I Shall Be Released

Putting Out Your Own Album

illustration by Jason Stout

There's not a lot you can't do yourself... if you really want to do it," says Bruce Robison. Although these words of self-help wisdom may sound like the local singer-songwriter is in the middle of an infomercial pitch, he's really just trying to explain the new realities of the music business, where cheap studios, competitive CD manufacturers, and regional distributors have made it possible for musicians to become their own label.

Like a couple dozen other local artists who will release their own albums this year, Robison has opted to finance, record, release, and promote his new CD, Wrapped, himself, a process that, in just a few months, has yielded no small amount of inspiration, practical knowledge, and against-the-odds success that folks like Anthony Robbins make millions recounting on late-night cable television. And although Robison will be amongst the first to admit that self-releasing an album is no get-rich-quick scheme, the artist-as-label scenario can be appealing and according to the artists that have tried it, an alternating recipe for both frustration and fulfillment.

For Robison, three months of having Wrapped in the marketplace has been a "positive learning experience," one that's allowed him to have a hands-on approach in his own career, something that hopefully sets him apart from his colleagues when he's ready to make the jump to an indie or major label. And it's not like Robison hasn't already had those opportunities. "Even with some of the better indies, I couldn't think of a reason to do it," he says of offers that would've meant handing over master tapes, creative control, and in some cases, even some of his publishing rights. "To give all that up, you have to be getting something solid in return -- great distribution, an advance, or something. It's not worth it to give all that away for just enough money to record an album."

Although Robison certainly benefited from the luxury of some inexpensive and occasionally free studio time, he admits that the decision to release his own album translated into "spending a lot of money I didn't have." What that bought, however, was freedom. For many of the local artists who release their own albums, freedom has become the key issue, especially given the recent run of poorly executed major label deals in which they've witnessed their friends stagnate. "I don't know a lot of people who say, `I love my little indie,'" cracks Robison.

What beyond `freedom' has made self-releasing such a popular local game plan? According to the artists themselves, it typically comes down to promotion or profit -- sometimes both. For instance, just a couple of weeks after releasing her debut, Crooked Mile, Trish Murphy's album sits atop Waterloo's Texas Music Top 10 List. On the strength of a homemade press and radio blitz, Murphy has not only started drawing attention to Crooked Mile, she's also established an identity beyond her previous incarnation as one-half of the innocuous brother/sister duo, Trish & Darrin. This, in turn, has impacted the turnout at her live gigs and garnered her some national A&R interest.

Other, more established regional artists like Jackopierce, Jack Ingram, Sister 7, and David Garza already depend on their catalogue of self-released albums for such career bolstering -- as well as profit. And therein lies one of self-releasing's biggest attractions: Once a record recoups its cost, the rest is gravy. Not even the smallest indie can offer the profit margin of a self-release, in that the cost of manufacturing a CD averages around $2 while said same CD will probably retail for $12. Sounds like a gold mine, no? Sure, but Paul Minor, who's self-released an album by his band Superego, as well as two Free-For-All compilations, says the profit margin can be a deceiving lure.

"Don't be fooled by the [profit] margin, thinking that if you spend $2 and sell them for $12, you stand to make $10. That's just not how it ends up working when you add up all the miscellaneous expenses," says Minor, who's given away as many as 700 CDs for promotional purposes, and believes that to sell your album, artists must have a three-tiered plan: distribution, live play, and radio play. "And yet, for me, recoupment hasn't been a goal, because the whole experience can be filed under promotion."

Takin' Care Of Business

illustration by Jason Stout

While local artists such as Murphy, Lisa Tingle, and Breedlove have made big promotional strides of late with self-released albums -- with Robison even turning a small and quick profit -- locally, nobody makes a better case study for the self-release theory than David Garza. "People always ask artists what their gimmick is, and I suppose mine is that I've released so many records," says Garza, who, as a member of Twang Twang Shock-A-Boom and as a solo artist, has released a dozen recordings, and sold more than 1,000 of each. While the notion of selling tapes or 7-inch singles from the side of the stage isn't itself novel, Garza's frequency and speed of release has been unique for Austin.

"I made a cassette every time I started to see I couldn't feed myself," says Garza. "April and May can be really bad for live play, so I made what I called `Summer Songs' albums in advance to pull me through. Plus, it was a good way to get my ya-ya's out, get the songs on tape, and out the door -- while getting to eat, too."

Back then, local Black Cat funksters Joe Rockhead were also considering following Garza's self-released tape route before their 1990 discovery that pressing actual CDs would cost only nominally more. And while nobody's entirely certain, many remember Rockhead's Party Till You're Dead as Austin's first ever self-released CD.

