Independent Rockstar

Insight for Independent Musicians

CD Release Tips from Derek Sivers

As the founder of CD Baby, Derek Sivers has witnessed more CD releases than just about anyone else on the planet.  His intelligent and fundamental, yet progressive approach to music and marketing paired with his extensive experience, knowledge and hard work, have made him one of the most respected thinkers in the world of independent music and beyond.

I recently had the chance to ask him about what his approach would be to releasing a CD in 2010.  Here’s what he had to say:

Derek, how would you coordinate the launch of a record today if you were a modestly successful independent artist (a couple hundred true fans)?   What are the principles that guide your thought process on this?

Wait, stop, back up. Don’t launch a record until people are already freaking out over you.

The worst thing you can do is to take your first 12 songs, call it a record and spend a bunch of time promoting it.

Instead you should aim to write, re-write, and improve your first 100 songs, then throw 90 of them away. Save only the 10 that people are freaking out over.

And by “freaking out” I mean that friends and strangers are telling their friends about you not because you asked them to, but because what they’re hearing is blowing them away so much that they have to tell their friends, “Wow. This is amazing. Check this out.”

(You said “a couple hundred true fans”, but I wanted to make sure we had the same definition of true fans.)

Until you get to that point, don’t release a record or launch anything. Just keep improving and writing.

Leak MP3s to core fans for feedback. Ask people for critique, not praise. Ask them for improvement suggestions. How could your site be improved? How could your show be improved? How could this song be improved?

Eventually try selling MP3s directly from your site using PayPal. This will test your commercial viability. People say they like you, but do they like you enough to open their wallet? Better to test that with MP3s and PayPal before pressing 1000 CDs. Perhaps email your fans to let them know you’re doing this as a test, and if they really love you enough to pay, please go buy their favorite song of yours on MP3.

After this whole constantly-building process, the real answer to most of your questions is “Whatever the fans want.”

You’ll be in such close communication with these hundreds of true fans, that they’ll be telling you all about where they like to buy music, whether they wish you had a physical CD or not, whether they think a free single would help them tell their friends, or what the best timing is.

With the drastic changes in technology and the music business, how does that change what an independent artist needs to do to be successful? Is it much different, or are the principles basically the same?

As you can see by the above process, this is something that was almost impossible before 1995. Communication is so easy now, that you can really build a career on feedback from fans. Let the fans define your strategy. Do what your fans are requesting, instead of guessing what they might want.

For more from Derek Sivers visit his blog here: sivers.org

Follow on Twitter here: @sivers

About Scott James

Musician / Blogger / Web Designer / MBTI Nerd living in Hollywood, CA
Scott James

22 Responses to “CD Release Tips from Derek Sivers”

  1. I agree…

    Probably one of my biggest missteps was pressing a record before I was ready. Of course, I didn’t realize it at the time – but I soon became embarrassed of that record, almost found myself apologizing for it.

    After that I kind of took a step back – improved songwriting, leaked songs, etc. The following record sold more in a week than the entire previous records existence. Fanbase was bigger, sure – but people were more passionate about it as well.

    Good stuff…way to lock down an interview with Sivers!

    @davemhuffman

  2. True pearls of wisdom right their. I manage a band and try to convinse them that the old pressing of 1000 cd’s and trying to market old school style is a wast of their money. But I have fowarded this article to them as a wake up call.
    Cheers keep the great advise coming !

  3. Mike says:

    Sivers drips *gold* from his tounge here. Too bad 99% of artists won’t apply it.

  4. Brilliant as always, Derek. This employs several key aspects of what I teach in Multiple Streams of Music Income. Identifying who your fans are – what’s your niche? Then identifying what do they want and need. And then designing your product to serve their needs.

    This is not about writing music you think will be “commercial” or copying what’s on the radio. It’s about writing your music and rewriting and getting feedback and rewriting it again until it’s AWESOME and then running it by your fans and rewriting it again until you have a collection of the absolute best songs.

    And then the step – “deepening your relationship” because all of these interaction with your fans for feedback will deepen and strengthen your relationships with your fans – which gives you an incredible foundation to build on.

    Debra Russell,
    They call it the music business.
    I’m your music business coach!

  5. Tyler says:

    I agree to some extent, but “not releasing a record until people are freaking out about you” might not be the best advice, because a lot of people would never release an album if they waited for “true” fans to come around. I didn’t have one true fan (outside of personal friends) before I released my first album, I just wanted to release it so I could get my songs out. But through word of mouth, I started to gain my true fans, and it was only because of that album. I’m now on to my third album and I’ve sold out the pre-order. I think ultimately, everything just boils down to how good your music is and whether people respond to it.

