One of the biggest questions I get all the time is “How do I self release an album?” The truth is, today it’s easier than ever to release your own music without the help of a big record label. But, there’s a difference between just releasing your album and releasing your album successfully. Anyone can post their new music to Facebook, YouTube, or SoundCloud, or sell it on CD Baby. But how do you make your release really successful? How do you get people talking, downloading, and buying, and make an impact in the crowded world of indie musicians?
I recently interviewed New Artist Model member Alex Cowles. Alex is a producer and DJ going by the name Stillhead, currently located in Riga, Latvia. He creates deep and dub-influenced electronic music and runs the Brightest Dark Place record label and Cut, a subscription-based label that grew out of giving music away for free. On top of that, he’s a blogger and a podcaster, and recently he started sharing everything he’s learned as a self-releasing artist through a collection of courses called How to Self Release. I hope his experiences and insights will help inspire you to self release an album.
1. As a musician, what are you currently working on?
Right now I have a couple of things happening musically.
Firstly, I decided to set myself a challenge for November. I wanted to try and create a short loop every day, which was no more than 8-16 bars, and didn’t take me longer than 30-60 minutes.
The challenge is to get me into the habit of producing music every day, not feeling like I need to spend forever tweaking sounds before they’re ready, and get into the habit of just finishing things, no matter how small.
So far, it’s been going well – I’ve had a few people join in here and there, although ultimately it’s more of a personal thing for me, than for anybody else.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I’m starting to get things together for promotion of my forthcoming album. I don’t think I can divulge too much at this point, but it’s going to be coming out on CD and 12″ in late January 2016, all going to plan.
Aside from those two things, I’m open for things like remixes, and putting together new tracks, but it’s more of a “when I have time” type thing.
2. You’ve done a bit of everything in the industry. But what drove you to be so involved and get away from the whole “I just want to play music” mentality?
Well, with everything I do that isn’t related to the music industry (design, blogging etc), I’ve always tried to do as much as possible – I never settle with just one project, since I love to have lots of different things happening and keeping me busy.
That combined with the fact that if I see something that needs done and I feel that I can do it myself, I’ll give it a go and try to make something of it. I’m very much of the opinion that if you want something done, do it yourself. That way you can’t complain about it being done badly, and you can generally get exactly what you want from it all.
I think most people also realise fairly quickly that unless you strike it lucky with a big single, or an acclaimed album – as a musician, you have to look at working on multiple income streams and projects. There’s no use just being a musician and expecting everyone else to do things for you. You need to get your hands dirty with lots of avenues.
From something as apparent as releasing your own music, through to sample creation or session musician work – there are always other ways to expand on what you’re doing, and I’d say most f the successful musicians I know do more than just play or produce. They have radio shows, run nights, run labels, own stores, host podcasts, or some combination of any of those things.
3. Do you think artists can still be successful just playing music in today’s industry? How important do you think it is to understand the business and label side of things?
I think if you want to be successful exclusively as a musician, or electronic music producer, you should be prepared to put an insane amount of work in before you get anywhere, and bear in mind that there are no guarantees regardless of your level of talent.
There’s nothing to say you won’t end up successful, but I think more and more these days with popularity being influenced by so much more than musical merit, you’re far better of doing yourself a favour and trying to learn as much as possible about everything affiliated with what you do.
The collateral of your music career is something you should try as much as possible to retain control of, and if you’re not aware of what it all is, or how it all works, you’re at a serious disadvantage, and ripe to be taken advantage of.
4. I’d love to hear more about your subscription-based label, Cut. Can you tell us a bit more about how it works? How did that idea come about and evolve into what it is today?
Cut stemmed from a logo design. A bit of a backwards way of doing things, but I had a label already (Echodub – which no longer operates really). So I was releasing digital EPs, but I wanted to put music out for free.
I saw artists just sticking zip files up online with badly tagged mp3s, wavs, varying levels of quality, some things mastered, some not, sometimes artwork and so on – and it made me consider a situation where that free music was packaged properly, tagged, encoded, mastered and done in a way that meant it was more than just an afterthought.
So with that, Cut was born – initially for free releases, and we grew pretty fast, all things considered. The core of it was run through Bandcamp and via an ever-growing email subscription list.
But a couple of years ago, I was getting to around 15,000 subscribers, and so it got expensive to run the label. Mastering an EP, sorting the artwork, and then emailing that many people, as well as any promotion was starting to cost more than I was able to get from the kind people who donated for each release (they were “pay what you want, including 0” on Bandcamp).
So a friend suggested that I try switching to a subscription model – and since seeing Soma Records do it to some degree of success back in the mid 2000s, (I don’t know if they still do) I thought it would be worth a shot.
I was able to set the site and system up myself, with my day-job skills (which have been super-handy when it comes to launching new projects!).
So currently we offer subscription at $2 per month. That gives you instant access to all of our entire catalogue, and a new release every month.
