CD or not CD?

July 21, 2008 11:22 AM

Physical CDs- things of the past?

When unsigned people/bands finish albums these days, is it worth the money and effort to get CDs professionally made? Is this a waste, given that 99% of your distribution's going to be downloads anyway?

(I was talking to Sleepy Pete about this in an email convo, but figured it would be an interesting topic for community discussion. Sorry if this isn't within the Music Talk boundaries..)
posted by COBRA! (19 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

No, this is totally fine for Music Talk.

I have a hard time seeing CDs themselves disappearing immediately, but there is a sea change coming for sure. At the individual level, though, it's as much as anything the utility you personally, as an artist/band, see coming from having the physical product—and, to some extent, whether utility is what you care about.

Utility stuff:
- What are you going to do with the CDs you print?
- Who are you selling them to, and how?
- Where are you keeping them in the interim?*
- Do you mind sitting on several hundred unsold discs?
- Is that x hundred (or thousand?) dollars something that's worth more as CDs than as new gear, or tour money, or rent?
- Are CDs going to be, in some foreseeable way, the difference between someone listening to your music vs. not?

Those are all I think decent practical questions, and it may be easier to answer those on a case-by-case basis than to try and answer it as a yes/no question, as it were.

*For example, are you keeping several hundred unsold copies of the meficomp album in sleepy pete's basement? You are? Well, he must be a pretty nice guy.
posted by cortex at 1:22 PM on July 21, 2008

I can only speak from personal experience -- I know that the price I spent on manufacturing CDs for my first album never got recouped.

(One warning I have to those who think they'll be all clever and wait to buy discs until they get enough pre-order "commitments" to make it worthwhile is this: only 1/3 of the people who promise to buy the disc will actually cough up the dough when the time comes.)

And I'm also fairly certain that my record label hasn't recouped the cost for the EP and Album they released -- or at best made little, if any, profit.

But it sure is REALLY nice to hold a nice, professionally-manufactured CD in your hands of your own work. And to give them to friends and acquaintances who might enjoy it. There's no substitute for that.

Asking someone who works a few cubes down the row to "go to my website dot com slash downloads slash... hang on, I'll email you the link" doesn't have the same panache as handing them a shrink-wrapped version of your baby.
posted by chimaera at 1:35 PM on July 21, 2008

Oh, and to add on to what cortex said: I have several hundred unsold copies of the first album, the EP and the second album in our crawlspace under the upstairs neighbor's stairs.

But I can definitely say that there are many people who would have never gone to the trouble of downloading some link I emailed to them who ended up quite enjoying at least some tracks on the album, and can probably be counted on to buy the next.
posted by chimaera at 1:39 PM on July 21, 2008

It's frustrating that it's such a marginal question.... in a way, it makes me wish we were five years ahead or five years back, instead of this weird transitionary period. Y'know, just a few years ago I would have looked at it as a no-brainer. And weird as it seems, I think it'll be a no-brainer in the other direction before too long. I mean, in the end it seems to boil down to Cortex's last point,

- Are CDs going to be, in some foreseeable way, the difference between someone listening to your music vs. not?

and the answer is, sure, for some people it'll foreseeably put them over the top, but who are those people and how many of them are there?

Asking someone who works a few cubes down the row to "go to my website dot com slash downloads slash... hang on, I'll email you the link" doesn't have the same panache as handing them a shrink-wrapped version of your baby.

And yeah, I feel that, too; but once again, it's tough to put a dollar figure on exactly how much I feel that, and see how that dollar figure compares to CD-burning prices...

excuse me if I'm a little loopy; just got out of a Staff Bonding Event, for which (lots of) beer was provided
posted by COBRA! at 2:33 PM on July 21, 2008

I miss vinyl
posted by BrnP84 at 8:08 PM on July 21, 2008

For example, are you keeping several hundred unsold copies of the meficomp album in sleepy pete's basement? You are? Well, he must be a pretty nice guy.

Heh. I am the nice one.

There's a weird authenticity for some people with CDs. I don't understand it, really, but having liner notes and art is nice. Also, just to throw a wrench in it, my neighbor is part owner in a record store in town and he told me everyone buys vinyl or downloads nowadays. Even though this is a "hipper" record store than some, I kind of remember the same seeming to be true of Love Garden in Lawrence as well (also a pretty damn hip store). And, honestly, if I buy something it's usually a record or a download, so maybe he's actually right.

BUT, if you're thinking of doing the CD, might I suggest something like this. That's saulgoodman's site, by the way. (We were debating whether or not to make some CDs, but then someone offered to do it so we haven't.)
posted by sleepy pete at 8:18 PM on July 21, 2008

Also, since COBRA! didn't put them here, here's a link to the projects post of the EP and the link to the download page of the completely amazing Bond EP.
posted by sleepy pete at 8:24 PM on July 21, 2008

The one advantage of pressing CDs is having a physical manifestation of music to sell at shows. Audience members like to buy things and a CD feels more valuable than, say, a card with a URL and password to download files. You could do this with vinyl, too, but outside of music geekdom, how many people listen to vinyl?

For the unsigned artist, I would not press everything on CD, but would try to get music out in as many formats as possible. Say, take a couple of recording sessions and put out a pair of online EP releases. Then press a 7" of a couple of tracks and later a full-length CD compiled from multiple online albums with an extra track or two. (That said, it's an expensive way to go, and just releasing online is cheap, but at this point still feels less 'legit' than a physical product containing the music.)
posted by andrewraff at 7:53 AM on July 22, 2008

Huh, I actually didn't realize that small-run production like saulgoodman's was possible-- all of the local stuff I'd googled had minimum run sizes that would have left me filling up my friends' basements with extra CDs. That really does sort of Change Everything.

and thanks for the spotlight, sleepy pete
posted by COBRA! at 8:53 AM on July 22, 2008

given that 99% of your distribution's going to be downloads anyway

We're certainly not to that point yet, and won't be for quite awhile. Don't get me wrong, it's a high (and increasing) percentage, but its not 99.

