Shipping the CDs

One of the things I had to decide before putting the cd up for sale was how to ship it.

There is a dizzying array of options for independent musicians out there, and an even greater number of opinions on the right way to do it. But regarding the shipment of physical cds, to me it seemed to come down to three basic options: CDBaby/Amazon, Bandcamp, or Do-It-Yourself.

The first thing is that as a musician looking for information, CDBaby and Bandcamp are very, very loudly recommended by outside sources. It just seems to be what people do, and so everyone else seems to do it too.

I tried to do a bit of an analysis regarding the different options. While writing songs and selling cds as an independent musician isn't exactly a lucrative money-making business, we still might as well try to look at things rationally, right? Here's what I came up with.

My cds have a printing cost of $3.33 apiece. I could have knocked the printing cost lower by printing more cds, but then I was reducing my probability of meeting the overall cost.

For a seven-song cd, $10 seemed to be a good round number. People are still often selling full physical cds for $12-$15, and the cd length is technically considered a "mini-album", bigger than an EP, so $10 seemed about right.

That basically means I have about $6.50 of margin to play with when deciding how to handle order fulfillment.

CDBaby / Amazon

CDBaby charges $4/cd for fulfillment, and that doesn't include the $3.69 shipping that a US person will pay. So that means a user would pay $13.69, and I'd get $6 net, or about $2.50 margin after printing costs.

Amazon has two methods. If you use them for orders, but handle shipments yourself, Amazon charges between $3 and $4 per cd, and shipping costs are roughly covered via a shipping credit they give you. So we can roughly call it $7 net, or about $3.50 margin after printing costs.

Amazon's second method is if they do their own fulfillment. In that case, shipping costs are taken out of the equation, but overall feels looks to approach $6 or so. In that case, it's around $4 net, or less than $1 margin after printing costs.


Back at the time I first looked into this, I honestly thought that they didn't allow selling physical cds if you weren't also selling digitally, and I wasn't ready to sell digitally. I've since found out that you can actually sell merchandise-only on bandcamp, so it is still an option for what I'm doing.

However, when selling merch only, bandcamp's product really is just a shopping cart. You can do some website redirection tricks and they have some good handling for different shipping pricing options, but the upshot is that it's basically a shopping cart with a design on top of it.

For merch, bandcamp's fees are 10%, on top of normal payment processing fees. For a $10 cd, that basically means it would be taking $1, or 15% of my margin opportunity for every cd - the margin works out to be about $5.50 per cd after printing costs.

One twist to bandcamp is that you can set a minimum price, but allow people to pay more. Bandcamp swears that they see people using this regularly although it's tough to say how scientific that measurement is. They have a few other interesting features too. I decided against it at first, but I might still consider switching to it in the future.

Do It Yourself

I looked around at a bunch of shopping carts and credit card processors. I'm a professional "internet architect/programmer" consultant by trade, so I've done a few implementations in the past. But what's funny is that for a project like this, the plain old Paypal purchase flow was the best fit. It's direct, familiar, and cheap. Lots of people use it and it's hooked up to bank account. On top of that, Paypal has a discount relationship with the United States Postal Service, so I get a break on the shipping charges, too.

For all these other card-processing services out there, they all have the same basic underlying rate of 2.9% + $0.30, or about $0.58 for each of my cds. Since I also tack on shipping charges (which are less than the shipping charges for Amazon and CDBaby), that is covered, and I end up with a net of just about $10/cd, or a margin of around $6.50 after printing costs.

