Ten things I learned producing my *second* vinyl record.
Analog still ruling my digital world.
Back in December 2013 I put together ten learnings after producing my first vinyl record (read it here). It helped me realize some mistakes and enabled me to take advantage of what I discovered. I think it may have even inspired, or at least helped a few other aspiring producers too. So after my second vinyl release sold out in under a week (hey, it’s not bragging when the music isn’t mine!) I wanted to take another look back at my experience getting a record out in to the big bad world.
ASIPV002 Europe was similar to ASIPV001: a compilation featuring different artists from the ASIP community, limited edition run, double blue-transparent vinyl package, with free digital download.
A big difference from my first release and as a result, different learnings; this record wasn’t crowd-funded. I invested my own money on the belief that the demand was there, the label was mature enough, and the music stood out on its own. Here’s a few things I learned along the way.
(You need a soundtrack before reading any further and I have just the thing).
1. The hype is real, the vinyl industry is flying.
Not because I shifted 200,000 units, snapped up in seconds (I made just 300). It isn’t because a certain EDM festival announced a vinyl only stage either — no comment). My learning is primarily based on my dealing with manufacturers.
First-off, prices have gone up; marginally, but considering it was a declining trade a few years back, this has an impact on independents like me. I’m not complaining too much, because pressing plants are rare and don’t have the ability to pop up on high-streets like a Starbucks (read more on the struggles here, here or here). There are just a dozen in the United States alone, so I’m happy to invest in this trade whilst I can afford it.
The realisation came with how busy the manufacturers were. Pressing took longer than last time, emails took longer, conversations took longer and at times it felt like they didn’t need more business. Granted, I’m no big fish and my quantities are small, so I can be a pain-in-the-arse with my million questions, but still, I noticed a difference this time around. It wasn’t a negative experience — it was indeed a learning, and a consideration for next time. With the mega-plants like United however, churning out “40,000 records a day” there’s still hope for the big labels jumping on the plastic boat though... I’ll give myself more time next release, my 300-or-so won’t be a priority for a while yet.
2. Vinyl still isn’t profitable in small quantities.
I should caveat that with: ‘beautiful, limited vinyl’, isn’t profitable. To expand on the first learning, I’m pretty sure vinyl is profitable for many of the big labels given demand is through the roof at the moment but I, and many other small labels aren’t in this for profit. Small runs are key to ensure we recoup our investment with minimal risk, which means we can’t take a punt at 2000 units and a chance to make more margin — it’s just not appealing.
That being said, this becomes a bit of a null-point for me, because I’m not in this to make money (just enough to make the next one) but I feel it’s important to highlight to anyone thinking about producing a record.
From looking at many quotes and crunching the numbers, to maximise your return, you’d need to consider standard black vinyl, (considerably cheaper than coloured vinyl) and of course, decent supporting sales from digital distribution and even CD’s (still a market for them if done well). BUT, I hear you say, then you stand to lose the magic invested in the art, colours and packaging…
3. Craft *still* rules.
Similar to the first release, I enlisted the help of my friends Kevin Bryce and Nick Brzostowski to create a limited, wooden version for the release. ASIPV001 featured a custom wooden CD case. This time we went bigger -the whole 12 inches.
Kevin crafted five wooden vinyl cases featuring a unique graphic design by Nick. They were again, simply beautiful and took months of hard work; engraving, rubbing and oiling. With only five made, and the interest in them more than anticipated, I decided to price them high, with the intent to give any profits back to Kevin so he could reinvest it back into his workshop — his passion.
By the time I hit public on Bandcamp and refreshed the page, they had sold out. Literally, within seconds. I thought it was an error, but then I saw the payments come through.
This was proof to me (and to Kevin, who’s arms still ache) that it really is worth investing the time, art and craft in things like this. Even if it was just for five lucky people.
