Once your blockbuster song or CD is mastered, what's next? You want SOMEBODY to hear the end result of all your efforts! The remaining step is to decide how you wish to distribute and/or promote your masterpiece. Do you need to consider copyright issues (see Copyright Info)? Are you going to distribute a song file on the internet or by CD? If by CD, will you burn a few yourself or have them produced? If you are having them produced, will you have a smaller quantity of CDRs made or will you have a production run done from a glass master and properly packaged for retail sale? Once you get to this level of investment, would it be wise to start your own indie label to take advantage of tax breaks for businesses? And there are more questions!
How will people find out about your CD? Perhaps you just want to share it with friends or a local fan base. In this case, word-of-mouth might suffice. But is it possible to reach a wider audience? If so, do you want to use free services or are you willing (and able) to pay for promotion? As you can see, the possibilities are pretty wide ranging. You need to start out by deciding where you want to end up, and these decisions must be bound by practical restrictions that may be out of your immediate control, such as whether you already have a fan base or what financial resources are available. In any event, you'll want to know your options.
You'll also want to make sure your precious material is registered and your copyright is protected, and that you understand where services like BMI and ASCAP fit in to how you will collect royalties. See the Copyright Info page for a good explanation of the process and of your options (thanks, LearJeff!).
Using the Internet:
Are you ready to share your finished song with others? With the right preparation, you can make your music available for download via the Internet, by email, through your own web page or through a music sharing and promotion site, among others. But heads-up; that uncompressed music file is big - approximately 10 megabytes per minute of recording. Downloading a file of this size would take longer than most people are willing to wait, and the server space just to store it becomes an issue. If you want people to download and listen to your stuff, you'll need to find a way to make those files smaller. What you need is called compression.
Your finished song is probably in WAV (PC) or AIFF (Mac) format. Conversion to one of the formats listed below requires stripping out (arguably) unneeded and duplicated data. But there's a cost to removing that data; reduced quality. Remove just a little data, and the song sounds fine. Remove too much, and all that hard work perfecting your mix is wasted. There is a tradeoff between size and quality. Fortunately, most compression schemes offer multiple compression rates, so you can determine how much data you want to remove. Whichever compression scheme you choose, you will want to experiment with different compression rates (bit rates) to determine what works best for your song.
There are dozens of compression schemes that have been designed for just this purpose. A few of the more common ones are:
MP3 (Mpeg Audio Layer III): The most popular format on the internet right now. MP3 is streamable, meaning it can be played right from a web site as well as downloaded. MP3 offers variable bitrates for higher overall compression without losing details in complex and dynamic passages. (This means it removes more data in some spots than others.) MP3 also has a very flexible tagging method for displaying text information such as song name, artist name, copyright notice, production notes, etc.
WMA - Windows Media Audio: Microsoft's answer to MP3. WMA allows copy protection, streaming, and multiple bit rates, and generally provides better quality for the same file size than MP3. It is not yet as popular as MP3, but it is gaining ground. (Macintosh users can encode and listen to WMA files using the free Audacity audio file editor.)
OGG - Ogg Vorbis: The Open Source answer to MP3. OGG is gaining popularity as it is being developed. It offers streaming, variable bitrate and multiple channels, meaning it can be used for surround sound mixes. Generally higher quality-to-filesize ratio than MP3, with similar text tagging capabilities. Because it is offered under the Gnu open source license, it is free of patent license issues.
All three of these compression schemes (and many more) can be implemented using the free and easy to use dBpowerAMP Music Converter or many other widely available encoders and players.