The Result

I ordered padded shipping envelopes from Amazon. You can get them in packs of 100, and it works out to about $0.29 apiece. I took a package to the Post Office and got a postage quote of about $2.24 . But then using the Paypal "multi-shipping" tool, I see that the per-item cost is actually $1.83 . So each time I get an order, I follow this process:

  1. Log in to paypal - the order is right there.
  2. Click the link for their "multi-shipping tool". Orders are automatically imported.
  3. Apply a preset I made for the product - envelope size and weight (4 oz). All orders are updated.
  4. Click to print. Shipping costs are deducted from my paypal account automatically.
  5. Cut out the shipping label (yes, I use scissors!)
  6. Write a hand-written thank-you note to the purchaser with the rest of the paper. (You can't do this if you use CDBaby.)
  7. Tape the shipping label to the envelope, package it up, seal.
  8. Drop it in my mailbox

Honestly, while I could see this getting annoying if I were dealing with huge numbers of orders every day, I find it pretty fulfilling to do this at home. (My favorite part is actually the little thank-you notes!)

The CD

Remember the cd is still for sale, and you can get it on its album page. Here are the audio previews of the seven songs!

Not Today Released

So, I've released the album.

I think it was in 2009, perhaps even late 2008. That's the day that I went to a songwriter showcase and performed two songs, including She Believes. Jake Oken-Berg was performing too. Jake had a lot more experience than me. I was there to nervously try and get some performance experience playing in front of an audience, while Jake was there to simply test a couple of his songs for audience response and then sneak out the back door.

Jake is also a piano-driven songwriter and has been around a lot, touring with both his self-titled band and another well-known band he co-fronted called The Retrofits. He felt an affinity for She Believes. We met for coffee, and I shared my complete lack of knowledge about putting a decent recording project together. Soon, we came to an agreement - Jake would serve as my producer for the project.

With that, the months and years started passing. It sounds funny that it took so long, because the project really was never dormant - there was always something on the calendar, and another dependency to work through. But when balancing it with life and Real Jobs, things have to wait for the weekend, or perhaps the weekend after. Jake was patient and essential for the whole duration, and was involved with every step, from tightening up song forms before the studio dates, to helping me edit comps and direct the session musicians as they came in, to signing off on the final mixes and masters and giving me the thumbs-up to print. But even more helpful was just the reinforcement of telling me good ways to work, and what would be a waste of time and money. I'm sure that when it netted out, he saved me hundreds if not thousands of dollars.

At this point, I look back and see mostly a blur. Wrestling with editing comps, learning about mixing and mastering, restructuring songs, picking photographs and fonts, etc. But the point has been the music - it's been extremely gratifying to bring to life several songs that I have cared deeply about on a musical level.

So this is just to note down the fact that the album is finally released, which I'm still kind of stunned by, and to point out the people that deserve thanks for their direct roles in the project.

Obviously, Jake, for the reasons above and more.

Pete Wright was there from the beginning. One of the songs is even about his family. He was listening to roughdrafts and encouraging me to move forward when I wasn't even sure I had any business calling myself a songwriter. Pete also took the wonderful photos that are part of the cd package.

Steve Turmell was also there all the way through - he was always excited about the progression of song ideas, and his background as a musician and recording artist definitely helped make the possibilities of recording seem more real.

Scott Townsend and Chris Gustafson came by the house often to jam song ideas with me on drum and bass, and volunteered their time for some long sessions in the studio to get rhythm tracks down.

Eric Austin and Dan Schlesinger were bandmates of mine when I was in Deja Nu, and came by to volunteer their sounds of clarinet and trombone onto My Favorite Clown.

There are so many more, from the session musicians to the recording engineers, all of whom you can see on the album page. They all know the score about being independent musicians and try to pitch in in various ways to save costs, while also remaining professional. Portland musicians are a very generous community and it was a ton of fun working with them all.

Coldplay, Satriani, and Copyrights

A few years ago, back around the time that Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift, there was another bit of news in the music media. Coldplay had come out with a song, Joe Satriani heard it, and felt pretty devastated by what he heard.

The suit was eventually settled and dismissed. The rumors I've seen were that Satriani got a cash payment from Coldplay, but that's hard to confirm. Coldplay didn't admit wrongdoing.

But what was interesting about it was that the argument mostly centered on the chord progression! The chord progression in question was VI-VII-III-i , or IV-VII-III-i. (VI and IV are pretty similar and serve the same function due to common tones.)

