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Anatomy of a successful DIY release (Part 1)

By moron in Culture
Sat Jun 22, 2002 at 07:07:15 AM EST
Tags: Music (all tags)

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.

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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.


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Anatomy of a successful DIY release (Part 1) | 42 comments (20 topical, 22 editorial, 0 hidden)
CD-R is not the way to go (4.87 / 8) (#14)
by fluffy grue on Fri Jun 21, 2002 at 07:45:46 PM EST

Unless you only plan on selling 30 copies total, CD-R is just a horrible waste of time and expense, and no matter what you do to try to dress it up, it's very hard to make a CD-R look professional. Instead, go to somewhere like Discmakers or OasisCD, where you can typically have a professionally-pressed CD for about $1.50-$2 per copy (and they'll even handle the shipping to CDBaby for you).

If you must use CD-Rs, go to CompUSA and get the shrinkwrapped cheapo discs - their ink is light-colored enough that it doesn't look like a CD-R at first glance, and there's no label on the disc itself so even if you hold the disc up to the light you won't see "Memorex" on it. That's what I did for my first album (which I didn't expect to sell many copies of, and so far I haven't), but even in the small quantities it's been done in, CD-R has been a huge pain. For my next album (which I plan on selling a lot more copies of, since the music is going to be much more accessible) I was going to go with a proper disc presser. In fact, when I do that, if there's enough demand for my first album I might just get it properly pressed too.

Oh, and on that note, self-distribution is a major PITA. I tried very briefly to sell my CD myself using Paypal, but after the first few orders I quickly realized how it's so worth it to just have CDBaby do it. Also, from CDBaby I've gotten quite a few sales to people who would have otherwise never heard of my stuff (though I'd say maybe 80% of my sales have been to K5 readers). Their rate is a little steep (they take an up-front $35 setup fee, and charge an additional $4 per CD shipped for warehousing/processing/distribution), but when you consider the amount of time and aggrivation it saves, $4 is well worth it.

In any case, going pure DIY just isn't worth it. DIY on recording and engineering and mastering if you're up to it, but for pressing, distribution, and sales, there are much better ways.
"trhurler: he's a bright ray of sunshine shoved right up your ass" -- Misery Loves Chachi


law of demand (4.00 / 3) (#15)
by moron on Fri Jun 21, 2002 at 08:07:14 PM EST

Part of the reason I feel CDRs are the way to go is that for most acts, there simply is not enough demand to make any more than 50 to 100 CDs at a time.  I've been in bands for over a decade and unless you are actively touring or extremely well established, getting professionally pressed CDs is a waste of time.  That you are getting them for a buck or two a pop is irrelevant when you have cases of them rotting away in your basement.   What you are effectively saying is "the more you buy, the more you save".  How many copies of your own disc do you need in your collection?


The point is that you start small and ramp up as demand allows.  When you can easily unload a 100 CDRs of a single release then it is time to consider a traditional CD run, not before.  

culture: http://industrial.org
music: http://deterrent.net
code: http://codegrunt.com

[ Parent ]

In that case: (none / 0) (#26)
by fluffy grue on Fri Jun 21, 2002 at 11:18:06 PM EST

I'd recommend either doing a CD-R mass duplicator (which costs only a little more per-disc than pressed) or making better music that people will actually want to buy. ;)

FWIW, Oasis and Discmakers will also do mass CD-R duplications.
"trhurler: he's a bright ray of sunshine shoved right up your ass" -- Misery Loves Chachi

[ Parent ]

there's a world going on underground? (5.00 / 2) (#32)
by gold tone ranking monkey on Sat Jun 22, 2002 at 03:07:57 AM EST

or making better music that people will actually want to buy. ;)

speaking as someone who runs a very small label that specializes in DIYed and obscure noise generally recorded on PCs or 4-tracks, i kind of get sick of this attitude - true, we could all make "better" music that would appeal to more people (like limp bizkit, christina aguilera, or phish), but why? better to express in an honest fashion exactly what you want, whether it appeals to 1,000,000 or 10, isn't it? or am i being naive?

i think moron's article is about doing your music in a post-punk DIY sense than in coaching up-and-coming MTV-fodder on how to make a demo, get signed and get screwed by a major label/"get a deal." that's my take, anyway.

close the drains. please.
[ Parent ]
That's what the winkie was for (4.00 / 1) (#34)
by fluffy grue on Sat Jun 22, 2002 at 11:39:27 AM EST

If you knew anything about me or my music, you'd know that I actually don't hold that attitude. It was meant purely tongue-in-cheek.

