Thursday, December 18, 2014

The economics of releasing music as a physical product in 2014

In preparation for recent releases, I did some extended research into different forms of physical production. This may sound dumb to today's kids, but we grew up in another time, before digital distribution became the norm. What we wanted was to see our name on a compact disc, on an audio cassette, on the centre of a piece of vinyl. We wanted to have a collection of our own stuff, and maybe even to be able to go into a shop and see that stuff there, alongside the stuff that artistes we like have put out. However, we don't want masses of unsold copies gathering dust bunnies. We're not rich, and there's too much wasted excess product in the world, and particularly too much wasted excess product in our flats. It would be nice to have a reasonably small amount of units that could actually be sold this century to like-minded folks.

So, what is it like getting music manufactured in 2014? And why can't you buy our home-made catalogue in high street stores? Let's go through the various options, and I'll explain what I found:


Since 2000, our music has been available on CD-Rs, which are home-made. If you take your home-recorded CD-R into an indie store (let's say, ooh, Rough Trade), they will probably say "we don't take CD-Rs" - irrespective of the quality or that you've personally verified each copy. So be aware of that. If you want to get over that hurdle, you have to get your CDs pressed up by someone else. The big surprise for me was the massive disparity in cost. There are two similar-sounding processes offered by CD copying businesses, and one is no good for your purpose. CD duplication is essentially what you'd do with a CD burner, but on a larger scale, and while it's cheap, to e.g. Rough Trade, it's indistinguishable from a home CD-R. So you don't need CD duplication if you want to get into shops. In order to get them pressed up like the professionals, you need your CDs not duplicated, but replicated. This involves the making of a scary-sounding glass master, and is generally only available in high runs of over 300 or so. It also costs a lot. I've done some homework for you, searching for "cd replication uk prices" on Google. The cost of replicating 500 CDs is, at time of asking (December 2014), for disc only:

Prices quoted are for cheapest option shown on website, and are inclusive of VAT - you may just find something cheaper
Replication Centre - £270 
Max Duplication - £270
Mobineko - £282
Demomaster - £300
Testa Rossa - £312
Cyclone Music - £324
Key Production - £348
Pure Music - £480

Is it possible to get a professionally replicated, economical short run of CDs - a Keshco size run? It seems not. However, in researching this, I found one place, Mobineko, which offers glass-mastered short runs starting at 100 units for £198 - yes, considerably cheaper.

But in CD manufacture, really there are no half measures. And in our case, it's all about half measures - Accountants By Day may have over 100,000 free downloads, but audiences are quite passive and only a handful will actually part with any money for music in these times, or even tell you the bits they enjoyed or what they'd like to hear more of. Blank empty space, until you actually corner people and coax opinions from them. For "Now That's What I Call Keshco", 160 minutes of highly creative and carefully recorded re-imaginings requiring our lengthy writing, practising, recording, mixing and mastering time, our pre-orders were a mighty two (that's two), and as it was a two-disc release, that would have entailed doubling the costs above. Also, your typical squeezed indie shop can be picky even with professionally-pressed content, as they only have so much floor space. So, the likelihood with getting 500 CDs replicated is that 480-odd will remain unsold, turning your house into a warehouse, unless you have hard-headed business contacts or want to spend your entire time playing the industry game (in which case, this whole article is a bit irrelevant to you).

Mini CDs (3-inch)

Don't. People don't understand the format, many players won't accept them, and the one mean review we received suggested that perhaps we'd bought these awful-sized discs because they're cheaper. They're more expensive! Result: we have a lot of mini CDs sitting around.


Who buys a cassette in 2014? Strangely, despite having been left for dead many years back by the mainstream industry, tape sales are (albeit slightly) on the rise once more, as increasing amounts of creative types are reminded of how useful and economical they are. There is a horrendous Hoxton hipster crowd, for sure, but also collectors who fetishise the medium of their youth, just as others do with vinyl. There are a quiet few who never gave up cassettes (very Keshco, that); and those who just want some pleasantly-designed physical memento of their favourite artistes. Anyway, having assumed for years that CDs were the only game in town, we've recently broadened our focus. The tape is back.

It was a nice surprise to find that cassette duplication is considerably cheaper than vinyl, and as there is no need for glass masters, shorter runs are possible. For our Cassette Store Day releases, we used Tapeline (, who offered a very reasonable and personable service. 100 copies of our Bleak House "Music From The Middle Room" and 25 copies of "Freaks At A Wake", plus the cases and shipping, for £169.74. We sorted the artwork ourselves and it doesn't let the side down.

Your dilemma, though, is where to sell the cassettes. Most record stores won't take the things, or if they do, there will be extremely limited shelf space. With Cassette Store Day, we paid to be on the official stock list, which led to orders from shops who surely wouldn't have noticed us otherwise.


So, what about the old favourite? The never-bettered black seven-inch frisbee? The curious desire to have one's noises on vinyl goes back more than a century towards the beginnings of the recording industry. Again, sales are on the rise after a nadir in the early 2000s, but the flavour-of-the-month vinyl stock in somewhere like Fopp/HMV is way more expensive than most of the equivalent CDs, as if the industry is trying to claw back the costs of its loss-leading discounted CDs by fleecing vinyl collectors. For the independent band, your vinyl release (as opposed to your CD release) is more likely to be a desirable product, even amongst those who don't own a record player. Manufacture is fairly expensive, as you might expect. Here I've searched, non-comprehensively, for "vinyl pressing uk prices".

Again, prices quoted are the cheapest that were clearly available on the relevant website, and inclusive of VAT

100 7" singles (white label)
Unit 8 Recording Studios - £360
JTS Studios - £384
Mobineko - £420

300 7" singles (white label)
Unit 8 Recording Studios - £480 
Mobineko - £486
JTS Studios - £517.20
Cyclone Music - £546
Key Production - £564

With vinyl, almost all music shops will take them, there's more shelf space than for tapes, but of course an unsold box is very heavy.

One more thought. Supply and demand is an important factor. There's a lot of music. The marketplace is saturated. Then again, there's a lot of picky people saying "oh there's no good new music any more". If people can at least get to hear your music in the first place, and they love it, there's a chance they'll be coming to you asking how they can buy it (as I've done with bands I like). We make ourselves very contactable. It's a lot easier choosing the physical format of your release if you can stoke up some demand first.

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