That chord progression seems rather distinctive - a far cry from the cliché four chord songs everyone likes to joke about. Right?


Well... let's take another look. Both of those chords end up on the minor "one". And minor keys have relative major keys. What would those chord progressions be in the relative major? IV... V... I... vi. And, ii... V... I... vi. That's pretty much the "four chords" right there. The latter one is basically every jazz turnaround ever at the end of a standard. The only twist here is that they chose to label the chords in terms of the relative minor. And that's arguably wrong of them, anyway. Coldplay's song is in a major key the entire way through (not a V/vi to be found), whereas you could argue that Satriani is minor in the verse, and modulating to the major in the chorus before it goes back to the relative minor.

To me, the similarities are more convincing because of tempo, groove, and the key parts of the melody - the melodic rhythm in particular. I think that's where the strength of Satriani's claim was, supported by the chord progression - not in the chord progression itself.

However, I suspect that in trials such as those, they don't look at it in terms of each particular ingredient - they just play it for the jury and ask them if it sounds "too" similar. I'm also not surprised this lawsuit turned into a settlement, because if Coldplay had been found liable based off of a combination of factors, it would have opened them up to a ton more lawsuits from everyone else who happened to write four-chord songs that they believed sounded similar. (Which almost happened with Cat Stevens anyway, due to his ii-V-I-IV progression...)

Copyright Applications, Part 3

Six applications, many hours, and $210 later, I think I'm finished with the copyright applications.

I wanted to be a stickler about it, so I had to register the versions of the songs that I had previously "published" by releasing them online. This also involved detailing whether the lyrics were new, or revisions based off of my messed-up "songbook" registration, where I had attempted to register lyrics and chord progressions while the Copyright Office only accepted the lyrics. Finally, I then registered the cd, which contained unpublished recordings of all the songs, but revisions for the music/lyrics of some of the songs.

Incidentally, I've also found out that it's not quite true that you can't copyright chord progressions. You can't *register* them, but if you copyright the entire song or sound recording, the sound of the chord progressions can definitely play a part in determining originality or infringement. So if you ever want to register a lead sheet on the PA form, go ahead and include the chord symbols since they may end up relevant.

What's next is to make sure my ducks are in a row with ASCAP, and then there's not a lot in the way before release day!

Registering For Copyright

The Not Today album is basically complete, but not released yet. There are always a few straggling things to take care of, and today is devoted to registering for copyright. Ah, copyright. What a maddening user experience this is.

I'm attempting to copyright through The Electronic Copyright Office. It's a long multi-page wizard that is sort of like filing your taxes through TurboTax, except less pleasant. (By the way, I am aware I already have copyrights on these songs just by creating them - in this post, I'm using "copyright" as a simile for "registering my copyright with the copyright office".)

A couple of years ago, I filed a copyright called "The Curt Siffert Songbook, Volume 1" that had lyrics and chord symbols for several of my songs, including six of the seven songs on the album. But then again, I've since learned that chord progressions are not copyrightable. Lyrics are, and it's a songbook with titles. So it's not clear what happened - I may have just copyrighted the lyrics. And some of the lyrics have seen minor revisions since then.

Additionally, there is the question of what has been published. This affects the details of how I copyright them. Four of the seven songs have been released online - five, if you count the one that is available only to mailing list subscribers. Now, I personally see all these songs as demos - they are live recordings, and a far cry from the fully produced versions of the songs on the cd. But an argument can be made that they were published.

Finally, there's the question of what to do about songs that are unpublished yet copyrighted, or published yet uncopyrighted.

The simplest way for me to handle this is to just declare to myself that I consider all my songs unpublished. The copyright office doesn't offer clear guidance on this for digital works, and basically says it is up to me to determine. So for this go-round, I'm registering the album as a Song Recording.

Here are the general sections in the form:

Type Of Work: This one seems pretty straightforward, as it is a cd, so I want to register it as a Sound Recording. However, they do have long instructions regarding multiple authorship types. Apparently this gets very complicated if the cd is a mix of published and unpublished works, since you are supposed to exclude previously published tracks, and re-register them in a different way (they don't say how). But I'm considering all my tracks as unpublished, so I'm sticking with Sound Recording.

