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The pros and cons of vinyl, CD, cassette and digital in 2013, and how best to sell and manufacture them

It’s well-documented that getting your music out there, in 2013, is easier than ever.

Whether it’s starting a vinyl label, building the foundations of a one-man Bandcamp empire or indulging your niche cassette fantasies, the opportunities are out there, and although it’s hard to succeed – in a conventional, monetary sense, at least – running a record label, starting one is a piece of cake (read FACT’s How to Start a Record Label feature for tips on the subject from labels like Hessle Audio, Captured Tracks and Ninja Tune). In terms of what formats to choose, however, it’s a little tougher. Is vinyl worth the cost and hassle? Will anyone actually listen to your lovingly-curated cassette releases? Do digital-only releases get taken seriously, and is there any room for the CD in 2013?

In this feature, I’ll attempt to weigh up the pros and cons of music’s four main formats – CD, digital, vinyl and cassette – with advice from some of the labels that specialise in them (some have supplied quotes, others have contributed off record), and links to some highly-recommended manufacturers. Take note though, these recommendations are by no means definitive – as with many things, the best way to find your place in the strange world of releasing records is simply to do it, and the mistakes you make along the way will be just as important as the triumphs.

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Cassettes

There’s been talk of a cassette revival every year since the mid-‘00s, and although there are labels – and small scenes – that give an impression of good health with cassette releases as their key currency, it’s easy to neglect the fact that tapes in 2013 are still a very niche format.

Regardless, when Keysound’s Martin Clark – whose label has never released cassettes – recently opened up a discussion of the format’s validity on Twitter and Facebook, it was interesting to see how open dance music fans currently are to cassette releases. Genres like metal and noise have traded in cassettes for years, but there’s more and more labels from, or at least connected to, dance music turning to tapes, with Opal Tapes, Sonic RouterNo Corner and Blackest Ever Black’s Krokodilo Tapes recent examples.

Cassettes are niche for one key reason: most people simply don’t own cassette players. You could argue until the cows come home that this doesn’t make sense (after all, you can buy a Walkman for £10, which is nothing compared to what a decent quality turntable will set you back), but it’s undeniably the case. That said, there’s a strong argument that the cassette is a less redundant medium in 2013 than the CD (more on which later), and the arguments that tape nostalgia is invalid “hipster bullshit” – as seen on that aforementioned Martin Clark thread and elsewhere – don’t hold up: most music fans in their mid-20s to early 30s, I’d wager, bought cassette albums before they bought vinyl. My first cassette was Suggs and my first vinyl record was Swans – you guess what came first.

Nick Sylvester wrote an excellent recent piece for Pitchfork on a quality of the cassette release that’s often overlooked: recording to tape offers the results a sense of instinct and a lack of pressure that, Sylvester argues, isn’t always present when it comes to a vinyl release where both band and label are aware of the costs of the recording (“I tell my friends I’ll record their music and we’ll put it out on cassette, and it changes the entire energy of the session. There’s less pressure. It’s “just” a cassette, which is liberating. It lets the id back in the room”). That, obviously, leads us to one of cassette’s key advantages – it’s a lot cheaper to manufacture than vinyl, and doesn’t necessarily retail for too much less (the average price of a cassette release from an indie label tends to fall around £5-£6, compared to vinyl 12”s at £7-8). No, you can’t DJ with them (well, 99% of the population can’t), and if you’re releasing a cassette then you’ll have to be prepared for the fact that you’re not only selling to a small market, you’re selling to a small market who may not ever get round to listening to their purchase (hands up, there’s Trilogy and NNA Tapes releases on my shelf that have never been near my Walkman), but it’s a format that – in terms of both sound and aesthetic – really suits certain releases, and it’s a great opportunity to produce a musical artefact that you’re proud of while keeping the costs to a couple of hundred pounds.

Average Cost

For European readers, Tapeline and Fairview Duplication come recommended by several of the labels mentioned above, and both will set you back around £150-£200 for a run of 100 cassettes (more details here and here). In the US, National Audio appear to be a favourite.

