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From Exposure to Conversion - 'How to Create a Real Fan' - Part One

Steve Lawson recently posted an entry on understanding and measuring the path that fans take from simply listening to a song, all the way to ‘conversion’ into a fan.
That got me thinking about the Fan Funnel metaphor we use at ReverbNation.  I am looking for feedback from Music Think Tank readers on the steps below and the process we use to enable artists to essentially operate a “Fan Funnel”.  Our goal is to provide a framework for understanding the process, and to provide tools for the Artists to experiment with marketing and promotion efforts so they can see what ‘works’ for them.  Here is a crash course in what the FAN FUNNEL  is:

Step 1 - Exposure
People must be exposed to the content.  Once exposed, there is some probability that they will either move down the funnel, or pass the exposure along to friends who may move down the funnel. People who check out the content are called ‘LISTENERS’.  Certainly the quality of the content matters here.  Good songs and good videos will have a higher probability of moving folks down the funnel, but for ALL artists, increasing the number of exposures will have a positive impact on their raw conversion numbers.  As a result, we began to provide tools for increasing exposure for the artist (widgets that make it easy to post the music and let fans spread it, street team functions so that the Artist can encourage existing loyal fans to spread it for them, applications for social networks, etc).
Step 2 - Starting A Relationship With The Fan
Once a person is exposed to the content, it is imperative that the Artist offer up some way for them to identify themselves to the Artist as a ‘FAN’ of the music.  This could be going straight to a ‘conversion’ by letting them join the street team or providing them with a purchase option, but most often it simply manifests with a person joining the mailing list or just identifying themselves as a ‘FAN’ of the Artist.  We ensure that potential ‘FANS’ can do this with every exposure tool we offer.  Its critical that Artists OWN this ‘FAN’ relationship for themselves, and not RENT them from the various social networks on which the relationship was created – more on the importance of this later.
Step 3 - Converting FANS Into STREET TEAMERS
Once you OWN the relationship with the ‘FAN’, you have a ‘pipeline’ of folks that you can talk to, on your own terms, and in any way you wish.  This is critical to success by our observations, as this allows the Artist the most flexibility in the messaging they convey to their ‘FANS’.  The next logical step, beyond asking them to buy a product (ticket, song, t-shirt), is to ask them if they want to exchange loyalty or behavior for something of value to them (something you can give away that actually deepens the relationship with them, like a backstage pass).  This is the act of building a ‘STREET TEAM’.  Artists that have ‘STREET TEAMS’, all else equal, find much more success than those that do not.  In addition, these Artists have the ability to execute marketing and promotional programs for less money than those that do not possess a ‘STREET TEAM’, as they work for non-monetary items like being put on a guest list, etc.
Step 4 - Getting Fans To Promote You
Now that you have some ‘STREET TEAMERS’, the next step is to give them tasks to do that promote your music or add more ‘FANS’.  This can take many forms, but usually involves prompting them with the right tools and clear instructions on where to post your content on the web in order to help you (something you need to OWN the relationships to do properly).  Many Artists have an untapped base of extremely loyal fans who have never been engaged to actively help them grow their popularity.  This is a wasted marketing asset.  The most successful Artists that we have observed tap into their fans at least once per month to help them spread content, recruit new fans, or promote a specific product (we provide tools to help them do this).  You are probably thinking that this can only help established Artists, but we have seen the power of this tool for even the newest Artists, and it is POWERFUL.  Remember, Artists with smaller followings often have a familiar relationship with their fans (read: friends and family) where established Artists only have an affinity relationship.  It is often the case that these close relationships can be the seed crystal that these Artists need to grow from obscurity to local recognition in their area.
That is the ‘FAN FUNNEL’ in a nutshell, and it is the framework with which we encourage Artists to view their business.  We provide ‘FAN FUNNEL’ stats directly to every Artist that uses our site in hopes that they will use it as the framework for understanding how to approach the challenges they face at growing their popularity.  It is based on the empirical evidence we have around the things that make a ‘successful’ Artist.  Soon we will be able to incorporate the actual sales data that come back from digital retailers like iTunes, closing the loop on how the activities of the ‘FAN FUNNEL’ impact real business objectives like selling music.
But the ‘FAN FUNNEL’, even as it grows in scope, is deficient in some respects.  It does not take into account the relative value of your content above other Artists (comparing you to standards in your genre), nor does it factor in a few other things of critical importance to understanding how you are doing, overall, at growing your fan base in both breadth and depth (especially depth).  For this, we developed an overall metric of the Artists’ ability to develop and nurture fan relationships called ‘BAND EQUITY’.  I will post a follow-up entry on how we look at this concept, but I’d love your feedback on the FAN FUNNEL in the meantime.