There was also an unexpected outcome…
4. People can get disappointed. Really disappointed.
We’ve all been there. The white label copy of your favourite track on eBay, the Aphex Twin Special Edition Lottery, or the Boards of Canada global promo hunt. Add the ASIPV002 Vinyl Case to the list! Granted it was just one person that ruined it, but it only takes one when you personally care who and how you impact…
The case sold out in seconds and by the immediate feedback, lots of people had it in their cart ready to pay, but were beaten to it — a photo finish. This can make a bad day worse for many, sure. But when you aggressively attack artists as being “unfair”, “never giving anyone a chance in the first place”, “holding back copies” and end conversations in threats, then it’s a little too far.
The guy apologized so that’s the end of it — no need for more negativity here. Let’s just end on the fact that I didn’t even get a copy of the case, nor did any of the artists involved. So I think we gave everyone a fair chance of getting one. If you want one so badly next time then get in contact and write me a cheque for a minimum of $1000 so I can pay Kevin and Nick and all the artists involved a fraction of what they deserve.
5. The right distributor can really help, in more ways than one. But make sure you retain as much control as possible.
I’ve always known I’d have to be doing pretty well before I even had the chance to get a distributor on board. But I’ve also had my reservations about it for many years too. There are risks, especially if you can’t shift your copies, but more importantly for me, the thought of giving up any part of the process is scary. However, this time around the benefits outweighed any potential negatives.
See learning 8 from my first record. Postage kills. This time, I’ve saved a bunch of effort and money, people have their records quicker and so far, I haven’t had to deal with any lost items from the USPS. Everybody else has saved money too as I haven’t been at the mercy of expensive USPS international shipping.
Also, my record was in stock in Japan. Life goal 42 accomplished.
The biggest win for me however, was the exposure the distributor gave the release. I’m yet to see or measure the impact (other than it selling out) however I can confidently say that having a record appear in your favourite and most respected online stores does well to boost demand, and I’m hoping will do me favours when it comes to getting the next release through the door too.
There’s deals available to labels which take the entire manufacturing process out of your hands and put it in the hands of the distributor, which with scale, could help turn you a profit (this is how many of the big labels operate). But if like me, you care about the product and profit isn’t your main motivator, then you should take control of the process as much as you can, and choose the right distribution partner for the right purpose.
For example, a big decision in the entire process is who will manufacture your record. Going further, sometimes these companies even have different Pressing Plants available. Without getting in to too much detail, even the Pressing Plant you choose can impact your product, from vinyl colour choices available, to labelling techniques and the detail on the finishes. Not to mention the obvious; pressing/sound quality.
6. Putting a face behind it all seems to help.
I’ve always debated whether me being a contactable face behind ASIP would bite me in the ass one day (maybe that angry dude described above might hunt me down and smash a deluxe Madonna box-set over my head). But until now, it’s been nothing but positive.
Firstly, a hand-delivered record means a lot. For a few people who bought local I hand delivered the record / case. It would ensure safe delivery, and it’s awesome to see the people buying and investing in something you’ve spent months creating (and find out they have the same dog as you!)
Second, I was able to give a heads-up to multiple people where copies were available, what stores and when, after they tweeted at me or sent me personal emails. Putting the effort in to ensure anyone who puts their hands up to get one, actually gets one, is really important for me.
And third, walking into a record store with your record, a story and a face beats an email.
7. Getting your record in a physical store makes it all worthwhile, so do your best to make it happen.
This has been a goal of mine since I started buying vinyl and I was lucky enough to realise it with this release.
You can go through this entire process and sell records without any of them ever seeing a dusty wall-rack or shoddy-shop turntable. ASIPV001 did for example. Online stores like Bleep and Boomkat don’t have shop faces and shift thousands a day, but any true vinyl fan will know that an actual store is the holy grail for vinyl, even if it is just one or two records.
Phonica Records in London was my first physical store to stock Europe. My distributor helped with this, and as a result was pretty unexpected. I shopped here for years buying nothing but minimal techno and to hear they took a few copies made my day. I emailed the store and asked to get a picture of it on the racks, of which they obliged.