Tips

“The most important thing when it comes to releasing cassettes, to me, is quality dubs. There’s so many labels putting in the time, money, and effort to make sure their tapes sound of the highest quality that doing anything short of that is likely going to disappoint and alienate potential listeners.  If you don’t have a high quality deck to use for duplication (though many are available, for cheap, on Ebay) and don’t have the time to do 1-to-1 copies at regular speed, then I’d suggest shelling out the extra bucks for the professionals to do it.” – Brad Rose, Digitalis (and FACT’s resident cassette expert)

“For those starting cassette labels, I would recommend to start with the classic home-dub. Get a nice dual-deck from a thrift store (plug it in and make sure it works first), clean the heads up, and get to dubbing. Get to know the deck and all it’s features. Make sure those levels are adequately loud… a little bit of tape overdrive can sound real nice in the right context, but nothing is worse than a quiet hissy tape! After you’ve developed a loving connection with your deck, you can always get some more and daisy chain them together. That was how NNA started off in the early days. After a few years we accquired a four-tape hi-speed dubber – a real old beast of a machine but definitely a time saver. Eventually we have settled on professional duplication to ensure that we’re releasing the best-sounding cassette tapespossible. Highest quality music deserves the highest quality sound.” – Matt Mayer, NNA Tapes

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Vinyl

Vinyl is, to a lot of artists, labels and listeners, still the ultimate format – listen to the telling way that artists talk about their first vinyl release, compared to merely their first release, and you’ll see what I mean. In 2013, anybody can release something digitally, and artists know this – it takes a whole other level of commitment to the music to spend the amount of time and money that manufacturing a vinyl record costs, and that’s something that’s also recognised, consciously or subconsciously, by listeners. To many, a vinyl release feels more real, more legitimate than a cassette or digital release, and that makes a lot of sense.

That said, there are more and more labels either moving away from, or regularly expressing their dissatisfaction with the vinyl format – it may sound and look great, but it can be a real pain to produce. Vinyl pressing plants rarely run on time, and it’s an expensive process: once you’ve factored in mastering, metalwork (cutting the record’s lacquer), centre-stickers, pressing vinyl copies from said lacquer and the dreaded VAT, you’re usually looking at £800+ for 300 copies, and that’s before factoring in sleeves. Yes, they retail for more than cassettes, and if your label has a big enough fanbase to sell direct then you can spin a half-decent profit (let’s say you can sell 300 copies direct for £7-£8, and your overall costs are £900, then that’s over a grand), but in most cases you’ll be selling to a distributor, which significantly cuts your profit margin.

From a DJ’s perspective, vinyl will always sound better on a rig that’s cut out for it, but clubs are increasingly catering more for digital DJing formats – vinyl DJs, how many times have you brought records to a club, and even after setting up your own needles, you’re still dealing with turntables that don’t appear to have been serviced in a decade? There’s also the transport factor. Richie Hawtin was rightly raked over the coals for a comment he made on Facebook in 2011 about vinyl DJs being stuck in the past (and let’s face it, Richie DJs with a whole Starship Enterprise’s worth of equipment and still managed 2013’s funniest trainwreck) but even with those who enjoy dragging a record bag to a club on a rainy night, good luck finding a record collector who finds moving house anything other than traumatic.

This all said, there’s certain things you can do with vinyl that you simply can’t do with other formats – or, at least, you don’t have the big 12” canvas to make them look good. From Toto’s ‘Africa’ 12” shaped like an actual map of Africa to Danny Brown’s EP pressed on a record designed to look like a Xanax bar, vinyl offers you an ability to customise that other formats don’t – and what’s an extra few hundred quid when you’re releasing music in that decadent a fashion? Vinyl, for a significant percentage of music fans (and it’s a percentage that’s getting higher, if recent statistics are to be believed) is still king, and it’s earned that spot.

Average Cost

London’s Curved offers 300 12″ records with full colour labels and card sleeves for £685 + VAT, while Music House comes in slightly cheaper (but with paper sleeves rather than card). It goes without saying, of course, that we’d point you to our friends at The Vinyl Factory as your first choice.

Tips

Learn to take pride in the fact that you’re releasing music that you love with a good chance of losing money on it – that’s half the battle. And always keep this quote from Loefah, founder of defining dubstep label DMZ and Swamp81, in mind:

“Obviously it’ll never sell the units it once did, but vinyl’s different. Vinyl’s like a piece of art, it’s a reflection of the times you live in, it’s a physical thing you can hold. I mean, you can hold a CD, you can hold a tape, you can even hold an iPod and look at the artwork on the screen – but it’s not the same, is it?

