Blue Stream Records
Planning Your CD Project
You are ready to cut your first CD. How do you get the project started? How long will it take? How much will it cost?

Granted, as digital downloads become more and more popular, some musicians opt to skip the CD and go directly to digital download outlets like iTunes to distribute their music. But many musicians who are taking the plunge into recording and releasing their first album still opt for CDs, not just for selling at their shows, but for the sheer pleasure of opening their first box of CDs and holding them in their hands as a tangible reward for their talent and hard work.

Planning and executing the steps for releasing your CD is no different than any other project, whether it be building a house or planning your vacation. You will be spending some time and money on something that will be part of your experiences for the rest of your life, and you should approach it seriously.

Below are some tips for making sure the process stays on time and budget. (NOTE: any pricing/costs below are for example purposes only. You should always do your own research to verify costs in your area at the time of your project).

1. Set a Goal for Completing Your CD
Without a goal, your project could lag on for years. Set a "target" date to have the completed CDs in hand. You can use that not just for planning and scheduling, but as a motivator to keep you focused. However, do not call this the "CD Release Date" and absolutely do not start scheduling CD release parties! It is far too soon in the process, and unexpected delays will surely cause your target date to change. But you need to have a date in mind to help with your planning.

2. Determine Your Cost and Time Budget
You will need to determine up front what your budget for the entire project will be, from recording through manufacturing. This will require that you do a lot of research, then balance your results against what you can afford and how much time you can spend on the project.
  • Recording Budget
    If you are doing the recording in your own studio, great, but if not, talk with various studios to get an estimate. Studios generally charge by the hour or for a block of time. For example, a studio may say their hourly rate is $50, but an entire day is $300, and an entire week is $1,200. Think about how many songs you want to record, and think about how long it will take to track those songs. If you have worked in a recording studio before, you'll have some experience for helping determine this. If you haven't, rely on the input of the studio staff to give you some realistic numbers. If you don't trust the studio's estimates for how long you think the recording process will take, then use your estimates, but triple them. Trust me, it always takes longer than you anticipated.

  • Mixing Budget
    Once the songs have been recorded, you will need to pay to have them mixed. Most studios that record your music will also mix the music. But you may know someone that you want to specifically mix your songs (especially if you recorded them yourself in your home studio). Some studios charge an hourly rate for mixing. Some will charge per song, or base their rates on the number of tracks used in each song.

    Generally plan on at least a day per song to complete the mixing process. Also factor in the time it takes to transfer recorded tracks from one studio to another if you are hiring a separate mixing engineer. Don't forget about the time it takes for you to review the songs and wait for mix changes.

  • Mastering Budget
    Once all songs are mixed, you'll want to get them mastered. Mastering involves leveling the volume and equalization between songs, as well as putting the songs in order on the CD and adjusting spacing between songs and adding fadeouts if necessary.

    Typically you will want to have your album mastered by someone other than the person who mixed your songs. This will add a fresh set of ears to the project, and many times mastering engineers have specialized equipment dedicated to the mastering process. Mastering costs can range from $25/song to $100/song for most independent projects. Some manufacturing facilities like DiscMakers offer a mastering service for a flat rate of around $500 for a typical album.

    Plan on about a week for the mastering process to be completed, depending on who you choose to work with.

  • Artwork Budget
    Artwork involves photo shoots, art design for both the CD packaging and any additional marketing materials that accompany the CD release such as posters and merchandise. Prices for photography can vary greatly, as with prices for graphic artists. You should plan on about $500 for photography and anywhere from $500-$1,500 for art design and packaging layout.

    If you are handy with a camera and software such as Photoshop, you might be able to do the artwork yourself. You'll just need to pay very close attention to manufacturing specifications for packaging design. Most manufacturers provide downloadable templates and instructions that help adhere to the guidelines.

    Regardless of how the artwork is created, you will need artwork for the CD itself and the packaging. If you choose to package your CDs in jewel cases, you'll need artwork for the cover, the inside, and the back side (the "tray card"). The artwork for the inside can be a booklet, a fold out, or a simple one page insert. If you are doing posters and other merchandise, you'll also need the artwork for that.

    Some of the artwork tasks can be happening during recording/mixing/mastering. However, the final CD packaging artwork can't be completed until you have determined the final song order and all credits you want to include. Speaking of credits - be sure to thank the studios and staff you worked with. List the producers, engineers, etc. Studio staff take great pride in their work, and love to have a portfolio of proven work to show to future clients.

