How To Start A Digital Record Label


21 Feb 2010



CD Decks


I'm Johnny Massacre and I've written a guide to show you exactly how to start a digital record label.


Why am I writing this? To demystify a dark art and give inspiration to other music lovers who are fed up with having to pander to conventional record labels. 


If you want a job done, do it yourself.


The good thing about starting a digital label, in comparison to one that sells CDs or vinyl, is that it presents a low financial risk, and can easily be done by one person.


The downside of the digital label is that it doesn't generate the hard cash of the golden age of physical formats, and its material is likely to be readily available for free on a Google search if it becomes even moderately successful.


Still, by the time your music gets pirated, you'll already be qualified to perform and that's where the money is.


Nowadays, it's no big secret that profit in music comes from performance, so this guide is aimed at producer-performers to help them get a platform for their music, get booked and get cash. In 2009, Madonna broke a record for the amount of money made by a music tour, and that's no coincidence.


A digital label is like a business card for the modern musician which shows promoters and labels they're serious and separates them from the rest.


Even though sales are typically small for independent digital labels, I've been told by the directors of Beatport that large ones such as Get Physical and Mau5trap have been known to clock over 100,000 downloads.


Bearing in mind these are international hits, let's say a single costs £1.29 to buy, and you receive 50p of that, this equates to £50,000.


It's easy to spot record labels from the old guard that were big when selling vinyl and begrudgingly joined the "less profitable" digital club - they suffer from ignorant and formulaic execution. In their face fly a new wave of producers who don't know any different, releasing material that looks, sounds and feels built for modern consumers. You can be one of these people.


And I'm going to show you how to do it:


1. Pick a name



People who don't even DJ tend to have DJ names. It's a bit like your porn-star name, everyone's got one of those, right? So I'm assuming you've got your moniker. As you know, I go by the name of Johnny Massacre, and that tells you all you need to know about me. I recommend having a catchy tag that really sums up your character that people connect with and can remember, but obviously there are no rules. Just look at Andy C, for example. He uses his real name and doesn't need a gimmick because of his sparkling skill and reputation. That said, having a unique name will do wonders for you on a Google search. Type in a top electronic artist like Audio (from Virus Recordings) for example, and he won't appear, which is a shame because he deserves all the credit he gets.


Please note: digital distributors (that you will need to register your artist name with) often don't allow "complex" characters like the "&" symbol. 


2. Secure artist photos


Richie Hawtin

Image is incredibly important in the music industry. If you're a handsome devil, or a stunning babe, people will automatically like you, regardless of how you sound. There are DJs whose careers are completely down to their looks: Heavygrinder and DJ Kaori, for example. Unfortunately, most people aren't blessed with beauty. Luckily, anyone can look good with the right lighting and some Adobe Photoshop editing.


Start paying attention to DJ pictures now. Notice how the majority of them are semi-side profiles with heavy shadows. There's a reason for that - if these people took a true head shot, they'd look unattractive. Luckily for them, most consumers don't see past the fantasy persona. If you are self conscious and sensitive about your appearance, you can copy acts like Deadmau5 and Daft Punk, and literally cover up, or just use any old copyright-free picture for a virtual persona. At the end of the day, your music should be the most important thing ... but that's not to say a good image won't enhance your career.


Technically, you need to have a digital image in order to create a digital record label. Without one, you physically cannot register your application. When you start a website and/or a MySpace, images are also crucial. And on a marketing level - if you decide to hire a PR company, for example, they will request images and you'll look unprofessional if you don't have any. In 2010, good cameras are relatively cheap. It really isn't hard to find a budding photographer to take photos of you for free.


For my record label, I chose images that tie into my sound - off-the-wall, unique, intoxicated. They are taken with a cheap Sony digital camera. Although I do possess professional pictures, I actually prefer the look and feel of cheaper shots ... they are more "real":


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3. Make good music



We're assuming you already have produced some music if you've made it this far. Don't be put off if other DJs on the scene don't like your music. Most people, whether consumers or professionals, follow convention and trends, and are scared to stick their necks out into the unknown lest they be chopped off. Just listen to the sounds of various genres and you'll discover that even big artists copy current styles, which means they might not get yours straight away. If you genuinely believe in your music, and think you have something to offer, continue to the next step. Here are three tracks from the first release on my record label:


Exoskeleton by Johnny Massacre Smack by Johnny Massacre Ultrasound by Johnny Massacre

4. Master your music



Mastering is when a qualified professional adjusts your track's stereo image and frequency spectrum, and makes it louder. It's considered essential by many. Most major record labels won't accept unmastered demos, for example. While finding the right engineer is important, good mastering also comes down to how well you've mixed your music. If you give an engineer a super-dynamic song, how are they going to crush its dynamics and boost its volume and fatness to mighty levels? They can't ... it was up to you to sculpt it beforehand. Claude VonStroke's biggest-selling single of 2008 - War Paint - was never mastered. He remixed the track in his sequencer and gave it straight to poxyMUSIC.


