The following guide comes from Zach Hangauer, owner of Range Life Records, home to artists like White Flight, Fourth Of July, Suzannah Johannes and Say My Name.
You can get your digital album professionally Mastered and make it available on all the popular stores and streaming services. A ballpark budget starts at around $40 per song for Mastering, plus $50 to Digitally Distribute your album and you should allow yourself a few months to complete these processes.
If you’re trying to get your music out without spending anything, do your best to “master” the tracks yourself, set up your free Paypal and Bandcamp accounts, upload your album to Bandcamp and voilà! – you’ve officially released your music digitally.
Audio File Formats:
You should save your final mixes as high-quality (24 bit is standard) stereo WAV or AIFF files bounced at the same sample rate you’ve been mixing in. These WAV or AIFF files are what you will submit to the Mastering Engineer, what you will get back from the Mastering Engineer, and what you will then upload to digital stores and services (they will not accept MP3’s!).
To be safe, save your Digital album cover artwork as a 2400 x 2400 pixel .JPG or .PNG file, at at least 72 dpi and in RGB color mode. (2400 x 2400 pixels is the largest dimension recommended – many stores accept a smaller version, but if you start with the 2400 x 2400 version, you can always downsize.)
UPC and ISRC codes:
To sell your music on iTunes or any of the other major services, you will need to go through a Digital Distributor and they will provide you with both a UPC code for your album (this identifies your album and monitors your sales) and ISRC codes for each of your tracks (same idea, but for individual songs).
Here is a useful rundown on the applicability of UPC and ISRC codes for indie artists.
To have your final mixes professionally Mastered you will need to have a starting budget of roughly $40 per song and should plan on waiting 4-8 weeks from the day you submit your files to the day you download your finished masters.
If you’re looking for a quick answer to the question “Should I get my digital files mastered?”, the answer is “YES!”
Because mastering dependably makes your mixes sound better.
Mastering engineers specialize in standardizing and refining the dynamics, loudness, consistency and timing of your tracks. They’re experts at applying complimentary levels of EQ and Compression, helping each element of your music sound clearer and smoother (they use the kind of Hi-Fi equipment most of us can only dream of putting our mixes through!) For more on the history and effects of mastering, I recommend this podcast interview with one of my favorite engineers,Carl Saff.
If you’re not budgeted to Master professionally or if you aren’t convinced that it’s worth it, please at least do your audience the favor of trying your best to“master” the tracks yourself!
Here are some recommendations for affordable Mastering Engineers with great reputations (price per song approximate):
Carl Saff ($40/song)
The Boiler Room ($40/song)
Lucky Lacquers ($40/song)
Eureka (Mike Nolte) ($50/song)
Focus (Doug Van Sloun) ($55/song)
SAE (Roger Seibel) ($60/song)
Salt (Paul Gold) ($75/song)
Josh Bonati ($75/song)
Golden Mastering ($75/song).
To make your music available on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, Tidal etc., you’ll need to sign up with – and pay! – a Digital Distributor.
Note: Turnaround times for Digital Distribution are pretty fast these days – from a few days to a few weeks – though you can specify your release date when you go through the set-up process. Be sure to give yourself enough time – at least a month (industry standard is 3 months) before your release date to get your EPK together, send out press releases, service radio and push your data.
The two Digital Distributors I’m most familiar with are Tunecore and CD Baby. Both have easy-to-use dashboards that guide you through the set-up process, both offer clear and thorough reports on your sales, and both allow you to easily withdraw any money you’ve made by Check, Direct Deposit or Paypal.
Tunecore vs. CD Baby
Tunecore charges $29.99 to distribute your album for the first year and then raises it to an annual charge of $49.99, for continued distribution, every year after that – but they don’t take any percentage of your music sales.
CD Baby, on the other hand, only charges a one-time fee of $59 per album for distribution, but they take a 9% cut of everything you sell, for the duration of their service.
There are a number of other Digital Distributors worth checking out, includingMusic Kickup, Aded.us, Ditto Music, iMusician, DistroKid and Catapult. Here’s acomparison chart, with some additional stores included.
AWAL is a cool Distro company you may want to try submitting to. It’s curated, so they don’t accept everything, but if you manage to perk their ears, they offer good terms for digital distribution (a straight 15% sales commission on a rolling 30-day contract) and they are known for actively pitching your record for store placement and features. To submit your music to AWAL, you’ll first need to fill out a “Join Us” form, which you can find at the bottom of their homepage.
