Last year I released my first comedy album, (Yes, Really) through Circus Trapeze Records. Circus Trapeze Records didn’t exist until I released the album and was meant as a joke, but it’s scheduled to release three more albums in the next year.
Releasing one album does not make me an expert, but that hasn’t stopped a bunch of people for asking me questions about it, so I’m writing this mostly as a link I can send to people who ask me questions like what streaming services they should use (all of them), where I had the physical CDs printed (Disc Makers), or whether it’s worth it to record and release your own comedy album. (It is.)
Self-producing art of any kind has a bit of a stigma about it, but I don’t think it should. The barrier to entry for producing content is ever shrinking, so take advantage of it. The punk rock indie spirit lives on in comedy, also no labels were asking me to do an album for them. It’s probably not for everyone, but if you’re thinking about it, here’s how I did it. Learn from my mistakes and successes.
As I was starting to book college tours and other headlining shows it felt like I needed an album to send to bookers, sell at shows, and frankly to record some older material that worked, but I just got tired of over seven years of comedy.
Some friends recorded albums through labels around the same time, and I won’t say my way is better, but given the choice between the deals they made and how self-producing has played out for me, I’m far more likely to self-produce my next album than go through a label. That’s not to say labels are bad or I think my friends made bad deals, just that for me, at least, this way works. (For now anyway.) Maybe you’ll read this and decide self-producing isn’t for you. That’s fine too.
Do You Really Have an Album’s Worth of Comedy?
Be honest with yourself, because like most things this does require a bit of an investment, and if the finished product is bad then you look bad. Most of the steps I took were about mitigating financial risk, but also to reduce the chances that I would put out something awful. Having no album looks better than having a bad one. If you’re self-producing, there’s no rush. Take your time. Build your act. When you’re ready to do it, do it. Just make sure you’re ready.
Book a Show at the Biggest Venue You Can Fill
I’m from New Jersey, but started doing comedy in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania because it was the nearest place with any real “scene” to be had. I continue to do comedy in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and because I’ve been regularly doing comedy in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania since 2009 I’m a bit of a draw in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. So I recorded my album at the ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania because I knew the most number of people would come to the show if I did it there.
(I said Bethlehem, Pennsylvania so many times because I really love it there and think you might too. Please visit Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and catch a show at SteelStacks. It’s a great venue. Sara Watkins is doing a free outdoor show there this summer that you’d be a fool to miss.)
We planned to do two shows, which I still recommend, but through circumstances beyond my control we could only do one. Luckily the show went great, but had something gone wrong I would have liked to have had a second crack at the recording.
I recommend booking the biggest venue you can because you will generate the most money from ticket sales, and that way you can:
Hire the Best Sound Engineer You Can Afford
I sold out my album recording, which more than covered paying the wonderful Jesse Gimbel to come and record the show. Paying Jesse to record, edit, and master the album was the single biggest expense, but it was also less than what I made for selling out the 200-seat theater and was 100% worth it.
(Yes, Really) has gotten more than a few compliments, but one that comes up a lot—particularly from comedian friends who are loath to offer sincere compliments to one another—was that it sounded great. Content aside, they’re right. It sounds great, and that has nothing to do with me. It was all Jesse. (Jesse also wrote and recorded the song that plays during the introduction on the album which was the theme song to a talk show I hosted years ago.)
SteelStacks has a great staff of qualified people, but it’s not their job to record shows. It’s worth it to have someone on hand who only has to worry about recording. Hire a great sound engineer. (Hire Jesse.)
Have a Good Show, Practice Your Set as a Whole
When I recorded (Yes, Really) I had only begun to book headlining shows and colleges so I didn’t have a lot of chances to do an hour of comedy at a time. Reach out to some venues. It helps if they’re run by people you know or have worked with in the past. I had a few open mic hosts let me run my hour at the end of their show for anyone who wanted to stick around. I reached out to my alma mater and offered them a free show if they let me come shortly before recording the album. When asked to do less time by a booker I just asked for more time.
If you can’t do an hour take what you can get, but I think it’s important to run through your album set as a whole at least a few times to get a sense of its pacing and flow.
Use Disc Makers, Bandcamp, DistroKid, and PayPal
I looked at a lot of options for printing the physical CDs and Disc Makers was the best. Use Disc Makers. You’re free to shop around, but for price and quality I couldn’t find anyone comparable. I’ve used them for the album and a film project a few years ago and the results were great both times. I also like that they’re based out of New Jersey where I live.
Same thing as with Disc Makers I did a lot of research about ways to sell an album online both digitally and as a physical copy. Bandcamp was the best. Use Bandcamp. There’s a free version of the account, but for $10/month you get some additional data about who’s buying the album and some other features like bulk uploading. It’s definitely worth it for the first few months to pay the extra money, but you can drop it after the hype dies down.
