When Is A CD Not A CD?

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As a consumer/collector of guitar-oriented compact discs, I can tell you that I intensely dislike the tendency for artists and bands to release their music on a CD-R instead of a regular CD. I've gotten some CD-Rs in the past (which I presumed were regular CDs when I bought them), and when they arrived I get really disappointed at the presentation and quality of the item. Most of the time, the band or artist is charging the same price for their CD-R as they would for the CD, so there isn't any way to use pricing to determine what you're getting when you buy through the mail, or over the Internet. But the quality isn't there, not by a long shot, regardless of what the band may think.

How Did We Get To This Point?

The method of 'releasing a CD' on CD-R became popular when the price of CD burners (and the blank CD-R media) fell to a ridiculously low level. Bought in bulk, you can get blank CD-Rs for fifty cents or less. A CD burner is a couple of hundred bucks. In the mid-'90s, no one put out a CD-R release because a CD burner was $2000 and the blank media could cost anywhere from $4 to $8 each. Now, it seems, we are inundated with CD-R 'releases' because a number of musicians feel if it can be done at home, then do it at home. CD duplication houses have also gotten into the act, doing 'short-run' CD-R duplication for musicians from as little as 25 pieces to as many as 500.

Why Choose CD-R For Your Album Over CD

Here's the sad thing. There can be only one reason a band would put out what they consider to be a sellable record on CD-R. Money. Moolah. Scratch. Coin. Dinero. Dough.

You would not make the decision to press your great music on a CD-R for any artistic reasons. You would not make the decision to press your cleanly recorded, superb compositions on CD-R for any emotional reasons. You would not make the decision to press your dynamic, energetic soundscapes on CD-R for any environmental reasons. It all boils down to money. And where money and art clash, trouble is always around the corner.

Now, I overheard one musicians saying he, "didn't have the space to warehouse 1000 CDs." Nice try, but many quality duplication houses will do regular CD pressings of 300 to 500 units. Space is not a consideration here. 300 CDs boxed up takes only three cubic feet of space. I think most of us could find three cubic feet of space somewhere in our living space.

Another musician who has sold a grand total of 150 computer burned CD-Rs of his music over three years (so he ought to know, right?) told me, "No one has ever complained to me about them. I don't think they know the difference." Oh, nice! Great attitude - since they don't know the difference, screw them! Besides, we're talking about a guy that never returns phone calls and gets up at noon - I'm not sure anyone could ever find him to complain.

Hold It! There May Be Another Reason...

Now here's a dirty little secret. Some musicians really are not sure of how good their music is. Some musicians lack confidence in either their performance, their recording quality, or their compositional strength. Their solution to their lack of confidence problem is to burn a few CD-Rs - "to see what happens". This is all fine and good for getting feedback on your work. Should you then promote it and sell it as if it was a regular release? No! Don't pass it off for something that it's not.

Here's a thought. If you lack confidence in your work just keep recording. Keep at it. Keep trying. Keep improving. Do the music world a favor and wait to put your music out there until you can stand behind it one-hundred and fifty percent, and have the confidence to press up a decent amount of copies in a quality fashion. Use your CD burner to run demos off for people to listen to in the meantime, but don't be a cheap bastard and expect payment for them. A demo is a demo.

Another option if you're just looking for feedback is to convert your songs to mp3 format and upload them to one of the zillions of mp3 sites out there. Then, listeners can download your music for free, and if they have the time, maybe they'll give you their comments.

A Music Industry Veteran's Thoughts On The Subject Of Quality

David Hooper, an artist development and marketing consultant at Kathode Ray Music, is in the position to know. He has thousands of recordings coming into his office every year. He recently stated in an improptu debate on CD quality in a message board, "I find from listening to hundreds of recordings every month that the stuff put on CD-Rs just isn't as good as the stuff that people have actually bothered to press. In my opinion, this has to do with the 'filter' concept. People are more likely to release stuff that is only moderately good if they have no risk in sitting with a bunch of unsold CDs, don't have to invest a lot of money, etc."

"Most people, before they invest a couple of grand to press a CD, are going to ask, 'Is this music good enough for me to invest this kind of money in?'"

"Consumers will also ask the same question. When was the last time you bought a DAM CD
from mp3.com?"

"The main question here is, 'Does a CD-R affect the consumer's decision to purchase?'"

