When making music, choosing to go ahead and make physical copies of your latest release is always an exciting moment. But, it does come with its own problems, questions, and moments of doubt. It’s especially true if it’s your first time taking the plunge; it can be scary! That’s why I decided to write this article. I will provide facts and opinions about some aspects of CD packaging in the hopes of informing you and helping you make a decision. Each option has its pros and cons, and, depending on what you value most, they will affect your ultimate choice.
For quotes and options, I’m using CD Baby’s duplication tool. Feel free to go there and enter your specific needs to get a more exact figure.
Obviously, if you want a professional-looking product, you will most probably go with a printed disc. But, if you’re issuing a demo, for example, this will be the most logical choice. You can buy blank CDs in bulk at any electronics store or supermarket, and they often come at about $1 per disc. Then, your job will be to burn them yourselves with your own computer, and label them – or not – using permanent markers or any other method that fits your artistic whim. Then, if you feel fanciful, you can order some packaging – without disc – to put your burned CDs in and sell at your local venue. The cheapest option is the cardboard printed jacket. Since we’re talking about demos, here, I’ll get a quote using the smallest number allowed. For 100 jackets, you’re looking at $147, plus shipping. That means that if you want 100 demos for sale, it will cost you about $250 and a lot of time spent burning discs. At $2.50 a piece, you can sell them $5.00 and make even after only 50 copies sold. This is a good way of spreading your music in the early stages of bandhood, and, with a little investment, can earn you a few precious dollars.
This is the cheapest option. From here on, since we aren’t talking about demos anymore, I’ll be using 500 as the number of copies. Keep in mind, however, that you can order fewer or more, just that the individual cost will change accordingly. So, for 500 CDs in a jacket, CD Baby tells me you’re going to need to hand out about $800. That means $1.60 per disc, which you can then easily sell for $5 or $10, or more, depending on the amount of music that’s on disc. That makes it the lowest investment (per disc) of all options, and the one with the biggest profit margin, but also has major flaw. First, as it’s all cardboard, the corners and borders can be bumped and damaged, and they will most likely lose some colouring even if it’s well taken care of. But the worst thing by far regarding sleeves is how they can easily damage the disc itself. Sliding the CD in and out of the jacket will cause scratches and can, over time, make the disc unreadable. That’s really the worst case scenario for a music collector or a fan. On the bright side, jackets don’t take a lot of space, as they are very slim, and don’t cost a lot to produce, but they are less than ideal for keeping your music and product intact.
The wallet is a bridge between a digipak and a jacket. In my eyes, it combines the flaws of both. First, however, let’s get you some numbers. The cheapest options for 500 wallets will cost you $1,045. With a little bit of imagination, I was able to raise it to $1,770, but I doubt you can go much higher using the CD Baby tool. At between about $2 and $4 per copy, it’s a good price for selling albums and EPs. So, what’s wrong about it? Well, as with the jacket before, and the digipak after, the wallet is made of cardboard. It has more printed surface than the jacket, so you can make a truly beautiful product, as with the digipak, but it will get easily bumped and damaged. Not only this, but the disc itself will get scratched and damaged by sliding on cardboard. In this case, it’s even worse than the jacket; you can easily get the disc out of the jacket, whereas the hinge of the wallet makes it very difficult to get the CD in and out carefully. Wallets are definitively the worst way to package your CD, if you ask me. I find it infuriating to find scratches on my disc even though I try my best to get it out cautiously. And, from a production perspective, it’s not a lot cheaper than other, less frustrating options. Let’s just move on!
The Jewel Case
The standard. This is, by far, the most popular and widely-known packaging for CDs. The absolute bare minimum for a batch of 500 discs on CD Baby will cost you $620 ($1.24 per copy). This is, however, only for a printed CD in a blank, clear plastic case. A simple two-sided panel and tray card will make that cost jump to $995 ($1.99 per copy). The most expensive I was able to get was $1,235 ($2.47 per copy), with an 8-page booklet, full-colour and all! From a practical standpoint, it’s my favourite option, but if you’ve got a more artistic vision, the jewel case can appear a bit bland and uninteresting. However, it’s the most secure way to store discs. The plastic tray locks the CD into place, and the case protects it and the booklet or cards rather efficiently. Even if the case itself gets scratched and broken, you can easily replace it with a new one, and your favourite album is brand new once again. More advanced options will allow you to put a folded poster as the booklet, or on top of one, which brings new artistic possibilities, which can be interesting.
The digipak is one of the most popular packaging formats for CDs, nowadays. I don’t know whence that craze came, but I am not one of its followers. A set of 500 digipaks will cost you a minimum of $1,110 ($2.22 per copy) and a maximum of $2,020 ($4.04 per copy), according to CD Baby. That makes each copy $3.22, but you can easily choose different options and crank the price up. One of the nice things with digipaks is that you can have three or even four panels, with a total of up to eight sides in total. You can also have it DVD-sized, have your booklet in a sleeve or a pocket, or even have it glued to an inner side. Digipaks are some of the most beautiful products you can make: as the picture shows, Follow the White Rabbit made an astonishing three-panel digipak with a vertical artwork that graces both sides. I love it, it’s just a gorgeous product! However, since it’s all cardboard, it’s a bit tough to keep it in pristine shape. Corners and sides will get damaged over time, and the folds will wear prematurely. However, your disc is safely locked in a plastic tray, so it’s not all bad. If you have a wide artwork to be displayed across two, three, or four panels, this might be your best option. However, if you’re looking for something that will stand the test of time, you might be better off with a regular jewel case.
It really depends. The safest option is the jewel case, it can also be pretty cheap if you don’t want or need a lot of pages or panels. The prettiest one is the digipak, but it’s also the costliest. The cheapest option is the jacket, but I wouldn’t recommend it except for demos and maybe your first release as an up-and-coming band or artist. I strongly discourage the use of a wallet to sell your CDs; to reiterate, they’re not cheap, and they can easily scratch the disc and get worn. If I had to rank the options I’ve discussed here, it would be (from worst to best):
5. The Bare
4. The Wallet
3. The Jacket
2. The Digipak
1. The Jewel Case
That being said, whether you choose to make a digipak or a jewel case is your own business, and I have no strong feelings against any of these two options.
I might follow this column with a post comparing different music media, like the CD, the cassette tape, the vinyl, etc. in the future, but I can offer no guarantee. If enough people request it, I will probably give it a shot, if not it will only depend on my own willingness to write it or not. Hope you liked it!