I also managed to get some copies in to my local Portland record store, Beacon Sound; without a doubt the best store in Portland and even the US when it comes to ambient music. This was a good ol’ walk in the door, introduce yourself and tell them your story as opposed to any arrangement. Testament to a good record store, the owner of Beacon Sound is open to local labels and independents, so gladly took some copies. I then turned into my sixteen year-old self and took pictures of the record on the shelf, on the turntable as it played to customers and up on the wall-racks. A pretty amazing feeling and about as uncool as I could possibly be.
8. The world of music reviews is still as mysterious and ominous as ever.
It’s not often I get to sit on the other side of the fence for this one. I receive tens of emails a day from artists, labels and promoters pushing their music for review. I read EVERY email that isn’t a news-blast or formulaic label-punt, and out of that, I would say I get to listen to less than 10%. And when I love the music I hear, I’ll probably only find the time to write about less than 5%.
I’m always honest about how I handle reviews on the site, and I wish I had more time to do them. So I fully understand how it works from a blogger/journalist point of view (one that doesn’t do it full-time anyway).
So how about when I’m on the other side with music to promote? Well, I didn’t learn anything that was new, or a big surprise (I’ve been releasing music for a while now so know how hard it is to get exposure), but this experience did reinforce a few things which might help anybody reading this.
- Very few people have the time to review music. I can hedge a bet that 99% of people who are worthwhile and do it for love, do it alongside a regular job. Tip: take the time to form long-term relationships so that person or magazine has an investment in you as an artist or label.
- Out of those few, even less will take the time to listen objectively and formulate their own opinion that isn’t ripped directly from the Press Release or spun off other websites. Tip: Do everything you can to give them an easy and enjoyable listening experience, including downloads and streaming options, not .rar files or short previews.
- Blanket reviews across large publications are meaningless if the audience isn’t right. Look carefully at the audience of that site/blog and put your effort into just one or two who have the right audience to suit your music. Tip: see tip 1.
With all these points considered, I’d like to thank the people that wrote a review for Europe, no-matter how long or short, as I know they are one of very few who invested their own time for little gain. And, as I have done for the past seven years, I will continue to write reviews on ASIP as much as I can given I know first hand how hard it can be to get your music heard, and how much satisfaction it gives me to find and write about new music. More people need to document their music discovery experiences.
9. The first track is unfortunately, crucial.
In a world of playlists, driven by music listeners with an ever decreasing attention span, the first track on a compilation (or album) is pretty crucial in dictating the amount of plays, listens and ultimately, downloads.
It’s obvious right? People land on your Soundcloud profile, or Bandcamp page and hit play on the first track (especially when it’s not a compilation full of well-known names to skip to). But who actually takes advantage of the fact, or accommodates it? It’s a small thing worth considering.
With Bandcamp you can set a featured track, but it’s annoying, especially when you spend hours curating a track-list, a journey and a flow to the record. I ended up conceding and alternating the featured track on Bandcamp so that each artist got exposure at one point, but it’s still something that reflects uncomfortably in my stats.
This is just something that has always been a problem I guess, even with CD’s, so there’s not much I can take away from it apart from one tip. With compilations, make sure you give the artists the collateral to share their music, on Soundcloud, Facebook, email etc. With artist albums, spend the time introducing your audience to multiple tracks at different times. And in both instances, never assume people will sit and listen to the whole thing.
10. Time to explore the Streamers.
I don’t like streaming music. I don’t use Spotify. I use Soundcloud, but never to listen to albums on repeat, just mixes. I use Bandcamp, but I download the albums I buy. I’ve been stubborn up until now in embracing this type of listener. I buy music, download it and listen to it in good quality without ads or interruption — quality comes first for me, alongside the knowledge I supported that artist with more than $0.01.
But with my stubbornness comes a willingness to learn first-hand, and to find new ways to help the artists find more exposure. So, here’s a stake in the ground to help my next bunch of learnings… I’m off to explore what distributing Europe digitally brings me.
Thanks to everyone who purchased and supported the release, and everyone involved in making it such a success. ASIPV003 in the works… Until next time!!
Bonus learning: my wife is a good hand model.