"I would say yes. Not only do you have lack of filters, you also have issues with actually playing the CD-R, I absolutely hate it when I get a CD-R with a sticker on it because I use a slot CD player on my iMac to play music and the discs often get stuck, get thrown off balance, etc."

Back To The Money Issue

OK. So the above scenario does not apply to you. You have confidence. Your music kicks ass. You know it. Everyone knows it. It's great. It will sell. Now here comes that money problem again. "I just can't afford to press regular, major-label quality CDs. I think I'll burn my CDs at home on my computer and laser print the inserts, or maybe I'll sign up for one of those short-run CD-R packages offered by Skaggs Records. What's the difference, the music sounds the same either way."

First off. Consumers don't really want what you're planning to sell them. They might buy it out of ignorance, they might buy it 'blind', but they'll never choose to buy it over a comperable CD. 98% of CD-R releases out there (that I've seen) are obviously of lower overall quality than comperable CD releases. Maybe it's the cheap paper the inserts were printed on. Maybe it's the fact that the inserts were cut crookedly, folded crookedly, hand-folded, fingerprint stained, etc. Maybe it's the awful green or blue backed CD-R itself. Maybe it's the cheaper-than-cheap stick on labels that will come off eventually in someone's CD player, I'll guarantee that. Maybe it's the fact that when you hold the CD-R up to the light you can see right through it.

Secondly. This is the music business you're planning to participate in. You goal is to get people's money for your music. So think. How many chances are you going to get to make a good first impression? Do you want your first impression to be a good one or a mediocre one? Using a retail example, do you want to give a Nordstrum's-level impression or a Kmart-level impression? Using a car example, do you want to give a Lexus impression or a Yugo impression?

A well-respected music industry consultant puts it thusly, "This is how I explain it to my clients. There's only one record business. Meaning, if any musician wishes to be taken seriously, there are no shortcuts in manufacturing, marketing, or promoting. With over 500 CDs a week coming into the marketplace, every effort should be made to design a professional looking cover, and package so that it resembles all the major label efforts. That's what people are used to.n A CD-R can't match in quality or appearance what a true manufacturing plant and graphic designer can do together."

Without a lot of effort you can talk yourself into believing it doesn't matter. Don't do it. It does matter.

Your goal as a recording artist should be to set yourself apart, to distinguish what your doing from the other 25,000 artists who plan to put out a record this year. If the current tendency or trend is to go cheap by releasing CD-R, then you should, for no other reason, plan to set your music apart by going the extra mile to release a quality item.

Isn't A CD-R Just As Good As A CD? Why Are We Obsessing?

Bit for bit, there probably isn't any difference in sound. Of course, there isn't any difference in sound between a new CD and a used CD, but most people I know would be pissed to pay a new CD price for a used CD. Yet, that's exactly what it's like to a consumer when they pay a CD price for a CD-R release. The sound difference (or lack of a sound difference) is not really the issue, and focusing on that just leaves the consumer feeling like they got taken somehow.

Many duplication houses even add to the confusion by sending out mixed signals. For example, on the Lonely Records site (http://www.lonelyrecords.com) they state, "As far as audio quality and longevity, there is no difference between commercially pressed CDs and burned CD-R. Both are as reliable and as durable. The difference is in the manufacturing process. Pressed CDs are created through an injection molding process while CD-Rs are burned with a laser. CD-R come with on-disc print and pressed CDs come with a silk screen. Both include a protective lacquer coating". But then they go on to say, "Your CD-R should play in almost every CD player out there. A very small percentage however may not play on some older CD players or car CD players due to compatibility issues." Well - that's wonderful - I'm sure your customers will be pleased with that! Then after the sales pitch for CD-R and how good they are, you're wondering why would anyone bother with CDs you read the blurb about their replicated CDs, "Our CDs are commercially pressed and include silk screen print on the CD. These discs are major label quality and are guaranteed to be free of manufacturer defects." Ah! Major label quality! So, the CD-Rs are not major label quality (an inference), meaning no major label, large independent label, or medium independent label would be caught dead releasing an album using CD-R (another inference).

Something tells me it would be a good idea to look at what companies that sell a lot of music are doing, and try to do something similar. It used to be, in the early days of the compact disc, that getting as few as 1000 CDs pressed was prohibitively expensive, but now, it's not bad at all. Certainly it's not enough to buck the trend and put out something different (and hope people won't mind).