Digital music can’t be marketed, it can only be found.

Click here to read the update to this post.

With the exception of marketing music to naïve teenagers that consume anything that’s fed to them on FM radio, it’s becoming impossible to market music to people that know what they like.

In the old days, mystery, intrigue, celebrity, and real or imagined bullshit benefits could be baked into the product and into the packaging.  Record labels profited wildly by being experts at it, but digital music has changed all this.

Music is now the most naked product on Earth.  Music sits upon the shelf unwrapped, raw and void of packaging.  Consumers can fully try it before they buy it; they can take it home unmolested; and they can pay for it randomly, or not at all.  I can’t think of another product that is so fully exposed and vulnerable to quick and precise, pre-purchase decision-making as music.  You click.  You listen.  You buy.  It doesn’t get any quicker or more precise than that.  

I fully believe, of the five billion tracks sold on iTunes to date, a billion (20% or FAR more) have been sold to consumers that have NEVER seen the artist, have NEVER visited the artist’s website or MySpace page, and have NEVER had any interaction with the artist…other than exposure to a thirty second clip.  A billion(s) of iTunes purchase decisions have been driven off simple recommendation algorithms (those that liked X, also liked Y).  

Fortunately for artists that make great songs, the same naked qualities that make music impossible to market, also make music the easiest product in the world to recommend.  Once again, I can’t think of another product that has the viral qualities that are inherent in music.  It’s the only product where the entire product (the MP3) can be easily attached to the recommendation.  Try doing that with chicken nuggets.

In my mind (no jokes please), the greatest unintended consequence of being stuck with a product that can’t be marketed, and can only be recommended, will be the overwhelming desire to seek brutal feedback and rapid validation.  You can no longer say: it’s a marketing problem…when marketing was not an option.  The only questions worth pondering are: does this song suck?  If so, how can I make it better?  Nothing else really matters in the recommendation-driven world of naked digital music.


Measuring 'depth of interaction' or "you can't eat web-hits"

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we measure the depth of interaction that we have with our audience. So often we get obsessed with hit-counters, relying on services like StumbleUpon to drive traffic to our sites, or blogging about ‘buzz’ topics in the hope that people find us.

The problem with this “measurement” is that it doesn’t take into consideration scale or depth. There’s a ‘scale of interaction’ people travel on towards us - from no knowledge of what we do to joining our street-team and printing their own fan t-shirts when we’ve sold out of the ones we had printed. Stumbleupon traffic often doesn’t even lift people to the level of ‘name recognition’. I was recently interviewed for a podcast by Penny Jackson of the BBC. The podcast is hosted by The Creative Coffee Club, part of the Institute Of Creative Technologies at De Montfort University, and we talked in depth about the idea of using social media to curate conversations with our audience, rather that seeing the web as yet another scatter-shot broadcast medium. You can listen to the post cast here.

One of the problems musicians often have with social media is the idea that ‘talking to our audience is what we do until we achieve ‘proper’ succes’ - working on the assumption that we’re all heading towards riches and limos. Which is a bit like buying lottery tickets as part of your music strategy - it’s not worth planning for, and generally messes up your life because of the baggage that comes with it.

So I’m definitely looking at ways to continue talking directly with my audience, while increasing both the size of it and the depth of interaction.

