As you’ve probably seen me talk about, my album is about to be released on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, Xbox, and every other online storefront. I’ll also have physical copies available that can be purchased from my website. I’m not some famous comic with a high end record deal, so how did I make this happen? Here’s a step-by-step guide on what I recommend doing if you want to put out your own stand-up album.
Are You ready?
The first thing to do is decide if you’re ready to actually record and release a professional quality album. Think you’re ready? You’re probably not. Wait a year. I first thought about recording one a few years ago, but wanted to wait until I was *really* happy with the 45 minutes of material I was going to have to do. So I waited, and worked on my act. Considered it again two years ago…and waited again. Thought about it last year, and gave myself one more year of stage time to make sure it was something I could be proud of. That’s probably about 500-600 sets between when I first thought about it and actually recording it. I’d recommend that you do the same- I think you’ll be happier with the end result.
OK, Now What?
So you’ve waited a few years, and you feel ready as a performer to record your album. The first thing to consider is if you want to go with a record label, or if you will self-publish your own album. If you’re famous, then record labels will be coming to you. And if you’re famous, why the hell are you wasting your time reading my blog? If you’re not famous, there are a few companies that put out stand-up albums (e.g. Uproar Records, Standup Records, New Wave). They often work with comedians that aren’t big names. I have friends that have done deals with each of these, and they typically will set up a weekend of shows somewhere, you go do the stage time, they pay you some money, and then they take care of recording, mixing, packaging, distribution, etc. All you have to give them in return is ownership of that recording of your act. Sounds like a good deal, right?
Hate to break it to you, but you’re probably selling yourself short if you take one of these deals.
The reason is that there are two ways comics normally make money from albums. Selling CDs at shows, and getting royalties on Sirius/XM airplay. The royalties will likely dwarf the amount you get from selling actual CDs at shows. If you take a deal like this, you have to buy copies of your CD from the record company (normally somewhere around $4-5 per disc), and they will get the lions share of royalties Sirius/XM pays. Even for an unknown comedian, this can easily surpass $10-20k in the first year your album is out if they like the content. If these record companies put a big promotional push in for these albums, doing advertising, setting up gigs to promote it, etc., then maybe it’s a good deal. But everyone I know that has taken one of these deals has never had that happen. You’re giving away most of that money, and in return you’re just getting a company to take care of all the leg work in making it happen. Is that worth something? Absolutely. Is it worth $10k? Hell no.
So You’re Going to Self Publish
Great! You’ve decided to handle things yourself, which means you will get to keep all of the money your album makes. It also means you have a LOT more work to do. Here are the main steps you’ll need to take:
01) Set up the shows you’ll be recording
02) Prep your material
03) Get the room filled for your shows
04) Manage the recording process
05) Edit/mix the audio
06) Split the audio into tracks
07) Obtain bar codes, ISRCs, and other technical crap you need
08) Design packaging for the album
09) Burn a test disc that includes CDTEXT and ISRCs
10) Submit data on the album to online databases
11) Get some physical copies made
12) Distribute the album online
13) Send copies to Sirius/XM and AMG
14) Register to collect royalties
Sound like a lot of work? It is, but it’s not insurmountable. Let’s deal with each of these items.
Set Up the Shows You’ll Be Recording
Find a venue that will let you headline and record multiple shows. I did mine at the Ice House in Pasadena, CA, which is a terrific venue. Make sure that it’s not going to be an “echo-ey” venue. Do some test recording with some small audio recorders in advance of deciding on the venue so you can hear what the room sounds like when it’s recorded. The most important thing, though is to record two or more shows in the same room (ideally on the same night). Let me say that again- RECORD TWO OR MORE SHOWS IN THE SAME ROOM. You WILL forget tags you wanted to include, people WILL shout something out during the setup to a bit that normally kills and it throws it off, you WILL decide after the first show that there’s another joke you’d like to include that you didn’t do. These things are almost guaranteed to happen, and if you record more than one show, you have the opportunity to edit them together. Make sure it’s in the same room, because different venues will have different sound characteristics. If you do it in the same place, you’ll have a much easier time matching everything up. I recorded two shows, and was able to pull a few things from the second and mix them in where appropriate (for the reasons listed above).