Titles: I'm registering "Not Today" as the "Title of the work being registered" (since it's the album title), and each of the seven song titles (including the song named "Not Today") as "Contents title".

Publication/Completion: I'm most dubious about this one, but since they have never been in fixed physical form, I'm putting "No", it has not been published yet. And then for Year Of Completion, I'm putting 2013 even though the songs were written before this year.

Authors: Even though I'm registered as a corporation, I am not a work for hire for myself, so I put my own name.

Claimant: This is complicated because it's either an individual or an organization. Technically, my music publishing company (holding the copyrights to my songs) is named Storied Music, and my record label (holding the copyrights to my recordings) is First Set Records. So it's completely unclear what to put here. So I'm just going to put my name.

Limitation Of Claim: Ahh, this is where it starts to become clear. I'm not considering any previous work published, but I do have those previous copyrights that have previous versions of the lyrics. So I excluded the lyrics for 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7. And I re-included *all* material, with notes that lyrics are revised for 1, 2, 3, and 5.

The rest is pretty boilerplate stuff - contact information, review and submit, etc. But it's overall pretty maddening - I'll have a list of questions for the copyright office before I can feel comfortable submitting the application!

Music Income Sources

I was browsing around yesterday and I found this article on the tunecore blog. There's a free ebook linked within that I quite liked. So much so that I put together this rough graph of all the information I found in the ebook (click to embiggen):

Music Recording Income StreamsMusic Recording Income Streams

Comments or clarifications appreciated! and Jango Promotions

I recently signed up for "pay-to-play" promotions for and Jango. and Jango are both systems that will recommend your music to others based off of similar tastes. Users of the sites listen to music through their online players, and they get a mix of artists that are their favorites, and new artists the system believes they will like based off of analyses of "similar artists".

The question for independent artists is how to break into that and get your music recommended to new ears. On the one hand, the whole point is for listeners to find new artists - that's you! On the other hand, the system needs to know about you, which requires many listens from many people. It's a catch-22.

So the way around that is to buy plays from these services. There are of course a variety of opinions on whether a good artist should even need to do this, but listeners need to hear about music somehow.

I decided to test against Jango. I used two of my songs, She Believes and Damn My Eyes, and I picked the smallest play package for each. Here are the results:

  • First, I signed my copy of Damn My Eyes up for a promotion of 100 plays for $20. I chose similar artists of Ben Folds, Jamie Cullum, Harry Connick, Jr., Randy Newman, and Marc Cohn.
    • Full Listens: 71
    • Skips: 27
    • Loves: 3
    • Bans: 1

    In addition, another user recommended it to a friend of theirs.

  • Then, I signed my copy of She Believes up for the same promotion - 100 plays for $20. I chose similar artists of Billy Joel, Ben Folds, Jamie Cullum, and Harry Connick, Jr.
    • Full Listens: 75
    • Skips: 23
    • Loves: 0
    • Bans: 0

    In addition, two people outside of the campaign "loved" the track during this time.

  • Then, I signed myself up for Jango - on my artist page you can see the rough results. I ran two separate promotions. The first one was for Damn My Eyes. The minimum was $30 for 1000 plays. You need 50 "likes" for a song to get into general rotation. After 1000 plays, I had somewhere around 200 likes, and 10-12 fans.
  • After that, I signed up again for She Believes, for another 1000 plays. I got another 150 likes and another 6-8 fans I believe. It's hard to tell which stats are for which songs because their stats page doesn't list a complete history, but that seems to be the rough breakdown.

To judge these results you can go listen to my songs to get a relative sense compared to other music you like. But when judged against each other, my rough conclusions are that Damn My Eyes is slightly more likeable (in a broad sense) than She Believes - however I find that She Believes tends to make a stronger impression on the people that like it.