How do you measure that depth of interaction? I’d love to hear your thoughts…


Selling music by solving a specific need

(Someone asked me how they could sell more of their instrumental music. My answer:)

For instrumental music, it sells best if you tie it into a purpose.

Massage music sells very well.
Yoga music sells very well.
Instrumental Christmas music sells very well.
… all because they’re selling more than just harmony, melody, arrangements : they’re selling something that non-music people find useful. They solve a problem.

Different example:

Imagine two candlemakers.

One says, “My candles have only the finest wax with the best quality wick!

The other says, “These are prayer candles. Light one whenever you pray.

There are dozens of people who will buy the first.

But there are millions who will buy the second.


Does EMI uniquely understand that enabling and enhancing the music experience is where the money is?

Over the last six months, EMI hired Doug Merrill, formerly VP of Engineering at Google.  Rumor has it that EMI is selling off their recorded music business.  And now, EMI has hired Cory Ondrejka one of the founders and the computer science guy behind the popular virtual world called Second Life.

I believe that EMI has uniquely discovered that there is a paradigm shift underway, and they don’t want to be left behind.  The days for selling recorded music are numbered (you heard that before).  The competition for consumer mindshare is going to be between those that can provide the best music experience for the money.

Think outside the box and clear the slate.  Go down to the phone store and use the gorgeous Cover Flow interface built into the iPhone.  Look at Microsoft’s Surface computing platform.  Spend a couple of hours looking into Same Sonic Science (music information retrieval).  Try out Sony’s Play Station 3.  Consider the adoption of broadband in the home and the adoption of 3G wireless technologies.  Play the new versions of Halo.

It doesn’t take a futurist to see where this is all going. Record labels that are not in the user experience / user interface business will be disintermediated (forced to become marginalized middlemen) by those that are.  

Here’s a user interface that can be built today.  Forget looking for songs using genre, forget charts, and forget simple sounds-like lookups.  Discovering songs like this sucks.  Take any ten thousand songs and combine it with any high-resolution landscape image.  Break down the songs into mathematical equivalents, and using Same Sonic Science, divide them into 100 buckets by similarity.  Break down the image and logically map the buckets of songs onto fragments of the image using artificial intelligence.
Touch the sunny segment of the image and listen.
You want more sun, move your hand into the sun.
Touch the water in the image and listen.
Touch the dark shades in the image and listen.
Listen to the blue sky.
Cover flow to the next image.  Try an urban landscape.
More your hand over the image.
Zoom in, zoom out.
You want harsh, touch harsh.  You want soft, touch soft.
You want to get complicated, go into a virtual world.
Hang this on the wall in your living room using a 60” touch screen TV.
Or, just use it in your iPhone.
Pay a small subscription fee or deal with the strategically placed ads that appear.

Yeah, some of this is a bit out there.  But the reality is way closer than some people think.  The hardest part to get your arms around is the part that uses the Same Sonic Science.  Same Sonic Science enables ANY song to go into the system, and EVERY song to come out SOMEPLACE within SOMEONE’S “landscape”.  Subjective terms like “great” and “suck” are sensitively mapped into the user interfaces, which learn the tastes and preferences of their users.  There may be only one person that wants to listen to fingernails on the chalkboard, but if it’s music to his ears, then he will find it.

The implications of what I just described for any company in the music business are huge.  What’s smarter, investing in recorded music (if you are not an artist) or investing in the music experience?  It seems like EMI may know the answer.  If you are one of the major labels, don’t you ask yourself…self, how do we leapfrog Apple?  


Build a Community to Build a Music Business - What I Learned From Cliff Ravenscraft



For the past two years, I’ve been immersing myself in a totally new world, online and off.  My new online world has taken me to places I never knew existed. Meetups, Second Life, the Blogosphere, Twitter, and to PodCamps.  And I’ve learned some amazing things.  And I’ve met some wonderful people, many of whom are friends today.