Oasis CD Duplication (http://www.oasiscd.com) takes a firmer stance on the issue, just check out their Quality Standards for CD Replication, "Make sure your CDs are replicated at a facility with ISO-9002 certification. This standard ensures that everything that can be done to preserve quality in the manufacturing process has been taken care of. (All Oasis CDs are manufactured in a facility with ISO-9002 certification.)" Or their treatise on Replication Vs. Duplication: There is a BIG difference, "Even if you can't afford to have your CDs made in an ISO-9002 certified facility, at the very least make sure they're manufactured using a true replication process, as opposed to the duplication process used by people who make CD "one-offs." While CD one-offs are incredibly handy when you're in a hurry and only need a small number of CDs (and while we recommend them for this purpose), replicated CDs are significantly more reliable and durable than do-it-yourself one-offs -- which are literally "burned" rather than injection-molded like the replicated CDs that major-label releases use. In addition, bona fide replicated CDs are dramatically less expensive than CD one-offs in anything other than the smallest quantities. (In fact, a finished replicated CD may not cost you any more than the blank MEDIA required for CD one-offs.) Finally, replicated CDs LOOK a heck of a lot prettier--and we all know that appearances are important in the entertainment industry!"

OK, so not even CD duplicators can agree on the reliabilty issues. One thing is for sure, the quailty control in the manufacturing process (however you define it) is significantly enhanced with replicated CDs (imagine your CD-R sales rep scratching his head going, "I. S. O... what?!?")

Some think that because some duplication houses offer CD-R packages that somehow that legitimizes CD-R releases, but the truth is that they know that some musicians will just burn CD-R at home, so they want the ability to offer a service to do the work for you - if they can't talk you into getting real CDs manufactured. They know which process yields a better product in the end - just as they know a CD offers better qulaity than the cassettes they'll be happy to make for you as well.

Show Me Another Duplicator's Take On This Subject, Please!

OK, let's take a look at ELS Productions (http://www.elsproductions.com). They have a page called "CD-R Advantages" - let's break it down:

  • Less initial cash outlay.
    • Well now, there's that money thing again...
  • Test Market - How often after you get your CD's out to the buying public do you find things you would like to change? With smaller quantities you get the opportunity to "tweak" your product after the initial release!
    • I must admit, as a consumer, this one turns my stomach. How would you like to spend $15 on a Joe Satriani CD, then after selling a few thousand copies, the label decides songs 4 and 9 don't work, and replace them with some much better tunes. Hey, great! You're the chump who blew $15 on the 'lemon' version, now what? They want another $15 so you can get the 'upgrade'? What is this, computer software? Well, if it's not OK for Sony/Epic to pull such a stunt, why should you subject your loyal fans to this garbage.
  • Pay only for what you actually need - If you sell 300 CDs then only duplicate 300 CDs.
    • Gee, there's that money thing, again, what, is everything about money? Truthfully, you can get 300 duplicated the normal way as well - you're not stuck with only CD-R as an option.
  • Faster Service.
    • Please don't choose CD-R for this reason - man, you'll be selling them for years, what diference is a week or two going to make.
  • Get 100 CD-R's now while you wait for your big order.
    • OK, now it's starting to sound like a salesman wrote this list. See 'Faster Service' above.

At the risk of sounding too cynical, you should be wary when you run across a page detailing the 'advantages of CD-R'. If it says 'trade-offs of CD-R releases' or 'who might choose CD-R over Replicated CDs', then you might be able to put the comments in the proper perspective. But advantages? Yeecchh!

Take one more glance through the ELS Productions list. Do you see anything in the list that represents an advantage to the customer, ie. the one who is eventually supposed to foot the bill for this. Is there anything in there about an 'enhanced entertainment experience' or 'long lasting, better tasting, or improved whitening'? No, there's a bunch of ways for the musician to cut corners, while the customer gets dick.

But I Still Don't Have The Money! Cash Is King, Isn't It?

OK, you've read this far and you have no more money than when you started reading. You think CD-R is the way to go. Press 'em as demand requires. I'm still saying - don't do it.

Have you really thought this money thing through? Maybe other options exist that would allow you to get major label quality CDs pressed and still fit your budget.

Drew J. Garafola is a professional guitarist from Switzerland, who released his CD "Guitar Without Boundaries" (out of print) in the Netherlands in 1987.

He is an avid collector of guitar-oriented recordings, with over 5000 CDs in the genre.

Drew J. Garafola