16

Suppose it's the early 90s and you have three or four high school students that are decent with music, have minimal other skills, but still want to be able to sell CDs of their songs. Nowadays they could just open accounts on YouTube/Patreon/Soundcloud/etc. , but this is the 90s and they live in St. Louis or some other place in the middle of nowhere. Were there vanity publishers that would make CDs for them or would they have been able to just buy a CD-burning machine?

Edit: it seems like making CDs would have been impossible for them. What about cassette tapes?

8
  • 5
    I listened on cassette in the early 90s; I think we got a cd player around 92 or 93, and cassette players were still widespread for a long time. Even a “professional-looking” cassette was much easier for small operations to produce before CD burners. Jun 9, 2023 at 21:51
  • 3
    This won't make an answer on its own, but just for some of the timings… I had my first domestic CD player in 84/5, first CD burner in 92, 1x speed [eventually 52x a few years later]. First in-car CD player 95 [the car was 90 so I was behind on that] Started getting short run 'real' CDs made from glass masters 96. Because of my job that put me pretty much at the vanguard of this type of task, so any 'local band' would have to be behind this by quite a way. The first 'local band' glassmastered CD I was involved with was 99 [it was my then-wife's band, so they had a head start on the technology;)
    – Tetsujin
    Jun 10, 2023 at 7:50
  • 1
    @AndyBonner You got a CD player in 1993? Rich boy.
    – DKNguyen
    Jun 10, 2023 at 18:25
  • 1
    ouch, poor St. Louis.... Jun 11, 2023 at 23:07
  • 1
    @GregMartin Given the population of St. Louis, can you really say it's "in the middle of nowhere"?
    – Michael
    Jun 12, 2023 at 1:32

8 Answers 8

19

There are two scenarios here, a DIY one, and a semi-pro one, which would have been affordable for a band with saturday jobs or middle class parents.

The DIY scenario is: they record and mix their music on a cassette-tape portastudio, and then produce copies on cassette-tape one by one. Making these copies would be done in real time (making a dozen copies would take all day) and the quality of the source tape would deteriorate slightly each time it was played. If everyone in the band had twin tape decks, you could make a copy for each band member, and they could then each produce third-generation copies, but it's really only feasible for a limited run, and the quality wouldn't be great.

The semi-pro scenario is: they book a day or two in a small local studio and record on more professional equipment. If this was after 1992, the studio would probably even record digitally onto ADAT. Studios that catered to beginning bands would often have their own cassette tape duplicating system, where (a copy of) the master tape would be played back and recorded simultaneously onto a dozen or so tape recorders in one go, often at higher speeds to make the process faster. Or they could send (a copy of) the master tape to a tape duplication service. See this article from the mid eighties.

The semi-pro scenario also has the option to go with vinyl, but that would have cost more. This would be the way to go if you already had a local fanbase, and a cassette tape that sold well, and you wanted to record your best song as a single and try to get radio airplay. But this would really be a second phase.

6
  • What I find interesting [to me anyway, if no-one else] is that I didn't have ADATs until quite a bit later, sometime mid 90s, though I'm hazy on the exact timings. I'd already been working alongside [though I wasn't on the project] the guys who built the first Cubase Audio on the Falcon. Within a year or so [again hazy on dates] I had a fully-functional Cubase Audio on the Mac & the ADATs just gathered dust after that. It feels like they had a relatively short prime-time. [I did make my first ever digital mix/master on Sony F1 on BetaMax in 84 though, so the tape format itself had a long life]
    – Tetsujin
    Jun 10, 2023 at 17:20
  • DAT was much more common than ADAT, and a few years earlier, if you were OK with mixing straight down to 2 channels. By 1990 there was even a fat Walkman version, datrecorders.co.uk/hds1.php which I bought in (I think) 1992 or 1993. (I knew someone visiting Japan on business) Jun 11, 2023 at 13:18
  • 1
    People in a cappella groups at the time (like me) could also have this semi-pro experience. Our group recorded a CD in a fully digital studio in 1991 (at the time this was rare but not one-of-a-kind). The total cost was about $10k (I forget if that was the studio time alone or studio time plus album reproduction costs, but the studio time was the major cost), and we made about 1000 units. I think after a couple of years (selling most of the units) it even paid for itself. Jun 11, 2023 at 23:12
  • While I broadly agree, for completeness I'd add that en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CD-R gives recordable CDs (both data and audio) as being available from 1988. However in practice writing a (data) CD involved both a carefully-configured computer and a certain amount of luck: just about everybody found themselves producing a "drinks coaster" on occasion. Jun 12, 2023 at 8:02
  • 1
    Nice answer, but one quibble: I do recall that by '93 or so my parents (who were not audiophiles by any stretch) had a consumer-grade dual tape deck capable of "high-speed dubbing". So the copying process in the DIY option might well have been faster than real-time. Still pretty time-consuming, though. Jun 12, 2023 at 14:00
9

Short-run CD duplication didn't become economic until the late 1990s. Until then, if you wanted just a few hundred copies you'd probably be selling cassette tapes. Though short-run vinyl pressing was also an option.

If you wanted to do it completely yourself, custom-length blank cassettes were easily available, you could use two recorders or a dual-cassette machine. Domestic high-speed dubbing machines were available, but quality was questionable for music. Or you could use a professional duplicating house which might record many 'stripes' onto wide-format tape then slit it. I used one shop that literally had a wall of domestic cassette machines wired up to record simultaneously. Then there were several options for printing labels and inserts, or printing direct to the cassette shell. One way or another, it was very possible to do a small or medium run at acceptable cost, and most bands and acts had cassette tapes for sale after the gig.

