Does this sound like someone you know?
Does this sound like someone you know, maybe personally?
If so, this article is designed to help you on the road to achieving your dream of completing your first CD or cassette release. It's important that you realize the reasons why you haven't done what you know in your heart you want to do. I will detail the three most important things you must have to get your album from a good idea to a finished product.
I've met plenty of musicians and songwriters over the years, and I found that almost all had expressed a desire to hear their music on a record. Yet none of them seemed to be able to act on that desire. Was it because they felt they were lacking in talent? I don't think so. Confidence in their talent was a characteristic they all possessed to some degree. What was stopping them?
There seemed to be a feeling among all the musicians that unless someone tapped them on the shoulder and said, "Here is a large cash advance, please come with me into the studio and we will capture your talent on tape," that they were not worthy of recording a record. They were waiting to be 'chosen', as if they needed validation from some expert who 'knows' talent when they hear it. They were waiting for the people with the financial resources to back the manufacturing of thousands of albums. I'm here to tell you that this perception is garbage.
One attribute successful people have in common is that they do not wait for opportunity or ultimate success to come to them. They go out and look for ways to make things happen; in other words, they take action. Waiting for someone to bless your talent is not the action you need to be taking; in fact, it sounds a whole lot like inaction to me. You need to realize that ordinary people every day are deciding to release their music on a record, and taking the steps necessary to make it happen. The classified sections of many major publications such as Electronic Musician, Guitar World, EQ, etc. are chock-full of ads from CD and cassette tape duplicators. These companies do runs of as little as 300-500 CDs or cassettes. They also do not pass judgment. You could send them a tape full of beeps, atonal percussion hits and low dog moans and they will cheerfully send you 300 copies of beeps, atonal percussion hits and low dog moans.
Ask yourself, "If I can press my own records, then why am I waiting for someone to come along and permit me to do it?" If you think you need permission, then be advised: I am now giving you permission.
Maybe you feel that without the independent validation from a music industry 'expert' that you must not be as good as you think you are. Maybe pressing your own records will amount to nothing more than an exercise in vanity. Let me assure you, you are every bit as good as you think you are. Do you really think every record released by a major record label demonstrates the supreme talent of the artists that performed on it? Probably not. Do record label decision makers ever make records with artists of questionable abilities, or talented artists with questionable judgment? You better believe they do. The following exercise should convince you of this.
Find or borrow a copy of "Two Virgins" by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. If you are able, try to listen to more than five minutes of the record (I am asking a lot, but it's to prove a point). Now, keep in mind that highly paid studio executives approved of the recording of this 'music'. There were experts in engineering and recording who participated in the recording. And there were countless friends and hangers-on who every day said, "Great job, John," probably because no one could believe that someone with Lennon's track record would not know what he was doing. Yet with all this external validation and with the obvious talents of John Lennon, the end result is not quite as satisfying as the screech of chipped fingernails on an old chalkboard.
I would bet my inheritance that you cannot record an album that sounds any worse than "Two Virgins". It's almost physically impossible. You need to realize that studio executives make decisions on many things, most of which have nothing to do with recording good songs. They will want an album by John Lennon, the hot 'grunge' band of the day, or a copycat rap group, simply because it's a safe decision to make. If the album doesn't sell, they can come up with a million reasons why it should have, thus preserving their jobs. If they were to select you, an unknown artist who may not be playing music in the fad style of the moment, then a failure could not be so easily justified.
If you think that self-release is an exercise in vanity, realize that for many people it will be the only way to release their music initially. You may never get a shot simply because you don't have the right look, you don't wear the right clothes, you have dysfunctional band members, or you play music that someone in the 'know' has decided will not sell anymore. Does that mean no one in the world (all three billion of them) deserves to hear your music? It will if you don't put it out yourself. The chances are excellent that if you and others around you enjoy listening to your music that a small percentage of the other three billion people in the world would also enjoy it as well. A small percentage is all you really need to build a fan base. Do the math: 3,000,000,000 times .0001 percent is 3000 people. You can sell your release to as few as 1000 of them and make a decent profit.
Another reason for inaction is almost the opposite of the previous examples. You may be a member of a large circle of artists and musicians. Perhaps virtually everyone you interact with on a daily basis is an artist or a musician. You may know of several musicians that have produced their own records, and have found the financial rewards to be elusive. It may seem to you that 'everyone' has a release, there is too much product, everyone is competing with everyone else, and that there is no point to adding another indie release to the pile. Let's be clear on one point: I am not saying that marketing or selling your records will be easy. Promoting and selling your release is a whole new set of skills to be learned, but if the limited success of your fellow musicians is keeping you out of the game, then I can assure you that your focus is misplaced.
