From mix file to online store in 3 hours: the rebirth of an album

a walk through of one approach to getting an album up for sale quickly…


ON Friday, I realized Christmas was coming.

Ok… I had a clue already. The music in the supermarket had changed to treacly, Auto-Tuned pop versions of seasonal favorites. People on the street had the haunted, manic air of hunted fugitives. A cold snap — by our  standards — gripped Southern California. And my email inbucket was overflowing with fervid, frantic sales pitches for unbelievable prices on stuff I didn’t want and couldn’t afford anyway.

Clearly it was The Holidays.

But wait… let’s roll back to the mid-80s.

From 1982-1986, a tyro studio engineer and songwriter (that would be me) ran a highly informal songwriting festival, a sort of parody of those songwriting contests that try to coerce contest entry fees out of unsuspecting songwriters, their tapes presumably on a fast track to being recorded over afterhours by harried contest song screeners.

The Avant-Garage Holiday Songwriting Festival (1982-1986) was a super low tech, even lower fi festival of noisy DIY recordings done on a motley collection of boomboxes, ping-ponged cassette decks, and a couple of broke down four track reel-to-reels by a number of folks in the outsider music scene in Long Beach and Seal Beach, California..

During that time we collected a little over 25 songs. There were no judges — nor any entrance fees, either. The final compilations were generally distributed from hand to hand and, presumably, copied to others (with the full permission of the Festival organizer — again, that would be me).

Yesterday afternoon, I decided I shouldn’t let another year go by without the availability of at least a solid subset of the festival songs and decided — on the spur of the moment — to put  a Best of the Avant-Garage Holiday Songwriting Festival album up on the web.

Back in the 80s, when I worked on vinyl records, it was not at all uncommon to have as much as a 4 to 6 month (or greater) turnaround time between delivering the tape masters to the label and getting the finished product.

I figured I could cut that down to 4 to 6 hours.

And, in fact, it was actually closer to three hours from the time I found a CD-ROM with files from 1999 (when I had pulled all the tapes out of storage and transferred them to digital form) to the moment I ‘unhid’ the album and put it officially on sale.

Here’s how I did it:

When you’re involved in conceiving and executing various creative projects — from music to movies to computer programs — one of the first things you realize, if you’re paying attention, is how much time can be wasted on often nearly arbitrary decisions, small and large. Should this be red? Should that be yellow? Should we call it this or that? Should we use the old logo? What should we call this? And this? And… the decisions can seem endless. Many a project has stalled out between the idea and the final execution.

But it took me a minute to remember that. I’ll explain in the course of things…

If you’re going to sell your music online, you need a venue. Apple’s iTunes store, of course, is the 800 pound gorilla of online music sales, but getting an album up for sale there on your own can be an enormous hassle with a lot of potential pitfalls (that can cost you valuable time) and that’s why most smaller labels and indie musicians use placement services like those offered by TuneCore, ReverbNation, and ohers.

For fees that often work out to around $35-$50 an album (with varying yearly maintenance fees) they will place your single or album on iTunes, Amazon, Rhapsody, Napster, and, often, other stores. (More stores can cost more money. And iTunes is not just one store but has multiple stores in different global markets, meaning potentially higher costs if you want your fans in Japan or Europe to be able to find your stuff in their iTunes Store.)

Worse than the hassle, though, is the iTunes turnaround time, which can sometimes take months — and longer if there’s a glitch.

It was December 3.

Clearly, if I wanted to get this thing available for this Christmas, iTunes was out of the question. And time was not the only factor — since I really didn’t expect to sell many copies of this super lo fi album; breaking even seemed more worthy goal that probable reality.

So I elected to go with a single store — preferably one that wouldn’t cost me anything up front.

Among the options I’d previously explored were several that seemed promising:

  • ReverbNation, which offers a number of music hosting options with a solid free base tier of services, but a somewhat over-busy public facing user interface and a convoluted, confusing musician back end;
  • Amazon, obviously well-known and widely trusted (except by Wiki-Leaks supporters, anyhow), with a moderately straightforward interface — once you’ve gone through the rigamarole of establishing a verified account through them, but very limited store customization optoins and a somewhat plain, uninviting presentation;
  • and relative newcomer, Bandcamp.

None of the 3 charge set up fees. Amazon and RN both do their own pay-out, as I recall it, and have pay-out structures more or less similar to the split at iTunes.

Bandcamp, on the other hand, uses PayPal to pay the artist for each sale, after BC takes a 15% service charge (which drops to 10% for high volume accounts — everything is linked to your PayPal account, so if a label uses one account for all its artists, it has a better chance of making the volume fee break).

Because of PayPal’s fee structure, if singles or lower cost albums are a significant part of your sales, it’s probably best for a Bandcamp artist/label to use the new micropayments fee schedule (5% + $.05 per transaction) instead of the classic (2.9% + $.35 per transaction). But if all or most of your transactions are above $12 or so, the classic schedule may be better. (You can read more here.)