But regarding the services themselves, while it was fun getting the extra listens, I'm still not sure of the benefit of either of these services, for a variety of reasons.

  1. does not give you a sense of where that critical mass point is. How many listens does it take for them to start recommending you after a paid promotion? After the conclusion of my promotion, I haven't noticed any additional plays of my tunes through Having no sense of how many listens it takes, I don't find it worth the money to pay for additional promotions.
  2. It's too early to tell with Jango since my promotion just ended, but I think I am getting at least a couple of plays a day out of Jango now, after the conclusion of the promotions. That's not a lot. I'll report back here if that jumps up at all.
  3. Response rate sucks. I tried writing my listeners to say thank you, and I got some new "friends" out of it, but out of more than 100 messages that I sent, only two wrote back, and I only got one new signup to my mailing list. I am sure this is because many of the plays had to have been to passive listeners.
  4. It's the same with Jango. I've tried writing all of my 18 fans independently and I got one signup - a guy that joined my facebook group. This is better than, but Jango is still confusing here - I can see on my page who has "liked" me and who has signed up as a "fan". In terms of functionality, there is absolutely no difference. I can't write all my fans at once.

My whole strategy at this phase of my career is to build my mailing list and write songs. I don't yet have a cd or a product to sell, so I use my music to build my mailing list so I have as many likely buyers as possible when I eventually do have something to sell. So from my perspective anyway - and factor in your own opinions of my music quality - it doesn't look like these services are worth the results. I basically paid $50 per lead. (Update: Jango response rate is getting better - their listeners might be more active.)

Now, there are several things that could moderate these conclusions:

  1. Continued future plays could yield more mailing list signups, which could make the services feel "worth it". I'm noticing Jango plays, but not plays.
  2. Since my two tracks are well-mixed but one-off rehearsal takes, better produced studio versions of the same songs might yield better results
  3. Flat-out better music might yield better results, but that would always be true even if you're Mozart.
  4. I'm sure I could design a website that would better designed for increasing mailing list signups.

But overall I think it's important to note that both of these services appear geared to the listeners, not the musicians. It does a good job of introducing new music to listeners, but neither do anything towards encouraging the listeners to become active supporters of the musicians behind the music. There is a lot of music out there, and you're really just sort of being anonymously presented to people. This creates a low likelihood of building an actual relationship.

Update: I'm informed that Jango is only a few weeks old. My impressions of Jango overall are positive, and it's clear they're actively working on functionality. After getting another 3-4 mailing list signups I'm more optimistic that Jango's promotions might be worth it.

Quoting Napoleon's Songs

I've been collaborating with Quoting Napoleon as their sometimes-keyboardist lately. They already have a cd released, and also have their songs available through snocap, which I think is a pretty cool system. You can browse clips of their songs here and then buy them for full downloads. These are the songs they came up with before I started playing with them more regularly, although I am working out some subtle keyboard parts for these songs, too.

Promoting My Favorite Clown

One of the things I'm trying to learn how to do is how to promote these songs effectively online. I'm not even thinking about how to earn money on them yet as the first step is to build audience.

First step is to upload a new song and tell my family and friends about it. I've done that. Next step is to figure out ways to make it a bit more viral and submit it to services, though. And for that I need your help!

I'm a member of GarageBand, iLike, and Facebook, and they're all kind of linked together. So if you want to help out, please do any or all of the following:

  • Visit my artist page on facebook and add my music to your facebook profile. It's easy, all you have to do is click the "Add to Profile" link next to the song. You can also then choose to dedicate it to your friends if you like and encourage them to add it to their profile (and tell them to dedicate/pass on, ad infinitum). But also make sure to click the "(click) to iLike" button below my picture!
  • Visit my iLike page, and click the "iLike" button on the page. You can also click on each of the songs and click the "iLike" button for each of them as well. It appears most important to "iLike" the actual artist, because that improves how often I get recommended to other people that might like my music. Fastest way, click this button:

    iLike Curt Siffert

There are probably other things I could do but I haven't found them yet. Leave me a comment if you have ideas.