Prep Your Material
I recorded my album at the end of March. To get ready, around the start of the year I wrote out all the bits I was thinking of including. I then did about 45 sets between January 1st and March 22nd when it was recorded. After the first 15 or so, I was pretty sure I knew which of those bits I wanted to do on the album. I then did mostly those jokes, playing with the order a bit, thinking of logical transitions, tags, etc. About a month before the shows, I wrote out my final set list and that was essentially the 45 minutes of material that I recorded. I did write a couple more jokes that made it on the album in that time frame, because, well, I just liked them too much to not squeeze them in. If you’re a comic and you’ve done this long enough to have an album’s worth of material- you know what you’re doing with this step.
Get the Room Filled
Sadly, this is one of our biggest jobs as comics these days. You can have the best material in the world, but if no one is there to hear it, it’s being wasted. So beg, plead, offer sexual favors- whatever it takes to get that room filled at least twice. One thing you can do is co-headline your shows with another performer that is also recording an album. You can split the costs of recording, and that helps you double your promotional efforts. This is a critical part of the process. You need to make sure you have a room filled with people who want to laugh. So make sure that happens or all your work is wasted.
Manage the Recording Process
There are a lot of ways to record things, and I recommend hiring someone to help with this part of the process. The venue you’re recording at may have some expertise in this area. The big keys are to ensure that you have a clean recording of your voice as it’s going into the microphone (get a feed off the board) and that you have the audience miked in some way and have them being recorded as a separate audio track. That will allow you to adjust volumes to make sure that your voice is heard clearly when you’re editing the album. If you’re hiring someone to help record the event, you may be able to get someone that can shoot video rather inexpensively as part of the process. That’s what I did for mine, and I recommend exploring this as an option. You’ll be happy to have a good quality tape of you doing a headline length spot. If you do have some cameras brought in, try to get at least three camera angles that you can edit between. That will be useful when it comes to editing things between your shows together. Be aware that if you are recording video and you are also recording a raw audio feed on dedicated audio devices, you may need to slightly adjust the speed of the pure audio devices before you can match them up properly. This is because 30 FPS (frames per second) video is actually 29.97 FPS, and 60 FPS video is actually 59.94 FPS. So if your audio recorder is doing things at a slightly different rate, over a 45 minute set, they may lose sync. If at all possible, have all the audio either go into digital recording devices, a computer, or some other audio only recording, or have all the audio get recorded to tape on the video cameras. Mixing and matching between the two is where you will run into sync problems.
Edit/Mix the Audio
Depending on how you recorded everything, there are a lot of different programs you can use for this process. ProTools is probably the best one out there, and if you hire a high end audio guy to record the event, that’s what they’ll probably use to do it. If you’re a do-it-yourself type like me, there are some pieces of software that I used when editing/mixing my album. I first used a program called Goldwave to match the speeds of my different audio tracks. (I, unfortunately, mixed and matched between audio on a camera which had the feed form the board, and a Zoom H2 Digital recorder, which captured audience sounds.) I had to speed up the audio from the Zoom H2 by about 0.00135% if I remember correctly. It was a lot of trial and error to figure out the exact speed change I had to make, and it was a very small tweak. But that tweak was critical to avoid echo on the recording. I then took the audio track, and loaded that up in Avid Media Composer along with all my video footage. I synced up all my camera angles, got them working fine with my newly synced audio, and thanks to Avid’s multi-camera mode, I was able to put together a rough cut rather quickly. When I had that done, I then exported the audio back out of Avid, and used Goldwave once again to manipulate it. Everywhere there was an edit, I used some tricks to make it seamless. That involved copying small bits of “room noise” or slight laughs, applying an effect to have them fade in and out, then mixing those in over where the files were stitched together. I then took that edited audio and imported it back into Avid, matched it up with my video, and I now had 4 tracks of audio that I proceeded to level using the audio mixing tools in Avid. I’m sure a more talented audio engineer could do what took me about two weeks in far less time, and do a better job than I did, but I’m pretty happy with the end result. One key to remember- WEAR HEADPHONES WHEN WORKING ON YOUR AUDIO. You’ll hear things on headphones that you’ll miss listening on speakers.
Split the Audio Into Tracks
This is where you’ll need to think about what tracks you want to have on the album. Ideally you’ll have somewhere between 13-17 tracks for about 40-50 minutes of audio. You want them to average about 3 minutes each. Why? because that’s the length that seems to get played on Sirius/XM, and as we’ve discussed, that’s one of your primary outlets for making money from your album. If you have a great bit that’s 4 and 1/2 minutes, cool, keep it in tact. But you don’t want to have 30 tracks that are 90 seconds each, or just 4 tracks that are 12 minutes long. I again exported the audio from Avid back into Goldwave for this process (can you tell I’m not an expert with Avid’s audio tools yet?), split my tracks up where it made sense, and saved each as a WAV file (44.1 kHz, 16 Bit). I then came up with the names I wanted to use for each (because “Track 01” makes a lousy name for a bit).
