What's the best format for putting out your music?
It's no secret that old certainties in the music industry have crumbled away over the last decade. The notion that you can sign a record deal, make an album and then sit back and reap your fortune is now laughable for most aspiring musicians. Even if you are successful, there's no guarantee that your fickle audience will stay with you for long.
But while everyone agrees that things have changed - and that they continue to change - there seems to be very little consensus on how up-and-coming artists and producers (we're looking at you here) should go about releasing their work in this brave new musical world. Talk abounds when it comes to 'building an audience', 'connecting with your fans' and 'exploring multiple revenue opportunities', but the question remains: if you want to send your completed tunes out into the wild, how should you do it?
Let's start by considering some stats (don't worry - we'll make it quick and painless). According to the British Recorded Music Industry (BPI), 2011 saw music album sales in the UK fall for the sixth consecutive year, with combined physical and digital sales down 7% from 128.9 million to 119.9 million.
However, single sales actually reached a record high: the year's total of 161.8 million comfortably beat the previous best of 152.7 million, set in 2009.
You don't have to be a genius to work out what's happening here: fewer people are buying albums, and more are picking up singles. But when we say singles, for the most part we just mean individual tracks that have been purchased as downloads. And of that 161.8 million sold last year, only a paltry 1.9 million were physical CDs.
This raises the question of whether - in the short term, at least - unsigned artists should even think about trying to release their music in the traditional album format.
We put this question to Scott Allen, a rising star in the liquid DnB scene and the co-owner of Soul Deep Recordings. He thinks that the long player does still have a place for electronic musicians in the internet age, if mainly for creative reasons.
"Fewer people are buying albums, and more are picking up singles."
"I like the idea of doing an album once every year or two," he says. "I feel like an 'album' gives the artist some freedom to do a few tunes that are different and maybe not as club-orientated. Three- and four-track EPs are typically meant more for club/dancefloor use and tend to fit the trademark sound of the artist.
"I personally like the idea of doing albums, but it is a little intimidating knowing that I need to prepare about 15 tracks to choose from. So to avoid the feeling of being overwhelmed, I just try to write the album one track at a time, in order to help keep my focus."
It certainly is true that single tracks and EPs can have a much bigger impact than albums in this fast and furious internet age, particularly if you're making music primarily for the clubs. No DJ is going to play your 15-track opus in its entirety; they're all looking for the stand-out banger that's going to improve their set.
So, there's an argument to say that - in the beginning at least - you should pour your creative energy into a couple of solid tracks rather than trying to create a larger body of work and spreading yourself too thin.
Rock artists may think differently, and for good reason. The album format has always felt more significant to bands of this ilk, and sales of vinyl LPs - the rock act's spiritual home - actually went up in 2011. If you're a pop/dance producer, however, it's perhaps best to use the transient nature of contemporary online distribution to your advantage.
Where, though, should you put your music? Well, we think that there's a clear winner on this side of things. One of the fastest growing audio-sharing platforms over the fast couple of years has been SoundCloud, and we suspect that the majority of up-and-coming producers will already have a profile there.
But while where to go for online exposure is obvious, it can still be hard to know how you should use SoundCloud. Should you upload demos to solicit feedback, finished tracks for streaming/download, previews of work that can be purchased elsewhere, or a bit of everything?
"I think SoundCloud is great for promoting songs and getting feedback from other users," says Scott Allen. "I don't put up whole tracks for preview because you have to leave some anticipation for the actual release of the tune. If someone can hear the whole thing, then they won't be anticipating the release of it quite as much. If there is only a two-minute clip on the 'Cloud, then people will be waiting to purchase it so they can hear the whole thing.
"You might get a track released or included on a compilation, but you're unlikely to make serious money out of it."
"Also, there are programs that can record the music that's playing on your computer, so with these programs, people can rip tunes from SoundCloud that might not be out for months."
A similar way of generating some buzz around a track can be carried out via YouTube. Yes, it's primarily a video site, but it's massively convenient for listeners. In addition, the audio quality is now pretty good, and you can get away with substituting moving pictures with a still of your song's artwork alongside some release date/purchasing information (if, indeed, you're planning to sell your production). Even established artists now preview tracks like this.
It's probably fair to say that, unless you get very lucky, you're going to struggle to make much of an impression on the UK Top 40. However, that doesn't mean that you'll never see any kind of recognition. As the music business has diversified, so new indicators of success have been born. In the dance music world, a high placing in the chart at a site such as the award-winning Beatport - a downloadable dance music specialist - can also be significant. What's more, there's a community feel to many of these sites, as Scott Allen confirms.
"I especially like the [Beatport] feature where you can sign up to get notified when your favourite artist or record label releases new material," he says. "Sometimes people get caught up in their busy lives, and it's nice to be able to check in and see what your favourite artists have released recently."
Of course, to get on sites like Beatport, you'll probably still end up having to sign with a label, but this doesn't mean sending unsolicited demos to the majors. There are now countless genre-specific digital labels out there: find one that releases the kind of music that you make, and try to get in contact.
We can sum up by saying that, while are no hard and fast rules when it comes to choosing where and how to release your music, the most important thing is to be realistic. You might get a track released or included on a compilation, but you're unlikely to make serious money out of it and the chances of having a multi-million-selling album are slim these days.
The key is to enjoy what you do and explore as many ways as possible of getting your music heard.
This article originally appeared in issue 177 of Computer Music magazine.