Your Record Release: Manufacturing and Cover Design Considerations

There is more to making a record than just recording it. Here are a few things to think about before you decide how many copies to manufacture.

How many CDs will you choose to manufacture? What will the cover (and booklet) design and artwork look like? If you take time to consider how these questions relate to preparing your release for the marketplace, you'll increase your chances of selling your music.

Let's get into some manufacturing basics. The cost of making CDs has gone down since the CD debuted in 1982. Manufacturing plants offer dozens of "package deals" to make it easier for an artist to release their own music. However, when I ask a new client why they pressed up 1000 copies of their first CD, they usually answer, "Well, I called this company I saw advertising in a music magazine and they had this great deal on pressing up 1000 CDs."

OK, but please stop and ask yourself some more questions before you order:

  • Do I have 1000 potential customers?
  • Do I have a good shot at selling more than a thousand records? Or, have I underestimated my needs?
  • Will I send promo copies (freebies) of my record to radio stations, newspapers and magazines? How many do I need locally, regionally, and nationally? How many will I give away to family and friends?
  • If I'm going to work with a legitimate distributor how many copies will they need to give to retailers as an incentive for them to purchase it? (This is known in the industry as 'free goods') How many promotional copies will they need to giveaway to the buyers at various retail accounts?

Answers to these questions will help you determine the number of records you actually need to make. And that will affect how much money you need to manufacture. Also, are CD's the only configuration you need to make? What about cassettes, mini CD's, Enhanced CDs, or vinyl?

The cover design of your release is also a very crucial issue. What is your package going to look like? The time you spend designing your CD cover will pay off big time in the future--in many ways. The image you select, the graphic artist you choose to design the cover, the colors and fonts you choose all play a huge role in creating or maintaining your image. It is estimated that over 90% of the first impressions people get of an artists music is a visual impression. If that is true, than ask yourself how important the image you have created on your cover is to impressing people in the industry as well as potential customers.

Where do you place your name on the cover of your CD? If it's too low, it will be hard to find your record in the retail store bins, where product is crammed into the bins. Be sure to clearly print your name in the top 1/3rd of the cover. Also, be sure your band name is written so that it stands out from the title of your record. For example, if your band name is Soap, and your album title is Suds, either of those two names could be a band name. Unless you have designed a distinctive logo for your band name, or made it obvious in some other way, how are the gatekeepers at radio, retail, and the press supposed to know if your band name is "Soap" or "Suds"?

The back cover must have a barcode if you intend to get your CD into most commercial retail record stores. You could also print the catalog number here as well. The back cover should list the song titles and times of the songs. That helps the DJs at non-commercial radio find a song that fits into their music set. A professional looking photo is cool, too. Contact information for independent releases must include snail mail and email addresses, maybe a PO Box for the label, and your Internet URL address. You can list some basic recording credits here, like the producer's name, if he or she is well known, and maybe the studio's name as well. Band personnel could be listed here, if you're not printing up a multi-page booklet.

On the spine you must put your name (or that of your band), your logo, the album title, the catalog (selection) number of your release (usually a series of letters and numbers like CJK10001), and the logo/name of the label.

The CD booklet can have just about anything in it. Lyrics, photos, all the thank yous you want, a brief bio or liner notes about the music. The booklet can be anything that enhances the listener's experience of the music, or tells more about you as a person or group.

Here is an exercise for you. Go to your favorite record store and give yourself one solid hour of browsing through the bins. Look at other artist's covers. Pay attention to what they look like. How many truly great covers can you find in one hour? How many bad ones? What made the great covers great, and the bad covers bad?

At the end of that hour you'll be far more aware of your competition. Which pile will some future music director, distributor or store buyer put your CD in? The great pile or the bad pile? I want you to realize that you will be sending your record to people who see more records in a week than you will see in a year. Your cover makes an impression that will last a lifetime. That's right -- a lifetime. That's how long you'll have to live with your decision. How much do you like your cover design now? Every time you look at it, are you proud of it? Or do you think how much better it could have been?

Preparing your record for manufacturing takes as much thought and consideration as writing and recording your songs. If you skip over the steps I've outlined here, you risk disappointment and financial loss. Putting out your own record is a high risk endeavor. Reduce that risk by thoughtfully and professionally analyzing your potential customer base, your promotional needs, and the effectiveness of your cover design.

Throughout his fprty year career in the music business, FourFront Media & Music's Christopher Knab has shared his experience at many industry conventions and conferences, including the New Music Seminar and the Northwest Area Music Business Conference.

Knab was owner of a San Francisco music store, co-owner of the 415 Records label, and station manager at KCMU Radio in Seattle.

He currently provides a unique consultation and education service for independent musicians and record labels. His new book is entitled "Music Is Your Business".

Christopher Knab