Site Directions

Well, it's been almost four months since I've launched this site. I've wanted the site to become something akin to a framework, workflow, and representation of my efforts as a musician. I think I've succeeded there. Whenever I create or accomplish something musically, I have a place to put it. So now (and perhaps this is partially because of how me having a cold affects my brain), I'm moved to review and think about how it's all working.

"A place to put it" is interesting. Because if I were to merely keep these things in my head, in iTunes, on a scratch piece of staff paper - they'd still exist, I suppose, but it doesn't feel like any of them have life until I put them somewhere where there's a chance other people might experience them, or perhaps enjoy them.

But everything has a home right now. I have a place for my song drafts. A place for my improvised piano pieces. A place for my jazz standards (although a password is needed there). A place where I can write about what I'm doing, a mailing list where people can sign up, which gives an excuse to summarize my own progress to give myself benchmarks.

So far it's a good experiment - all combined, I've interacted with this site in some way every day since then. It kind of gives me something to react to, which helps me take music more seriously in a way that feels natural rather than disciplined. It's having good results too - I thought up, wrote, and learned I Have A Cold in about three hours. It's a stupid silly song, and I was completely punchy - laughing about it while hopped up on cold medicines - the sort of thing where the mood that drove the creation of the song would have passed in a few hours. Six months ago I would not have been able to capture that complete song in time. (Which, in the case of that particular song, might have been a good thing! :) ) But it's a cool feeling to feel that I am starting to have a more direct pipeline into whatever it is that enables us to write cohesive songs.

I've started to look at the site as a marketing vehicle, too. Not that I have anything to sell at this point, but I have liked the idea of the site gradually attracting readership/listenership. I'm going to use a bad word here. I am currently what is known as a "hack". :) The real definition of a hack is someone who gets their support by people already known to them. I'm basically tracking my "hack quotient" by keeping track of who is on my mailing list. Right now, almost everyone on my mailing list is someone that I already know - family and friends. If I divide the number of People I Know by the number of People On The List, then that means I have a "hack quotient" of somewhere between 91.3% and 95.6%. I am hoping that number decreases over time! I do notice that viewership is increasing a bit, which is encouraging. Some from a couple of links I create, like my sig at an unrelated discussion board I frequent, or a couple of comments I've left over at (my unwitting mentor), but I'm also noticing an increasing number of google searches for "curt siffert" and also for Balancing Above The Air.

The question is what to do next. It's fun to think about what level of success one can get just by focusing on the online end, but I really don't want to limit myself to that. There are several challenges and possible directions here.

I'd like to play out. I haven't performed for too many months now, although performing for my recorder does at least help a little. The problem is basically repertoire and instrumentation. I'm not a guitarist, so I am not as flexible as a guitarist singer/songwriter. I now have two songs that I can perform as a solo singer/pianist, but they're both what I like to think of as "contrast songs". I need more meat and potatoes songs. I also have two songs that can be performed as a group with a guitarist, although Together would require some thought on how to arrange it. Basically I just need to create more rep.

I do have an instrumentation - I know both a good drummer and bass player who would be psyched to play out with me once we have material. I love the idea of doing some Jamie Cullum crossed with Ben Folds type stuff. And my band Deja Nu is also interested in performing some three-horn arrangements of my stuff too as I write it. So I've definitely got options. It's basically up to me to come up with material.

There's also the option of me pursuing new age piano stuff, although it doesn't particularly thrill me to consider being a new age live performer. But I am currently in the midst of producing a cd of some of the better tracks. It'll be a short run for now, just to get things up and sellable on iTunes.

Beyond that it's about just creating more songs and seeing what opportunities and brainstorms happen. I'm also thinking about whether it makes sense to keep uploading rough drafts of material here. There's kind of a quality point material needs to be at before you'll start attracting the kind of attention that will lower the "hack quotient". :) But for now, I'm happy with the way things are.

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© 2007 Curt Siffert. Some audio protected with a Creative Commons license.
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