Handmade music and why it’s crucial in the digital age

Making your music and merchandise by hand will make you stand-out.

Despite the fact that mp3 players have become the go-to choice for music consumption, handmade CDs and other products can really make your music stand-out from the crowd. The availability of music today has unfortunately caused it to become somewhat disposable and listeners’ attention-spans are shorter than ever; creating your own CDs by hand can help make your music memorable and turn it into a piece of art that people can treasure. Pass these out at shows, give them out in limited runs, or just keep them yourself as a memento for the hard work that went into making the album. Just a note – creating your own album designs by hand will take a lot more time and and resources than simply burning a disk, but in the end I believe it’s worth it to treat your music like the art that it is. Here’s some ideas on how to make your own CDs and merchandise:

Paint your CDs

Blank CD-Rs can be bought by the 100-pack for around $20, and most modern computers have disk-burning capabilities, so it’s really not unreasonable to make your own releases if you want to. You can even get blank CD-Rs that have a white label on top that is perfect for painting and drawing.

Mikey's Imaginary Friends - an example of tasteful design on an independent CD.

This album Mikey’s Imaginary Friends was made with some light passes with a couple different colors of spray paint and a silver Sharpie.

Once you have some blank disks, get some paint markers or a couple spray cans and go nuts – but here are a few important rules that I’ve learned to follow:

  • Do all your painting before you burn your music on to the disk – this way, you can be sure that your CD will still function with the designs you put on it. If you accidentally painted on the bottom of the CD, then you’ll find out now and not after you spend the time burning your music to it.
  • Be conservative with whatever you put on the CD – disk-readers are fine-tuned and will not play a CD if it’s too thick or heavy. It could also be possible that your disk might stick inside of a player if you’ve applied too much paint (this has happened to me before!). Sometimes just writing you/your band’s name and the name of the album on the disk is the best bet and will still look awesome.
  • Make a decision on whether you want to burn your music as an Audio CD or an MP3 CD – I normally choose to burn mine as MP3 so that people can easily put my music on their laptops and iPods, but they frequently have problems playing in older car stereos that don’t support anything but audio tracks (and a lot of people LOVE listening to music in their cars).

Make custom CD Sleeves

CD Sleeves can provide you with a space to make some really cool designs for your music. You can get thick cardboard sleeves for around the same price as a spindle of blank CD-Rs (about 100 for $20) and they will be able to take on paint while looking sturdy and professional. If you want to draw something, think of a simple logo or picture that represents what your music is about and put it on each of your CD sleeves. In some cases, a minimalistic cover with the album’s name on it is a good look; it’s really up to what kind of aesthetic that you’re trying to create and how you want your music to be framed.

Jred Smyth's Somewhere Between album art uses a simple drawing to get its point across.

The album art for Jred Smyth’s Somewhere Between consists of a creature made entirely of black marker – a great example of simple design that portrays a cool and custom feel.

I prefer to use spray paint for almost every kind of painting I do, but there’s really no limit to the types of tools that you can use on your album covers. Make a stencil, use a paintbrush, go crazy – treat your album covers like a canvas and use them as a way to represent yourself and your music.

The deejersEP album art created with many different colors of spray paint.

These versions of the deejersEP were painted with a touch of spray paint and a custom stencil.

If you have some artistic friends (and even if you don’t), give them a stack of blank sleeves and ask them to get creative. Sometimes random and crazy drawings make the best album art and your friends might love taking up the challenge in their free time.

This version of the deejersEP was painted by the homie Juan Aguado.

I’m very fortunate to have some talented friends who are willing to share their skills. This copy of the deejersEP was painted by hand and outlined with permanent marker.

Creating your own stickers

If you can find some stickers that you don’t really want or have a use for, then you can turn them into your own stickers relatively easily. You can use packing slips, blank labels and name tags, or anything else that has adhesive on one side – a lot of these are thrown away as trash every day, so keep your eyes open at post offices and other establishments that might have them.

deejers.com stickers - from blank to finished product.

Here is what I do to make my own stickers out of existing ones, although you may be able to find your own method and style:

  1. Take a can of spray paint of a color that you like (with a large cap if you have one) and paint over all the stickers until you can’t read the text or see the images that were previously on them. Let the paint dry for an afternoon or two – the longer you let the stickers sit, the easier they will be to work with.
  2. Make a small stencil or take a paint marker, paint brush, or anything else you want and start creating. Now that you have some blank stickers that are a color of your choice, you can start having some fun and making whatever type of sticker you’d like.
  3. After everything dries sufficiently, you might have some excess paint that is on the paper that the sticker is on, but not on the actual sticker itself. You can choose to leave this, but it is usually messy and a hassle when you want to actually peel the sticker. This is because most stickers come on some type of wax-like paper and the paint can chip and smear on this part – this is actually a good thing, because you can easily remove the extraneous paint with one of your nails or a scalpel and have a very clean-looking finished product.

Posting Flyers

deejers flyer - use bright colors and large text for the most effective flyers.

Flyers can be a great way to publicize your music or shows in a creative way – posting them on bulletin boards and being that annoying guy handing out advertisements on the sidewalk can help spread the word about your work to your immediate community. Make something interesting, use bright colors, and make sure you post your flyers in places with heavy foot-traffic. Getting a massive amount of flyers can be costly, especially if you want multiple colors or glossy paper, but never underestimate the power of the lone pamphleteer.

Print Business Cards

deejers business cards displaying all social media and contact information.

You can have your own business cards printed for relatively cheap and they’re a great way to share your contact information and where to hear your music.

Making your own business cards will allow you to give someone a quick reference guide of how to reach you or hear the music you’ve made. I wouldn’t recommend making your own cards just because they are surprisingly affordable to have made by a printing company and you can still create your own custom design to be printed. Treat them like miniature flyers and give them out to anyone who asks about your work – they can be a valuable resource to have in your pocket.

or Have Them Professionally Made

There are businesses that exist that can create any one of these things that I’ve discussed in this article; to use them might even be cheaper and it will almost definitely save you time. Depending on your skill sets and how much effort you put in, your products might even look better if they’re professionally made. Weigh out your options and decide what’s realistic for you, but remember this: the point of creating your own CDs is to present yourself and your music in a way that won’t just get lost in the rest of the noise. Treating your album releases and merchandise as extensions of your art will allow you to create your own aesthetic that is unique and memorable.

Previous Articles

How the biggest electronic acts play their music live - a look into how some big names play their sounds in a live setting.

Get Mobile! - Mobile apps and how they can be used in your studio.

Take Control! - Controllers and why they are important to a digital musician.

Give Your Studio Some Life - The components of a basic home studio.

Choose Your Music’s Workplace - What a DAW does and how you can use one to make music on a computer.

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5 comments

  1. Oscillate Music Group

    It should be a no-brainer to make business cards to give out to the audience at a show. It took a friend’s band about a year before they started doing it though. I remember after they played a show, a couple who’d never heard of them before asked what their name was. I told them the band’s name and that they had music up on ReverbNation. They looked at each other and repeated the names and I could tell they wouldn’t remember. It’s so much easier to have cards with their website & Facebook address, etc all laid out. They got a lot more hits to their websites once they started doing that and other bands we’re friends with soon started passing out cards, too. If you do print your own cards, use heavy cardstock or it will feel too flimsy, the mark of an amateur.

    Spray painting CDs though…you serious or is this an April Fools Joke? (just sayin’) But that would be a cool idea if it worked.

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