Obtain Bar Codes, ISRCs, and Other Technical Crap
If you’re going to sell your album anywhere, you need a bar code on the packaging. Even if you only plan on selling it via download, a bar code is a good thing to obtain during the process, because that can be used at a later date if you do decide to make some physical copies. Bar codes can be expensive…if you don’t know where to look. There’s a business called Bar Codes Talk that I was able to buy 5 bar codes from for just $10. They often sell online for as much as $100 each, so don’t fall for that. The codes I bought work just fine for CD Baby, Amazon, iTunes, etc. For digital distribution, you also need these things called ISRCs (International Standard Recording Code). Those are codes that get attached to each track on your album, and are how programs like iTunes recognize your album when it’s loaded up as MP3 files. To get ISRCs, you can register with usisrc.org (I think it’s about $80 to do that), or your digital distributor will likely provide them to you for free. I opted to get them for free from CD Baby. When you burn your test disc, the ISRCs will be part of the data you’ll want to include on the disc. We’ll talk about how to do that in a little bit. To get these ISRCs, I had to start the process with CD Baby (who I’m using to get my album on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, etc.) They charge $49 to get your album in all these catalogs and manage payments from each. There are other options (e.g. Tunecore. ReverbNation, Ditto Music) which all do basically the same thing. I have always used CD Baby, so I know they do a good job, but don’t feel like that’s the only option for this step.
Design Packaging for the Album
Depending on what you want to do with your album, you’ll have a number of options for how you do your packaging. Decide if you’ll be using a jewel case, digipack, digital only release, etc. Depending on what you decide, that will affect what you need to design (or have someone design for you) and the dimensions your artwork needs to be. I am getting a short run of discs made in jewel cases for some promotional use, so I have packaging I designed for that purpose. I also have a cover I created to specifications CD Baby gave me for digital release (which is how I’m getting it into iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, etc.), and I’m considering getting a multi-panel digipack version produced, which is another set of designs. You’ll want to use Photoshop or an equivalent program (I’ve always liked the interface Paint Shop Pro provides, and GIMP also does a good job). You may want to consider getting some photos taken- I had a comic/photographer friend take some shots of me that matched a specific concept I wanted to use on the packaging. Make sure you’re happy with the design of your album’s packaging- this is what someone will see when you promote it online, or when trying to sell them CDs at your shows. Incorporate the bar code that you purchased earlier on the packaging for any physical discs you’re having made, and you’ll have something that is retail ready.
Burn a Test Disc
Now you’ll want to take your ISRCs and your WAV files and burn a disc that has this data included on it. By doing this, you’ll create a disc you can duplicate that will have all the data you’d want it to have. While you’re doing this, you might as well add in some CDTEXT, which is what tells non-Internet connected CD players (like the one in your car) the text to display when playing the album. In my Prius, it’ll show me the artist, album, and track titles. To do this, it depends a bit on what you’re going to do with your packaging, and who you’re having duplicate the discs. If you use Disc Makers (who does a damn good job) they have some software that adds this information for you. If you’re using a company like kunaki.com (who also does a great job for small batches), you’re on your own for figuring out how to make this happen. I did some research, and found it can be accomplished by creating a CUE file inside a free CD burning program called ImgBurn. Use the create a CUE file option in that program to add the Artist Name, Disc Title, and Track Titles. Once that has been created, edit the file in a text editor, and add lines for the ISRC code for each track. Now burn a copy of the disc by double clicking the cue file, and it will give you a disc that has CDTEXT and ISRCs included.
