Philly Music 101: What’s the best way to release your music?

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Illustration by Sarah Hughes
Illustration by Sarah Hughes

Philly Music 101 is our regular series guiding you through the wonderful world of the Philadelphia music scene: all of its passionate, loving participants, from artists to venues to studios and more.

There comes an important time in every music artist’s life when they must address a big question: how will I get my music to the people? The process can be an overwhelming one. Is it worth the investment for physical, tangible music goods, i.e. vinyl, CDs and cassettes? What are the options for digital releases? Which of these options is the best way to reach an audience?

In order to address some of these big questions, The Key is exploring options for releasing in this segment of Philly Music 101. We’ll present your choices and share some input from fellow local musicians who have had to make the same decisions. So, digital or physical? There are perks and pitfalls for both and the two aren’t (and shouldn’t be) mutually exclusive. Read on to find out why.

DIGITAL

Digitally releasing music has been a huge game-changer in the music world and for good reason. There’s no need to throw money into expensive equipment, services and distribution, and instead you have the freedom to release music to your listeners in the most convenient way around: the internet. With its convenience, wide reach and hundreds of websites that can service you in different ways, online music releases are as popular as ever. Matt Scottoline from Philly band Hurry explained that it’s important for local artists to be accessible online:

“My advice to young artists would be to get your music on the streaming services, and produce whatever physical media you can afford to do. Nobody will buy a download code from you [at a show]; and honestly, even if you give them one for free, they’ll probably lose it or throw it away by the time they get home. So, have your music on Spotify for the sake of accessibility and exposure, and have something physical for your shows to sell to fans (which is mutually beneficial).

This is a sentiment shared by many local Philly artists who say it’s important to stay in the online conversation since it gives your existing fans (as well as potential ones) a chance to check out your music before investing in a physical copy or a ticket to a show. August Lutz from Philly group Levee Drivers says:

“I do like how convenient digital downloads are. Especially for artists who rarely tour your area and are more independent when it comes to putting out their music.”

Websites like Soundcloud make it easy for listeners to search and explore your collection of music at their leisure. The site is a social network for music lovers and makers alike to share, post, and repost songs on their pages, so it can be a great way to stay in the loop and give people a chance to vibe out to your music. Although this website mainly offers music for streaming only, Philly hip hop artist Chill Moody defended making your music available for everyone, saying:

I am a firm believer that if people are listening there really is no disadvantage (to making your music available for free). Even if the song was free and they would have paid for it, if they like the song there is no “disadvantage” in losing that $1.99 or whatever. The goal is to get the music to the people in any way possible.

Another important music site is Bandcamp, which allows for a cross-over between physical and digital releases by giving you the ability to sell tapes, CDs, vinyl and other merch on your page in addition to digital downloads. Though it’s less conversational than Soundcloud, the site is a great way to give distanced fans who are be unable to attend shows a chance to support you.

Overall Pros

24/7 Merch Table

The big, wide world of digital music boasts many benefits but most of all, releasing music online serves as a merch table that never closes up shop. Online access gives your audience the freedom and power to get your music at any and all times, which is typically not the case with record stores and at-show merch stands. The customer convenience is a key player in the success of the digital realm.

Little To No Cost

Making your music available online is also a cost-efficient marketing plan. Tangible audio goods can prove to be an investment and taking that off of the receipt can help bands who are still garnering a following to cut costs and focus on their audience.

Overall Cons

Must be self-promoting

Of course, this is something that you should be doing as a local artist anyways, but it’s especially important for artists relying on their online market to be actively promoting their music on the internet. Chill Moody had plenty to say about digital releases, especially after starting up his digital distribution label nicethings MUSIC:

“You have to make sure you have a presence everywhere. Don’t be afraid to sell music because you are ‘new’ or don’t have a big fanbase yet. You won’t build that fanbase without official releases”.

Being an active member of the online community is important for artists who are relying on this particular audience to listen and purchase their music. For touring artists with physical merch stands, they can do a lot of this promotion in person and at their shows, so for artists where this isn’t the case, an online presence is mandatory.

High Volume

Getting your name out there online might be the hardest it has ever been. With such a high volume of artists who want the attention of the public, it’s difficult to keep your b(r)and in the online conversation. Self-releasing is a growing trend for artists, so finding your voice in a constantly growing community can be difficult. (A perk if you do work with a label: websites like Bandcamp and Soundcloud do allow for record companies to have their own pages to release your content, which oftentimes have larger amounts of people visiting the site and can be a good way to gain online exposure.)

Lesser sound quality

Releasing digitally can mean taking a hit in the quality of your sound. One of the biggest draws towards physical audio goods like cassettes and vinyl are the specific sound qualities that they offer to the artist’s sound. Digital releases can take away from that unique quality of sound. But August Lutz pushed that sometimes you have to let accessibility trump quality, saying:

“As an independent artist, you have to be able to reach your audience one way or another – even if that means downgrading your sound quality in the name of accessibility.”

PHYSICAL

In addition to releasing digitally, physical music goods are another viable release option for local artists. While digital boasts a certain convenience factor over physical, there is a strong following behind tangible music goods that is very much alive. The intimacy in holding and cherishing something like an album by your favorite artist is something that cannot be matched. As far as physical options go, the three main contenders are vinyl, cassettes and CDs and you’ll find passionate lovers of each who are willing to defend them at the drop of a beat in local music communities.