You lose a lot of immediacy when you tell somebody to go get your stuff online versus having an actual CD to give them in the moment, and in that case, it helps if it's professionally done and doesn't involve memorex and a sharpie.
posted by kingbenny at 9:18 AM on July 22, 2008

Related- 800 CDs (a documentary) via Kevin Kelly's True Films blog. I haven't seen it, but here's the movie's website.
posted by acro at 12:13 PM on July 22, 2008

I wrestled with this question while working on my next album. CDs have been dead to me as a consumer for a couple years now, but I realize that's not the way everyone feels. Not having a CD at all would be a weird barrier to many people in the really real world.

A lot of media are hesitant to write about anything without a CD (unless you have a super strong hook) and selling digital files at shows is still hard to do. CDs still give your music the stamp of "legitimacy", unfortunately.

The most important thing I think is to press an appropriate amount and have an idea of how you're going to move some of them. I started off selling home-burned CD-Rs until I raised enough money and felt there was enough demand to press some CDs.
posted by frenetic at 4:07 AM on July 23, 2008

Yeah, CDs are good for shows, but the costs are definitely harder to recuperate.

What I would recommend:
1. A multi-session CD -- make the first session audio so that it plays in regular CD players, and the second session can be data with high-quality mp3 or m4a versions of the music. It would be somewhat easier to market if you talk about how the files are already ready for portable players.
2. Package the CDs with more profitable items at the shows (e.g. shirt + CD [with bonus mp3s!] for $25)
3. Promotional USB sticks, preloaded with mp3s. They're not cheap, but if you get 100 or so, you can sell them for $15-$20 each easily, and market their reusability.
4. Set up a laptop at shows where people can plug in their iPods or whatever popular mp3 players they have to get songs directly.

But I think in the end, CDs are still necessary for promotion for reasons that frenetic lists.
posted by spiderskull at 1:23 PM on July 23, 2008

When you have a CD in your hand, you can listen to it on the way home in your car. We're still in that transition period where most people do not have mp3 support in their cars in any meaningful way, and so on-site (concert) and impulse (store) buys that benefit from the able-to-listen-going-home value make a CD mandatory.

However, lots of recent computers have technology (I think it's called LightScribe) that enables you to burn a label into the disk itself, which is a nice step above stick-on labels; each disk takes a while, but it'll enable you to make JIT small volume runs for local shows and order fulfillment until you realize the cost of a professional run is worthwhile compared to the amount of time you spend burning/inscribing CDs yourself.

JIT self-pressing also lets you make a bit of a marketing gimmick out of it, if you feel up to the task; for each scheduled show, record an original song that has specifics of the show in the lyrics or is otherwise uniquely appropriate for that show, and include it on the disk as a bonus track. It doesn't scale, but again, that point at which the cost of pro pressing is better than the effort of JIT self-pressing is the point at which you could drop the gimmick. Go on to be a huge hit and those just-for-the-show (but still high-quality) discs could end up worth something -- or at least those who have them will feel like they have something valuable.

Gimmicks aside, though, your best cost/benefit ratio comes from befriending someone who works at a duplication facility, and make an under-the-table deal with them for a small run in the off-hours. But you didn't hear that from me.
posted by davejay at 2:25 PM on July 24, 2008

The CD is long dead. The only reason to have a few printed up is to send to radio stations. Other than that, go vinyl - it has some value as a physical artifact... a CD is a just an inefficient transmission medium for digital data.
posted by phrontist at 2:50 PM on July 24, 2008

Do you have fans? Can you poll them? Have them tell you what format they want; they're the ones buying your stuff anyway. That's what I did for my last release.

Otherwise, it's short-run CDs and high-quality digital downloads FTW.

I'd skip the vinyl, USB keys, download cards, etc. It's cute, but at the end of the day, most people either want CDs or downloadable files.
posted by scottandrew at 3:46 PM on July 24, 2008

Unless you do more t-shirt business then anything else, CD's are your best cheapest bet for tour merchandise purposes. Vinyl is great for music geeks, and they will LOVE you for pressing a vinyl, but it probably won't sell as well as a CD at shows. Unless your niche genre has a high vinyl fanatic to casual listener ratio..

Proffesionally reproduced CD's have the obvious promotional advantages as well, if you are sending kits out or promotional copies for review it will always look better to have a well designed package with thought out liner notes then a Memorex with a band name scribbled on it.
posted by mediocre at 9:00 AM on July 25, 2008

i just used kunaki for the first time, i'm very satisfied.

order any number of cd's, with bar code, shrink wrap, photo quality disk surface/insert printing, $1.75/each, no setup.

the software is pretty nice, very efficient. basically, you're interfacing with a brooklyn-based bot which spits out shrink-wrapped cd's (and dvd's too).

have a look at our new cd, if you so desire.

you mac ficios will be sad, you'll have to port over the wave files and prep the album on your mom's pc, nyaah.
posted by kimyo at 11:16 PM on July 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I can't remember who said that mp3s sounded like song that had been castrated... Lou Reed, possibly?

I hate them. FLAC is decent, but nothing is better than a 'glass copy' BOUGHT CD, IMO.
posted by chuckdarwin at 2:19 AM on November 18, 2008

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