7 steps to self releasing your record in 2017

As a label services provider we confront the question of how best to release a record on a daily basis. We are fortunate to work with some incredibly talented artists and music industry professionals who are constantly challenging us and looking for innovative ways to approach what is a rapidly evolving industry and global market place.

The recorded music business is a high risk venture for most artists, managers and record labels. Investing in the release of an album is akin to the risks an angel investor takes investing into a start up. It is raw entrepreneurship fuelled by creative self belief and a degree of blind optimism, it can be a perfect recipe for commercial loss.

Fortunately there are a plethora of tools and service providers that can assist the independent artist, manager and label in achieving their creative goals and ambitions whilst also running a profitable business although that is easier said than done!

The 7 steps below are not definitive nor revelatory. There are distinct changes occurring in how we release records and whilst many of the KPIs and ingredients for success will never change there is an widening degree of skills required to navigate the path.

  1. Create a budget. An obvious starting point but a challenging one due to the variety of potential costs centres. My advice is to keep it simple. Focus on the worst case scenario and then the break even point. At Kartel every new deal starts with a budget which is constructed with as much supportive research and due diligence as is available to enable meaningful projections and assumptions.
  2. Identify your audience and the potential demand for your record. Sky’s the limit right? Wrong. In the real world records are hard to sell and millions of streams take a lot of work to achieve. Primary indicators of demand include past sales history, ticket sales history, social media stats and increasingly useful Spotify Fan Insights. If you don’t have a meaningful sales/streaming base but do have an engaged fanbase on social media consider ways to test their appetite for buying your music. Most fans don’t perceive Crowdfunding as being desperate or an indication of failure. Not all fans are record buyers which isn’t necessarily a problem if you understand your audience.
  3. Identify your USP. With reportedly up to 3,000 albums being released each week on Spotify how do you stand out from the crowd. Define your pitch. Is there an interesting narrative? How does the girl/guy behind the counter in the record shop get a customer interested? How does your distributor sell the record to the record shop? How does your PR person pitch the record to media? Who do you sound like. Familiarity is how commercial radio chooses which records to play don’t be shy to make comparisons.
  4. Route to market. There are many ways to self-release a record today from Bandcamp, Tunecore to PledgeMusic to signing with a boutique label services company like Kartel. What about format? When was the last time you bought a CD? The vinyl boom is being well documented but it’s an expensive format to make and isn’t right for everyone or every stage of the process. Digital format generally represents the lowest cost of entry and can be an important barometer of demand and discovery tool for acquiring fans. The neigh sayers to streaming often miss this point, convenience rules in everyone’s busy lives and most ardent music fans I know consumer music on multiple formats.
  5. Promotion, Marketing, Sales, Engagement. Arguably there’s at least 2 steps here but I’ve lumped these all together to illustrate how much the lines are blurring between these areas. As soon as a track goes online we have started to promote it and (hopefully) generate monetised engagement. Nobody sells streams, it’s all about Engagement. Radio pluggers are pitching for Playlists. PR people are plugging radio. The industry rule book is no longer relevant and that is a good thing. No more smoke and mirrors. Transparency rules. Playlists deal in a track based currency, the album is largely irrelevant in a playlist economy. That doesn’t mean the album is dead, far from it, the sale of a physical item is the ultimate conversion we’re looking for. Acquiring fans through passive discovery mechanisms such as a playlists or video is a cost effective route to growing an engaged fanbase. Step 1 is be Liked/Followed/Added, Step 2 is to convert to a sale. Keeping the Engagement level up on a monthly basis is the next challenge. Growing Monthly Listeners is still a relatively new concept for the Sales & Marketing department of any record company.
  6. Analytics. Much is made of the digital dashboard. These are provided by most digital distributors, our favourites include Revelator and Believe Digital whose Backstage now includes deep levels of insight on track performance and audience retention. Maintaining a 75+% listener retention, where users listen to the full track, is a metric used by DSPs to test whether a track is performing well in playlists. Aside from the musical quality this can be influenced by track length and indeed tracks are being edited for playlist inclusion, just as they were for radio. Analytics will give you insights on territorial performance, playlists, fan demographics as well as being a valuable indicator on economic performance. What a (digital) dashboard won’t tell you is whether or not you’re on track within your budget. The economic make up of most independent records is still 50% or more derived from physical format. If you can’t see that in the dashboard you’re only seeing half the story...
  7. Administration and accounting. Establishing an accessible and holistic insight into the commercial performance of a record remains a significant challenge for many independent music businesses. We are yet to see a dashboard that encompasses Physical and Digital sales, ancillary revenues as well as tracking actual expenditure. This is a complex proposition and to be honest most of the current (label services) stake holders do not have sufficient vested interest in the holistic picture to offer the complete package. Monitoring sales performance is key to making informed marketing decisions. The most common issue we see is overspend in PR & Marketing relative to sales potential. There must be a correlation between expenditure and revenue. Going back to the investor analogy being realistic about ROI is a key principle in any venture capital deal so it should be the same with the release of a record. The ROI may eventually come from the wider artist business, merch/ticket sales etc, for many artists the release of an album is the driver for other areas of business. However in order to make those informed business decisions we need up to the minute and accurate insights across all formats, revenues and expenditure.