How many records can you sell without releasing your music? Zero. How many people will experience your music for the first time over their home stereo? Zero. How many music critics will review your work? Zero. What is your probability for success in the music business? Zero. As they like to say in Vegas, you have to play the game to win. The difficulty your friends have in selling their music has nothing to do with you, and if it causes you to forget even starting your project, you've lost before the game even starts.
Imagine yourself at seventy years old, looking back at this time of your life. Will you be happy that when you were younger you took a chance, and did something that you really wanted to do? Or will you simply be old? Will you be looking back at an incomplete life, one that was unfinished artistically? Do you think that spending the money to put out your record will change your standard of living forever? I doubt that it will. But no amount of money will be able to change the regret you may feel if you are in your golden years looking back at a life that never was, simply because it was more important to you to spend your money on cigarettes, overpriced food, bad haircuts, alcohol, sports cars, etc.
The fact that you have a release at all, even one that may sell poorly, automatically puts you into a different category from everyone else that doesn't have one. A good analogy to an independent record release is college degree. Obtaining a degree at a university is no guarantee for success, but it does put you into the category of those that have degrees, and that can be an important stepping stone in certain careers. With your release you might be able to attract attention from people who will regard you with more seriousness simply because it's the calling card of a serious artist. Your release could be picked up for foreign or national distribution; the fact that it's in a finished form means that the distributor's financial commitment has been reduced. Your release may contain songs that other established artists would consider using on their own recordings. There is much to gain from releasing your music in a finished form.
We've begun to explore a few positive reasons in favor of releasing your own records, and I'd like to give you several more 'excuses' to start your project. It's important to get good reasons for doing something so there is no doubt in your mind when you begin to work.
Do you know how many bands sign the big recording contract only to find that they have signed away the right to make key artistic decisions? They would kill to have what you already possess, total and complete artistic freedom. They signed away the one thing that could make a difference between their music and every other record on the market. But then, the record companies know best, right? I mentioned earlier that if you want to put out a record of bleeps and blips and dog noises that you can; no contract will prohibit you from doing so. You now have the responsibility as well as the freedom to explore and experiment to your heart's content, as well as the final decision as to what goes out.
By financial advantage I do not mean instant wealth or easy profits. I mean that since you own the record free and clear that you are in the position to profit more from each record sold than if you had given the financial advantage to a record company. Bands can sell 250,000 copies of an album on a major label only to find that they have barely recouped recording and promotional costs. You can sell 1000 copies and make money. Sell 10,000 and you have almost bought your first townhouse. A good example: guitarist Steve Vai retained the financial advantages for his first independent release. He cleared a little over seven dollars per copy. At this point in his life, that record has added 3.5 million dollars to his bank account.
Some people still believe it is incredible that large labels can lose money on what seems like tremendous sales. Here is an excerpt from a December 26, 2001 Los Angeles Times article by Jeff Leeds,
"The September 2001 release of "Glitter," singer Mariah Carey's first album under her four-album, $80-million EMI deal signed in April 2001, has been a dud. Only about 2 million copies have been sold worldwide, leaving the company with an estimated $10-million loss on the album, including marketing costs. The conglomerate now is in talks to pay a settlement to Carey and bail out of the rest of the contract, sources said."
That should give you pause for reflection.
Along with making all the musical decisions, you can pick the album art, write the liner notes, choose the release date, and market the record any way you wish. You may not wish to take on all these jobs yourself, but you have the control to designate the tasks you feel would be best done by others, and retain the right to do those jobs you would be best at.
You will be able to gain a certain amount of notoriety within the community that you live by having a release. By putting it out yourself you are doing something of interest that a local feature columnist may find unusual and interesting enough to write about. You are in the position of getting press that musicians who simply play live music in clubs are not in.
Now, I want you to imagine yourself in the position of already having completed your release. Imagining the outcome in advance is a great way for your brain to really get clear on the results that you want to achieve. Imagine your goals in as much detail as possible; picture yourself looking at your new album and playing it for your friends. Also, think about how you will feel. Think of the satisfaction you will feel and the energy you will have when you realize what you have done. Picture yourself joining that elite group of musicians who have decided to commit their artistic vision to CD or cassette.
Continue to imagine yourself in the future. Completing your master tape and sending it off to the duplicator is a big step that you should feel a good deal of pride for having accomplished. Remember that for every musician or band that does it there are literally hundreds that do not. There is a certain amount of power that comes from having completed a tape because you are in a great position to do it again. See, now that you know what it takes to do the job, the unknowns have been removed, and you can approach a second release with a lot more confidence. Look at it this way -- in releasing your first record, a number of mistakes will be made. You will make song writing errors, you will make errors of judgment in the studio, you will make mistakes mastering your record, you will probably bungle aspects of the marketing or promotion of your release. Well, guess what? We learn an enormous amount from mistakes; in fact, we learn more from our mistakes than we learn from our successes. All the knowledge you will have gained from your first release can be used to make your second record even better. In the process of doing your second release, you will be gaining knowledge that will make your third release a killer. And so on. Picture a snowball rolling down a hill, getting bigger and bigger. That snowball represents your increasing confidence and knowledge. The best part is that you'll never hit the bottom of the hill.