Note: There’s also a “Label” account for a $20/month that lets you manage other artists as well so if you accidentally start a record label you can help your friends produce their albums.
So now you’ve got CDs and a place to sell them, but if you want to get your stuff into places like iTunes and Amazon you need an aggregate service. I looked at a lot of them. I chose DistroKid. Use DistroKid. You pay $19.99 for a year and can upload unlimited albums or tracks and they don’t take a percentage. They were incredibly easy to use and provide a lot of data about where your stuff gets played and where money is coming from.
Bandcamp deals directly with PayPal, and DistroKid easily transfers funds into a PayPal account. You can pay Disc Makers directly from PayPal. PayPal is not without its problems, but it’s been the easiest way to manage the various accounts I’ve had to sign up for.
*Note – Circus Trapeze Records exists because of DistroKid. I filled out the form to upload the album there was a field for “Label” and a comment that you could leave it blank or “make something up” so I made something up. My album made the Billboard chart for comedy albums the week it was released (more on how that happened later), so they contacted me to verify some details and they asked if “Circus Trapeze Records” was the record label and I said yes. When the chart came out it listed my name, the album name, and the name of my now real fake record label.
I also eventually signed up with CD Baby because it’s an easy way for brick and mortar stores that might want to order your album to get it. It’s not really been a hotbed of sales activity (Shout out to The AV Cafe in Nebraska for ordering the album.)
Take Weird Tracking Numbers Seriously
My album came out and places #13 on the Billboard Comedy chart the week it was released. This only happened because I registered a working UPC and ISRC numbers to properly track sales, streams, and radio plays. You can get these numbers through DistroKid. You don’t need to know a lot about them, but if you have questions, DistroKid has a great FAQ page about them.
Sales below a certain value don’t count as sales as far as things like Billboard numbers go. (I believe it’s $3.50, but it’s definitely below $5. I can’t find the exact number at the moment. When I do I’ll update this dumb parenthetical.) Something to consider when pricing your album.
You also need these numbers to get paid royalties which is where the real money is.
Register With SoundExchange
SoundExchange is the company that collects royalties from radio stations like SiriusXM and online streaming services like Pandora. But they can’t collect royalties for you if you don’t tell them you exist. (Yes, Really) generates a surprising amount of royalty money for me, paid out once per quarter.
A surprising fact is that I make more in royalties as the rights holder of my album than as the performer on the album. It’s about a 60/40 split, so it’s another great reason to self-release.
Get Your Album on SiriusXM
SiriusXM is a great outlet for comedy. Here’s a blog post about how to get your album on there because my way was kind of roundabout. I submitted another clip before the album was recorded to be featured on a show highlighting new talent called The Check Spot with Emma Willman and then the producer told me to send him the album when it was out.
Make It Look Nice
One thing I don’t think a lot of people know is that I took the photos used on the album and designed it myself. I commissioned the great comics artist Neil Slorance to draw my robot sidekick Mr. Toyboto for the disc, but I did the layout and titles myself.
The cover was a backstage selfie I took at a show in Tamaqua, PA that got a surprising number of likes on Instagram. The inside photo is a photo I took during sound check at the venue before recording the album, and the back cover is the whiteboard wall in my office I used to layout the album.
I’m happy with how it turned out, but I have a background in photography and design and enjoy doing both those things, so I knew what I was doing. That’s not to brag, it’s just an example of how I was able to save some money from having to pay someone to do it for me. It’s worth it to hire a graphic designer to make your cover art look nice, because it’s going to be used a lot.
Everyone judges books (and albums) by their cover. Circus Trapeze Records is also available for all your design needs.
Do a Preorder Campaign
The second biggest expense in producing my album was getting the actual physical CDs printed with Disc Makers. Bandcamp has great tools for preorders and it’s a great way to figure out how many copies to order.
My basic model was to take the money raised during the preorder campaign and spend that to order copies. This gave me enough CDs to cover the preorders, but also left me with an inventory for future sales and to sell at shows. So even though CDs were the second biggest expense it was one that was covered well before I had to pay it.
Because of the preorder campaign I was also able to confidently spring for some nicer packaging options, and as a result I think the finished physical object itself is a beautiful thing that’s worth the money people pay me for it.
The other reason to do a preorder campaign is that all the sales and online streams from the preorder get counted on the release date. Laughing Squid, a great site I was writing for at the time, streamed the album exclusively for the week before the release and it got a good amount of play from that. This is the reason my album made it on Billboard.
A preorder campaign is also a great way to give fans something extra as incentive to buy early. I signed all the preorder copies and wrote dumb messages. I also included a free sticker of my robot sidekick Mr. Toyboto. I’ve spotted a few of these stickers out in the wild and it’s genuinely very thrilling to see.