That works out to an artist cut of $.75 for a $1 song using micropayments (or only $.47 using PayPal’s standard schedule). And that would be an artist cut of $2.35 for the $2.98 Festival album (and $2.10 for standard schedule).

For a $10 album, the artist take would be $7.95 under micropayments but, if you use PayPal’s standard schedule, your cut would be $7.86 . So you could think of the arrangement as delivering about 75% to 80% to the artist, after PayPal and Bandcamp had taken their share. (By comparison, the iTunes cut to artists is 65%.)

I’d already explored these options and knew the drill: since Bandcamp uses your PayPal  account to pay you, there’s little of the aforementioned rigamarole setting up sales options there if you already have a PayPal account. (Setting up a PayPal account is pretty easy, although their user interface can get a bit confusing at times.)

You enter your artist name and some very basic info (they don’t have to ask for mailing addresses, bank routing numbers, or other financial info, as some of the others do — since they pay you through PayPal) — and then you start uploading songs.

One potential slowdown is that Bandcamp wants you to upload full quality (16 bit/44.1 kHz [standard CD audio] wav or FLAC [more on FLAC below]) audio files — because part of their mission is to be make sure that all the music sold through them is available in full (true CD) quality, with the additiohnal option to buyers of download-friendly reduced bitrate files.

Downloads there are available in the truly lossless FLAC or  Apple Lossless formats, 320kbps mp3, variable bitrate mp3, AAC, and Ogg Vorbis. If the buyer downloads FLAC or Apple Lossless [ALAC], he can then rip smaller mp3s or AACs for his mobile devices as he likes. As at Amazon and in the premium iTunes lines, there is no copy protection on the files sold, which is the clear preference of consumers, since it makes the files so much easier to deal with, archive, and transfer to mobile devices, etc.

You can elect to give away some or all of your downloads — but Bandcamp’s business model is based around sales, so you’re only allowed a certain quota of free downloads — although free streaming (which is well-ripped into a decent sounding 128kbps mp3 format) is unrestricted. (Of course, you can buy stream credits if you want to subsidize your free downloads, although the system isn’t really that flexible.) That said , if you don’t offer free downloads, no worries.

My files from the old CD-ROM were in wav format. I could have uploaded them that way, but I was concerned about upload time. So I elected to put them in FLAC lossless format for upload. (In retrospect, it probably didn’t make that big a difference, since I have a pretty fast upstream.)

I used the well-liked Foobar media player/ripper program (Win only). I’d never used it with FLAC before so when I used the FLAC encoding option to convet my wav files, it asked me to point it to the flac.exe codec, which I quickly found in my program directory. Ripping from wav to FLAC was suprisingly quick.

Since Foobar’s FLAC implementation offered me the option of burning my FLAC files using the open source Replay Gain (RPG) technology to even up apparent loudness through the album — and I knew that several of my mixes were too loud in comparison with the other tracks — I took advantage of it.

With the luxury of more time on my hands and a more ‘serious’ project, I almost certainly would have set the relative levels from track to track myself, using a combination of average sound level (RMS) detection and subjective preference.

But I knew from past experience that such an endeavor was easy to get bogged down in over 12 or 13 different tracks. Even using RMS-sussing tools, it’s too easy, moving from file to file setting relative levels, to drift louder or quieter.

In this case the burn-with-Replay Gain option was heavensent and did a very reasonable job of delivering consistent levels across the project. (There are options in the RPG settings to apply the RPG on a per-song basis or to consider the whole batch of songs as an album, which is what I did. There are other options, as well.)

So now I was ready to start uploading.

While I was uploading the first track, I looked over and noticed a big space where my song/album image should be and I thought, uh oh… album art — there’s a time trap if I ever saw one looming.

My first thought was to collect every winter holiday image I could find on Google image search, slice them and dice them and modify the heck out of them enough to (hopefully) qualify the resulting work as a fair use. But that seemed dicey at best and, based on previous experience, I figured there was a better than even chance of wasting a lot of time only to end up with a big, unappealing graphic mess — that might still raise copyright concerns.

So I decided to punt. (US football talk. Google it.)

I’d create my own, ultra-simple album cover.  Bold and simple graphics often work best on the web, especially when images get shrunk down to thumbnail size. (And that’s important, since those thumbnails will often be the first thing that folks out there see of your album as they browse on other sites, but more on that later.)

I opened up my graphics editor, created a big enough basic image that I’d be able to resize it gracefully into smaller formats. (I settled on 1400 x 1400 pixels.) I laid down a backround of red and selected an appropriate font. I colored the font a vivid green. I wanted this sucker to stand out. But it needed something else. My graphics program has some built in native shapes. I found a sort of random snowflake (OK, they look more like asterisks but they’ll do) generator and dropped a few into my graphic. Perfect. Enough.