At this year’s Podcamp NYC, I met the delightful Cliff Ravenscraft, and his energy, enthusiasm and kindness were nothing short of infectious. Cliff gave up his day job in the family insurance business and he now he makes a living completely on podcasting and consulting.  Cliff runs GSPN, which is a network of 17 Podcasts.  The main podcast is about the TV show, Lost. And he has tens of thousands of loyal listeners who tune into his podcasts regularly. Podcasting has changed the course of Cliff’s life completely since he’s become involved.  

Cliff and I have very little in common and in the real world we probably never would have met (He’s from Kentucky, for goodness sake! And I have never watched Lost) But all kidding aside, we share a very similar philosophy on the merits of social networking and why it’s so powerful.

He gave an inspiring talk at Podcamp NYC and what he said has been with me for weeks and I wanted to share it with you.  Here is what he spoke about.

How To Build a Community Online

Cliff spoke specifically about how to build an audience for a podcast but I believe that is VERY similar to building an audience around your music and yourself as an artist.

Core Purpose

Behind Cliff and GSPN is a core purpose:
To inspire, educate and be in community.  

From his core purpose, he does exactly that.  He could never have made such a popular podcast without his community of listeners.

If you do not have a core purpose it’s like trying to navigate an unfamiliar place without a map.  Your core purpose is the reason you make music… is it to inspire?  Make a difference?  To empower?  To connect?  To Help?  To Heal? Choose a verb that motivates you.

Then what is your desired outcome?
To connect?  To bring peace? To create community?  

Here’s mine for inspiration:
To support and empower visionaries to further their careers.

You Cannot Pay Anyone to Build Your Online Community

Your community and the connections that you make in it has to be a very authentic thing that comes out of a core purpose, like his, but people can be shown the answers and the avenues on how to build relationships.  I think you can pay someone to help you find the right people to connect with but in the end the true expression has to come from you.

Community Building is a Time Investment
Building a real community that supports you as an artist takes time, effort, and skills and you have to build it one person at a time. The more transparent you are and the more you share, the more people will be open to you Cliff says that when he shares himself and when he shows love to others, he appeals to people on another, deeper level.  This is key. Take the investment of time.

Listen to Your Community - It’s About Them; Not About You
This is critical – listen to your community. They have voices and they want to speak too.  Make it easy for them to speak to you. Leave a feedback number or ask they to post feedback on your Facebook forum (this saves having to answer individual emails). Invite feedback in every episode.  Include your e-mail address and respond to absolutely everyone that responds to you.  Read the e-mails in your podcast or share them on your blog, get people engaged.  

Cliff Recommends:
K7 -
J2 -
Talkshoe -

Be Consistent
Be consistent in your communications. If you are releasing a podcast, writing a blog, or updating your Twitter account (or anything you’re doing in the new media space).
Also, communicate when you are going to be there - be regular and consistent about it, weekly or daily or monthly.

So, there you have it, amazing community building advice from Cliff of GSPN, someone who I never would have had the pleasure of meeting had he not come to his first trip to New York City.  

Cliff: It was a real pleasure to meet you and I was very, very touched by who you are in the world. Please keep playing huge!

The moral of the story is, people are out there with similar interests and we as humanity have a very deep need to connect with one another.  

What are you waiting for? Go make your connections.


Reselling music, the value of music


Let’s say you bought some tunes at the iTunes Store. DRM free. You don’t really like that music and want to resell it to people who like it. How much is it worth? Same price? Less? Nothing?

How much is a digital download worth when you resell it? Think about that for a moment.

(CC-BY foto: jenn_jenn)



The Record Industry Innovation Prize 2009


Here’s an idea: rather than cripple online music startups with royalties, or burden them with equity arrangements, why not give them a prize for for doing the one thing the major record industry has failed to achieve for itself: make money out of music online?

In Wired Magazine’s Listening Post, Eliot Van Buskirk asked the question ‘Should Music Startups Give Equity to Copyright Holders?’. The question was prompted by a white paper (PDF) by MCPS/PRS chief economist Will Page and PhD student David Touve, which proposes that instead of charging royalty fees to innovative web based startups, they should offer an equity arrangement.