I listed my physical CD for $15 on my Bandcamp page and made the digital version “Pay What You Want”. When I sell them at shows the price for a CD varies based on circumstances like where I’m performing, if another comic is also selling CDs, or what kind of mood I’m in.
Here’s why I did that.
My album costs $15 on my site because each one cost me money to have it printed, and I also invested money in the production of the album. I looked at pricing for other comedy albums, talked to people about what they would expect to pay, and $15 seemed pretty middle-of-the-road as far as pricing goes.
Bandcamp offers a feature that lets customers voluntarily pay more than what you’re asking. This sounded crazy to me, but I enabled it and surprisingly, about half of the people who bought my album on Bandcamp paid me more than $15.
I change the price at shows because if I’m doing a show at a college that’s already paying me well to be there, I’d rather charge broke students $5 and have them leave with an album than not. If I’m performing at a fundraiser I typically charge $20 and split the money with the charity. Splitting $20 is easier than splitting $15. If I’m featuring at a club and the headliner is selling CDs for $10 I’d feel like a dumb idiot trying to charge more. There are a lot of variables.
I made the digital album “Pay What You Want” mostly because there were two large groups of people that I wanted to give the album to for free for various reasons. It’s very easy to give the album for free to one person, but it was overly complicated to give it freely to that many people. The “Pay What You Want” option was just easiest. The other reason is that it’s already streaming “freely” on a bunch of services, but if you get it from me directly and pay anything I’m going to make more than from the streaming services.
Use PayPal Tools to Ship
PayPal has some great tools for generating address labels with shipping paid directly from your account. It also tracks what has shipped and what you still need to send out. It made the whole process really easy and I was able to bang out the first round of preorders in an afternoon. The tools are already built into your account and don’t cost anything extra, so avoid spending money on similar services like Stamps.com when you don’t have to.
Note: I mention Stamps.com here only because I would have used them if the tools weren’t already built into PayPal. I’ve heard good things about them, so if you happen to go a different route and don’t use PayPal they really are a great option.
Hire a Publicist
I didn’t do this, but wish I had. I wasn’t sure how much money I would actually make on the album so I was hesitant to risk spending the money on publicity. Instead I handled things like press releases myself. I managed to get some good press about the album but I think a good publicist would have been able to get a lot more buzz going about it.
Doing it yourself isn’t a bad way to go, but if I had to do it over again I just would have hired someone.
But I Didn’t, So Here’s How I Handled Publicity
Although I didn’t film my show for a video release, my friend improvisor and filmmaker Dan Maher shot it for me. The single-camera shoot would get tiring to watch for an hour, but the video let me pull short clips and release some promo videos. (I also did these myself because I have a film degree and editing skills.)
The videos let me post about the album regularly during the preorder campaign without it feeling like I was just annoying everyone on Facebook with the same “Hey, remember to buy my album” posts because I was also offering them something new.
This also gave friends and fans something specific to share. “Here’s a video of my friend telling jokes!” is more likely to be shared then “Hey, my friend is releasing a comedy album. Buy it. Trust me. They’re good at jokes!”
If your album is good, you can expect to earn a little of money from sales and royalties, so it’s a pretty safe bet to spend some money to make money. Just be smart and don’t blow a ton of cash on things that won’t pay off later.
Stream Even Though It Pays Almost Literally Nothing
My album has 12,000+ plays on Spotify. This has translated to about $40. Similar things can be said for Apple Music and other streaming services, and that feels like a bad deal because it is. It’s also a reality that more people stream things than buy them and that these platforms are a great way for potential fans to find you.
The payoff isn’t really the streaming itself, but in the potential that someone who heard you on Pandora might come to a show if you play their town. It can also help you plan things like tours, because Spotify for Artists gives a lot of great data about who’s listening to your album.
Surprisingly, Houston and Toronto are the top two cities that have streamed my album on Spotify, so when I go on tour I’ll definitely talk to venues in Houston and Toronto and can honestly say, “You might not be familiar with my work, but # of people streamed my album in your city in the past month.”
Bandcamp, DistroKid, and SoundExchange all give artists data like this that’s really valuable if you know how to use it.
Albums Come Out on Fridays Now, Not Tuesday
I released my album on a Tuesday because when I was a kid albums came out on Tuesdays, but it’s Fridays now. I don’t know that it would have made much of a difference, but it’s worth mentioning.
One Final Note About Labels
One friend who released an album through a label told me he had to buy 500 copies of his album from the label. This would give him a supply to sell at shows, and I’m assuming he got it at a discount, but even if he paid just $5 per disc he still spent more investing in his album than I did mine, and his label potentially makes most of the money.
Please buy my comedy album. I’m currently a full-time comedian and it’s my biggest source of steady income.