First, let's get the reality check out of the way. Unless you are going to dedicate 110% of your time, effort, sanity and intenstinal fortitude for the rest of your life to becoming a massive musical phenomenon, as well as prostituting yourself to some of the most soulless and sociopathic corporations on the planet, you have less than zero chance of selling a million records and appearing in Pepsi ads. The same reasons that dictate that bumbling fools like George Bush or platform agnostic chameleons like Al Gore are your only options for political office are the same forces that put female Michael Jackson impersonators like Britney Spears in Walmarts and 7-11s the continent over. So unless you are related to David Geffen or especially adept at offering sexual favours to the lawyer elite, DIY is the way to go.
What's this DIY then? For the acronym-challenged out there DIY stands for "Do It Yourself" and has come to represent an entire cultural mindset of "shitworkers" - not a derogatory term, refers to folks willing to perform gruntwork because they care passionately about something - and motivated individuals. If you want something done right, or in this case, done at all, then you have to do it yourself.
First I am going to make some big hairy assumptions. You are in a band or have your own musical project of some sort. You have recorded some music that you think deserves a wider audience than your neighbours who are banging on the wall because you are blaring it at 3am in the morning. You are willing to perform repetitive, repetitive, repetitive, menial work solely for the artistic satisfaction and resulting feeling of accomplishment that results from such effort. Your budget is a little higher than a night at the bar but not enough to make you miss paying rent. And you have as so far been completely unsuccessful in talking anyone else into doing all this for you. If any of my assumptions are incorrect for you, go back and re-read the title of this piece plus the above DIY paragraph until you submit.
The word "planning" is a dirty pair of syllables, but someone has got to do it. Executing a successful DIY release can be divided into two main fronts: manufacturing and promotion. Let's start with the grunt work, then.
Manufacturing is such a formal word. Shitwork is more appropriate for the type of release we are talking about here and it is you that are going to be grunting it. The minimum run generally available for professionally pressed CDs is 500. If you have never released anything before then most likely, after your friends and immediate family that's about 490 copies to insulate your basement with. It is important to be realistic and from my personal experience and every musician I know, your first release should have an initial run of no more than 100 copies. It will depend on what "scene" you are associated with as to what is considered an acceptable format. Currently acceptable options are cassette and CDR. Note how I am not mentioning vinyl - it is out of our budget at this point so get over it. Cassettes are the least likely to be accepted by the unwilling public unless you happen to be part of the noise scene (good on ya if that is the case). So that leaves the preferred option, CDRs. Long gone are the days when a CDR was a fast trip to skipsville and "please insert disc" errors. Most current CD players can handle them just fine and media and burners are almost ubiquitous so this is definitely the easiest way for an independent type to manufacture their own release. So due to their limited audience I am going to skip tapes and focus solely on CDRs. Post your own article on cassette manufacturing if you think this is overly flippant of me.
Currently, 3" CDRs are a popular format due both to their novelty factor and due to their length (perfect for EPs). These can be had via megamarts like Staples but I have generally found that Ebay and a few specialty CDR shops have the best prices. Expect to pay anywhere between $0.40 to $1 per disc depending on availability and quantity. Neato makes inkjet and laser labels for these which you can order from them direct in the States or via some resellers elsewhere. If you order in bulk you will generally need to source cases separately which can be a little trickier for 3" CDRs but I have found some reasonably priced ones via Effectuality (no affilation, just noticed these the other day). Other options for packaging include vinyl sleeves (also available from Neato) or cardboard sleeves. If you choose the latter options, a nice case of some sort will radically improve the aesthetic value of your release. 3" CDRs happen to be about the same size as a floppy disc so floppy disc cases and some zip disc containers can be used with the bonus that these can double as protection when it comes time to plant some postage on your artistic soul and drop it off into the big bad dangerous world that is the postal system.