In other words, give the startups the option of letting the record industry own part of your business instead of charging licensing fees.

It’s an interesting idea designed to get past the dilemma that music startups either ignore copyright (and live in fear of lawsuits) in their early stages, or they are entirely crippled by it.

Click to read more ...


Go Straight to the Fan!


A recent blog post by Bob Lefsetz echoes the direct “focus on fans” mantra I’ve been preaching for years. Here’s an excerpt that addresses the age-old need artists have to “get the word out there”:

“Realize the focus should not be on the media, but the fan. Just like the Internet rid the music business of the need to manufacture and ship, this same Net allows an act to forgo interacting with the media, to go straight to the fan. You must go straight to the fan.”

Here’s another gem I highly endorse:

“A Website is no longer just a repository of information, it’s the front door to your fan club. You may be a musician, but second to that, you’re running a club. You have to spread the word on your music, you have to create demand for your tour.”

That’s right. You’re no longer simply an artist. As Andrew pointed out so well here, you’re also a community builder, a party planner, and a social director all rolled into one.


P.S. I’m not suggesting you should ignore the media. The real lesson here is that all of your marketing efforts should be for the sole purpose of attracting fans and building relationships with them.



It's kind of not ABOUT you

I went to a blogging conference in Chicago the other week. I learned a lot about the business of blogging - how to attract an audience, how to monetise your website (see all the ads all over Music Think Tank? No. Obviously.) and how to rank more highly on the Google searches. All really useful and interesting stuff for someone who does what I do. Oddly, there was almost nothing about how to write - but it wasn’t really that sort of conference.

However, I guess the one ‘takeaway’ point is that when you blog - and if you’re involved in marketing at all (hint: you are), then you should be blogging -  it’s important to remember that your blog’s not about you.

I mean - of course it’s about you - but it’s not about you. 

Click to read more ...


Aging with music

First of all, I feel I should apologise. I’ve kind of been like an absent parent with Music Think Tank recently, and it seems to have grown up an awful lot in my absence. Mostly I’ve been speaking about this kind of stuff in real life and doing a lot of writing and the background invisible work - but I’m back now, and like any parent that abandons his child for a period of time, I’m going to assuage my guilt by showering gifts - or at least blog posts.

I’ve been thinking a lot about music consumption recently, and the ways in which the music industries understand music consumption. It occurs to me that a lot of thought goes into the teen audience, and what will attract their attention.

Historically, this is good thinking. Teenagers and the popular music industry go hand in hand. Rock and Roll was at the birth of the teen phenomenon when the first wave of babyboomers wanted to distinguish themselves as something other than just slightly smaller and more youthful versions of their parents. Performers from Jerry Lee Lewis to Marilyn Manson have understood that the best way to appeal to the teen crowd is to at least alienate - if not terrify and mortally offend - their parents.

Click to read more ...


Using a Momentum-Toward-Celebrity Strategy for Marketing Music

On the first version of this post, I left it up to other “thinkers” to connect the dots.  That didn’t exactly go as planned, so here’s version two with more information.  I plan to delete the first version soon.  I saved it so people could copy over comments if they wish.  Everyone’s comments helped me to create this version; I think there’s a blogging strategy that comes out of this.

Food or the lead singer’s sweaty t-shirt.  I’ll take the shirt…
Jake Halpern writes in the Wall Street Journal (Oct. 4th, 2007 “Britney Spears, Breaking News”) that our need to stargaze [celebrities] may be primal.  Halpren goes on to point out a study done at the Center For Cognitive Science at Duke University that shows that monkeys will choose to view images of other dominant monkeys instead of eating…if given the choice.  

This reminds me of the influence that celebrity has over consumer decision-making when it comes to music.  Songs don’t sound better and artists don’t get sexier when their songs make it to radio, but that doesn’t stop the average consumer from getting hot and hormonal, or standing in long lines without food, or buying tickets instead of…food, for any artist that’s in heavy rotation on pop radio.  