Again, let me pose the question, if you don't do this record, will you be able to make the mistakes that will allow you to learn and get it right? We both know the answer to that. If you sit it out on the sidelines you will learn nothing and get nowhere. That's not going to happen to you.
With that in mind, what are the three most things you must have to complete your release within your lifetime?
Yes, records have been made without a written plan, but that doesn't mean than there wasn't a vision of what the finished product was going to sound like. In addition, since you are wearing a lot more hats to release your record independently, it is more critical to have outlined the tasks needed to make everything happen. In addition, it's just so much easier to know where you are headed if you've taken the time to think it through.
A plan does not have to be a major deal; you can begin by simply deciding the release date you would like, then work backwards. For example, let's say you want a record out by May 1, 1997. Write down, 'Release date:' followed by, May 1, 1997. In order to have the finished product you may find, after doing some research, you need to get the master tape to the duplicator one month before you want the records back. Write down, "Master tape to duplicator:" followed by, April 1, 1997. In order to complete the master tape you know you need to compile all mixed tracks in order on one tape, and you may decide that will take three weeks. Write down, "Assemble master tape:" followed by, March 8, 1997.
Prior to having a complete set of mixed tracks you may need to mix all the tracks for your album. You estimate you will have 12 tracks, so maybe you figure six weeks for mixing. Write down, "Mix 12 tracks:", followed by January 21, 1997. In order to mix the 12 songs you need to record all the multiple tracks. You may wish to break up the multi-track recording into basic track recording followed by overdub recording. You decide to allow three weeks for basic tracks and three weeks for overdubs. Write down, "Record overdubs for 12 tracks:", followed by January 1, 1997. Write down, "Record basic tracks for 12 songs:", followed by December 8, 1996. Then you realize you may need to write or find 12 songs to record. You may allow twelve weeks for that, so write down, "Obtain, write or outline 12 songs:", followed by September 8, 1996.
At this point you may step back and either adjust your release date forward, stretch out some of the tasks allotted time, or simply prepare yourself mentally and emotionally to start writing songs on September 8.
Now we have just outlined a basic plan for completing a release by May 1, 1997. Note that in many places I simply made estimates for things that are hard to estimate, especially when you have never done them. Go ahead and plan some time anyway. Just say to yourself, "I don't have a clue how much time to allow for mixing an unknown number of songs, but if I did know, then I would say about x weeks." Don't agonize over the numbers, and don't be afraid of being dead wrong. We need round figures, estimates, at this time, not actual deadlines. Remember what I said earlier about making mistakes; it's not if you will make them, you definitely will make them. But you will have a great experience, and what you learn from this plan will make the plan for the next album much easier to estimate.
You can also add refinements to your plan by including non-recording items. For example, let's say you plan to have a local artist design your album cover. It needs to be completed by April 1 to go to the duplicator. After talking it over with the artist, you feel six weeks is more than adequate time to have the art completed. Write down, "Meet with graphic artist to begin album cover:", followed by February 14, 1997. Another example might be, you need to join a performing rights organization like BMI or ASCAP in order to receive royalties on public performance of your work, and that it takes four weeks to process your application. You might want to become a member before your record goes to the duplicator, so you can have your affiliation printed on the album liner notes. Write down, "Send application to BMI:", followed by February 28, 1997.
It's not necessary to try to think of every last possible thing you may have to do on your project, but as you think of additional things you can add them to the plan where appropriate. Also, if you complete a task early, you may decide at that time to allocate more time to a successive task or move your whole release date forward. It's totally up to you. Your plan is your checklist and your road map rolled into one.
Once you have a plan that you are trying your best to follow, things can happen that cause you some concern. One is that you may be starting to run way behind on one step of the task. For example, if you allowed three months to write ten songs and after two months you only have three songs written, you know you have a problem. The key here is not to let this problem destroy your self-confidence, your confidence in the plan, or your overall goal of completing your release. Don't fall into the trap of justifying more delays by saying to yourself, "Well, you can't rush art, it either comes or it doesn't." Take a hard look at what you have been doing. Are you really giving the time it takes each week to write music? Have you been using your writing time for writing and not just endless jamming? Are you afraid to commit a song because you feel it could be better?
You may find that an adjustment in the overall length of the plan is sufficient. Other times, you may just use your original dates as a kick in the pants to motivate you to try your best to finish those last seven songs in one month. Keep in mind there are artists that have written ten songs in a week; they are not gods, they are men and women just like you. Another option you have is to select a few cover tunes and simply write fewer original songs.
