Ever thought about releasing your own album or single? We explain the ins and outs of producing a small batch of CDs.
As anyone who has ever browsed through the classified ads at the back of Sound On Sound will know, there are numerous companies offering CD manufacturing services to small labels and individuals who only want to release a limited number of records. Placing an order is extremely simple, but the onus still lies on the customer to ensure that both music and artwork are delivered in the correct formats and at the right time. I've recently been through this process myself, and I hope this article will help others avoid some of the pitfalls I encountered!
The first thing to make clear is that audio product manufacturing requires a licence, in order to protect the copyrights of the artists involved in the songwriting process against unscrupulous labels who otherwise might use songs without paying for the right. If the person, or group of people, releasing the record are also the copyright owners of the songs, an exemption note called a 'Statement Of No Claim' can be acquired, so that no licence fee has to be paid. Even in this case, however, an application still has to be made to obtain the official paperwork. In the UK, licences are granted by the Mechanical Rights Protection Society (MCPS). If no other songwriters or publishing companies are involved, the MCPS will issue a 'Statement Of No Claim' to both label/artist and manufacturer, granting permission for production to go ahead.
Where there is a claim, a fee of 8.5 percent of the cost to the distributor/dealer, or 6.5 percent of the CD sale price, has to be paid. Practically speaking, this means that if a distributor is being used to get stock into shops, a price has to be agreed with them before the MCPS application can be completed. If there is no distributor in the chain, an intended retail price is still required so that 6.5 percent of the potential production income can be calculated.
The MCPS ask for the name and address of the manufacturing company, to whom they send a duplicate copy of the licence, so it is necessary to select a manufacturer before applying. Obtaining a licence can sometimes take weeks, so it is essential to get the process under way early on. In recent times, the MCPS and the PPL (Phonographic Performance Ltd) have been pushing labels to start using the on-line 'CatCo' database for submitting release data. This passes the burden of data entry onto the label and cuts down on paperwork, but also benefits labels by providing them with their own product database via a downloadable copy of the software program. Although this undoubtedly speeds things up a little, the setting up of the label and sorting out of distribution and retail arrangements for the release are the things most likely to hold up the application, especially if your bank is as incompetent as mine (see 'Banking Woes' box).
If your release is a commercial venture, it will be necessary to set up a bank account specifically to handle CD sales and broadcast royalty income. Last year, my musical collaborator and I started a limited company to act as a label for an album release, but found that getting a business bank account proved to be an unexpected delay to our production schedule. We wanted to register our label with the PPL, who supply International Standard Recording Codes (ISRCs), provide the CatCo database to their members, and collect airplay royalty revenue, but found that their forms required our bank details. We also wanted to sell our product on-line through our web site using PayPal, and then transfer the funds into a business account, along with cheques and cash.
Arranging a meeting to set up our account was a far more convoluted process than it should have been, as it involved chatting to several people in overseas call centres before we were able to book a mutually convenient meeting with an adviser in a bank less than a mile away! All the would-be directors (one of whom was working abroad) plus the company secretary had to assemble at the branch at the same time, each brandishing several pieces of formal identification, plus the certificate of incorporation of the company. We then sat through a very tedious account customisation meeting, pitched so that the most intellectually challenged person could understand. It all took far too long to arrange, and would have failed completely if we hadn't noticed the various mistakes our Business Adviser was making as she typed the information into her database!
Although prices and services do vary a little between manufacturers, the differences are generally rather small. When I was looking for a manufacturer, I was primarily interested in finding out as much as possible about the factories they used: the manufacturers are only really service providers who collect orders and then contract them out to one of several duplication factories. The engineer who mastered our tracks had told me that quality can vary between factories, so I wanted to ensure that my agent would be using a reliable plant. Rather than going for the cheapest, I eventually chose Bytes2Beats (www.bytes2beats.com), because they provided the most detailed and useful information about the manufacturing process and the factories they were committed to using. I'd also telephoned several companies to clarify exactly what they were offering and found CD Sourcing friendly and informative. Things can, and do, go wrong during production, so it is important to know that there will be good lines of communication.
A far as media was concerned, I was encouraged to find that the company accepted a variety of master file formats, and not just CD-Rs. Our album had been saved in the Disc Description Protocol (DDP) format on 8mm Exabyte tape, which is recognised in mastering circles as superior to CD-Rs because of its low data error rate.