"We pulled together $1,800, got 500 CDs, and people were impressed that we had CDs," says former Rockhead guitarist Bruce Salmon, whose group went on to sell several thousand copies of their self-released follow-up, Crazy. "For the fans, they cost more than cassettes, but less than the majors... about $10. We also had a chance to get on radio and be the only local band with music in those new CD jukeboxes, so we'd leave 'em anywhere we could for the exposure."

For his part, Garza says that by 1992, he knew Eyes Wide Open had to be on CD, although it would mean taking out a loan and spending more time paying attention to production thanks to the medium's high fidelity. "Until the CD came along, I never even considered radio airplay, so then it was kind of discouraging when I wasn't getting played," says Garza, who nonetheless adds that the CD's higher costs allowed him to break into new live markets by subsidizing touring costs. "I also considered [CDs] less personable and available than the cassette releases, and I think it's probably harder now to duplicate with a string of CDs the kind of self-release thing I had going. There was always something cool about somebody seeing you in a bar and buying a
12-song cassette. Five dollars and it's yours."

In theory, $5 CDs aren't an impossible concept. There are typically a half-dozen advertisements in the back of the Chronicle for CD manufacturing, with costs averaging around $1.30 a unit for complete, ready-to-sell discs with booklets and inlays. In fact, many local cassette duplicators have now switched to the CD market without a drastic price increase, like Sound Recorders, who've been in Austin since 1976 and have recently produced self-released discs for Robison, Jeff Hughes, Mary Cutrufello, and Charlie Burton. But while the actual manufacturing costs of CDs have come down, the discs themselves may be self-releasing's cheapest proposition.

Murphy says she has found out firsthand about the mountain of expenses that self-releasing artists without a fanbase as large as Garza face in the CD age. Not only did it cost Murphy to hire backing musicians and a producer, each little step of the process -- from mastering to a clear inlay tray -- took a bite out of potential profits. "With a hundredth of what a large record company has to work with, it's got to sound as good and look as good as a major label record," says Murphy. "And once you have the discs, it's as colossal a work load as people tell you -- working 99% of seven days a week towards making people aware. Because with all that work and all that money, the last thing you want is to see them sitting in your garage."

Although Murphy has made inroads at KGSR and KUT, most local experts on self-releasing say radioplay is not only the quickest way to get CDs out of the garage and into stores, but also the hardest promotional avenue to navigate alone. Outside help, typically independent radio promoters, are available to take albums to radio nationally, but their services don't come cheap; it usually costs $400-600 for each week they work a record. Currently, Murphy says she's considering hiring an indie to take her album nationally to AAA stations, in hopes that breaking the radio charts will attract major label interests that could eventually recoup whatever she'd be paying for the help.

Superego's Minor says he paid a radio trade magazine $500 to include his CD with 150 of their magazines, something he now calls a "waste," because he couldn't follow it up nationally with press and a tour. Carl Thiel, on the other hand, the man who produces and manages local singer Lisa Tingle, says that although KLBJ's support has been instrumental in selling both Tingle's record with Black Pearl and her solo disc, his attempts to reach beyond home without the help of an indie record promoter has been a mostly fruitless ordeal.

"Labels have the money to pay a staff of 10-100 people to make the phone calls to the radio stations that we make alone," says Thiel, who still contends selling Tingle's latest has been exponentially easier after testing the waters with Black Pearl. "They can bring the biscuits and pizza to the music directors, and we have to do it on a much smaller scale... basically concentrating on promoting it locally because we don't have the budget or resources to do it nationally."

Takin' It to the Streets

illustration by Jason Stout

But what if you have a song on the radio or a strong touring network and can't properly get your albums into stores? Because retailers have established relationships with major labels and their distributors, shelf space is limited for self-released products -- especially since retailers can't be assured a major label-sized promotional blitz will coincide with the release and help move product.

Worse yet, stores that do stock self-released albums usually test the water with one or two copies and then re-order in equally small increments, which means the artist has to keep tabs on inventory in several stores and either restock them personally or pick up shipping costs. Therefore, according to most artists and managers, the easiest way to ensure distribution is to utilize independent distributors, who generally take the finished albums on consignment, and are responsible for restocking self-released titles in a string of established retail accounts.

Locally, the vast majority of self-releasing artists utilize Dallas' Crystal Clear Sound Distribution, which, in addition to getting product in stores, offers recording, mastering, design, and packaging services. Noteworthy, too, is the fact that Crystal Clear announced this week they'd be opening an Austin office that will allow self-releasing local artists instant access to graphic design, mastering, test pressings, cassette duplication, and distribution.

