Do you remember your first record? Not necessarily your first musical love, but the first hard copy that you owned. It’s a great conversation starter asking someone what their first CD is because no one ever forgets; they treasure it, and probably still own it somewhere. Mine was the 2001 Gorillaz album. I listened to that thing over and over; it certainly helps knowing all the words to Clint Eastwood at a party, it makes you look like a G. After rooting through old boxes of my old stuff, I found my Gorillaz album, battered and scratched, but very much still there, and it felt good to hold it again.
When the download age swept the world, the general idea was that CDs would become obsolete, just like cassettes before them, and vinyls before that. Cassettes, not so much, but vinyl and CD seem to have survived the digital apocalypse as they are still decorating the shelves of every HMV (under new management it seems) and That’s Entertainment. One of the core reasons for this is that we still, and hopefully always will, enjoy the feeling of having/holding a CD or vinyl case.
So what about the actual process of CD manufacture and distribution? Allow me to further your appreciation of CDs and make that package even more special when it arrives.
1. The Band? The Band?! The Band!
The band writes a song. I don’t know how many of you reading this will have been in bands or written songs with a band, but you should be aware of how difficult this first stage is. When you say you love a band, it’s because you love their lyrics, sound, the performers themselves, their image, and the kind of people their music attracts. It’s not an easy process uniting people under one tune, and it’s easy to forget about artists sitting down and actually co-ordinating something. These tips from Wikihow might give you a clearer idea of how artists go about writing their songs, but as for actually organizing a song into existence, it’s gruelling.
2. The Recording Studio
When you think of a recording artist, do you picture someone standing in front of the mic in a beautifully equipped studio, headphones on one side, coffee in the other, and a swarm of agents and producers checking dials and meters? It might be like that in the movies, but so far in my life the only experience of recording studios I’ve had consisted of a dark room in a dodgy warehouse, one guy behind a desk and not so much as a teaspoon to stir the powdered milk in my tea. This article from Jamcast outlines how it really goes down in a recording studio: it’s knackering. You do the same songs over and over until they’re perfect, or you’ll waste your money. I never used to feel sorry for recording artists until I spent just two days in a studio, kipping on the couch, and some artists go for weeks!
If the studio is decent, the mixing process will take about a week for 8-12 tracks. If they’re really good they’ll take a bit more time to get the job done properly, it’s a long process if done right. Alternatively, you can set up your own recording studio at home if you have that kind of investment available. Gear4Music are a great supplier, I’ve bought plenty of amps, pedals, guitars and mics from them in the past, and if you’d prefer the comfort of your own home then this option might be more your style.
3. How Many More Times?
Now we get to the exciting part: CD replication. There are a number of companies that offer duplication services, but you don’t want that. CD duplication is as good as burning your file onto a CD which equals one copy, and takes ages. Replication involves ‘glass mastering’ your file to superb visual/sound quality, and then making as many as you could want. Companies like Liquid Bubble are especially good for this stage as their prices are fair and their services quick, which is especially good for new artists with not much in the bank. Check out the link if you don’t know how glass mastering works, it’s a pretty impressive process!
4. Pack Up and Get Out There
Led Zeppelin I is still my all time favourite album cover, and I know there are millions of others, but I love it. The iconic photograph of the Hindenburg aflame in black and white is so striking and moving that it intensifies the meaning behind the music. Design and packaging are often vastly overlooked by artists who just want to have their face looking pretty all the time. Sometimes you need something grotesque or haunting to make a lasting impression. Poorly planned (or maybe not at all) art work can kill the full effect of the music and cause problems with band members, as seen in this special scene in Spinal Tap.
I have more respect for artists who make an effort with their CD covers and package designs, even if I don’t particularly enjoy their music: it’s a strange one. I particularly admire companies like Key Production who create bespoke packaging and give CDs a kind of sex appeal. I’d declare this as one of the more crucial stages of coming to love a CD: the point where you don’t like it out of your sight.
5. Hit the Shelves
Distribution is a whole new kettle of fish that involves marketing ploys, targeting audiences, press releases, online advertising and on and on… are you beginning to get the picture? These 10 tips from Vestman Mastering provides a detailed insight of the process of marketing a CD, though of course not every artist has to go through this rigorous routine, and there are other methods of making an impression. If you want a cool example of a product that isn’t exactly “lasting” (you’ll see what I mean), but makes a great impression, check out this blog post from Think Tank Media.
In the end you have this shiny little disk in a fragile case, but to the artist it’s like having your heart on show. Yes digital media is easier, quicker and cheaper (most of the time), but I find my appreciation of the music is lessened unless I can feel the labour in the case. If I can’t stare at the album cover and intently read through the booklet while I’m listening, it just becomes about the song when making music is so much more than that.