Submit Data on the Albums to Online Databases
If you want someone to be able to put your CD in an Internet connected device and have it show up with the cover art, your name, track names, etc., then you need to send this data over to the online databases that are used for this stuff. There are three databases you need to worry about- CDDB (Gracenote), FreeDB, and AMG (All Music Guide). CDDB is used by iTunes, FreeDB is used by a bunch of small media players, and AMG is used by Windows Media Player. To get into CDDB, the easiest way is using iTunes software. Instructions on how to do this exactly are on the Gracenote website (http://www.gracenote.com/). To get into the FreeDB, you need to use some software that connects to their network. They have a bunch of applications listed on their website that do it- I used FreeRIP to do it. If you do install FreeRIP, be careful- it will try to bundle the Yahoo toolbar and change your browser home page and load up some more spyware crap during the install process. You have to uncheck some boxes that are easy to miss if you’re not looking for them. Once that is done, run the software, put your CD in the drive, and use the “CD Database” option to send the data to the Open CD Index. To get your data into AMG, you’ll need to physically mail them a disc. Go here for instructions: http://www.allmusic.com/product-submissions
Get Some Physical Copies Made
Now you’re ready to get some actual CDs manufactured. There are two manufacturers that I’ve had really good experiences with that I personally recommend, but any duplication house will probably give you a quality product with prices that are pretty similar to one another. Disc Makers does a great job with disc duplication, but you’ll need to order a few hundred for it to be cost effective. You’re probably going to have to spend about $1000 to get 300 hundred CDs if you want a multi panel digipack, though if you go the no frills route you can get much cheaper packaging. You can do smaller orders, but your cost per disc will be really high if you do. For short runs of discs, I really like kunaki.com. They will sell you 1 CD if that’s all you want. For small orders, there is no better value. The downside is that they only do CDs in Jewel cases, and DVDs in the normal plastic cases. That’s it. (And you should have already decided who you’re going to use a few steps back, since that will effect the artwork you had to create.)
Distribute the Album Online
To get your album out there, you’ll need to use a company like CD Baby, Tunecore, Reverb Nation, Ditto Music, or one of their many competitors. I’ve always used CD Baby, but I think they all do pretty much the same thing, and will get you into all the same places. You probably already have an account with one of them by now (so you could get your ISRCs), and at this point you’ll want to finalize the artwork and make sure that the version of the audio files they have is the right one. In short, double-check your work. It’ll be a big pain in the ass for you if you notice a typo in one of your track titles AFTER it’s already been sent to iTunes. In addition to getting the album sold online (and put onto services like Spotify and SoundCloud), you’ll want to sell digital downloads of it on your own website. This will allow you to bundle it with other things (Buy a t-shirt, get my album free!) or do something like name your own pricing, or bundle bonus tracks, or any number of other ways you may want to try marketing your content. One shopping cart I’ve used for this is e-junkie.com– they do a good job, and they’re not too expensive. This time around I’m using the Easy Digital Downloads plugin for WordPress. I haven’t used it before, but for what I plan on doing with my album launch, it’s a better fit for me. There are many other carts you can use that handle digital sales, and you need to figure out which one best meets your needs. You’ll probably want to offer physical autographed copies, which they can’t get elsewhere. Make sure you use a cart that will let you sell both physical AND digital goods.
Send copies to Sirius/XM
This is where you’re probably going to make the most money. Getting airplay on Sirius/XM is for more than just great exposure- they pay extremely well for the rights to use your content. That’s why those record companies would spend time and money doing all the things we just went through- because they know that if they get even a small amount of airplay on Sirius/XM, they’ll make a hefty profit on your album. Look up the current contact for Sirius comedy (I don’t want to burn out my contact there, so I’m not naming any names in this post) and send them your album (on CD). Some Googling will help you find the right person to contact. If they like it, great! They’ll put it in their system and start playing clips from it occasionally. How does that get you paid, you might ask? Well, the next step is where you get teh m0ni3z!
Register to Collect Royalties
Sirius/XM isn’t going to pay you every month, because it would be an accounting nightmare if they had to pay each artist directly. So what they do is turn over a copy of their playlists to Sound Exchange and cut them a HUGE check, and their system then decides who gets how much based on airplay. Sorry, but Louis CK’s record company is going to get a hell of a lot more than you are. But that’s because they’re playing his content a lot more than they are yours. Go to soundexchange.com, register your content on there (they have forms you need to complete, tax info you need to give them, and you’ll probably need to scan in your driver’s license and signed paperwork). When you’ve registered, you’ll start to get paid automatically every month based on airplay. How much will that be? That all depends on how often your stuff is played and what channels it’s on. But suffice it to say that it would not be unusual to earn 5 figures the first year they have your album.
Yes, do that.
OK, this was a long, poorly written, non-proofread set of guidelines to follow when deciding to put out a comedy album. Seem like a lot of complicated steps? It is. But it’s worth doing these things. Unsure you can make it all happen yourself? Well, if you want to hire me to help do these things, that can be arranged. Use the contact link and send me a message and we’ll talk about your project and I’ll see if there’s something I can do to help at a reasonable cost. Good luck, and keep making ’em laugh!