
Though this blog is talking about self releasing, if you are releasing music composed by someone else you will need to get a license for that from MCPS. This is only for the physical copies rather than digital though.
6. Release music
Now you have everything recorded and registered you want to release it into the world. You have a few options here for self release the main ones I know of are CD Baby, Tunecore, RouteNote and BandCamp.
CD Baby – This is who I use. They charge an upfront fee, single ($9.95) or an album ($49), and take a 9% cut of all of your digital income but don’t charge a yearly fee.
Tunecore – An upfront fee of $29.99 for albums and $9.99 for singles, they don’t take a cut of your income but they do charge an annual fee of $49.99 for album and $9.99 for singles.
RouteNote – Has two distribution options. The first is completely free where they take 15% of your income or a similar model to Tunecore with $10 single, $20 EP, $30 album and $45 extended album and then $9.99 annually with you keeping all your income. If you use RouteNote use this link and I get a referal bonus. Thanks in advance if you do!
BandCamp – is completely free to put music on but they take 15% of digital sales. They have options where customers can pay more if they want which is nice (I’ve found people do this quite a lot). However BandCamp do not distribute to iTunes, Spotify, Deezer, Google Play etc. etc.
Make your choice of service, it seems there is little difference between CD Baby, Tunecore and RouteNote apart from the price. I would suggest releasing your music on one of the above AND BandCamp.
Some people do still buy physical copies and physical copies are useful to have to send to the press as well. CD Baby can create them for you (though beware of import tax to the UK. I made that mistake…) but there are other UK based services like Discwizards. I’ve used them for both Entangled and The Night With… Live Vol. One and would recommend them.
One final point, make sure you get your album artwork done and do the right spec. All the above have how to guides on what they need.
7. Market Your Music
Decide a date to release your music and plan to that. I’d suggest about 2 to 3 months from upload and hitting ‘send’ to actual release. This gives you time (or more precisely your PR person time) to build a decent campaign around the release. I’ve also heard that for pieces to be considered on the editorial playlists of Spotify and Apple Music they need to be in their system at least 1 month before release. Edit – for Unda Malacia it was uploaded 6 weeks before release and hit my Spotify followers Release Radar.
Get a good PR person or company. Talk to them about what you want and they will be able to advise on what needs to be done and how much it will cost. They wont be cheap though. Marketing will be the biggest one off expense of the release. Not just for PR but for buying advertising on Google, Facebook and Twitter. PR will (hopefully, but there no guarantee) get you reviews, editorial inches, radio play and playlist space but it needs to be supported by advertising and your own social media efforts. On that note follow me on Twitter and Facebook.
Music marketing is a whole other subject which I’m not going to get into here.
8. Make Playlists
Anyone that follows me on Twitter or Facebook will know I keep banging on about playlists being a force for good because I truly think they are. Yes there are a few issues but I have made more money from my music through playlists than through sales. I’m very open about the amount I’m making and the issues of streaming on my other blog here. So do it!
Once your music is released get yourself registered with Apple Music for Artists and Spotify Artists. This will give you the ability to control your artist page and publish playlists. Though I think you have to be subscribed to Apple Music to do that or you can use Soundsgood who can push your playlists to their Apple Music channel.
There are three ways you can make playlists.
- Massive catalogue style
- Niche mood or genre
- Weekly/Monthly updates
Each of these works differently depending on the service. Cataloguing works well on Apple Music because, as an artist, most of your playlists will be fully indexed. That is if you put a piece by Kajia Saariaho in a playlist and someone searches for Saariaho your playlist will be somewhere in their results. This doesn’t work so well on Spotify, at least for search results, because Spotify doesn’t index their playlists to the same extent as Apple Music. This opens possibilities in Apple Music to create ‘if you like that, you might like this’ style playlists. So put music that people will be searching for that has a similar kind of audience to who you think your audience is.
Edit (Jan 2019) – the above was true about indexing on Apple Music when I wrote the blog but they seem to have changed their search. So on all services some playlists seem to be fully indexed, others aren’t. I’m not sure why though…
Niche mood or genre playlists give you the opportunity for click bait headings, these work well for Spotify. Think of how people will search for music it could be ‘calming music’, ‘baroque music’ or ‘modern string quartets’. Spotify seems to only index playlist names (for most playlists) and Apple Music seems to index all playlist names even if it doesn’t index the contents of the whole playlist. So your new string quartet would be perfect to put in a playlist of ‘modern string quartets’. This could still end up being a massive catalogue playlist put think of the title.
Weekly/Monthly updated playlist. This is something I’ve started to experiment with and is gaining some success and you can check it out at Matthew’s Weekly Playlist. I see it as curating a concert every week with music that I could never programme together. I try and give each week a different feel. With the weekly playlist I always tag the composers, performers and record labels on Twitter. My hope is that they will retweet it and introduce the playlist and music to new people. This kind of playlist is very community driven. The only way you, as the person releasing music, will make money from a playlist is when someone streams your piece. To get to your piece they will be streaming the music of others as well. So if you are tagged in a playlist share it, shout about it and say thanks.
This is very true when you are included in one of the editorial playlists on any of the services. I have been told they check their social media feeds to see if people are sharing the playlist. Getting on to the editorial playlists is a bit of a mystery, the people behind the playlists don’t publish themselves. User generated ones are a little easier to find with a bit of Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn sleuthing.
Speaking of sharing, share your playlists wherever you can. There are Reddit communities for Apple Music and Spotify. Websites dedicated to playlists like http://mixing.io/, https://www.playlists.am/ and http://playlists.net/and good old social media. There are also services like Submit Hub where you can pitch tracks to playlists and blogs. I don’t have any experience of it I just know it exists.
If you don’t know how to share a playlist on both Spotify and Apple Music click the ‘…’ and it gives you sharing options.
As a very brief argument in support of streaming. At Classical:Next last week I sat in on a session ‘The Current State of the Recording Industry‘. There were numerous snippits of info but there were two that were very interesting. 10 years ago the average person bought one or two CDs a year (£10-£20) now they are paying £120 a year for their streaming subscription. The other is that downloads canablise physical sales, but streaming supports downloads.
9. Wait… (for money)
If you have done all the above, released something people want to listen to, had it on the radio, got it on playlists etc you have to wait at least 6 months to see any money, maybe even a year. PPL only pays out once a year, PRS every 3 months based on this schedule and streaming companies pay out every 3 to 6 months. It has taken me a year to build my streaming income to a point where I am getting a reasonable payment every month (about $100 at the moment) so you will have to wait… Though if you sign up for the artist tools above you can get stats on how your music is doing so you can tweak your marketing efforts. Remember, streaming is a micropayment so don’t expect huge swathes of money straight away but it will build up over time if you make the effort.
Also remember releasing music as a composer is another way to market your music for concert performances. Performers have bought scores from my website after hearing my music on a playlist.
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