Bandcamp is a dynamic, free service that provides you a customizable profile, full control over setting prices, and some really useful (free) services forselling merch, generating download codes and creating an embeddable player for Facebook.
(They also have some valuable features for fans, like being able to “follow” the bands you like, being notified when the bands you follow release new music, a free mobile app for streaming your purchases, and options for wish-listing and gifting music.)
Bandcamp has no set-up fees and no annual charges. They do, however, take a 15% commission on all of your music sales and a 10% fee on all merch (compare that to iTunes, which takes a 30% commission on all sales.)
If you’re an indie artist and you’re trying to put your music out, I encourage you to get set up on Bandcamp regardless of whether you’re also doing Digital Distribution!
A common frustration with being new to Bandcamp is that in order to collect the money you make on Bandcamp, you must not only have a Paypal account, but your Paypal account must be a “Premier” or “Business” Account, which means once you’ve set up a Paypal account you’ll need to go through an additional process of (free) upgrading on Paypal before you can actually start collecting everything you’ve earned. So if you plan to use Bandcamp as a platform for selling your music, get your Paypal account in order first!
Publishing, Licensing & Copyrights
It is recommended, however, that you do everything you can to professionally establish the rights to your music. This involves registering your “music compositions” and “sound recordings” with the United States Copyright Office(this can be done together, in one application, for $35), registering with aPerformance Rights Organization (or “PRO”) as both a Writer and a Publisher ($100 – $150) and registering as an Artist with SoundExchange (free). Once these tasks are complete, you’ll be covered in case anyone ever records, performs, plagiarizes or wants to pay big bucks to license your songs.
Performance Rights Organizations
For indie artists, your best bet is to choose either ASCAP or BMI (SESAC is pretty exclusive and requires a review by their Writer/Publisher relations staff to join). Both ASCAP and BMI allow you to register as either a “Writer”, a “Publisher”, or both, but since the royalties they collect go 50/50 to “Writer” and “Publisher”, you’ll want to register as both a “Writer” and “Publisher” to collect the entirety of your potential earnings.
The catch: there are fees associated with registering. If you go with ASCAP, you’ll need to pay $50 to register as a “Writer” plus another $50 to register as a “Publisher”. At BMI you’ll be able to register as a “Writer” for free but then they charge $150 to register as a “Publisher”.
After registering with ASCAP or BMI, be sure to sign up as an Artist with SoundExchange. This is a free registration that covers royalties for “non-interactive” streaming of musical content (such as Pandora and SiriusXM).
The good news is that if anyone ever wants to license any of your music for Film, TV or Commercials, since you control your Publishing and Master Recording rights, you (or you and your lawyer) can negotiate and get paid directly.
The bad news is that the competition for Licensing dollars is super intense.
While it’s always worth sending an email and listen-link to cool Licensing Agencies like Bank Robber, Musicbed, The Music Playground and Zync, your best bet in terms of getting a Licensing Agency interested in your music is to succeed on other fronts like publicity and radio. If you generate some buzz, your licensing opportunities – as well as other opportunities like touring and merch sales – are sure to increase.
Songtradr is a free service that allows you to upload your music, set licensing fee prices, submit to various projects, and make licensing transactions all through their platform. If you wind up licensing anything through them, they take a 17.5% brokerage fee (compare that to Tunecore’s 20%). It’s a new service and I don’t know their success rate, but I’ve worked with some of their team before and I would definitely recommend giving Songtradr a shot.
Publishing & Licensing through your Digital Distributor
If you’re using Tunecore or CD Baby as your Digital Distributor, you may be interested in their options for consolidating your rights management with them. The benefit would be that you may score some licensing opportunities that you’d otherwise be missing out on. The drawback is that you have to give themcontractual permission to place your music anywhere they can, and you may not be happy with where your song gets placed, regardless of the payout.
Tunecore offers a “Tunecore Publishing Deal” for a one-time set-up fee of $75(plus 10% of royalties and 20% commission on any Licensing they secure). There’s a decent chance you won’t make that $75 back from it, but it will definitely offer you a glimpse into online revenue streams and put your music out there for licensing opportunities.
And CD Baby has two options: a free opt-in feature for “Sync Licensing” where they will make your music available (and collect the royalties) for Film, TV, commercial and YouTube licensing; and a service called CD Baby Pro ($99/Album or $59/Upgrade), through which CD Baby will handle your PRO registration and collect and distribute your royalties (taking a 15% admin fee).