We’re seeing it more and more these days: a growing number of DIY musicians releasing their music solely in digital format, for download and online streaming. Considering that the digital music market is expected to grow at a rate of 15 percent annually worldwide (and that physical music sales are down overall), it begs the question: should you even bother making that CD?
To make things even more complicated, it’s becoming more and more apparent that we are entering the “age of the single,” to the point that a growing number of musicians aren’t even bothering so much with 10-12 song collections (in the olden days, we called these “albums”). For indie musicians on shoestring budgets, often it just makes more financial sense to release songs one at a time, online—or at the most, release a few songs at a time in EP format. Several indie bands in my local area are releasing a song at a time (usually one per month) to their fans, which will add up to a full-length record by the end of the year. Our correspondent Kim Phelps recently profiled Australian artist Owl Eyes, who has garnered international attention without ever releasing a full-length record—just a series of singles and EPs.
What I’m saying by this is that for indie musicians, the rules are still changing as far as how you get your name out there. Apparently, it’s no longer a requirement to have a full-length album to your credit, or even a printed CD. And let’s face it—printing CDs is expensive (at least, if you do it right). So the question is—should you bother with it?
From my perspective, the answer isn’t that cut-and-dried. It depends on a variety of factors, such as how much money you have, how much money you’re willing to spend, how many options you wish to present to your fan base, and what your fan base prefers, for that matter. (If your audience is an older crowd, for example, CDs are probably more in your best interest, since fewer of your fans will be listening to you on mobile devices.) And we haven’t even addressed the question of printing vinyl records, which are making something of a comeback. If you’ve got a fan base that values vinyl, you definitely ought to look into that option, as well.
That being said, there are some definite advantages to releasing your music digitally that you ought not overlook. For one thing, it’s very instant. It is theoretically possible to record and mix a track, upload it to a Bandcamp page, and make it available to your fans within hours. If you want to get your music out quickly and easily, there’s really no better way to do it. It’s a great way to advertise yourself, and a few indie musicians even make a decent living simply by making a constant stream of material available online to an established fan base.
There are also a number of options available if you decide to print CDs (or vinyl) along with digital release of your music. For example, you could offer your record in digital format for a reasonably low price, but print a limited number of “special edition” CDs and/or vinyl records for your more dedicated fans who are willing to pay a bit more. Again, there’s no set formula here; it’s all about finding what combination suits your budget and your fan base the best.
Whether CDs will eventually go the way of the dinosaur, the 8-track and the cassette remains to be seen. For that matter, few people could have predicted that vinyl records would become popular again. Lots of people said that analog recording would disappear, but it’s still around because there is a sound it offers that digital can’t duplicate. So the CD may be around longer than we think. The thing about digital music isn’t necessarily that it is destined to replace other formats (although it might); for now, it simply gives DIY musicians more options as to how to get their music out there. If you don’t have the budget to print that CD right now, it doesn’t have to stop you from getting your music out to your fans. Whether or not you go all-digital really depends on you, your budget, and the people who want to buy your music.