I uploaded the graphic and set it as the album cover graphic. If you don’t upload individual graphics for each song, Bandcamp will use the album graphic for them. I decided to come back later and, using the same basic format, do a series of graphics replacing the album title with the song titles — but for now, one album graphic would serve my purposes.

Band camp offers the option of  adding lyrics and descriptions to the individual songs but I decided to skip that for now; of course, I can always go back and add them later.

As you finish uploading your first (and each subsequent) song, it gives you the option of assigning it to an album or creating a new album. I chose the latter, entering my album title, some basic info, and uploading the graphic I’d just created. I used the “hide album” option to keep the incomplete album out of the view of surfers who might stumble on my new BC band page.

Uploading the songs went quicker than I’d expected — and I got a little holiday movie watching in, using my media player in non-full screen mode so I could keep an eye on my upload progress behind it, although I could just as easily have been working on another aspect of my project.

When I’d uploaded the last song, it was time to sequence the album. Another potential time-sink-hole, to be sure.

I exerted a little self-discipline and plowed through forthrightly, confident in the knowledge that Bandcamp would let me resequence it later if I decided the song order wasn’t what I wanted.

The artist backend at BC has a nice drag and drop song order interface that works very well. As I worked, I used the built in BC player to audition my changes in another browser window, listening to the tail end of one song and the intro to the next to make sure my segues worked. (And I was generally pleased with how well the RPG volume leveling had worked out. But your mileage may vary on that count, to be sure.)

Once I had the album in the order I wanted and my album art in place, it was time to dress up the store a little.

The Bandcamp interface is surprisingly simple.

At first blush, it seems a bit of a clumsy one size fits all — until you realize that there are actually small but very useful customizations built in throughout.

Of course, you can add a custom banner graphic at the top. You can also change the background color of the page itself as well as the background, aka the gutters (the unused areas to the left and right of the centered page), font colors, etc. You can also upload a graphic to serve as a background.

With those basic tools, it’s not too hard to get it to fit, thematically, with a wide range of blogs and band websites. When you’re logged in, you’ll see an artist control bar at the top of the page — but the only sign of Bandcamp your visitors will see is a small, discreet strip at the bottom of your page with some Bandcamp info and links. It is, by far, the least intrusive free indie music distro site I know of.

I elected to keep the main page area itself a nice, clean white and pick up the background color of my album art and banner (which I created using the same font and color motif as the album art) for the sides. It seemed a little plain. So I created a graphic that used the same color background but picked up my asterisk/snowflake motif from the album art. Perfect. Enough.

Once that was done, I put the finishing touches on my album info copy, giving a little bit of backstory to the stunningly lo fi album for those unfamiliar with it. (Because you always want to try to expand beyond your core audience, yeah? You can dream, anyhow.)

It was time to go live.

I went to the album edit page, clicked to unhide the album and voila! My brand new album had hit the virtual marketplace.

And in a matter of hours, I’d sold my first album. (To one of the artists on the compilation, sure, but it’s the dough that counts, yeah?)

Of course, I couldn’t have sold that album if folks didn’t know it was there. And that’s where marketing comes in.

Don’t like to sell yourself? Feel cheap, tawdry when you do? Me, too. And I was once a sales director for an electronics manufacturer.

In a future column, I’ll show you the tricks and tools I used to get the word out to the core audience for the album (old friends and contacts who were involved with it or who knew artists who were on it) as well as the efforts I’ll be making to extend my marketing reach beyond those already familiar with it. (Hint: we will be talking social media, widgets, badges, blogs, and YouTube.)

In the meantime, here is the album page at Bandcamp — but if you’re offended by sloppy playing, out of tune singing, or ridiculously sub fi audio, maybe you should put on a Steely Dan album instead…

Here’s the (still very plain) Facebook page I created last night for the album:

Here is a page I created at the Internet Archive for the album — which I wanted to make sure was going to be available for free (in more or less perpetuity) to my broke pals.* Here’s that link:

And, finally, I thought there should be at least one central, official page that I controlled completely where I could list links to related resources, so I created this very simple page on my one-man label’s site:

*The effort at Internet Archive seemed like it was going to be easier, since their interface allowed a bulk upload of all my FLAC files, but I bogged down in entering corrected file info. In retrospect, I’m thinking I should have made a point of properly tagging my FLAC files with song titles and artist info. Also, the track sequencing there wasn’t quite as slick — best to work it out in advance and simply enter the track numbers in the individual elements of the aggregate work.

Upcoming in part two: Getting the word out, real guerrilla marketing, video, networking, and more…

For the record: my only connection to Bandcamp are three standard artist accounts there, one for this project, one for my one man band, and one for my more roots/folk solo act.