Jesse Cannon is a 15 year music industry veteran and founder of Musformation.com. Aside from producing music, Jesse is passionate about teaching others. His creativeLIVE course on DIY Mastering begins Dec. 10.
Winning a record deal with a rad label used to be everything; getting your music into the right hands was the big break. Fortunately or unfortunately, this is no longer the case.
Now, as music industry gatekeepers hold less power and the Internet rules over music sales and buzz, the quality of your recording -- your actual product -- determines your success more than ever.
In a time when anyone can convert their home into a studio and a single song gaining traction on Spotify or Rdio can spin a few hundred fans into millions, releasing well-produced, well-executed, high-quality tracks is critical to success in the industry. Good music is a natural, viral marketer. No amount of promotion, touring, or record labels will get you as far as a tight, finished song that makes people feel good.
Recording good music requires a lot of hard work and a fair amount of planning. Although this seems pretty obvious, throughout my career as an album producer, recording musicians for 300 days a year for over a decade, I’ve seen good music go bad, and could-be-good music never take off due to poor planning and decision-making. Below is a compilation of my Do’s and Don’ts for recording in the music biz.
1. Don’t get trapped by dead ideas
We’ve seen it happen time and time again with record labels and management companies: pouring thousands of hours and millions of dollars into flopped albums that no one wants to listen to. The myth of easily gaining popularity and fans through the right amount of promotion and muscle is strong, but it won’t bring lasting fans and a career in the industry. It’s far more common for that road to be paved with tombstones of flash-in-the-pan bands, musicians promoted to death before their music was ready. The second you realize that anything can become popular, you also realize that you need to take the craft of writing and recording music very seriously and make sure it comes out the best it could be. Don’t promote dying songs that aren’t moving people; instead, focus first on making the songs people want to hear.
2. Don’t release a demo
By definition, a demo is a demonstration of what you could be if you had a budget and more help. If you think releasing a demo to the public is your next step, I have some bad news: no one cares. No one cares to listen to a mediocre recording and imagine what you could be. As cheap access to great recording software has leveled the playing field, people are used to hearing finished tracks that require no explanation or apologies.
This is not to say you shouldn’t record demos. Demos can be useful in evaluating and experimenting with your own music and can spread hype among die-hard fans, but they should not be something you release and promote to the public in order to attract new fans and label attention. The bottom line is that people, especially music buffs and industry leaders, expect to hear well-executed recordings, even from the newest bands.
3. Don’t rely on explanation
Bands often love to tell their story, and they often think it’s smart to tack on cred to their public image.
“We managed to make a full length with only 1000 bucks!”
“Our album is 100% DIY, our buddy helped us mix it, but he didn’t know what he was doing.”
“We recorded in this amazing studio -- the console was as big as my entire apartment!”
Save these statements for a documentary. If you need to explain a song in order for people to appreciate it, you’re not making good music. Don’t stress story over the song and its execution; everyday musicians are coming out with music that makes people feel good without any provided context. Those are the songs that get played, that fill a person’s playlist. If you plan well, you can release a song that will speak for itself.
4. Don’t be fooled when selecting a studio
The giant console, high ceilings, and glass windows mean nothing. Those things don’t make great records. A talented person with good ideas for your music does.
Everyday, records are made in bedrooms that sound just as great as records made in fancy studios. While you should make sure your studio equipment is in good shape, don’t make the mistake of equating a top-rate studio with a top-rate song. Seek out a producer instead of a studio: the person with the vision behind the board is what matters. It’s crucial to remember that the producer (and engineer) you work with imports their personality, taste, and skill on your music.
5. Don’t be fooled when selecting a producer
The same flawed logic surrounding choosing a studio applies to choosing a producer.
Don’t choose a producer because he has a great list of records. While a producer’s album history is important and can tell you a lot, it doesn’t tell you as much as you think. For one thing, you don’t know how involved the person was in making the album -- it could be great because of his input or great because the musicians had their act together. For another thing, a list of great records someone has made does not mean they can make yours sound great too.
Don’t choose a producer because he has a rad personality and gave you a great vibe. On the flip side, if you have a bad vibe from someone from the get-go, bow out -- it will only get worse once the recording pressure is on.
On finding the right producer, start with someone who has made records you like and who fills in your blanks. If you are missing strong drums, make sure the producer you are considering has a knack for recording drums and has ideas for helping your sound.
Once you’ve found a candidate, check with fellow musicians who have recorded with that person. Meet and talk to the producer to get a feel for whether you would get along -- and trust your gut. Take home multiple records for a full-length listen on your own sound system. And finally, test out producers by recording a single together. You’ll know right away if their style and system work well with your own.
That said, you don’t need to go to one producer, or any producer at all, to make legitimate recordings. Remember, you can use different producers to record different pieces of your music and you can even skip hiring a producer if you only want an engineer to run the technical side of the studio. These are decisions no one else can help you with -- you have to decide for yourself.