There was no need to get a 'label' or other publisher involved, for cassettes or, later, CDs. The pressing/duplicating businesses would happily take an order from anyone.

How did we make the recording? Well, back in the 1970s I was multi-tracking by bouncing between a couple of Revox reel-to-reel machines and then the PortaStudio came along, closely followed by affordable 8-track machines. And in 1993 Cubase Audio on the Atari Falcon came into the picture. But if you were performers rather than 'bedroom studio' songwriters, you'd still quite likely book some time in an 8-track studio. There were plenty around (even, I imagine, in St. Louis :-) and competition kept prices low. And, remember, we were performing already-rehearsed material, not using the studio as a writing aid. A few hours in a local studio, maybe coupled with a deal on pressing 100 disks or cassette tapes, was quite affordable.

5
  • Can you elaborate on how to do this with cassette tapes, then? Jun 9, 2023 at 22:11
  • 2
    On a very budget level many tape players had spaces to load 2 cassettes, and you could do so called 'tape-to-tape', sometimes with a feature called high speed dubbing, where you pressed it and it played back at some higher speed and recorded at the same speed on the other deck so you could make a copy quicker. It was easy enough to do a 4 track recording then make a dozen copies or a bit more to sell. The quality was fairly low but lots of artists still did it. If you could afford to record at a studio you could get a run of cassettes made from the master tape the studio provided you with.
    – OwenM
    Jun 9, 2023 at 22:41
  • And it wasn't so much an idea of 'vanity-publishers' back then, the big labels were doing their thing of course but getting a load of tapes out in the community, when people only had access to the music they physically owned, was a real thing. It could attract the attention of a label if they heard of your band and the idea of a grass roots popularity leading to big backing was just about possible. Often a larger player would swoop in and provide the upfront to do a vinyl run and try it out on a larger scale, if your band was good of course!
    – OwenM
    Jun 9, 2023 at 22:47
  • CD's were an odd thing, once they popped up as a possibility in the late 90's it was mainly burning your own, as mentioned, but these were often less reliable compared to those made by a large CD duplication factory. So for a time it was the aim of a band to get a proper CD pressing (literally a pressing from a glass master, the expensive way to make cd's) run done with the help of a label or similar.
    – OwenM
    Jun 9, 2023 at 22:51
  • Owen, can you make that an actual answer instead of a comment thread? Jun 9, 2023 at 23:44
6

The first short-run CD makers for bands were just using CD burners themselves, so the answer to your question is “close to impossible”. In the early 90s there just weren’t CD burners and making CDs was still very expensive. Even CD-ROM drives weren’t common for the early 90s. It was still the era of the 3.5” floppy disk.

2
  • 2
    There were CD burners, but they were indeed massively expensive. I had access to a Yamaha YPDR 601 from 91, but not a true desktop burner until the year after "By 1992, the cost of typical recorders was down to $10,000–12,000" … LOL The one I had doesn't get a mention; it was Yamaha's first data recorder as well as audio.
    – Tetsujin
    Jun 10, 2023 at 16:27
  • 1
    I did help that I never had to pay for anything, software or hardware, through the entire 90s & well beyond ;))
    – Tetsujin
    Jun 10, 2023 at 16:28
6

I have anecdotal evidence that this might have been feasible in 1996 (upper bound): a band playing exclusively in a medium-sized local church, all with day jobs except probably the band leader, produced at least one CD at that time. The limited church audience would put the production at below 1000 copies. I suppose the band leader provided access to studio recording. They had vinyl releases before this.

1
  • 3
    Late 90s yes. Early 90s no. Not that anyone ever made real money doing so ever. "How hard would it have been for a small band to [not even break even] and sell CDs in the early 90s?" - back then (even in the late 90s), that kind of effort was to maybe get one into the hands of the right people. Best you could hope for is that the bar agreed to let you play on a Saturday because it actually kinda doesn't sound like crap. - I've never known anyone to buy a demo on cassette; those were handed out for free for the same hopeful reason. w/o a religiously captive audience it's going to be tough
    – Mazura
    Jun 11, 2023 at 0:56
4

There's another answer to this: they could get a record deal.

My local music shop (Boo Boo Records in SLO) was full of albums from tiny labels with slates of questionable punk, alternative and experimental bands.

Nothing in your description of these kids strictly rules out somehow getting signed to a tiny imprint.

3

I am quite sure that I have seen offers in Germany in 1995 or possibly earlier for five hours in a studio, plus five hours of one sound engineer, plus 1,000 CDs, for DM 5,000. Published in the “Keyboards” magazine.

2

Yes, in the early 1990s you could get CDs pressed by vanity publishers. In 1992, Billboard magazine had lots of ads for CD duplication. You could get 500 CDs with black and white inserts in jewel boxes for $1790 (i.e $3.58 each). Or 1000 cassettes and 1000 compact discs for $2999. Or 100 12" records with two-color label for $1100. I don't know if these quantities are too large for the hypothetical high school students.

1
  • Yes, but the ads mention "from your 1630" (the Sony PCM-1630, the standard CD mastering device then). So you had to get your recording mastered somewhere else first, and I don't see any prices for that mentioned in the ads.
    – user93268
    Jun 13, 2023 at 3:24
1

In the mid 1990s a local tape duplication outfit tooled up to make professional quality CDs in runs of a few hundred, which they did for local bands. They were in jewel cases with artwork and track lists, but no booklets. I have some of them.

They did this just as soon as the hardware became affordable for a small business, so it is unlikely that it was feasible in the early 1990s.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.