Since putting out my articles on why bands should record and other studio-related issues, I’ve been contacted by a few people here and elsewhere who have already recorded albums, or are midway through the process, but have no idea what to do next. Some of these musicians have released their albums months ago, and have complained to me that they are sitting on their Bandcamp pages not doing very much a poor return on months of effort. So let’s talk about how to get an album to work for you.
1. Decide well in advance what you want it to do for you
This may seem ridiculously obvious, but a great number of bands and musicians have no idea what they want out of their music. Why are you playing music? What changes do you want your music to make in your life? Do you want your music to make you rich, make you famous, take you on tour, incite a political revolution, impress the opposite sex, be a way into the industry, or just be a fun and creatively satisfying hobby?
An album can do all those things and more, but you have to have to know what you want. It’s hard to sympathise with someone who complains that their album “isn’t getting them anywhere” when they’ve no idea where they want it to get them to. Once you have seriously thought about what your music should achieve, then the decision-making process for your album (and many other things) will become much simpler.
And you need to do this as soon as possible preferably before you record a single note. The real-life aims you have for your music will affect everything, from the kind of music you write, the way you record it, the way you produce it, the way you distribute it and the way you sell it (or whether you sell it at all). Trying to shoehorn existing recordings to do something that they were not designed to do is way more frustrating, and usually much less successful, than creating music with a certain aim in mind, but for many musicians it ends up being the only option. Don’t let that happen to you.
2. Don’t think “or,” think “and”
I’ve written elsewhere on the state of the music business. It’s never been so confusing and fragmented. Whilst there are opportunities there, perhaps more than there ever have been, especially for smaller artists, the myriad of options available make decision making difficult and intimidating, and the destruction of old certainties makes it hard to get good, up-to-date and relevant guidance.
But what I can say is that it’s not a case of choosing the best route. It’s a case of choosing as many as you possibly can, all at the same time. 20 years ago, a band could make enough money just by selling its album in record shops. Not any more. You can still make money doing that, just not very much. The same goes for most other methods of selling. But if you also sell from your website, from Amazon, from iTunes, in physical format, in digital, in streaming, in soundtracks, at gigs, at festivals and every opportunity that comes up, then those individual streams of income can add up to serious money. It’s more effort than the old model, but the good news is that you are in control and you don’t need a record label taking 95% of your money before you can get your hands on any cash.
3. Understand that the album is part of your musical package
Following on from point 2, the biggest error you can make is thinking of your album as an isolated package. In fact, going back to point 1, you will notice that I said you need to think about what you want from your music not just your album. Those aims and goals for your music apply to everything you do as a musician, not just your recordings. An album is just one wheel on the musical vehicle that will take you where you want to go be that riches, fame, fun, artistic satisfaction or anything else.
The album sits alongside your live performances, radio play, touring, merchandising, press, fan clubs, social media and a dozen other things that will drive your music forward. The important thing is to understand that all of these things will contribute to each other. A band that tours will sell more albums, and a band that sells albums will go on better tours, and so on for every combination of those things. So to exclude one of those things from the things that you do doesn’t just preclude you from progress in that area, it will weaken your ability to do each and every one of those other things. So a band that doesn’t have a full album will have less to sell at gigs, less to play on the radio, less to tour in support of, less merch (CDs are the most important merch item by far), less for journalists to write about and less for its fans to talk about and get excited about. A band that doesn’t tour will likewise weaken its hand in every other area and so on for each of those things. As with point 2, it’s not a case of choosing between these things, it’s a case of doing all of them at once.
Here’s a useful exercise to do. From the list above, write down how each one benefits each of the others. Then you will start to realise what you lose by not doing even one of those things. For example, for just Social Media:
Having a Social Media presence benefits:
Live performances higher attendance through informing people about gigs
Radio Play organise your fans to request that stations play your music
Touring go to the right places because you know where your fans live
Merchandising announce new merch items to your fans, run competitions etc
Press get your fans to help you get your material reviewed and respond to negative reviews
Fan Clubs instant access to all your fans, exclusive content etc.
Album get more sales and get people excited about it prior to launch
So you can see how not having a decent Facebook/Twitter presence will kick all your other activities in the teeth. Go through the whole list and show how each thing can benefit every other thing, and the album is just one of those things. Now do you see why you need to do them all?
It’s just as bad to over-concentrate on one thing, and the album is the number one thing that bands tend to over-concentrate on. Having an album on its own, as many bands have discovered, doesn’t do very much at all. You need all those other things for the album to realise its power as a thing that can propel you towards your dreams.
James Scott is a Music Producer in London, UK who works with emerging and independent artists to help them get noticed in the industry.