If you are doing your own mastering to CD, you will have to make sure the output is written in one continuous pass, using disc-at-once mode, and obviously the file has to include all the sub-coding (PQ) information required to determine the start and end points of each track, not to mention the ISRCs (International Standard Recording Codes). The glass master created by the factory should exactly replicate the data on the master disc or tape, so this part has to be done correctly.
While we're on the subject of mastering, it's a good idea to leave a little time between the mastering session and the manufacturing date. After living with the master for a while, you might decide to ask the engineer to tweak a track or two, or alter their order or spacing. The only way to know if the album is right is to spend time listening to it on a few different systems. Another reason for leaving gaps in the schedule is that CD-Rs can easily become corrupted, lost in the post or scratched, so it is wise to get everything to the manufacturer in good time, and then add on a day or two extra in case the factory suffers some delays.
Not everyone is agreed on the importance of artwork, but in my book it's a vital part of the package, as it provides the recipient with their first impressions of the artist or band. Producing artwork in a suitable format for printing may well be the most tricky part of the whole process, though, especially if you are using barcodes (more on these later), so many manufacturing companies employ in-house designers who are skilled at working to standards and have all the necessary software. Naturally, these additional services cost extra, but they are far cheaper than buying pro software. The other alternative to doing the work yourself is to hire a freelance artist who can translate your ideas and has the facilities to do the job properly.
When the MCPS send out licence application forms, they usually include some information explaining what official notices need to go on a CD and its artwork, including copyright notification statements, Compact Disc logos, catalogue numbers, credit notes and so on. Many labels miss out lots of these requirements, either because they haven't read the documentation properly or have decided it will ruin the look of their design. If you want to adhere to the stipulations, you'll need to supply the designer with all the necessary info at the start.
The artwork is unlikely to be accepted if it doesn't comply with the manufacturer's formatting requirements, which usually get posted on web sites, together with downloadable layout templates. It is possible to piece together images, logos and text in a picture-editing program like Adobe Photoshop, but most pros will probably import everything into a dedicated page-layout package like Quark Xpress or Adobe Indesign, which are ideal for combining text and images.
For our artwork we decided to do everything ourselves, having downloaded the relevant layout templates from CD Sourcing's web site. The finished documents were emailed both as PDFs and as editable PSD (Photoshop Document) files, so that the manufacturers could use their own copy of Photoshop to edit any of the individual layer elements, including the text. The company were keen to receive documents which were already complete and needed no adjustments, but were prepared to make minor corrections for no extra charge.
Today's factories generally use the 'four colour process', where Cyan (blue), Magenta (red), Yellow and Black inks, known collectively as CMYK, are layered together to produce a colour palette. Factories love this kind of standardisation because it means they can stock up on the four ink types, which are mass-produced at a relatively low cost. No other inks are needed for the vast majority of jobs, but when they are, for creating certain metallic colours, for example, printing becomes rather expensive. Many graphics programs default to a Red, Green, Blue mode, or RGB, as it's usually known, which is more suitable for viewing on computer monitors and, bizarrely, offers a slightly wider spectrum of colours than CMYK, but changing the setting is very easy, and the benefits of RGB are slight. Most RGB artwork won't suffer too badly from being converted.
If you are planning to distribute your tracks via high-street shops, barcodes will be necessary for the stock systems of the retailer and distributor, and record sales information is also taken from barcode scanning. Anyone creating their own artwork will need the right software for generating codes ready to import into a layout or art package. If a barcode isn't printed within certain tolerances it's unlikely to be readable, so it should not be resized or stretched in any way. To confuse matters, there isn't yet just one global type of barcode in use, so it's necessary to decide on a standard according to where in the world the product is likely to be sold. Pretty much all you need to know on the subject can be found on the FAQ pages of the UK barcode specialist site: www.gs1uk.org.
After the finished artwork is sent to the manufacturer, there should be an opportunity to sanction any changes they make before production. As part of our deal, we were emailed the PDF template generated by the manufacturer's in-house designer, and then checked it through thoroughly. There were almost no problems with our template, apart from one spelling error, which was our fault. Fortunately, we were able to email our manufacturer about the problem and received a corrected PDF shortly afterwards.
One of the extra options open to us was to see what's known as a Match Print, so that we could check that printing would be a colour match with the PDF master file, and have the opportunity to ask for slight adjustments if necessary. Match Prints are one-off trial prints run out by the printing presses; the factories have to set a global ink balance to suit the artwork for a number of jobs, which is inevitably a bit of a compromise. Most of the time the results will be close enough to the final PDF, but a more accurate result can sometimes be obtained by using a Match Print. If there is a problem, the flow of each ink can be tweaked for that one particular item. As you'd expect, the process means that the job is not so easily fitted into the factory's schedule, so it takes longer, and costs extra.
