Ditch the CD and go USB: Tips for DIY Physical/Digital Hybrid Releases


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Let’s face it, the game done changed: Nobody expects to pay for music anymore, and if you want people to buy your stuff, you better offer more. So unless you’re content with just your mom and Uncle Jimmy buying your new album, you better step it up. Offering up the same old CD as every other band on the planet has become stale, but if you’re still interested in putting out a physical product in this digital world, there is an interesting hybrid: the USB thumb drive. By offering a unique packaging experience (while still providing music in a format that everyone can access), you’ll be one step ahead of the game.


Ever since CDs became ‘affordable,’ musicians have been pressing them in quantities of 500 and 1000, and admit it – your parents’ attic is filled with your band The Turdburgler’s groundbreaking EP, Gym Class Stinks.  Discmakers loves this; I do not. With this in mind, and many, many unsold CDs stacked in my own closet, I set out to create something unique for my band Japanese Monster.

USB drives come in just about any size and shape you can imagine, from sushi to action figures to pen-knives. The fancy ones will be expensive, and you’ll be stuck selling your music on Chewbacca-shaped thumb drives for $30 a piece. There’s nothing worse than being too gimmicky.

Once I found a vendor with a fair price and a decent turnaround, I made sure to cut costs by refusing the bland, terrible packaging options they had, as well as a very steep charge for coping the mp3s onto the thumb drive. I can copy files from a computer to a USB, and I bet you can, too. So why pay someone hundreds of dollars to do it? I ended up with 100 Red USB “swing” drives for about $500, shipping included. The vendor printed our logo, which we supplied as a high resolution PDF file, on the metal part that swings open to access the front of the drive.

Look for companies that sell USB drives exclusively, or companies that specialize in customized promotional items and printing services for other companies (B2B vendors). You can often get their catalogs online, and they may even cut you a break on pricing if you order other customized items for your band’s merch table (shirts, Frisbees, hats, t-shirts, tote bags, etc).


Packaging was our next mission, as the options provided by the duplication company were pretty bad – like, throw it in the trash without ever listening to it bad. Stripy Cat, our lovely keyboardist, is an excellent artist, so I knew if I found a box to place the USB drive in with a decent sized, sturdy surface, she would be able to screenprint or stencil an interesting graphic on the outside. I settled on a 3”x3” recycled paper jewelry box with soft cotton-like padding inside. Thinking back to all of the nights writing, practicing, and recording our music, I wanted something that might be treasured, or at least listened to. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right, right? The company I found online charged about $.20 a box for a quantity of 100, and we were ready to stencil our USB EP boxes. Cat had this to say about her stencil for the cover:

“The idea for the cover originates from my obsession with the desert and skulls. I was imagining a scene from a Western where there is nothing in the desert except sand and the skull of a bull with tumbleweed blowing around it. This image was created in the same way I created many of my screenprints and stencils. My process starts with cutting up black paper to create abstract shapes. In this case, I scanned the shapes and manipulated them in the computer to compose the image of a bull skull.  I then simplified it so that the small stencil would be easier to cut out, as well as knowing that some of the details of the original image would have been lost when it came time to spray paint it onto the boxes. I opted for black as the main color for its obvious reference to death and I chose a color resembling sand for the box to represent the desert. The final touch are grey eyes I added with a paint brush to animate the image slightly (although it took me hours to make a grey that was to my satisfaction). This last color alludes to dust, to go along with the bones in the sand.”


USB flash drives have more than enough gigabytes for just about any album. One of the nice aspects of having so much room is that you can easily offer the entire record in multiple formats, right on the same drive. For example, you can make a folder that contains an mp3 version of the album, as well as a folder with a hi-res version for the audiophiles. A CD-quality version of your album will be well under a gigabyte (unless you’re releasing a very large compilation or double album), so don’t waste money on large-format thumb drives. One to two gigs should suffice. As an added bonus, once your customer takes the music from the drive and puts it on their computer, they can wipe the drive clean and re-use it.

So don’t worry, my friends. If you put the work in, you can make yourself stick out from the crowd. It’s time to let go of the idea of selling CDs. Now, your options are endless!

Neil Simmons is part of the South Boston band Japanese Monster, in which he “plays the fool,” or at least that’s what he claims in the group’s bio. For more information and to listen to the band’s new album, please visit japanesemonster.bandcamp.com

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