A friend of mine asked this question in an open forum recently. In an era of Tik tok and short attention span theater, is putting $10k or more into an EP or full length still a smart move? Some of the responses were interesting to read, but I feel like none of the suggestions put the question in the broader context necessary to answer it completely.
As someone who’s spent over 65k hours in studios making records over the last 31 years, I have seen what works and what most assuredly does not on multiple levels. If you’ve worked with me in the last ten years, none of this will be new to you. If you haven’t, strap in for a lot of info to come at ya fast. I’m not gonna sell you a course or an e-book. There is no mailing list and please don’t reach out to me for more info.
There’s no doubt about it, if you make a decent record it will be the most expensive manufactured item on your merch table. T-shirts, koozies, and hats have a much better ROI in strict monetary terms. For you DIY-At-Home kids, remember you still have to add in the cost of the equipment you purchased as part of the budget. Software, hardware, are all part of the big picture. A few people still thankfully buy music purely to support indie artists, but face it: almost nobody buys music anymore.
How are you supposed to make money selling a record?
Is that really the right question to ask?
Here’s a hint: NO.
There are way easier ways to make money, and most of them are even legal. No, the point of making a record should have making money as a distant 3rd place behind:
1.) Spreading your music to as many people possible.
2.) Getting better. This includes getting better as a writer/performer, getting better as a creator for social media, getting better at running your music business and creating a brand.
If you do the above two things, the money will come. It’ll come in the form of more ticket sales, better live guarantees, more merch sold, and more streams across all platforms. You know, income.
“Can’t I do all of number two without spending a bunch of money on a record?”
Once again: NO
You play 15 live shows a month? Great! How many do you listen back to? Pro athletes watch game films continually to learn and get better. What’s your version of that? “I rehearse a lot.” That’s also great. You know it’s entirely possible to perfectly learn a bad song, right? Who’s challenging you to do better? Get outside your comfort zone? Are you objectively capable of even doing that?
If you’ve read this far, I promise I’ll stop asking questions that all have NO as the answer.
I’d like to think I know how to do my job well. Ask any artist who has worked with me on a record in the last 20 years. They got better. Better at writing. Better at singing. Better at playing. That’s not unique to me, by the way, making a record the right way can do that.
Hiring a great producer is key. Honestly, a great producer recording in someone’s house will usually make a better record than a recording made in a million dollar facility with only an engineer present. It’s critically important to understand that distinction:
Professional recording studios are there to make sure you have a great recording. Producers are supposed to make sure you have a great record. They’ll challenge your idea, your arrangement, your choice of keys, and your style. They’ll ask the questions you never thought to ask, and they’ll uncover flaws you secretly wished nobody would notice. I’ve worked with some great producers that didn’t know to operate studio equipment, didn’t know music theory, and weren’t songwriters. They understood the artist’s vision, though, and they added objectivity to the process.
Still, a great artist and a great producer is no guarantee of financial success. You’ve got to do the rest of the work. You’ve got to connect the dots. Be accessible and know your audience, open new markets, promote online and on radio.
One more important note:
I wouldn’t recommend that anyone do a full length at this point. Do EP’s and release a new song every 6-8 weeks to stay in the proverbial social sunlight. Full lengths cost twice as much and take twice as long. Doing an EP let’s you move swiftly and change your creative course if need be. I still produce full lengths, but I try to talk people out of it for the reasons above.
Think about that for a minute. People want to give me MORE money to do more work, and 8 times out of 10 I’ll turn it down unless the body of work demands the full album format. Look, 100,000 new tracks are added to Spotify daily. You’ve gotta break through the noise, and you do it by just being better. Personally, I'm no longer interested in pouring my heart and soul into making a product that nobody hears, so I've become much more selective with the artists I work with. When I get a call or a referral, I'm gonna look at your gig calendar, your social media and your past efforts before I'll even listen to the first demo. A lot of people don't get called back.
This is why making a record is such an important part of a legitimate music business.