Full length CDRs are less distinctive but easier to source and of course, longer in duration. Even more so than 3" CDRs, labels are crucial since, to many people, the difference between a "demo" and an official "release" is decided by whether the word "Memorex" is visible or not. Avoid glossy inkjet labels unless you are 100% sure that they do not rub off. Matte labels may not look quite so slick but at least they do not act like carcinogenic finger paint when you put the disc in your CD player. Again, labels are best sourced online generally and Ebay tends to have lots of decent deals going. Others may not agree but for full lengths, slimline cases are a good plan of action. These save you on postage as well as making for an easier construction process. Instead of having to print a front cover and inner tray cover, you can get away with a single J card. You do not want to go with regular CDR cases because again, this is an official release, not a demo. Proper CD single cases are not normally found at local megamarts so you will need to talk to any local CD replication houses or possibly, local indie record stores which may sell singles.
Another choice is to create your own sleeve using card stock. Screen printing can yield nice results but requires more work and investment in infranstructure than you probably want to do for your first low run release. If you have an efficient inkjet printer, this can be reasonable way to create covers (I've made tons of them this way) but for larger or more ink intensive runs you should consider photocopying. Two colour photocopying can be quite competitive pricewise but registration (lining up of images from multiple runs) is pathetic and so you have to design your art with this in mind. Full colour copying is of course nice but since you can only fit two covers on a single 8 1/2" x 11" piece of card stock, this will add noticabely to your bottom line.
Replicating is more than just a cool sci-fi horror trigger word, it is what you get to look forward to for the next week or two collating your release. An 8x burn speed is about the highest you want to go for audio releases from common consensus. Always be sure to use "disc at once" for audio CDRs so that they are playable in the largest amount of players. Resist the urge to fire up MP3s, chat on IRC and play Quake3 in a window while burning you CDRs. Drink coasters are nice and all but you are not going to want to listen to your own disc 100 times in a row to make sure you did not trigger a hiccup when you accidentally launched a thousand pop up windows by clicking on an innocent looking link that actually led to "goat.cx". Grab a book or find a low impact PC activity that you absolutely can guarantee will not result in a "buffer underun" error followed by a vocalized string of profanity. Get a routine setup (you are a replicating machine remember) so that you are clear which CDRs are and which are not already burnt (it's not much fun squinting at silver generic CDR trying to decide if it is burnt or not after your third or fourth beer). Don't drag it out, do as many as you can at once - much like eating broad beans it is better to get the burning stage out of the way as quickly as possibly.
Once you have all the discs burnt you now get to metamorphasize into a collating machine. Before you go off and mutilate your expensively and time consumingly printed covers though, make sure you try a single test unit first, OK? The discovery that your fastidious hand trimming job actually made the cover just small enough to completely miss every jewel case guide is not a lot of giggles after you have just destroyed your 100th cover. If at all possible, enlicit the assistance of nearby (trustworthy) victims to help you as carpel tunnel syndrome is something that should be shared.
Now some general things to pace around and curse to your self about. In any form other than the vibrating airwaves of a live gig or the post speaker output of a digital to analog converter, a musical release is solely desirable because of its tangible, tactile nature. If you get creases on your forehead deciding over the glam stud belt and AC/DC muscle shirt or bright green sweat pants and velour v-neck before heading out to the midnight showing of FUBAR, you should pay similar attention to the packaging of your release. Your music is what will ultimately save the release from becoming landfill but it is the packaging that will pull money from wallet and create an air of desirability amongst your audience.
Be creative. A personal "trick" is to use translucent mailing labels for liner notes since this avoids two sided printing and gives a sculptured effect and these can also be used on jewel cases themselves. Get a crazy rubber stamp made up and hand make covers using some crazy paper stock. Scour surplus shops for weird plastic containers and office refuse. Don't beafraid of spray paint, metallic paint can create some interesting effects on transparencies (an example can be seen here). The more raw creative juice you crank into you release, the more likely that it will be coveted by someone other than your spouse who is really just trying not to hurt your feelings.
If there is enough interest, I'll post part II - promotion in the near future.
DIY sounds interesting, anything more I can check out?
For more information, check out industrial.org, which has a ton of great DIY resources. Also, you can look at the discussions about this article from kuro5hin.org. There are some good tips in the comments.