In my opinion, the mastering engineer of choice for the dance-music industry is Stuart Hawks at Metropolis, who has worked with every drum & bass artist under the sun, and countless big-time pop artists. His prices are reasonable (and somewhat negotiable) too. Check his Twitter account if you're curious, as he is always tweeting about who he is working with.


5. Choose a label name



Like naming your child, this could take a while. This is extremely important, obviously. The name of your record label is your brand, your business, your vehicle to success. Record labels have the power to create a movement, and, as cheesy as it sounds - change the world. It's your baby, make sure you give it an epithet befitting of your legacy, that channels into the very core of what you're about. Look at other record labels you love, and ask yourself how and why they work.


When you die and your obituary is in your local newspaper, you want people to think you had a fucking cool record-label name.


For my record label, I chose the handle Twin Vulcan. I played around with titles for months, writing them in a notebook, drawing rough logos and artwork until I found something that fitted. It all came in a flash, in the end. Twin Vulcan resonates with an unknown significance to me, stemming from childhood memories of video games, science fiction movies and so on. Twin Vulcan represents that spontaneous creative spark that can't be manufactured, tinged with a so-bad-it's-good '90s nostalgia.


6. Design your record label image


Millions of ideas get to this stage, and never materialise. One has to understand that you can fuss over a look, name and ethos forever, and that there comes a point when you just need to get something out there. The perfectionist in people often doesn't allow them to do this. Don't fall into that trap, or you'll be looking over your shoulder wondering where the years went, when labels with awful names are blowing up. You must remember that artwork for digital labels is presented online in a whole manner of different sizes, so it's a good idea to make your original image flexible and as high a resolution as possible so that you can take portions of it for different uses. Let's take the world's biggest techno label as an example:


Cocoon recordings




Notice above how record-label images are presented in 80 x 80 pixel dimensions. Your logo must be able to reduce to these sizes and still look crisp and distinctive. The larger images up top probably won't be required by a digital distributor, as they are requested by the seller for top releases. Still, having larger images is essential for promotion and press. At the end of the day, if you don't have a good image, you will sell less records. Many digital distributors recommend getting a professional designer, but I'm of the opinion that anyone with Photoshop skills can produce something credible.


Here is some text taken from a famous digital distributor, regarding size for your record label image:


- The picture file mustn`t exceed 2.0 MB.
- We can only accept square images with a minimum resolution of 600 X 600 Pixel up to a maximum resolution of 1000 X 1000 Pixel.
- The file format has to be JPG (RGB colour space).


I paid a designer to do my logo, because I could visualise exactly what I wanted but didn't have the photoshop skills to illustrate it:


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And to give you an idea of how small this logo will come up on iTunes:

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So, be warned that you must have a version of your label logo that fits nicely into a square space. My full logo simply cannot because it's too long, so I had to make a variation. My label name was thought out so that it would abbreviate nicely to TV or TVR [Twin Vulcan Recordings].


7. Design your cover art


This is pretty self explanatory, but remember - as mentioned before - your art needs to be able to fit into a square space and look good at small sizes. Have a look at iTunes for a great example of 80 x 80 art:



Notice how the Black Eyes Peas release is more eye catching than the Gorillaz one. It seems as if the Gorillaz release was designed to look better at larger sizes, as the text, when reduced, is nearly illegible. Is it a coincidence that the Black Eyed Peas are one of the biggest acts in the world today? They don't just have music that appeals to the public; their marketing is superb.


Be warned that, sometimes, your artwork will be reduced even smaller than 80 x 80 pixels:



For my first artwork, I went with a lo-fi throwback to retro video games, that will change colour with successive releases:




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And to give you an idea of how small this logo will come up on iTunes:

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Notice how I made a mistake with the resolution, as when the image gets smaller you can see aliasing occur around the black pixels. Also notice the dull grey line at the bottom of the image, another mistake that I cannot rectify as the release has already been submitted to digital distributors.




Now that we've got the basics out of the way, next week we will provide you with a technical guide on how to start your artist website, officially register your record label, add artists and songs to an online distributor, and submit your music to digital sellers like iTunes, and Amazon. 

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