“You can viably frame a vinyl cover and put it on the wall. It’s also got all these personal associations – when you take a vinyl out of your record collection it takes you back to when you bought it, where you were in your life when you were listening to that shit when it was brand new…there’s just so much involved in it.  The process of having to put it on, having to turn it over – it’s a lot of effort to listen to vinyl, so you want to listen to good shit; you’re not gonna listen to rubbish on vinyl.”

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CD

Overtaken by downloads in the mainstream and on the mixtape circuit, considered inferior to vinyl in the underground and lacking the cassette’s nostalgic quality, is the CD dead?

Grime artist JME certainly thinks so, but it’s interesting to note that there are still independent labels manufacturing their records on CD as well as vinyl, and I don’t just mean the independent sphere’s giants such as Sub Pop and Merge – newer labels like Tri Angle and Blackest Ever Black still release on CD, too. Speaking to owners of record labels with a similar status in their field (that field being relatively underground music), vinyl is considered the more reliable unit-shifter of the two, but if an album’s sales last beyond the first three months of release, then CD sales can eventually overtake vinyl. Still, it’s a big change from when labels of this level would think about pressing 6,000 CD copies of a release with only 500 vinyl accompanying it.

Something that’s often neglected about the CD format is that despite having a smaller canvas than vinyl, it can look beautiful. Fans have bemoaned the fact that Actress’s Hazvyille and Zomby’s Where Were U In 92? weren’t released on vinyl (the latter eventually was, for last year’s Record Store Day), but they look fantastic on Werk Discs’ digipak CDs, and Touch’s CD releases are stunning.

2013 finds the CD format in a very strange place – or perhaps, more accurately, between places – and I’m not sure it’ll survive the next decade. Even the home-made CD-Rs traditionally sold at, say, underground noise gigs are finding themselves replaced by cassettes or Bandcamp releases. The CD will always have two advantages over vinyl, however: it’s cheaper to manufacture, and you can play them in your car.

Average Cost

Germany’s Disc Solutions offers 300 CDs in shrink-wrapped jewel cases for £425 plus VAT, while you’re looking at £560 plus VAT for a four-panel digipak.

Tips

Digipaks might look better, but not all digipaks look the same. Ask for samples before you spend money, and remember, just because the prices are cheaper than vinyl that’s no excuse to skimp on quality. Every second household has a shelving unit or cupboard filled with unused, unloved, average CDs – don’t give them a reason to add to that pile.

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Digital Downloads

Anyone can release music digitally, and that’s both the format’s key advantage and disadvantage. Finding a digital distributor who’ll take care of making sure your music is serviced to giants like iTunes and Amazon as well as smaller retailers like Beatport, Traxsource and Boomkat isn’t hard, and even if you don’t do that, it’s easier than ever to service your releases yourself – whether that’s submitting them to iTunes or hawking them on sites like Bandcamp. There are potential costs to selling mp3s – studio time, mastering, artwork, etc – but many artists simply bypass these, meaning that for them it’s both devoid of the stresses of producing physical music, and free of any costs whatsoever.

There are more artists than ever building careers from mp3 releases – whether that’s Baauer’s world-conquering ‘Harlem Shake’, which was released as a free download by Mad Decent in 2012 before going straight to #1 following its full release in 2013, The Weeknd’s trilogy of free mixtapes (later re-released, packaged as Trilogy) or countless hip-hop artists who’re touring without ever releasing a physical product (for an example closer to dance music, Canadian producers Ryan Hemsworth and Cyril Hahn are currently on a hyped world tour with one vinyl record between them). The other side of the coin, of course, is that the sheer amount of mp3 releases around – a result of them being so easy to produce – means that it’s harder than ever to stand out releasing digitally, and call me sentimental, but if you’re digital-only then no kid’s ever going to discover your record in a charity shop 20 years from now and fall in love with it.

Costs 

Potentially, there are none – though if you want to get your digital releases mastered, then Bristol’s Optimum and Canada’s Pure Focus both come recommended at a good price.

Tips

A Bandcamp empire doesn’t come overnight, and we don’t all get the same Drake co-sign that The Weeknd’s House of Balloons did. If you want to make a music career from free downloads then be prepared to both put in the work – yes, the likes of Main Attrakionz and Lil B have a steady live show schedule, but that’s come from releasing free mixtapes at a rate of knots for several years – and hustle your art hard.

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