The more momentum toward becoming a celebrity, the more “dominant” an artist appears, the higher the level of commitment any artist obtains from fans.  Sadly enough, the opposite seems to be true.  Momentum toward becoming a celebrity (or not) is like virtual Viagra; it generates ups and downs for every artist.

It seems to me, that record labels are experts at exploiting the (primal) need, the desire and the want in fans to connect to artists that have momentum toward becoming celebrities, and that perhaps every artist should consider consciously creating a Momentum-Toward-Celebrity strategy as part of his/her marketing plan.

What is a Momentum-Toward-Celebrity Strategy?
I’ve been selling and marketing things for twenty years.  A Momentum-Toward-Celebrity Strategy is something I never considered until I began observing, learning and practicing the art of marketing music.  In fact, I wish someone had sat me down and said “look forget about what think you know about marketing, you need to make sure you have a Momentum-Toward-Celebrity strategy that begins on day one.  Cars and computers don’t become celebrities, but artists do.  People get passionate about people that demonstrate momentum”.  

Here’s what I think: a Momentum-Toward-Celebrity strategy is:

  • First, it’s simply acknowledging that you need momentum toward becoming some sort of a celebrity to maximize your promotion efforts on every level; no matter how big or small your budget or fan pool is.
  • Second, it’s the conscious act of communicating momentum.
  • Third, it’s planning beyond next month.  I believe you need to plan now, and then work like hell to accomplish the things you plan to communicate as momentum over the next 12 to 14 months.
  • Fourth, your slips into reverse momentum should be minimal (frequency) and barely measurable (the occurrences).

Momentum-Toward-Celebrity - The Things People Measure
There are a thousand little things that I could point to, that you could do and then report as momentum.  However, for this post, I am going to list some general/broad ideas for you to think about.

  • Find known people from the industry that fans can Google and/or recognize.  Simply ask these people to advise you, and if you can list them and their short bios on your blog.
  • Are you playing the same songs, at the same places you were playing at last year?  Continually upgrade the places you play at and the music you perform.
  • Find cool sponsors to support you, even if it’s in the smallest way possible.  Appearing as though your financial support is growing is part of demonstrating momentum.  
  • Constantly upgrade.  Some people are natural recruiters, they know how to attract and convince people to help them CONTINUALLY upgrade everything about their presentation, including their music.
  • Obtain reportable momentum data from every site possible. (Important: Read next section on Song Quality.)
NOTE: Those of you that are great at constantly upgrading everything and everyone around you, have to be skilled at keeping everyone happy, especially when you don’t have cash.  There are ways of doing this with integrity, and there are ways of doing this without leaving the people that supported you out in the cold.  Email me if you need advice in this area.    

Momentum-Toward-Celebrity and Song Quality
The way pop music is marketed today, you may get the impression that momentum toward celebrity is more important than the quality of your music.
simplecircleA.jpg    simplecircleB.jpg
The circle diagram on the left represents what happens today.  Song quality is the inner circle and the core, and everything outside of the core represents all of the other activity that adds up to success.  Although song quality is proportionately smaller, it’s still the core and a necessary component to success.

The circle diagram on the right with the larger song quality core represents what I believe the near future will look like.  Song quality will be the single most important factor that drives your momentum toward celebrity status.

What’s the difference between today and tomorrow?  Social networks built around music, recommendation engines and data analysis (of iTunes data for example) will make it extremely difficult to fake momentum.  Decisions will not be driven by a couple of guys working at a record label.  Decisions will be based upon the data that demonstrates your momentum.  Consumers will act upon this data, record labels will act upon this data, and programming directors at radio stations will act upon this data.  In addition, every bit of data you acquire, such as a win on OurStage or numerous recommendations on Aime Street, become your reportable (and observable) momentum.

