To "Burn" Or Not To "Burn"

Many independent musicians, on the verge of finishing their first collection of songs, are undecided as to the best way to release their music. They will consider their available options: CD-only release, cassette-only release, combination CD/cassette release and so on. Prior to the last three years or so, the artist would seek out a CD or cassette manufacturing company willing to press a small number of units, typically between 300 and 2000. Recently, with the lower cost of computer-based CD recorders, another option has become economically attractive--"burning" your own CDs, one at a time, on an as-needed basis. In this article, we'll explore the advantages and disadvantages of creating CD-Rs (CD Recordables) using a CD recorder, hopefully giving you enough information to make a good decision for your own music.

Dollars and Sense

CD recorders can currently be purchased from a number of manufacturers for between $399 and $699, the price depending on recording speed and the inclusion of any bundled software. These units can be installed in your computer (similar to a hard drive) or may be externally connected. A few manufacturers (Marantz, for one) make free-standing CD recorders that can be used without a computer, but these units are much more expensive. CD burning software (such as the popular "Toast"and "Jam") is required to correctly transfer digital audio files from your hard drive to the CD-R. If you don't get the software bundled with the CD recorder, expect to pay $100 to $300 for the software.

Blank CD-Rs have dropped in price considerably over the past several years. Most computer mail-order catalogs are selling blank CD-Rs from a number of manufacturers for between 99 cents and $2.99 (after rebates). It's unclear whether you have the ability to purchase an unlimited number of blank CD-R media at those prices. When you don't qualify for a rebate, you may be paying closer to $4 for each blank disc, unless you buy in large quantity (which is not practical if you are going to burn your own CD-Rs to get around the need to invest a large initial amount of money in your release).

Other expenses you may find yourself incurring if you decide to burn your own CD-Rs include a large, fast hard drive, a photo-quality printer for printing CD booklets and tray cards, and plenty of quality paper and color ink (those consumables don't last long!). For printing on the CD-Rs themselves, several solutions are available, from the cheap (CD label stampers, $200-$300) to the expensive (dedicated CD printers that print color ink directly onto special blank CD-R media (about $1200, plus inks).


Why would anyone invest all of this upfront money in order to gear up for burning a new release on CD? One reason is that an assumption is made that must be less expensive than the manufacturing costs associated with pressing 500 to 1000 CDs. If you just consider the cost of the CD recorder and the special deals on CD-R media, you might be inclined to believe that. But as I've pointed out in the "Dollars and Sense" section, more resources are needed to produce a CD that stands a chance of rivaling a manufactured CD. To get 1000 CDs pressed at a company like DiscMakers, with a full-color four page booklet, costs roughly $2.89 a CD, or $2890 total. There are less expensive, complete solutions for as low as $1.99 a CD. Since your blank media alone may cost as much as $1.99, in the long run, you'd be better off with a manufactured solution.

It's hard to argue that you wouldn't come out ahead if you only plan to burn 50 to 100 CD-Rs. After all, you'd sell the music and you'd still own all the hardware you bought. So many times, the decision to burn your own CDs may come from an expectation that you'll only be able to move a limited number of copies of your album anyway, so why bother pressing 500 or 1000 units? That point is also hard to argue with, simply because if you believe you'll only sell 50 units, you'll probably be right!


I have an unproven theory that an artist who decides to professionally press his album is more committed to his or her project, generally speaking, than someone who decides to burn each copy individually. Let's face it, when you are having 1000 copies made, you need to get it right the first time. You need to be totally comfortable with the mixes; you need to be happy with the song sequence; you need to be thrilled with the cover art and you need to be sure about who you intend to thank in your liner notes (and you have to spell everything right). There is an attention to detail that is present in a project that must be prepared for manufacturing which may be missing in a project which is burned. This is not to say your CD-R release can't be done right the first time, but you have to know your own strengths. You can change anything--the mixes, the mastering, the cover art, the liner notes, even the number of songs--every single time you decide to burn a CD-R. If you do, is it a release? Or is it simply an upgrade of what you might have put together two months ago?

I personally believe a true release is a project which was 'born' the day you made the final artistic decisions about the songs, the mixes, the graphics and the other details that go into the final album. The release represents a block of time in the artists life, which spans from the day the first song was written to the day the album was 'born'. I view the manufacturing of the release to be a mechanical process that is independent of the release itself, simply because it can take many forms. It can be manufactured CDs, it can be cassettes, it can be MPEG audio available only on the Internet, or it can be a CD-R. I'm only pointing out that almost every artist would change something about their album, when viewed with hindsight and experience. Are you going to be able to keep yourself from constantly reworking the same ten or twelve songs, potentially destroying the integrity of your initial artistic decisions? Or would it be better to finish something completely, warts and all, and look to the future, to move on with brand-new material and a new project? You know yourselves better than I do.