Vinyl

Hop Along's Frances Quinlan showing some vinyl love for fellow Key favorites Waxahatchee (photo via Hop Along Facebook https://www.facebook.com/hopalongtheband/)
Hop Along’s Frances Quinlan showing some vinyl love for fellow Key favorites Waxahatchee | photo via Hop Along’s Facebook facebook.com/hopalongtheband

As you (hopefully) know, vinyl LPs are those big, circular discs offering a vintage look and high-fidelity sound quality for listeners and collectors. They’ve made a major resurgence into the mainstream and have shown that they can offer something that cannot be matched by other media. In addition to a superior sound quality to digital, vinyl also has a passionate following and can be a great way to show where you stand as a serious artist.

That being said, vinyl definitely has its pitfalls. Pressing and releasing an album can have turnaround times that can last months. They’re not only an investment in time and energy, but also money. Scottoline explained that since it’s such an investment, it’s the norm for smaller artists to wait for a label to put the record out. Sarah Everton of psych-rockers Telepathic mirrored the sentiment, eloquently stating the reality of producing vinyl:

“Vinyl is expensive so you should wait that out ’til a label pays for that unless you have rich parents.”

The takeaway is that vinyl offers you a high-quality sound and an intimate, unique listen as long as you put up the time, money, and energy. However, most of the time, that isn’t at a independent artist’s disposal until they’re signed to a label.

Cassettes

Telepathic's "Oh Whitney" tape (photo via Hurry Facebook https://www.facebook.com/Hurrymusic/?fref=ts)
Hurry’s “Oh Whitney” tape (photo via Hurry Facebook https://www.facebook.com/Hurrymusic/?fref=ts)

Right next to vinyls lie cassettes, another physical audio good that offers something special to listeners. Cassettes give recordings a unique sound that present listeners with an intimate, warm quality. This intimacy shared with listeners can also be made extra special with limited release cassettes and personalized case inserts, which can help to make fans feel especially appreciated. Everton explained that tapes rank high on her list thanks to those qualities:

“I think they trump CDRs in terms of aesthetic and specialness. Plus they make recordings sound good and give everything a subtle uniform scuzz.”

In addition to that unique quality, cassettes also offer affordability for independent artists and are great for having something tangible to sell after a show. Scottoline explains:

“Cassettes are generally very cheap to produce, which is why I’ve done a lot of cassettes, and why you see so many bands doing them and so many cassette labels popping up. Anyone can afford cassettes, and they give a band something physical to sell at a show.”

With a solid number of local tape labels like Hope For the Tape Deck and Stereophonodon, putting out a cassette is another option that could help get your music to your listeners in a personal way.

CDs

Philly transplants Girlpool showcasing their CD goods (photo via Girlpool Facebook https://www.facebook.com/GIRLPOOOL/)
Philly transplants Girlpool showcasing their CD goods (photo via facebook.com/GIRLPOOOL)

If vinyl is the 60s and 70s and cassettes are the 80s, that makes CDs the 90s, and the most recent evolution of physical audio formats. CDs can offer your listeners the best of both worlds when it comes to the digital and physical realms. They give you something physical to hold and cherish. They live past any internet connection. And they can easily be imported onto a phone, computer or other device – which sadly cannot be said for vinyl and cassettes. Lutz explained that CDs have been extra special to him and helped his experience with listening to music:

“Personally, I prefer putting an actual CD into a decent car stereo instead of plugging in a phone or mp3 player. I love opening the packaging, studying the credits, following along with the lyrics and owning a physical piece of art. I grew up that way and will continue to as I get older.”

Additionally, CDs are very inexpensive, whether you’re talking getting a batch pressed or simply buying a spindle of CD-Rs and doing it yourself. So it fits into the tight budget of local artists.

 

Overall Pros

Personal touch

Physical goods offer a certain intimacy for fans and having a keepsake from a show can rekindle that closeness with your fanbase, which can be very important for you and your audience. Scottoline weighed in on the importance of physical music goods, explaining that it can be an important part of your relationship with your fans:

“The physicality of music is still something people look for in a ‘merch’ situation…It’s a keepsake, and something a fan can hold and have, which digital or streaming music can’t offer, even if that’s the preferred method of consumption.”

Niche market

While music consumption excels through digital media, there are still plenty of folks that prefer to bask in the nostalgia of classic audio media. This audience will be more than faithful when they have the close, personal draw of your music on their favorite format like vinyl, cassettes or CDs.

Overall Cons

Money

Tangible audio goods are an investment – in order to get money out, you need to put money in. It can be well worth your while, but it requires money to be invested which can sometimes be a struggle for smaller local musicians who don’t have the means to release their music without a label who will pay for it.

Require Specific (sometimes outdated) Equipment

Technology is a fast and constantly evolving entity, where we have seen fads come and go like fashion styles. (I mean, who thought frosted tips were a good idea?) And in an age where we are even seeing fewer laptops with CD drives, it’s clear that some technology will require outdated equipment that the audience must invest in in order to enjoy the music. A record player for every vinyl LP, a cassette player for every tape, a disc player for every CD. This can be a setback for listeners who might not have access to them. (Those combo LP-cassette-CD-aux-input Crosely radios are great though.)

—-

In the end, it’s entirely up to you, the artist. With as many choices as there are, there’s plenty to consider when it comes to getting your music out into the world. With digital relished for its convenience and analog embraced for it’s intimacy, we can see why both of these media have been so successful. With these two formats being linked through websites like Bandcamp, we can only wonder what lies ahead for music releases. The important part is that the audience wants your music – you just have to figure out how to give the people what they want.

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