CD Sourcing promised a turnaround of seven to 10 working days, or 14 days if a Match Print was ordered. As it happened, we did request a Match Print when booking the job, only to find out at the last minute that we were not getting one because the details had not been entered into the system properly, and by that stage the CDs were on their way. It's certainly a good idea to check invoices to make sure everything is as ordered!
Four main packaging types are commonly available for compact disc releases: the standard jewel case with booklet, the slimline maxi case, the humble cardboard wallet, and the all-in-one Digipak. When we were ordering our CDs, we were in two minds about whether to go for the Digipak, or a more standard jewel case and booklet design. We'd already ruled out the other two options, which seemed better suited for singles and dedicated promotional releases.
Of the remaining two, we initially favoured the Digipak because its cardboard jacket had a similar tactile quality to that of a record sleeve, and the way the plastic CD holder and jacket were combined seemed rather neat and elegant. Nevertheless, we eventually opted for the slightly cheaper jewel case design with four-page booklet, even though its plastic case was less appealing. When filling in the MCPS licence application it is necessary to agree to place stickers carrying the words 'Promotional Copy Only — Not For Resale' on any free copies destined for the media, and we were concerned that promo stickers placed on Digipaks might get peeled off and damage the surface. We also noted that plastic jewel cases are easily replaced if they become cracked, but the wear and tear a Digipak cover would undoubtedly suffer is permanent. The jewel case booklets also made it possible to include more information and images within their pages, and we felt that this gave us more scope in our design.
Our manufacturer also offered cellophane wrapping as a standard part of the package. On the face of it, that seemed like a great finishing touch, as it protected the CDs, held everything in place until opened, and had a really professional look. We did decide to have ours wrapped, but not until we'd carefully considered what to do about the promotional stickers, which really needed to go directly onto the case so they would not get discarded when the cellophane was removed. At an additional cost, some manufacturers can arrange for stickers to be added during production; however, the small labels I've spoken to seem to prefer to make their own and add them by hand when they prepare their press release packs. We decided to make our own labels using the Microsoft Word Avery label templates. Once we'd found a suitably sized label, we selected its unique Avery identification code from the list in Word (from the Tools menu, select Labels and Mailings and then Options from the Labels tab in the Envelopes and Labels sub-menu) which called up the correct printer template. We then created an EPS file of our logo and the relevant text and scaled it down to fit. This process worked really well, and gave us a chance to make some potentially ugly stickers look quite attractive.
The only down side was that I had to remove the cellophane to add them on all the promotional copies, although now, if I have time, I just lift a corner flap of cellophane by cutting an 'L' shape with a scalpel, and sneak the stickers underneath. This also works rather well!
If you've spent months, or even years, working towards an album release, opening up the first box to see if the product lives up to expectations is quite a nerve-wracking experience. When I unwrapped my first CD I was relieved to see that it looked pretty much as it had on the PDF. It is very rare, but not unheard of, for customers to receive CDs that are blank, so I randomly selected ones from various boxes and checked that they did carry audio, and also to check that there was no damage to the batch. Fortunately, the audio played without any glitches, and even though the cover art was probably a little darker than it had appeared on screen, it was close enough.
Irritatingly, though, one of the previously corrected spelling mistakes had somehow reappeared in the booklet artwork! I very nearly decided to live with the error, but I knew that it would probably haunt me, as it was in the title of the first song and didn't look good for an SOS editorial contributor!
I contacted the company director and explained the problem, and, to his credit, he said that if it was their fault rather than ours, they'd reprint the booklet at their expense. It turned out that the designer had decided to tweak a colour balance at the very last second, but had done so to an old version of the PDF. True to their word, CD Sourcing sent a courier to take back all the CDs!
It's quite hard to say goodbye to 1000 near-perfect CDs: you wonder if they will ever return again, or whether their replacements will be marred by some even worse printing quirk. I had to wait another week and a half for their return but it was worth it, as the mistake was fixed, the CDs were undamaged, and it had all been done at the expense of the poor manufacturer. Ironically, if the Match Print had happened, we might have spotted the mistake earlier on.
Producing your own CD with relatively little software and professional help is possible, and there are a collection of companies who offer attractive deals on small production runs. Nevertheless, for a successful and relatively stress-free time, it pays to be well organised, leaving enough time to sort out the inevitable production troubles, and to check things thoroughly at every stage.