Communicating Your Momentum-Toward-Celebrity
First and foremost, start a blog.  Websites were cool in 2004.  A blogsite is the way to go now.  Learn about RSS and use your blog to communicate your momentum.  Feeds from your blog can be reposted on Facebook and MySpace and on other social networks.  For advice on how to report momentum to the press, I will recommend Ariel Hyatt or Bob Baker, both are also Music Think Tank authors.  Also, Justin Boland (AudibleHype) and Julian Moore (Frontend) are bloggers and artists that think about communicating momentum and gorilla marketing every day. 

Does Momentum-Toward-Celebrity Matter to 1,000 Fans?
Different people have different ideas of what celebrity means.  Furthermore, everyone evaluates momentum differently.  What seems like great progress to some, may seem like old news to others.  If you are pursuing a small group of loyal and dedicated fans, I want to ask you this question: if a small pond is all you need, do you ever want to appear as a shrinking fish in the little pond?  I agree that your music may become timeless to your true fans, and that your lack of celebrity status may never matter again, but what if you are just starting out, isn’t momentum toward celebrity still important to establishing true fans?  Pleases be mindful of the importance I assigned to song quality when answering this question in a comment.

Commenting on Momentum-Toward-Celebrity
I would love to hear from people that have more experience at marketing music than I do.  I have given a name (Momentum-Toward-Celebrity) to, and perhaps oversimplified a component of artist/music marketing that deserves more attention from someone that has a list of success stories that they can point to.  If you have more ideas/examples on achieving the appearance of momentum toward celebrity, please leave them in a comment.



The Myth of "Almost Zero" Recording Costs

There’s a myth being perpetuated these days that recording costs are approaching zero.
For example, in his popular article “Survival Strategies for Emerging Artists” David Byrne states:

Artists used to need the labels to bankroll their recordings. Most simply didn’t have the $15,000 (minimum) necessary to rent a professional studio and pay an engineer and a producer. For many artists — maybe even most — this is no longer the case. Now an album can be made on the same laptop you use to check email.

That last sentence sure sounds exciting, and I’ve read similar statements by other people. But it isn’t really true.

I think it’s fair to say that most musicians today could make a decent demo-quality recording themselves for a negligible amount of money. But to suggest that most artists can create a professional quality, commercially viable recording at almost no cost is misleading. Making a great recording that can capture people’s attention in a very competitive music environment still requires a reasonable investment of money and time.

Digital technology has certainly given artists unprecedented access to most of the hardware and software they need to record and produce music. These days you do not need label money just to access recording equipment. But let’s be clear on one point: your favorite artists are not churning out finished albums solely from the laptops they use to check email. You should not expect to either. Depending on the type of music, an investment of $5,000 to $20,000 will buy most musicians a very capable home studio. Over time, you will probably need (or want) to buy additional hardware and software for your studio, but $5k - $20k should do the trick to start. In the scheme of things, that’s a pretty modest investment and well within reach of the average person.

Of course, the tools themselves are just part of the story. How you use them is just as important, if not more so.

Creating recorded music is an art in and of itself. I’ve heard many indie acts that sound absolutely incredible live, but whose albums fail to capture the magic they produce on stage. Despite having excellent songs and phenomenal musical talent, their recorded music falls a bit flat. I’m not referring to cases where something is obviously wrong with the musical performances or the recording technique. I’m talking about albums where everything sounds well done, but ultimately it doesn’t move you or excite you or grab you as a listener. Why does this happen? I think it can usually be attributed to shortcomings in one or more of the following areas:

Engineering/tracking. Where you place microphones, the volume of your instruments, the size and shape of your room, the combination of gear you use and the order of your signal chain will affect the sound of each instrument you record. Good engineers understand each of these factors and are able to get the best results out of the equipment and recording environment at hand. Seemingly slight differences in the tone and character of each sound you capture can have a big impact on how the recording sounds overall.