Still, good "underground" releases typically sell more than 1000 copies. the alpha conspiracy is the "band" (one-person electronica effort) which made me aware of CDBaby to begin with, and both of his albums consistently sell very well on CDBaby - and he's only a blip on their top sellers list. I don't know how many copies he's pressed, but from my brief conversations with him, it seems that he's doing pretty well. (Of course, he still doesn't intend to make it rich on his music - it's just a hobby which he's happy to just break even on. Which is how most indie bands are, really.)
"trhurler: he's a bright ray of sunshine shoved right up your ass" -- Misery Loves Chachi

[ Parent ]

commercial appeal (none / 0) (#35)
by moron on Sat Jun 22, 2002 at 02:49:54 PM EST

This is not meant as a slag but Alpha Conspiracy happen to make very commercial "electronica" (which they market heavily that way) which is perhaps why it is easier for them to sell a thousand CDs. You are still defining "good" as "popular" and/or "mainstream", not as "engaging art". They also have a fair amount of infranstructure around them which Jane Doe living in shithole, Saskatchewan will not have access to.

IMHO of course


culture: http://industrial.org
music: http://deterrent.net
code: http://codegrunt.com

[ Parent ]

Perhaps... (4.00 / 1) (#36)
by fluffy grue on Sat Jun 22, 2002 at 03:18:30 PM EST

But alpha conspiracy's stuff evokes a strong emotional reaction in me, which isn't something I can say for "commercial electronica."

Also, what infrastructure? alpha conspiracy started (and continues to be) a small one-person operation, a guy in his basement with a few synthesizers and a computer. All of his pressing and distribution are handled by companies which he accesses online and which are not in Austin, which people in Saskatchewan have the same access to.

FWIW, if you were at all into the tracker scene (mods, s3ms, etc.) you might recognize alpha conspiracy as being the artist formerly known as Necros. He was quite popular back then, and mod/s3m distribution takes even less "infrastructure" than CD distribution.
"trhurler: he's a bright ray of sunshine shoved right up your ass" -- Misery Loves Chachi

[ Parent ]

Why so unmotivated? (5.00 / 1) (#30)
by Anonymous 242 on Sat Jun 22, 2002 at 12:42:46 AM EST

Part of the reason I feel CDRs are the way to go is that for most acts, there simply is not enough demand to make any more than 50 to 100 CDs at a time.
I suppose this is true for the type of bands that self-combust after a gig or two, but anyone serious enough to lay down tracks in a decent studio, design a good cover, and handle all the other details that go into producing an album ought to be able to move several hundreds of discs over the course of six to twelve months.

[ Parent ]
fyi : light ink (5.00 / 1) (#37)
by three-pipe on Sat Jun 22, 2002 at 04:51:08 PM EST

the lighter the ink, the shorter the lifespan of the CDR. a typical cd writer uses a wavelength of light which photochemically breaks down dye, but in a controlled fashion. this same wavelength of light is also in sunlight (which is full spectrum). so, using cheapo light-ink cds will eventually lead to the degradation of your information, since the small amounts of that specific wavelength which are also in sunlight will burn indiscriminately. then again, if you hit it big you could always do a rerelease on a real CD, and make those CDRs insanely valuable.

(note: 'light' ink refers to low ink concentrations. the problem is not that the ink gets broken down, but that low ink concentrations in the disc will make the 'holes' in the ink 'deeper', that is the dark spots are darker in comparison. the high-ink bits that negatively definte the low-ink 'holes' will, over time, get paler and paler, ending up as 'holes' themselves')

-chad \\ warfordium.org \\
[ Parent ]
Yes, I know... (none / 0) (#39)
by fluffy grue on Sat Jun 22, 2002 at 05:10:51 PM EST

