By Evan Zwisler
Late on the evening of November 9, 2016, I felt what many politically left Americans felt: an overwhelming sense of despair and hopelessness that left me emotionally paralyzed. Soon after the initial shock of the moment had passed, I realized that reading friends’ enraged social media posts and stewing in my own misery wasn’t going to get anything done. So, I decided to take what I do best — music — and figure out a way to harness my passion to combat what I saw as one of the most potentially harmful political outcomes of our time and prevent it from getting any worse.
Calling on a strong local community of fellow musicians, a couple of close friends and I decided to organize a compilation album featuring New York bands to raise money for an organization in need.
For artists looking to spearhead something similar in their own hometowns, here’s a step-by-step guide outlining how we put the album together and a few best practices we learned in the process. If you do end up releasing a benefit compilation album of your own, I’d love to hear it, so please feel free to post a link in the comments!
Choose a Cause
We chose Planned Parenthood as the beneficiary of the album proceeds because it’s an organization very personally close to my heart. It’s been a stable source of care for many women I’ve met through the years, and it provides crucial health care, advocacy, and educational services worldwide. It’s a popular charity among fan communities as well. Right off the bat, I’d recommend picking a cause that you’re just as passionate about.
You’ll hit roadblocks. Potential collaborators will flake, and stuff will fall apart. It’s important to choose a cause that you care so deeply about that it pushes you through those setbacks.
Something to consider is where your money will do the most good. While we ultimately chose a national organization, local and lesser known charities are often in dire need of funding and will be able to put your donation to good use more immediately. For this reason, my band has also worked with the Anti-Violence Project, a New York-based organization that helps victims of domestic abuse, because we know the donations they receive start helping women in need right away.
Hammer Out the Details
Email your chosen nonprofit or charity to see if they can send you any materials or help you with promotion. It’s also important to decide what kind of compilation you’ll put out. Ask yourself these questions:
- Will you include songs that have been already released, or will the musicians have to record new material?
- Do you want to limit yourself to local bands, or will you accept submissions from all over?
- How will you release the album?
Inevitably, these things matter and will help set your project apart. Sometimes, the more niche the better, but other times, you’ll want to take a more general approach to reach a larger target audience. That’s all up to you.
If you’re going to do a physical release, make a list of overhead costs, since those will definitely eat into the amount you’ll be able to donate to your chosen charity. You can even consider running a Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaign to cover the cost of printing CDs, making tapes, or (if you’re really ambitious) pressing vinyl.
+ Learn more on Soundfly: We can help! Get all the best practices and strategies for running a successful crowdfunding campaign, plus mentor support from former Kickstarter staff, in our course, Crowdfunding for Musicians.
Find Your Talent
You’re going to need bands! Lots of bands. Way more bands than you think you’ll need. We only had about a 10% retention rate of musicians who initially said they wanted to contribute versus those who actually ended up turning in songs. Everyone wants to help, but sometimes the timing doesn’t work out.
Check in with bands who initially confirm interest every few weeks, depending on your timeline. Following up is a good way to avoid getting caught off guard if a bunch of bands ends up dropping out. And don’t be afraid to give them strict deadlines. (Artists love deadlines.)
Spread the Word (As Far as You Can) in Advance
Press coverage can go a long way in legitimizing the album and making sure the largest possible audience sees it (and, hopefully, purchases it). Most blogs are inundated with hundreds of submissions a day, so make sure your email sticks out with these four quick tips:
1. Do some research to figure out which writer at the publication is most likely to be interested in your compilation’s genre. There might even be a writer who regularly reports on music for social good!
2. Personalize your subject line, and try to reach a specific writer. A format that I’ve found works well in some variations is, “ATTN: Jimmy McBlogger. Seeking a write-up for a Planned Parenthood compilation.”
3. In your pitch, try to make your ask as clear as possible, and offer a suggestion about when you’d like to see an announcement published.
4. Bring your compilation’s story to the forefront by answering questions such as what is the cause, who is participating, and why donate to the cause now?
Also, give yourself enough lead time. Bloggers are busy! The more time you can give yourself for promotional outreach, the better. One month is the minimum, since not only do journalists need time to respond and write their pieces, publications will often plan their content weeks in advance.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “7 Steps to Organizing Your Own DIY Music Festival”
Release the Album
Your album is ready! Congrats. Now, make sure that all of your distribution ducks are in a row. For a physical release, you’ll probably be limited to selling copies yourself, but don’t be afraid to cold call or email record shops and mail-order websites that carry albums by the artists on your compilation. Using a web store like Bandcamp is ideal since Bandcamp, in particular, often features new releases on its blog.
For your digital release, make sure to enter all necessary metadata into each distribution platform to make the album optimally searchable, including artwork, track listing, and song files. I recommend using CD Baby or DistroKid; both are low-cost services that will publish your album directly to Spotify and iTunes. Getting your release up on Spotify, iTunes, Apple Music, YouTube, Bandcamp, and SoundCloud are all essential.
You’re going to want to stay on top of your royalty earnings, both through online sales and streaming. For a deep look into what royalties are available to you as an artist, songwriter, and publisher, and how to collect them, check out our newly released, free course with royalty guru Ari Herstand, How to Get All the Royalties You Never Knew Existed.
Put on a Release Show
Party time! If you’re going to do a promo show for your compilation, try asking the venue to match the money you make. The worst thing anyone can say is no, and if they say yes, it might mean you’ve made a very good impression on them.
But regardless, the money you make on the door should go towards the charity for which you’re raising money. The standard arrangement is that bands donate their time and performances for free, meaning they waive their fee, or cut from the door take so that 100% of the proceeds are donated.
Just make sure that all the potential attendees know that they’re contributing just by showing up. Mention this in your email blasts, on the Facebook event, and through all other communication.
Good luck on your benefit compilation album, keep us in the loop with your release, and put a link to it in the comments! Our Planned Parenthood benefit compilation will be available soon. For updates on this release, visit the Values on Facebook.
Evan Zwisler is a NYC-based musician who is most notably known for his work with the Values as a songwriter and guitarist. He is an active member of the Brooklyn music scene, throwing fundraisers and organizing compilations for Planned Parenthood and the Anti-Violence Project. He started playing music in the underground punk scene of Shanghai with various local bands when he was in high school before going to California for college and finally moving to New York in 2012.