By Tyler Hayes, who runs the music discovery site Nxt Big Thing.
What if a touring band were to come into an extra $2000, what should they spend the money on? Beyond the obvious answers like food and gas, lots of other possibilities should quickly roll off the tongue, spending the money like a gambler in a casino. It's easy to play the hypothetical game giving imaginary money to imaginary bands, but I ask the question because that amount of money might be all an independent band needs to put them in position to succeed.
Assuming the band has their own gear (guitars, drums, mics, etc.) and are playing shows regularly aiming to get bigger, here are a few suggestions for ways to spend ~$2000 that could make a huge difference. Again, instead of playing the imaginary "What if a band found $2000" game, this situation could also be posed as "Budget money for these key expenses".
Like it not, music has become an 'online first' type of media and band's should be focusing on putting their best foot forward. Since most people will likely see a band before they hear them, good photographs are essential. Everyone thinks they can take good pictures, most can't. Hire an actual photographer, preferably one that works in the music scene. Pictures of live shows are harder to shoot than 4 guys lined up in an open field, but a few good live shots can be such an advantage to people browsing for new music. Costs will vary wildly, but budget about $400-500 for some quality pictures and make sure to check out the photographer's portfolio.
Ever since DSLR cameras could affordably shoot amazing video in addition to capturing great images, it became a must have for an active band. So, why hire a photographer if you're also going to buy a camera? "Everyone thinks they can take good pictures, most can't." Also, the camera is mostly for video purposes. Whether the footage is used for a montage music video or to capture acoustic performances, it's important to have a way to produce new content when not in the studio. In the same way that having quality pictures can make a huge first impression, having good quality video also goes a long way, showing the band is of a certain calibre. Likely, the camera will set you back about $600-800. This price is a good middle between cost and quality. Also when choosing a camera, be sure to consider the ecosystem around lenses and accessories (mics and stands) for future advancement.
Looking good and having a way to produce good looking content are the two biggest things that will go a long way towards people's first impressions. But there are also costs that get over looked. Spending around $50-$100 for access to online distribution at places like TuneCore is almost a given, but should definitely be mentioned. If a group doesn't show up in iTunes, do they even exist?
What's the best way to spend money? To spend it on something that produces more money. T-shirts and physical media, like CDs, still continue to make the most money for touring bands. This is a good way to keep gas in the van and food in stomachs. Hiring a graphic designer for the t-shirt and stickers would be a good idea. Even more than taking pictures, designing logos and images for the band's brand is really hard. It's immediately apparent if someone knew what they were doing when they picked a certain font or a certain color. It's not a sign of weakness to find someone that knows what they're doing and is something that will help make more money in the long run.
The unofficial moral of the story is that hiring the right person for limited, specialized, tasks can only improve how people perceive your band. Frankly, consumers are driven by gut instincts and first impressions. Judging a band before even hearing their music happens all time, in fact, if just getting someone to hit play is a big win. The most important thing, however, the one that no amount of money can buy is to produce amazing music. If the music isn't worth listening to or sharing, then none of this matters anyway.