But fortunately, most CDs are typically kept in their jewelcases, which is Dark Enough for cyanoacrylic ink. Of course, people who leave their CDs out and loose get what they deserve, IMO. (True story: I had a friend whose Win'95 installation went bad, and he requested my help in fixing it. It looked like the only course of action was to reinstall. So I asked him where his installtion disk was, and he pointed to it. He'd been using it as a coaster for the past several months. It was incredibly scratched-up and so on. I yelled at him for doing that, and he said, "Hey, you're the one who is always saying to use Windows CDs as coasters." Then I had to explain the concept of "a joke" to him.)
"trhurler: he's a bright ray of sunshine shoved right up your ass" -- Misery Loves Chachi

[ Parent ]

From RIAA to ARIAA? ASCAP to AASCAP? (5.00 / 4) (#17)
by NFW on Fri Jun 21, 2002 at 08:28:03 PM EST

Far as I can tell, the RIAA and ASCAP people have pissed off everyone but the top-40 musicians. When will "alternative" musicians form an alternative association of their own?

(The first occurrence of alternative is in quotes because I refer to non-super-selling artists, not the subgenre of pop that got its start on college radio and actually was an alternative to mainstream, not just another flavor of mainstream.)

Seems to me that the time is ripe for every musician who doesn't feel served by RIAA and/or ASCAP to throw their weight behind alternative organizations (call 'em ARIAA and AASCAP for now). Don't like the webcasting fee structure that RIAA et al just put into effect? Fuck 'em. Don't have anything to do with them. If you're an artist, that means working without RIAA and ASCAP. If you're a webcaster, that means playing only non-RIAA/ASCAP music - which will one day be easy to identify because the CD's will have "proud member of ARIAA / AASCAP" emblazoned somewhere (or whatever acronym really gets used, I'm sure it won't be either of those).

Far as I can tell, these organizations are powerful, but that power comes from the artists who subscribe to them. The artists can change that by disavowing them. For example, set up an ARIAA/AASCAP-approved webcasting system with reasonable fees - suppose instead it requires click-to-buy link on the webcaster's web site for each of the tracks played in the last 30 minutes or so. That way people who like what they hear can buy a CD (or pay to download better-than-CD-quality files), thus contributing directly to the artists.

Together with ASCAP, RIAA and its major members have imposed themselves as middlemen. The internet is a wonderful tool for disintermediation. So, why not blow off the established (and apparently widely loathed) organzations, and start over with an alternate organization by and for artists who are beneath the establishment's notice anyhow?

Or has it already happened? If so, anyone know where I can learn more? I'd get a real kick out of running a shoutcast server with a playlist composed entirely of songs that were NOT subject to the recent legislation.

Got birds?

alternative musicians (5.00 / 1) (#25)
by demi on Fri Jun 21, 2002 at 10:56:17 PM EST

When will "alternative" musicians form an alternative association of their own?

What would this association have to offer to artists, and how would it be different from the RIAA (other than in name, which may be sufficient)?

[ Parent ]

Publishing Companies (none / 0) (#41)
by andrewhy on Tue Jun 25, 2002 at 02:34:32 AM EST

Any artist that acheives even a modicum of success (having their albums released on a record label of any size, achieving a small amount of college or alternative airplay) will have to form a publishing company registered with the likes of either ASCAP or BMI (or to a lesser extent, SESAC). This ensures that the songwriters receive publishing royalties related to the use of their songs.

Although these organizations sometimes indulge in the same kinds of control-freak behavior typical of the RIAA, their function is important to the songwriters. Most bands receive more royalties from publishing than they do from record sales. In other words, it's possible to avoid doing business with the RIAA, but it's almost impossible to avoid dealing with the publishing rights companies. And no songwriter in his right mind would want to.

If "Noise" means uncomfortable sound, then pop music is noise to me -- Masami Akita, aka "Merzbow"
[ Parent ]

Excellent! (4.33 / 3) (#20)
by bcrowell on Fri Jun 21, 2002 at 09:53:26 PM EST

Excellent article! As one who has suffered through the process of making (non-music) CDs to sell, I wish I'd seen this article a loooooooooooooong time ago!

One quibble: "female Michael Jackson impersonator." Say what? What gender is Michael Jackson?