1. Spend most of your time crafting a song, not recording it
No one buys a bad song that sounds pretty. Great production is important for realizing a song’s potential, but it can’t turn a bad song good. Make sure the songs you’ve chosen to record are great before stepping foot into the studio.
This is crucial because the way you unleash your music is a large part of how your fans see you. Being able to manage your output -- turning out a consistent quantity of high quality releases -- is a tough task, but is key to keeping fans happy and growing your fanbase. Skimming your best 10 tracks for an LP and shelving the rest can be a great idea, but it doesn’t let you feed your fans on a regular basis. On the flip side, if you record and release every song you write, you risk overwhelming fans or putting out music that could be better.
2. Plan for how many songs to record
Before you start shopping for a producer or studio, make sure you have a clear idea of how many songs you want to record and what you want to accomplish with your recording. Are you trying to get signed? Get some fans? Sell at shows?
It comes down to knowing what you need. If you fit all of the above or need a release to sell at shows, you must make at least an EP or LP. If you’re just creating some buzz or want to attract a team, you just need to record your absolute best material, even if it’s just a few songs.
In looking at your material, keep the distinct benefits of an LP and EP in mind. An LP is more profitable, makes a statement, wins press, and can make fans fall in love, but the EP is becoming an increasingly powerful tool. If you’re short on time, money, and only have a few well-written songs ready, an EP can give you focus, enabling you to assemble a few good songs that work well together. Additionally, while singles can leave fans wanting more, an EP can be just enough for someone to bite into and enjoy.
Regardless of what kind of release you choose, calculate how much recording time you have within your budget and make sure you have enough time for each song to turn out great. Unless you have limitless money and time, never record everything. Always write more songs than you’re going to record. You can always hold onto extra songs to rework for later albums or release them as bonus tracks or a B side.
3. Record yourself first
Most musicians know that they should record themselves. Hearing your song played back loud and clear through speakers is drastically different than hearing yourself jam in rehearsal.
As a producer, it’s astounding to me how much better off musicians are when they record themselves before coming into the studio. Musicians who create detailed recordings by doing numerous overdubs and putting down every possible idea--as opposed to a one-take demo of the song played live--always walk out of the studio with better results than the musicians who don’t do this.
When you have well thought-out demos recorded, everyone involved in the project is able to feed off ideas and be more creative with a greater vision of where the song should go.
Recording on cheap and easy programs like Garageband can often do the trick, but when when musicians learn more advanced DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) like Logic, Ableton, Pro Tools or Reaper, it can greatly boost their creativity. This is because they know what they want and how best to achieve it; it takes a lot of practice to understand why something doesn’t sound right and how to get it to sound how you want.
4. Consider the classics and make a reference mix
Before starting the recording process, get a clear idea of what a great record means to you and your band. Assemble records and songs that you consider classics and all-time favorites and break them down into parts to study. What do these records consist of? How many songs? How many minutes long? How many singles? What are the changes in tone, rhythm, lyrical or melodic structure from song to song? Are there interludes or skits?
While these questions may seem nit-picky, they are important considerations when finding what works for your record and your genre.
Researching and collecting tracks is also a good practice when recording with a producer. It can be very difficult to communicate the way you want your record to sound – words don’t easily lend themselves to describing the essence of a piece of music. Not only is it tough to put sound into words, but words can also mean very different things to people. Instead, create a reference mix of sounds you like, samplings of favorite records, and talk through it with your producer.
5. Be realistic about the recording process
This might be the hardest one, as it encompasses a lot.
Before deciding on a recording studio or producer, check yourself on whether you are ready. After all, it’s expensive and time-consuming ride. Be realistic about whether you’ve rehearsed enough and how fast or slow your creative process moves. Also be realistic about whether your budget will allow you to accomplish your goals for the album -- make sure you have enough time to devote to each track. That said, don’t sell yourself short: if you could put in 10% more recording budget to tweak some specific things and have an exceptional, rather than good, record, do it.
When walking into the recording process, know the musician’s “bill of rights” and set expectations with the studio, producer, and engineer early. The horror stories of con men and lazy producers dashing a band’s dreams while getting paid a pretty penny are out there, but they often occurred because the bare minimum was not discussed in advance and the musicians didn’t know how or when to walk away.
Before signing any deals, have a long and frank discussion of what you expect for professionalism, artistic and technical input, and rules for undivided attention, timeliness, and payment. The music business loves to party and keep things casual, but that does not negate your right to a competent, sober/awake producer or engineer who is working when they are at work, works with you when you agreed to work in session, provides a functional studio and knows the recording programs necessary for the job, returns your music in a timely fashion, and will hear you out about changes or new ideas.
Know your terms, ask if the other party will agree to them, and then hold them accountable. Getting a lot of this communication out in advance helps musicians avoid fighting and bitterness and can build lasting and gratifying professional relationships, ultimately leading to happier endings for both the artists and the producers.