DIY: Recording and Releasing a Jazz Album

Check out this guest post on the nuts and bolts of planning, recording, designing, and releasing your debut record! It's written by my good friend, drummer, and trivia-master Curtis Nowosad, who is based in Winnipeg, Canada. 

           My name’s Curtis Nowosad and I'm a drummer from Winnipeg, MB, Canada. I recently released my debut album, The Skeptic & the Cynic, and Kevin asked me to write a post about what exactly it is that goes into the recording of an album and putting out your record.


          In the broadest terms, you need three things: time, money, and music. No matter how much you plan, you’ll likely get run into problems that will delay the progress of your project (more on that later). For me personally, the entire process—from the decision to record to the album release—took almost one year to the day. As I started thinking about recording, it occurred to me that I had done a lot of arrangements of pop/rock/R&B/hip hop songs that I wanted to document, so I decided that I’d record arrangements of songs by Bob Marley (“Three Little Birds”), Pink Floyd (“Welcome to the Machine”), Joni Mitchell (“My Old Man”), 2Pac (“California Love”), and Black Star (“Definition/RE:DEFinition”). I later added Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel,” and two originals that ended up being written about two weeks before the recording session.

            In Canada, we’re lucky to have at least one arts organization per province that helps funds recordings through grants or loans (Yes, I know there are grants in the US, but they get given to geniuses; in Canada they give them to regular Joes like me.). In my case, I applied for a grant from Manitoba Film and Music, which required a demo of three of the songs to be recorded, a few reference letters, a marketing plan, etc. I was awarded a Level II Recording Grant, which in my case covered paying the musicians who appear on the record, and some of the layout and photography.

            One other source of funding you might want to look into is a crowd sourcing site like Kickstarter (US/UK) or Indiegogo (US/Canada/UK/EU). As the record industry restructures and self-releasing becomes more and more common, a lot of people have been very successful with these types of campaigns (e.g., fellow Banff Workshop attendee Renée Yoxon [Kevin: check her out!]). If you’re strongly connected within a community of supportive musicians, friends, and family, this may be a good plan of attack, since most of us don’t have $10,000 lying around.

            I should add that one of the stipulations of the grant was that I register as a business and open a business bank account. To that end, I started a label and publishing company called Know-a-sad Music (the phonetic pronunciation of my last name), contacted an artist to have a logo designed, and opened a SOCAN account (the Canadian version of ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC) under the name that I used to register the originals on the record and all future compositions. Make sure to register your compositions so that you can get paid when they get played on the radio! [Kevin: Jason Moran also recommended this strongly in rehearsals this past semester, i.e., “Get paid!”]

            Original Compositions on the Record

            I set the recording date for the end of June, which was initially later than I would have liked but ended up being perfect for a couple reasons:
First, I attended the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music in late May/early June, which was a life-changing experience and also where the two originals on the record were written. I had originally planned on recording two originals, but I ended up writing several other tunes at Banff that I preferred to those I had planned on. I only included two originals because I wanted to stick to the concept of covers of non-jazz material (and indeed, both songs are based on the structures of other songs, one of which is based on Freddie King’s “Someday After a While” and the other on Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing”). I also only limited the number of original compositions because I wanted to keep the album under 50 minutes, since I think most albums that are too long (I’d locate the origin of this trend to when CD technology became popular, but that’s a whole other topic).
Second, we recorded right after the Winnipeg Jazz Festival, during which I had the chance to have Taylor Eigsti play piano on my gig, and he agreed to play on one track, which he did remotely from California.

            The Recording

            I did the recording in two four hour sessions at Musirex Studios, which is owned and operated by Laurent Roy, the guitar professor at the University of Manitoba and also a fantastic recording engineer. Everything went very smoothly, and the cats played better than I could have ever imagined (Derrick Gardner on trumpet, Jimmy Greene on tenor saxophone, Will Bonness on piano, Fender Rhodes, and Hammond B3, and Julian Bradford on bass on half the album (day one) and Steve Kirby on bass on the other half (day two). Laurent also played guitar on two tunes.)
 I had originally planned on releasing the album in September, but Laurent’s schedule didn’t really allow for it to be mixed until then, which ended up working out fine. In the end, it actually would have been nice to release the disc even later than I did—industry professionals say that you should have your discs in hand 3-6 months before your official release, which definitely didn’t happen for me.
I don’t know if I necessarily agree that you need quite that much time, but the more time you have to take care of business, the better. Things like distributing your album to press and radio are best done with ample time before the release rather than after, as I ended up doing.