On a personal note, I'm an amateur musician and songwriter, and I'm curious about whether there is any web-based scene in existence for people to swap MP3's, critique each other's songs, etc. If there is, I haven't been able to extract the signal out of the noise coming from the sound of a zillion college students downloading copyrighted MP3s while they ogle free pr0n and breathe heavy...

The Assayer - book reviews for the free-information renaissance

Good coverage (5.00 / 4) (#23)
by ovie on Fri Jun 21, 2002 at 10:50:12 PM EST

Having just done a complete DIY release with my own band, I liked the issues you touched on. While some of these may appear trivial, it's only once you've actually done a DIY that you come to realise how much you can agonise over the method for labeling a CD-R for example.

Some extra advice that I can offer:
- Printing your covers with a digital copier is not that expensive. We managed to do a double sided sheet for the insert and a back cover for around $100AUD ($50USD) using a digital colour copier at the local printing place. The secret is to lay your covers out on an A3 sheet. This way, for 100 copies, you only need to print 17 (6 per page) double sided sheets for the front cover and 25 (4 per page) for the back inserts. The only painful part of this is then cutting all the covers up. $25 per band member isnt much to spend, it cost more to register ourselves as a business :).
- CD-R labeling imho is a waste of time. We looked at most of the options, and all of them seemed unprofessional. In the end, after deciding screen printing was going to take too long, we got a stamp made up and using the right ink, just stamped a label on each CD-R. It looks nice and home made, yet strangely charming.

It would have been nice if this 'part 1' had some info on the actual recording process. +1SP as a result.

more would be nice. (none / 0) (#40)
by ductape on Mon Jun 24, 2002 at 01:38:56 AM EST

especially since i'm in the middle of this right now with my band, and thinking heavily of doing more of this myself.

as with ovie, i'd like more of the recording-process-DIY-ness.  something like "a 4 track junkie in a 24 track world" might be nice, tricks for maximizing the live cheap lifestyle...

...or for us that don't like leaving our house to record, even if it is above a liqour store!
--smd. #include <disclaimer.h>
[ Parent ]

I love it! (4.50 / 4) (#24)
by omegadan on Fri Jun 21, 2002 at 10:54:31 PM EST

I am your intended audience! :D I am slaving away on composing/producing an album :) And I have serious doubts I'll ever be able to get anyone to hear it! But I just keep telling myself Im writing the album for myself, not for money, fame, or glory. I do have a question though, is this just advice or have you actually done this? :)

Religion is a gateway psychosis. - Dave Foley

been there, done that (4.00 / 1) (#28)
by moron on Fri Jun 21, 2002 at 11:52:09 PM EST

This is definitely from personal experience. The link towards the end of the article (which shows up in the related links panel with the oh so informative title of "here") takes you to Deterrent Industries, my current self-release project. I also run a DIY music site called industrial.org and through reviewing stuff and the whole networking thang, I have also had interaction with plenty of like minded folks (I am just as much a fan as a I am into creating music).

So yeah, the comments are not just randomly pulled out of my skinny behind and then dusted off for your consumption.


Thanks for the feedback and cheers.

culture: http://industrial.org
music: http://deterrent.net
code: http://codegrunt.com

[ Parent ]

We do this in prepublishing too (4.50 / 2) (#31)
by MickLinux on Sat Jun 22, 2002 at 02:12:16 AM EST

I do prepublishing, and send CDs with the books out to each author, as well as to the publisher.  Each CD has all the previous books on it, but (1) I need about 8-15 CDs, with (2) a label that is quickly recognizable.

The quick solution is to use the cover art from the main text, rework it into a general colorful background impression, and then prepare the labels with that.  

It takes a day or so to do everything nicely -- but I think that the result makes things look a lot nicer, and gives our company a "professional" label in our customer's minds.

I make a call to grace, for the alternative is more broken than you can imagine.

Enough Interest Here! (none / 0) (#42)
by anylulu on Thu Jul 04, 2002 at 05:38:56 AM EST

Hey, I made my first EP with my band anylulu in a similar way. We made 500, we didn't burn them ourselves, and we're still selling them... still, it's the same idea. I am casting my vote for your second installment.
-- peace, love and anylulu http://www.anylulu.com
Anatomy of a successful DIY release (Part 1) | 42 comments (20 topical, 22 editorial, 0 hidden)
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