  • Manufacturing Budget
    The cost of manufacturing will vary depending on the packaging type and the quantity of CDs you order. Give some thought to the type of packaging. Do you want a traditional CD jewel case or cardboard sleeves made from recycled paper? How much artwork will be included in the package? Do you want the finished product shrinkwrapped? Do you want to include a UPC barcode?

    Manufacturing costs go down with larger quantities. For example, an order of 100 CDs may end up costing you $4.00/CD, whereas an order for 1,000 CDs may cost you $2.00/CD. Think about your realistic sales potential, and your expected sale price of your CD in order to calculate a return on your investment and then determine how many CDs you should order.

    When ordering CDs, don't forget shipping costs from the manufacturer. Shipping can run anywhere from $25 to several hundreds of dollars depending on distance, shipping options and quantity of packages.

    Most manufactures will require several weeks to produce, package and ship the CDs. You should include a few extra days for you to review the artwork proofs provided by the manufacturer before starting production. And don't forget the shipping time.

  • Copyrighting and Mechanical Licenses
    If you are doing all original music on your CD, you may want to have your music copyrighted. Even if you are doing cover tunes, you can choose to file an SR (sound recording) copyright for your recorded version of that cover tune. The cost of copyrighting varies whether you do it yourself or pay a service to copyright your music. You should plan on a couple hundred dollars to get your music copyrighted, just to be safe.

    If you are doing cover tunes on your CD, you will need to pay mechanical licenses. Mechanical licensing is the licensing of copyrighted musical compositions for use on CDs, records, tapes, etc. This is handled through companies like The Harry Fox Agency, who provide a website that lets you research the publisher/songwriter information and file your project and make payment. Typically mechanical licenses cost around 9.1 cents per song times the number of CDs you are having manufactured. For example, if you have 10 cover songs on your CD, and you are releasing 1,000 CDs, you will be required to pay: 9.1 cents x 10 x 1,000 = $910, plus any processing fees by Harry Fox or whoever you use.

Some parts of the project budget and schedule are more standard and predictable than others. The recording schedule is usually the most unpredictable part of the project...and it's the first part of the process! In fact, the earlier the process in the schedule the more unpredictable it is. Therefore, it's best to start planning your project schedule from the end and work backwards.

For example, let's say it's now January, and you would like to have 200 CDs to sell to your fans during the busy summer season. If you want the CDs in your hand by June 1, that only leaves February, March, April and May (four months) to complete the project from start to finish. So starting from the end of the project and working backwards, you can estimate:
  • Shipping time from manufacturer to you: 3 days / $50
  • Manufacturing time: 2 weeks / $750
  • Delivery of master CD and artwork to manufacturing plant: 2 days / $25 for overnight delivery if necessary
  • Filing copyrights and mechanical licenses: 1 week / $200 (if applicable)
  • Mastering: 1 week / $600
  • Art layout: 1 week / $500
  • Photography: 1 week / $300
  • Mixing all songs: 2 weeks / $1,000
  • Recording: ?
To calculate your available recording time and budget, simply add up the duration and costs of all of the other processes. In this example, about 8 weeks and $3,425 has been accounted for, not counting recording time and expense. That leaves two months to complete all of the recording. Do you have the time and money in the first two months to get all of the recording done? Are the studios available? Have you already scheduled your studio time?

3. Putting It All Together
Once you have your budget and schedule planned out, you can get started. Track your progress to make sure you stick to the schedule and budget. You might consider using computer spreadsheet software to help track the project. Be sure to track when payments are going to be required for the various project phases so you have the funds available, and make your payments on time. You may be a "starving artist" but that doesn't mean you need to be an unprofessional deadbeat.

Remember that delays will happen, so don't panic. Just be diligent about tracking the project progress and make adjustments as necessary. As long as you haven't made the mistake of scheduling and promoting a CD release party, a few delays shouldn't worry you. Ideally, you should never schedule the CD release until you have the completed CDs in your hands. But since excitement and anticipation often cloud good judgement, you should at least wait until the CDs are being manufactured to start thinking about scheduling release events.

If you plan your CD project seriously, and commit to monitoring the schedule and budget, you will find that the process is enjoyable and can be profitable. You will learn more about the music industry along the way, and more knowledge will help you navigate the various aspects of your musical career aspirations.

Taylor June has released her first fully produced studio EP featuring six great songs from this young singer/songwriter.
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