Release Party and Logistics

            I had a venue booked for the release Nov. 8th and a lot to take care of in the meantime:

Securing a Designer:

I had already enlisted the help of Leif Norman as photographer, and as it turned out he also does graphic and web design, so thankfully I was able to one-stop-shop. I’m not a terribly visual person, so I had no idea what I wanted to begin with. With Leif’s help, though, we put together a great design for the record that I’m very happy with.
We started by going through some CD designs from records I liked, including some old Blue Note records so that he knew where I was coming from. I learned a lot from the design process, particularly about text, e.g., serif v. sans-serif typefaces, what kerning is.
I also realized how many considerations there are: which information to include, what to say in your liner notes, whom to thank, where to put everything, etc. What helped me was to look at a lot of CDs and see what other people have done. It’s easy to overlook important details like copyright information, barcodes, licensing information for covers, the MAPL logo (Canada only), or manufacturing information.
Also, proofreading: I had to proofread the album many, many times—not just for spelling, but also for consistent style. I’ve seen enough albums with typos to make me not only proofread it obsessively, but most importantly, to get someone else to proofread it and make suggestions.


            While designing the album and approving the mixes, I also had to obtain licenses to release all the covers I had recorded. The standard rate is 8.3¢ per unit for a song under five minutes, with an extra 1.6¢ per minute after that.
I recorded seven covers (six, but one is technically two songs) so it adds up pretty quickly. In Canada we have an organization called CMRRA that handles licensing for most publishers. This process is fairly straightforward, as you can license most songs without approval of the artists.[1]
This might be common knowledge, but it’s probably worth repeating: the only songs you can record for free are your own compositions and songs in the public domain, including any song that was never copyrighted or was originally published in 1922 or earlier, e.g., this is why they always sing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” on TV rather than “Happy Birthday,” since the former is in the public domain but the latter isn’t since some lucky person still owns the copyright.

Mixing and Mastering

            After reviewing the recording on several different sets of speakers (with particular attention to how it sounds in the car) we settled on a mix that Laurent and I were both happy with. Then came mastering, the last step in post-production before pressing. My album was mastered by good friend Jordan Jackiew at ResoSound, and unlike mixing, it only takes about a day.
After mastering and design were finished, it was off to the printers. I had sent the material to Toronto in time to get CDs three weeks before the album release—a little late, but still reasonable. Most CD printing services have a turnaround of 10-12 business days, but this is where I ran into a few problems. Despite following the company’s templates to a T and giving explicit instructions about what it was supposed to look like, we got several unusable proofs. Each time there was a problem with the proof ended up costing us about three business days, and I ended up getting my CDs two days before the album release.


            Since the release I’ve have been sending CDs out to print and radio all over Canada and the United States (with the indispensable help of my lovely wife). Whenever you’re sending CDs out, make sure you have a really good one sheet. The one sheet is the quickest way of telling people everything they need to know about your record, including focus tracks—that is, which ones to play on the radio—and I’ve had a couple articles written where sentences were lifted straight from my one sheet, so in a way you’re guiding the press as to what you’d like them to say about you and your record.

            I can’t stress enough how important your online presence is. It really helps to have a website, Facebook page, Twitter account, YouTube/Vimeo account, and anything else like SoundCloud, ReverbNation, and BandCamp (admittedly, I’m a little behind on setting these last two up).

Also, you need to have your music on iTunes, and CD Baby is actually your best bet in this department. If you sign up for digital distribution through CD Baby, they’ll get your music on iTunes, Amazon, and any other sites on which you want to sell your music; it only costs something like $40.


            All in all, make sure you have enough money to finish the project, hat you give yourself enough time to do it properly, and that you know what kind of record you want to make, including the title! As Kevin can attest to, I was beating myself up over what to call the record for a good couple of months before settling on The Skeptic & the Cynic.

Hope you’ve found this post helpful! If you’ve got any questions, feel free to contact me and I’ll do my best to help.

[1] My friend Erin Propp tried to cover a U2 song, though, and it had to be sent to their management in Dublin to be approved by the band (which it was, thankfully). Also, the American equivalent to the CMRRA is the Harry Fox Agency (HFA), and if the song you're planning to record isn't in their catalog, you'll have to contact the publisher directly. I had to do this for the Michael Jackson song on the record since the Mijac Music catalogue changed hands from Warner-Tamerlane to Sony/ATV and CMRRA didn't know it yet, so I got sent back and forth between CMRRA and Warner several times before finding the right person at Sony/ATV who could grant me a license. Fun stuff.

Curtis Nowosad is a Winnipeg-based drummer and a recent graduate of the Jazz Studies degree program at the University of Manitoba. He has already performed in club and concert settings nationally and in New York City with such world-class jazz musicians as Stefon Harris, Miguel Zenón, George Colligan, Anthony Wonsey, Dave Douglas, and Steve Wilson. A versatile musician, Curtis has also performed with smooth jazz artists Dave Koz, Jeff Lorber, Carol Welsman, Nick Colionne, Four80East, and Brian Hughes, country artists Chad Brownlee and Ali Fontaine, and hip hop groups Alfa and Magnum KI. He performs every Sunday at the King’s Head Pub in Winnipeg with All the King’s Men, a rock band featuring members of Loverboy and The Guess Who.


  1. Really interesting discussion, Curtis (and Kevin). Thanks very much.


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