Physical Releases

While digital distribution is a relatively low risk/low cost endeavour for an album, physical releases carry with them a lot of up-front costs and their own processes. While artists may want their album to be available in every format possible, and having a fancy vinyl record may be the dream, that doesn’t mean it’s the right call to go down that path.

If you’re in a band who is relatively unproven, having just started playing shows and not yet having a sense of demand for your record, it may not make sense to make the investment in vinyl, for example, until you’re confident you’ll actually sell them. The Canadian independent music history books are already filled with stories of garages or jam spaces overrun with unopened boxes of unsold albums. If, however, you are an artist who gigs frequently, and has had enough experience at the merch table to know your audience is hungry to walk away with your album in a specific format, the sales can help to cover the costs of touring and/or help to fund your future endeavours.

Tip: I’d recommend doing a very basic cost breakdown of a specific pressing. First, add up the cost of recording, mixing, and mastering your record (including studio time, mixing/mastering fees, and any additional costs). Then, go do a pressing plant’s website and get a quote for various quantities (100, 250, 500, etc.). Add on the cost of the design for your album cover/jacket. Divide the overall cost by a realistic pressing number to arrive at a cost per album. From that, you can estimate how much to charge, how much you’d make per album at that price and whether your project can rationalize the upfront cost and risk.

Vinyl

Probably of greatest interest to the majority of readers is the possibility of vinyl pressings of your album. There are four things that need to be addressed right up front:

  • First, the cost of vinyl pressings is high, and it’s only going to get more expensive as more established artists fill the queues with high-runs or re-pressings, and material, and transportation/shipping costs continue to rise.
  • In most cases, it’s either only possible, or only makes sense financially, if you can press a minimum number of copies of an album at a time.
  • Mailing albums within Canada can cost as much as it costs to make the album itself ($10+ per album).
  • It takes a long time. Vinyl turnaround used to be quoted fairly consistently in the 6-8 weeks range (which anecdotally meant it would be wise to assume closer to 3-4 months). These days, many vinyl pressing plants have turnaround times measured less in weeks and more in months, sometimes closing in on a full year. Expect a 4-6 month turnaround, but always be in contact with your vinyl rep for updates.

Tip: don’t book your release show or tour to support your album until vinyl is in hand. The old joke in Calgary used to be “I’m going to the band’s album release show this Friday, and then will go see them again in two months once their vinyl actually arrives.” Try your best to not have two album releases.

If you’ve done your due diligence and are confident you can take on the financial cost and risk of pressing vinyl, either because you have disposable income or are convinced your sales will cover the expenses, it’s time to press your albums. Remember, you’ll want to ask, at the mastering stage, for a version of the album specifically mastered for vinyl pressing.

There’s an increasing number of pressing plants popping up in recent years, and ultimately your decision will come down to a Venn diagram of reliability (which pressing plants have good reviews from friends or bands in your city), cost (including currency conversion and shipping) and turnaround time. You can either go directly to a pressing plant or hire a vinyl broker, someone who will act as the middle-man for you, ensuring you are giving the plant everything they need, in the right formats, and negotiate on your behalf for the best deals and quickest turnaround times.

As of 2023, the following are just a small number of the brokers and pressing plants that are available to press your record:

Real world example: in 2014, my band, Napalmpom released its debut LP with a run of 500 vinyl records. The cost for the vinyl pressing alone came out to $3,582 or about $6.60 per album (things used to be cheaper!). However, because we were ambitious (read: unhinged), bundled with each record was a set of official Doodleart markers to encourage people to colour in their copy ($1.40/each). On top of that, the recording, mixing and mastering costs needed to be added. In the end, each copy of the record cost us over $10 to make. While the band received no funding to support the recording, this was a $5,000+ risk we were in a fortunate position to take. Our expectations were that we could break even because of a rigorous touring schedule, including a cross-Canada jaunt. After about 50 comped records were removed for campus & community radio purposes and our own archives, the band was able to sell out of the remaining 450 copies at an average of $20 each. This represented a modest profit and enabled our Canadian tour, the planning of another, more elaborate record, and our ability to continue making music in a relatively stress-free way.

By the time the follow-up album was recorded, which had a more elaborate package design and printing method, the pressing alone was going to cost us $6,700 or $12.90/album. We had also taken considerably longer in studio to get the album sounding how we wanted. The cost per album was actually more than we could realistically charge. Fortunately, this time around, the recording was funded by FACTOR’s Juried Sound Recording grant program. Despite knowing our touring would be slowing down due to lifestyle changes, going from 60+ shows/year to a dozen or so, and the higher cost of the album, this allowed the band to once again confidently take the risk of pressing vinyl.

Both albums represented risks with high upfront costs, and each had its own path to a break-even point. However, in both cases, we took the calculated risk to press the albums because of confidence and history of having our merch sell well, and having either heavy tour plans or additional funding help to mitigate the risk and costs. Without those supports for the album in place, either one could have completely sunk the band financially. Please don’t sink your band.

Another option is to go with a smaller run press that works with handcrafted lathe cuts, a process which sees each record made in real-time. While the cost per record will be higher as a result, the main benefit of these is that it’s much more feasible to make very small numbers of records (10, 25, 50, etc.). Canada has a great option, though it’s in high demand, in Red Spade Records. Look into ’em!

CDs

The same considerations come as vinyl pressing, though to different degrees, with CD pressing. CDs have an advantage in that it is much easier to afford small runs of 50-100 copies, and that they scale quite well to larger orders for each individual copy to come down considerably in price.

On the other hand, CDs are in less demand from both audiences and radio stations alike, with digital copies and streaming options taking over a lot of the work that CDs used to put in.

Real world example: for my last couple of releases, we made the decision to press just 50 CD copies of the albums to send to the major community & campus radio stations across Canada (and to keep a copy each for our archives). The number of people asking about CDs had all but died off at the merch table.

Nevertheless, CDs have their place…and who knows, maybe they will one day have the kind of resurgence vinyl has had. If you choose to press CDs, you’ll need that DDP master – the file that includes all of the necessary metadata and songs to press your CD.

The following are some examples of places to get your CD pressing needs met:

Cassettes

And last but not least, certain genres of music or musical communities still find they have an audience for limited edition cassettes. Cassettes, like CDs, have advantages in the ability to make small runs at low costs. Boutique cassette labels, in-home operations, and friends with tape machines are as likely to be a source of making your cassettes as a more established plant, though there are some of those as well.