Production. A producer is essentially the creative director for a recording. Producing involves determining the musical arrangement of each song; deciding what elements are needed at each moment in a song; deciding when particular elements need to be re-recorded, re-worked or eliminated; and coaxing the best performances possible out of each musician. It may also involve digitally editing the performances of certain instruments as needed. Arrangements that are too cluttered, combinations of instruments/sounds that sonically interfere with each other, arrangements that fail to emphasize the strengths of the artist, or elements of the track being slightly out of sync with each other can all cause a recording to fall short.  

Mixing. Mixing involves two main tasks: balancing the relative volume of each instrument in the song appropriately, and adjusting the frequencies and panning of individual instruments so that they each sit in their own sonic space without interfering with each other. The differences between a mediocre mix, a good mix and a great mix can appear subtle to the untrained ear. But the quality of your mix will greatly influence how listeners psychologically perceive and respond to your music.

Mastering. This is the final step in the recording process. Mastering involves adjusting the overall EQ, compression and volume of each song. The goal of mastering is to not only make each song sound as good as possible on its own, but also to make sure all the songs on an album sound consistent in terms of volume and sonic character. High-quality mastering typically requires a perfectly tuned room, specialized high-end equipment and an experienced mastering engineer. A good mastering job can be the difference between an album that sounds amazing and one that sounds dull, harsh, or unexciting.

If you really want your recordings to be on par with the pros, all of the above tasks must be done well. And doing them well typically requires years of practice and experience. So if you or your bandmates don’t have experience yourself in any one of these areas, you’ll need to find people who do. At the very least, you’ll probably need to hire a legitimate mastering engineer. (Don’t be fooled by  “auto-mastering” software or producers/mixers who claim they can master your project too – mastering is a very specialized skill that few people can do well.)

Hiring good engineers, producers, mixers or mastering engineers doesn’t necessarily require outrageous sums of money… but it’s not zero. It’s difficult to say generally what these services will cost, because they vary widely depending on many factors. However, in my experience:

  • Mastering will typically run you anywhere from $100 - $500 per track, assuming there are no major problems with your mix.
  • Hiring an experienced mixer can cost a couple hundred dollars per song all the way up to several thousand dollars per song.
  • Engineer and producer fees vary quite a bit, but they can easily add up to several thousand dollars or more for an entire album.

Has digital technology lowered the costs of recording and created new opportunities for independent artists? Absolutely. But if you are serious about your music and your career, you still have to do some spending in both cash to buy equipment and/or hire professional help, and in sweat to develop your own engineering, producing or mixing skills over time. It will be very hard to survive as a professional artist if you don’t.


If I had a record label, would you be signed to it?

I never liked the idea of having a record label, because you’re too deeply invested into something you don’t control.

So if I were to have a label, my decision on who to sign wouldn’t be decided just by the quality of the music. There are plenty of people with great music but destructive work-habits or an unsustainable approach to their career.

To confidently invest in an artist (as a label), I’d want to see:

  • every song has been absolutely improved repeatedly - every note/syllable crafted to be the best it can be
  • vocal performance is not just perfect but head-turning, striking
  • arrangement is everything it can be to bring out song/vocal
  • arrangement offers a new idea to the world, and not just the usual paint-by-numbers
  • photos/image are striking and amazing, and capture the essense of the music
  • live show is so entertaining that even a deaf person would enjoy it
  • band has been around, recording and gigging, for at least 2 years
  • artist has done this for a few years and still believes that this is their real calling in life, regardless of external rewards (or total lack of)
  • band members don’t need unreasonable amounts of money to perform (can perform profitably)
  • band can entertain a crowd without props or big sound system (in-store appearances)
  • off-stage persona is sustainable (stamina, dealing with fans well, etc)
  • no addicts - to anything
  • an unflappably healthy attitude to the immense amount of work it really takes to be successful at anything

And so you see why I’ll never have a label. Who could possibly fit this list? Garth Brooks? Dave Grohl?

I haven’t talked to any labels about this yet, but I wonder what their perspective would be. I’m friends with Jac Holzman who discovered the Doors and obviously didn’t regret it, despite Jim Morrison being the opposite of everything on my list. I should ask him. (Jac, not Jim.)