If you've been sending your band's demo out to record labels and not getting a response, releasing your own album or EP by yourself might sound appealing. Self-releasing an album can be a successful tactic, but don't underestimate the amount of legwork involved. Here are some factors to consider.
The Cost of Manufacturing
Having an album pressed is not cheap, and without the backing of a label, you carry that cost yourself. Labels often get better rates with manufacturers because they can order in larger volume or because they have a distribution deal in which their distributor pays for pressing. Furthermore, if you don't boast a track record, a manufacturer may not extend credit to you, meaning you have to shell out cash up front before making any profit on your record. Recently, self-publishing services such as CD Baby will press professional-looking CDs for you complete with cover art and liner notes.
Self-releasing an album and selling it online is one way to go, but if you want your record in brick and mortar stores, you'll need some kind of distribution deal. Some distributors will take on your album and simply funnel it into stores if they happen to order it, but a good distributor takes your music and proactively sells it to stores. Getting one these distributors is a tough sell with your first album, so you may find that your sales avenues are fairly limited as you set out.
Digital distribution is a cost-effective way to get your music heard. Amazon Music, iTunes, or Spotify all pay (relatively small) royalties for plays and digital album purchases. Several platforms now exist to aggregate your tracks and send them out to several digital streaming services.
An established label, even a small one, will have relationships with press and radio that they can cash in on to generate press buzz for their releases. Most labels will also hire PR companies which may be too pricey for you to do on your own. Again, this can be a question of volume - if a label runs a lot of business through a particular PR company, they can get a better price.
Many of these elements are interconnected - for instance, if you have a PR company lined up to work your release, a distributor will be more interested in working with you because press attention makes your album easier to sell. If you have a distributor, the manufacturer might be willing to extend credit to you, because the distributor will help you get sales to cover your bills.
The Nuts and Bolts of Self-Releasing an Album
Do you know actually how to release a record? Do you have time to dedicate to the project to make it worthwhile? That's the reality check. Now here's the good news...if you set realistic goals. If this is your first release and you don't have any press coverage, start small. Sell your albums at your shows, try to get local independent record stores to take it on a consignment basis and drum up some press coverage.
Use your website to sell your album to your fans as well. When you have some sales under your belt and some press to show off, start looking for a distributor who can bring your album out to a wider audience. Every success and every bit of progress, no matter how small, is a building block for your next step.
Signing a Record Deal After a Self Release
One caveat - if getting signed to a label is your goal, be aware that when you self-release an album, a label may hesitate to release that album again in the future. If you've already gotten press attention for those songs, the label won't be able to promote them again. In that case, consider either holding back some of your songs or continue to write and record new ones while working your release to give a label new material to work with.