What The Customer Thinks

The music burned onto a CD-R sounds great (you did at least get some help mastering the project, right?), so the concern about the sound quality to the person that buys your record should be a non-issue. In all of the CD-Rs I've come into contact with, I can note the following characteristics:

1. I have not seen one yet that really looks as professional and complete as even an inexpensively manufactured CD. The main giveaways are: using paper labels on the CD (you can see the gold CD from the bottom, and usually the labels are not glued on perfectly), using cheap paper for the inserts and tray cards (usually the paper is not thick enough), and imperfect printing on the inserts (you need a really good printer and the ink cartridges must not be near empty). You can get around these problems by investing in better equipment, but the question remains--is it a good investment?

2. I've had trouble playing about 10% of the CD-Rs I've received from others. My experience so far is that this percentage is quite a bit lower for manufactured CDs. The possibility that the customer, reviewer, record label executive or DJ might not be able to hear your music on the CD-R should be an important consideration. If a customer gets a bad CD-R, you'll have to incur double shipping charges to make things right. If a reviewer or DJ gets a bad CD-R, your chances for additional exposure go out the window. At the very least, if you do decide to burn your own CD-Rs, try to test them in another CD player before shipping them out.

3. I've heard some musicians say they were burning CD-Rs, "To see if I'm able to generate any interest." How is that for an inspiring statement of confidence? The problem is that if the customer thinks they are buying a once-off instead of an official release, they might not buy, for that reason alone. It would not be a legitimate test of market acceptance of a product to issue something which does not stack up to the vast majority of CD releases being offered by thousands of labels, big and small, every day. Also, I don't think it's appropriate to sell someone a CD-R (and charge them a CD price) without telling them that's what it is in the first place. As a side note, DJs and reviews tend to also regard CD-Rs as 'once-offs', and usually don't give the music a listen, tending to 'wait for the real release.'


What is your time worth? How do you like to spend your time? Time is an important consideration as well when investigating the possibility of burning your own CD-Rs. When a project is finished, there isn't going to be any simpler way of mailing out promo CDs or purchased CDs than reaching into a box and pulling out a shrink wrapped copy and stuffing it into an envelope. The time and computer resources you save can be spent on marketing, promotion, e-mail, publicity, or even playing music! You won't have to drop what you're doing and become a mini-manufacturer for a few hours a week. You have to burn the CD (which, even with a 4x CD burner, can take 15 minutes per CD), print the booklets and tray card, assemble the CD jewel box and it's components (without breaking it), and if you want to do a professional job, shrink wrapping the package (you do have a heat seal machine, right? Add $250 if not).

No matter what it takes, there are some people who insist on doing it all themselves. If you are one of these people (or know someone who is) then go for it. Become a little CD manufacturer. Just be realistic and get a good estimate about how much time you will be taking away from the other jobs that you must perform as an independent musician.

Then...What Is A CD Recorder Good For?

CD recorders are fantastic inventions. There are dozens of reasons for owning one. They are great for 'once-offs', custom discs or preview masters of your original music. If you use computer-based digital audio sequencing programs, they are invaluable for making permanent backups or archives of all the tracks that made up your album (you'll be able to remix a tune years later). You can make CD versions of precious cassettes or vinyl albums that may be on their last spin. You can make excellent practice CDs, with mixes of rhythm tracks perfect for practicing improvisational techniques. CD recorders also can be used to create custom CD-ROMs, which allows you to backup a huge amount of data files, graphics and sound files.

There will always be a very small market for something unique, a live performance, a custom mix or a jam session that can be shared with a small number of enthusiastic fans. CD-R is an ideal, top-quality distribution medium for these 'events' or 'limited-editions'.

I think where CD recorders fall short may be when you are attempting to circumvent the normal manufacturing process in the hopes of saving money, at least the initial outlay of cash associated with manufacturing 500-1000 units. It may be difficult to imagine selling that many CDs, so to be able to burn 50-100 yourself appears to be the way to go. But you do sacrifice on the packaging of the CD (unless you spend the money for a good-quality printer, CD printer and a heat seal machine) and consumers may not trust them as much as a professionally duplicated CD.

Also consider this: your initial task may not be to sell 1000 CDs, rather to distribute 1000 CDs, by any means necessary. You may want to (and probably should) give away a large number of discs as part of your promotional efforts. You want as many people as possible to hear your music in order to build a following large enough to support your next release. So ask yourself: how willing will you be to individually burn 100 or more CD-Rs to give away at the next OZZFest (or other local music festival)? If you have several hundred CDs in boxes in your basement, you may be more than willing to do that to gain a bunch of new fans. If you have to delay your next recording session to burn CD-Rs, you may find precious little joy in the manufacturing process. Ultimately, as always, the choice is yours.

Dan McAvinchey is a guitarist and composer living in Raleigh, NC.

He believes every musician or composer has the power to write, record and release their own music.

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