  6. My biggest struggle was not having a definitive style. Being an independent producer in a “music capitol” for many years, I have been called upon to work with a variety of artists and genres. It has taken me a while to define myself as a solo artist.
    What really helped me was the feedback from my friends and “fans”. I’m working on my second solo CD, and I always look for feedback from others, ESPECIALLY from John and Jane Doe — who aren’t musically inclined, but who go out and buy a good CD. I’ll take the most favored songs and compile a project for THEM, not going by my own preferences. So far, I get people telling me that my CD stays in their player in the car! That’s a good sign…

  7. Solitoode says:

    Excellent advice!

    I wish I had that advice before I did my first album. Tahnkfully, I am pretty good at learning the hard way and learned this lesson that Derek has illustrated here.

    So to anybody else that is thinking about releasing an album before you have any demand,….do what Derek says first!

    :)

    Solitoode

  8. Josh says:

    Ok, if you’re making music just for other people…stop doing it. The one and only reason you should make music is because it is what you want to hear. Music isn’t about pleasing other people…it’s about making what you want to hear, or what you hear in your head. Who cares if it doesn’t get you on the radio? The biggest achievement to any musician is just finishing a project and having goosebumps on your arms when you listen to the final product. That feeling is what you should strive for. If it happens for other people who listen to your stuff, you’ve got something special. It doesn’t always work like that. If you want to make music that is intentionally geared towards being a “hit” or something that everyone can like, then just be a studio musician for some record executive hiring you that is paid to make music that people like.

    • I think it’s much easier for a lot of us to please ourselves than it is for us to actually connect with other people through our music. Would you think about sex the same way, that the only thing you should do it for is to please yourself? I think there are higher levels to aspire to. I think you can do both in a way that’s far more exciting than making music that only you’re going to care about. Granted, I’ve made plenty of music that I think it badass, but it didn’t catch on. Sometimes I don’t care what anyone else thinks about it, but I think it’s a lot cooler when I’m able to put something out that has an impact on people. To do that you need to learn the art of communicating through your music. It’s much easier to stay in your own head because you know what’s in there. It takes a lot more work to learn how to create work that resonates with other people.

  9. Rob says:

    I actually came back to read this article right before I sent off my CD order and still ended up ordering the CD’s. While it was nice to have accomplished my arbitrary goal of finally having a replicated CD of my music (it was more symbolic than anything), it sucks looking at 900+ CD’s gathering dust. I’ve sold a few on CD Baby but I placed the order not expecting to recoup my expenses via CD sales. I would not recommend doing it my way unless you’ve got a high risk tolerance. But if you do take the plunge and press up CD’s, understand that you don’t have to recoup the money the same way you lost it. For example, create a premium offering limited to 50 units that costs $75 dollars. Depending on the expenses of producing the premium offering, you could effectively recoup the cost of 1000 CD’s AND the production costs of the premium offering AND still make a healthy profit. If you don’t think you can sell 50 units for $75, then don’t create a premium offering. Did I think about a premium offering for my own album? Yes. Did I actually create one? No, since there’s no demand for the CD’s let alone something more valuable (notice I didn’t say ‘expensive’). It really is that simple: only create a product when there’s a demand for it. I wish I realized this a few months ago.

    If you’re going to sell your music, you’ve got to look at it from a business perspective so it doesn’t make much business sense to spend so much money up front unless there’s already demand. It’s easier to build a product to meet existing demand than it is to try and create demand with a new product. This is not to say you should sell out and make songs for the Pop 40, but rather, try and define as specific a niche as possible. If there are even 50 artists in that niche, then it’s probably still too broad. Go deeper.

    How do you gauge demand? Ask them to buy your music. Don’t send out a survey asking them IF they’ll buy your imaginary CD or mp3. Have some product on hand and ask them to buy it. Tell them they can buy one RIGHT NOW and see how they respond. This is the only response worth measuring when it comes to selling your music. Fans agreeing to hypothetical purchases is completely useless. You can use sites like mixonic.com to press up short-runs of your CD’s so you won’t be left with overstock. If at some point you’ve sold enough AND enough people are asking to buy something, then it would make sense to order 1000+ replicated CD’s, but not earlier.

    The most important lesson I learned was not to think I’m smarter than Derek Sivers.

  10. Matt Blick says:

    I love Derek’s advice about ‘leaking’ mp3s and gauging reactions directly.

    Purely by making demos available for free I’ve gained valuable feedback. How? I can easy see which songs have been most downloaded and linked to. If I go on to do a prefessionally recorded album which tracks do you think I’m going to short list?

    Just like Derek says this wonderful scenario was impossible before the mid 90’s.

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