Already, every artist in this story, from Rockhead and Garza to Murphy and Robison, have used Crystal Clear's distribution arm, which not only has access to local stores like Waterloo Records and Bill's in Dallas, but also large chains like Tower, Hastings, Best Buy, Borders, Blockbuster, and Camelot. And like most other distributors, Crystal Clear works on a simple consignment arrangement, taking product to open accounts that also work on a consignment basis while offering artists half the retail price for each album eventually sold. Better still, artists still own everything and most distributors work without contracts and don't tie the artists to a term or quantity.

"The most important part is to make sure a distributor has open accounts in the markets you're trying to concentrate on," says Crystal Clear owner Sam Paulos, whose company manufactures over one million cassettes and CDs a year with the majority of their 1,000-2,000 CD manufacturing orders coming from self-releasing artists. "From that point, it's largely up to the artist to get the press and radio that encourages people to walk in stores and ask for it. Retail is tight with its money and not taking a lot of chances... and even if they can return it later they don't want to be stuck with a store full of things they can't sell."

Locally, Waterloo's John Kunz says that while his store actively pursues self-released albums in order to separate itself from the major chain stores, local distribution has come so far that he now finds dealing with distributors generally more productive than dealing with the artists themselves. "In this case, the artist is the label and dealing with individuals can be difficult in that they can be on the road or just generally hard to reach," says Kuntz.

"Because self-releases make it one vendor for one record," he continues, "I have to do as much work with that artist in balancing and maintaining an account as I do with distributors that are providing me with 1,000 records. But with a distributor I have an ongoing business relationship and one artist just doesn't constitute a steady stream of business. Not using a distributor is like choosing to drive your letters around town instead of sticking a stamp on it... and in many cases it's too important to have your records in stores to do it any other way than a distributor."

Even without a distributor, both Paulos and Kunz say in-store performances and co-op advertising (where the artists can advertise a gig, the album, and the store it's sold in) are almost universally necessary, in that they can help convince a store that the artist is serious about promoting their product and helping the store sell it. And while Robison has used print advertising, in-stores, and a distributor to help promote Wrapped, he says he's also excited about the Internet and direct mail possibilities.

"I'm slowly collecting a database to work direct mail, and have found that just by putting my e-mail address on the package, word-of-mouth has all kinds of people from everywhere contacting me and trying to find the record," says Robison, who then refers the potential customers to Waterloo's mail-order arm. "People are willing to go through a lot more to get ahold of music than I ever expected."

Take A Look At Me Now Of course, the big question these days is how far people will go to buy an album released on a major label -- where the stakes are much higher. Of late, major label A&R reps are saying that a sluggish overall music industry has left them searching for young artists who are showing early signs that they'll to be able to work on their own; already Murphy and Robison have fielded calls from labels that have begun tracking their local and regional success.

While both local artists have spent their own money on their albums, at some point, this becomes a calculated risk, in that a major or indie picking up or licensing a self-released album for re-release would pay off any debts and then some. In fact, while Murphy admits that the high production and promotion costs she's incurred with Crooked Mile mean she'll need another run of 2,500 albums just to see a return on her first penny, a typical indie would need to sell 10,000-20,000 albums to get even that far, while a major label would need to sell at least 70,000 albums to break even.

"I made money on each record before I moved on to the next and there's no way I could have done that on an indie," says Garza. "Five thousand records are big sales for word-of-mouth, and it was beautiful when the labels finally noticed, because not only did they see that I had a track record, but I had a batch of records I fully owned that they wanted. We teased them with it and it made me more desirable."

In fact, Garza was so desirable that he negotiated with Atlantic to keep control of his back catalogue, which he can keep in stores or re-release independently any time he wishes -- and make almost a full $10 in profit for each unit sold. Instead, however, Garza says he's planning to pull all his old self-released records from stores by the August 5 release date of his major label debut, insuring there's only one option in record stores when his Atlantic album comes out.

Regardless, Garza is certain his self-released albums and their attached promotional value were instrumental in attracting major label attention. And by extension, several insiders say that what may come next for local self-releases is a bit of a reversal, whereby an artist with a history of major label or major indie promotion like Alejandro Escovedo or Kelly Willis decides to self-release an album between deals and take home $7-8 on 5,000-10,000 regional units. Whatever the case, for now, the majority of local artists self-releasing albums say they can't complain, because anything they do is promotion, and there's always the hope that they can follow Garza, Ingram, or Jackopierce onto a road of self-helped profit.

"I'll consider giving it up and doing a traditional deal, but this record has taught me there still has to be some overwhelming reason to do it," says Robison. "Because what I hold right now is worth something, and that I actually hold an interest in my own record is even more valuable in itself.... I'm not making a million dollars, but I'm not broke either. And more importantly, I'm not waiting around."

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