The bottom line is that you are not to regard your efforts along the road to release as anything else but steps to accomplish. Steps that may take more or less time based upon a huge number of factors. You need to keep in mind during the difficult moments and the problems what your goal is and why you have it. Continuously take yourself into the future to revisit the feelings you will have once you complete the project. This will keep your self-confidence high and allow you to see past the problems of the day and keep your mind focused on the outcome. With your self-confidence intact you will be able to solve your immediate problems quite easily and be able to put them past you.
If you feel that supreme self-confidence has never been one of your natural attributes, I suggest that you enlist someone close to you to accept the role of coach/cheerleader. This person is responsible for helping you keep your confidence high by periodically reminding you that you are talented, that you are creative, and that you have something to say musically. Their role is not to help you solve your musical problems, only to help you restore your confidence. So the less they are involved in the making of the record, the better.
Also, you may wish to write down all your reasons for doing this record in advance. That way, you can pull the list of reasons out and read it over and over until you get the feeling of power and confidence by being clear of why you are doing this release in the first place.
Let's get down to brass tacks: all the confidence in the world coupled with a well-defined plan won't mean a thing if you cannot pay the duplicator or pay for studio time. You may look at the prospect of $2000-4000 in duplication costs and any studio time (if you do not record in a home studio), as insurmountable. Where will you get that money?
There was a time before you owned any instruments, before you even knew how to play, that if you were told that someday you would own several instruments or amplifiers or effects, or even a car, that you would have had to ask yourself the same question: where would I get the money for such things? Yet you have them. Your desire to have them, brought them to you. You made choices, sometimes unconsciously, as you went through life that brought to you the things you now possess.
You have made a big decision in your life: to go for it and finally make that record you have always wanted. Now it's also time to make some conscious, tough choices about where you will be spending your money over the next year. It may be that you cannot release the record when you had originally planned due to your financial situation, but take a hard look at where your money is currently going. Art does demand certain sacrifices, and one of them may be to channel money that is currently going to a fast car, or to a local pub, or to enriching tobacco companies into your music fund. If you find it hard to make the decision to cut back on some things, then stop and put yourself into the future again. See yourself at seventy years old. Did you regret making a few sacrifices in order to see your work released on CD? Was it really all that hard?
Some of you may in be financial situations where you know that even if you save every penny that you will still fall short. You may have no choice but to seek outside help. This is where it is extremely helpful to have your goals written down along with your reasons for wanting to achieve them. Any person you try to talk to about loaning you money for your project will be most impressed by your passion for the concept. You will not be able to impress anyone about your commitment to the project if you can't get excited when you talk about it. Your reasons need to be good ones; "I just like the idea of having my name on an album," just won't cut it. They will also be impressed if you have a written plan, like the one we detailed above, because it proves that you have thought through the details of the project and you have an estimated release date that you are trying to hit.
If you are not comfortable with planning the financial aspects of the project, someone who loans you money may just be the person to manage his or her own investment, by handling all your financial affairs for you. In turn you could offer a portion on the sales of the album to them for their service, as well as paying back the original loan. If it sounds like a partnership, it is, so you would need to choose this person carefully. Again, you are better off with someone who is not really musical, so that they know that their job is the money, and your job is the music.
It's important that you do not let the lack of money prevent you from starting with your plan to do your release. Sometimes you just need to accept on faith that somehow you will get the money when you need it. At worst, you might have a mixed or unmixed master tape, and you may be forced to stop. But at this point if you need to find financial support, you have another piece of evidence that says you are serious about releasing the record and that you only need a little capital to take it to the public.
So the three most important things to have to complete your release in your lifetime are a plan, self-confidence, and money. Everything else will just potentially make your release more successful. For example, take creativity and originality. If you create a truly original work or display great creativity on your record it will, in all likelihood, make your record better. On the other hand, you could go too far and take up enormous amounts of time in the studio trying to add more and more creative elements and waste a lot of time. Your release will not come out when you want it to. If you work hard and don't goof around when you have the opportunity to write or record, then you should have enough time to experiment with new sounds and ideas.
You will additionally experience a lot more freedom in this process if you think of this release as the first of many releases. Don't expect to make your final, grand, artistic statement with your first album. Think of it as your best work at a point in time, and as a stepping stone towards your second album. This will keep you away from the danger of obsession with perfectionism. Perfect albums are boring anyway. Complete the record and immediately begin planning the second album. Remember, if you don't finish it, then it doesn't exist.
I will be exploring additional aspects of releasing a record in my regular column, "The Power To Release". I chose the title deliberately; I hope to show you over time that all of you have the power to release a record if that is your number one desire.
Dan McAvinchey is a guitarist and composer living in Raleigh, NC.
He believes every musician or composer has the power to write, record and release their own music.
His 1997 CD release on Guitar Nine was entitled "Guitar Haus".
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