The setup allows me to pay artists for their music up front, plus gives them a guaranteed audience (which is growing over time), plus I cover the cost of mastering and promotion for each monthly release.
We’re also approaching our 40th release, which we’re going to be celebrating by releasing our first physical product – a limited-edition miniature-vinyl-style 4 CD box-set, which I’m currently crowd-funding at the moment. I’m confident we can make our goal in the next couple of weeks.
I’m currently also thinking about ways to expand our user base and grow the label, so there may be a free membership level introduced with limited access, or perhaps access to lower quality bit-rate files. I’ve yet to figure that one out!
5. So you’ve released 4 albums and 20 EPs. From everything you’ve learned, what’s the most important piece of advice you could give indie musicians who are wondering how to self release an album?
For a long time I’ve been telling people not to rush into releases. Make sure you’re 100% happy with your tracks before you farm them out to labels, or decide what to do with them.
The thing is, recently I’ve been hearing more and more about how it’s more beneficial to just get your stuff done, get into the habit of finishing and getting your work out there, since some people are of the opinion that releasing as much music as possible is the key to building your career.
I guess my issue is that I felt I was doing that with DFRNT, and it led to lots of regretful releases, which I don’t feel like I can support any more. WIth Stillhead I’m taking my time and being far more careful about it all – which means I’m still super-happy to support, play and discuss my first EP which came out a year ago now. It feels much better.
So I think I’d probably still stick with telling people to make sure they’re 100% happy with their tracks before they send them out – there’s no harm in waiting another month, listening to the tracks again and making sure you’re still excited about them!
6. Tell us a bit about How to Self Release. What is it, and what made you decide to create this resource for indie musicians?
Well… I knew I wanted to impart some advice to people, and to really help them learn from the mistakes I’ve made. After 9 or so years dealing with the music industry, you realise that it helps if you have somebody giving you solid advice, and it’s nice not to have to learn exclusively through making mistakes!
A few years ago, I put together howtosendmemusic.com which was a one-page site, which stemmed from an article I wrote called “Dub Etiquette” which was an interview with a selection of people who were getting sent loads of music. It covered how they like to consume it, what they prefer to get in their inbox, and all of the ways in which they feed back, deal with tagging, file naming and so on.
I wrote the article, published it online, and also published it in a short-run magazine I did for a single issue called “Modus” (yes, I even published a magazine once) – but after that had come and gone, I felt people were still really just not getting it, so I put the site together with some far more straight-forward advice.
More recently, I figured I wanted to help people further, and self-releasing was something I had done a fair bit of before. Usefully though I’ve been on both sides of the table with releasing music, as a label owner and curator doing A&R, management and promotion, but also as an artist on my own labels, and on other people’s labels too.
So with that wealth of knowledge and experience – I wanted to put that into a format where people could learn from it all, and a blog, combined with courses seemed like the best idea.
So the site is basically the hub for my writing on the subject of self-releasing and running your own record label.
At the same time, I’ve put out a free course which has an overview and process for self-releasing or starting a small label.
I’m currently also working on a giant, far more in-depth premium course, which I hope to have done before Christmas, which will be much more of a comprehensive guide to successfully self-releasing or starting a label and releasing music effectively.
In the distance I’m also looking at a course which will help musicians build their audience, but that’s probably a good 6 months away yet. I need to do more of that for my own productions first, and run a few different strategies to see what’s effective and what’s not.
But the best thing you can do is jump over to the blog and stick yourself on the mailing list – it’ll keep you up to date on all the courses and advice I’m giving away.
7. As you know, a big thing we focus on in the New Artist Model is goal-setting. Now obviously you’ve done a lot already, but what do you see yourself doing in the next few years? Do you have an end-goal where you’d really like to see your career end up?
This is a tough one, since I feel my goals tend to morph and change all the time.
I used to think it would be amazing to be a big DJ and to tour and play all over the world, but nowadays I’d be content with a few gigs a year if they were good ones, and people turned up – maybe sit-down gigs. It would be great to be known well enough that people were up for coming to a sit-down gig of my deep, or even ambient stuff.
I’d love to be successful as an artist. Successful enough to have an audience who are dedicated and keen to buy my releases – but I don’t need to be ultra-famous or huge – just a level of respect and admiration that meant if I got 500-1000 units of a release pressed, I’d be able to shift them all comfortably, and make enough to continue to do that in future.
I’d like to build How To Self Release into a resource that people love, and a system that allows me to add new content, while having a recurring income from course sales that affords me time to produce more courses and continue to help people.
I’d like my podcast to be successful enough that some of the bigger labels ask me to premier tracks for them.
And it would be good to get Cut Records to around 1000 subscribers, so that I can feed a decent chunk of money back to artists for their releases, and still have enough to master and effectively promote the releases every month.
I think this list could just go on and on, to be honest – with a multitude of projects and outlets, comes a multitude of goals and ideals – I can’t see all of them working out, but perhaps if one or two do, I can focus on the rest further down the line.