As it has become increasingly easy for artists to churn out music, it has also become harder to make said music stand out as anything other than mediocre. Here are some tips for how to make sure your work is truly release ready and that it will be noticed and appreciated by potential fans.
Guest Post by Alex Cowles of How To Self Release
[This is a guest blog post from music producer, DJ and label owner Alex Cowles. The 32-year old producer has released a number of albums and EPs on more than 20 record labels, including three of his own imprints. He has been on both sides of the artist/label table, has transformed a free net-label into a working subscription model and has performed his music all over Europe, the UK and the USA.]
Music appreciation is subjective. We all know this, and it’s one of the reasons why you can spend endless nights debating with your friends over whether the latest Flying Lotus release is really better than his production work with Thundercat or whether there is artistic merit in the Cloud Rap niche and how it might do better to integrate some of the sounds of drum & bass.
The subtle nuances between minimal tech-house and dub-techno might seem like giant genre-leaps to some, and to others it might all just sound a bit like some pebbles being chucked down an air-vent.
How much then, you might ask, can we all come to an agreement on what’s good and bad? How do we objectively measure the quality and merit of one song over another? One person’s trashy pop may be another’s ironic anthem.
It comes as something of a surprise then that one of the things I hear most commonly agreed upon across the board these days is complaints about how much mediocre music is being released.
Forums, comments sections, email threads and discussions with friends all seem to have the same undercurrent of opinion. It’s something that a fair percentage of us seem to be able to come to some sort of agreement on.
Most likely is that we’re all referring to different music unbeknown to others, but I myself have had many an agreeable chat with friends about specific labels and producers and their apparent lack of quality control over the past 5 to 10 years.
I dare say you can delve waist-deep into any genre and you’ll come across chin-strokers lamenting the days when the pioneers of the sound were experimenting and how it’s all just mediocre stuff being pumped out by the once-crucial labels, to a receptive audience already cultivated on seminal releases from 2006.
So where lies the culprit?
Is it the ease of self-release, fuelling any unique pioneering artist’s ability to get their genre-busting tracks out there without the need to court a suitable label?
Is it that the age-old adage of “it’s who you know” coming to a head with labels just sticking out their mate’s tunes in the hope that people will lap it up like they did with their older, more edgy output?
Maybe it’s just an ever rising bar being set as everyone’s access to a myriad of music increases with every cursor click.
I’d bet it’s all of the above and more.
Regardless of the reasons, it brings to the forefront one key question and issue for musicians in this day and age, and something every single artist needs to be asking themselves:
Is your music really good enough?
With an exponentially increasing amount of competition for your audience’s ears (and wallets) it’s already a challenge to get your music heard, and with a veritable quagmire of mediocre music clogging up the relevant channels, I’d urge artists to really give the question some deeper thought.
It’s no longer just a case of punting out a track after an hour or two’s work and hoping that it’ll wow someone enough to sign it, or be solid enough to get you some initial sales.
The requirement to really work on your craft and make sure you’re as good as you can be before putting your music out there is a somewhat disheartening thing to hear as a young artist. It is however, utterly essential.
This sentiment is often contradicted by “overnight success stories” (who have, unbeknown to the public, often been working for decades to get to that point) or artists like Sam Smith and his new Bond theme claiming just a 20-minute writing time. Sensationalist reportage fuelling public assumption tends to gloss over artists and their eternal slog by focusing instead on achievement and hype, or the latest celebrity “beef”.
How then, can a new, excitable artist calm their desperation to release long enough to build up a selection of tracks truly worth firing out into the ether?
I suggest the following few techniques which I had, for so long ignored, but in the last year or so have been adhering to in a (potentially futile) attempt to make sure that what I release is the absolute best it can be, and not merely “good enough”.
Listen to your work in context.
Take your mixdown or rough master and put it in a playlist or a mixtape alongside tracks that you respect. How does it stand up against your benchmarks?
How does it feel when your track drops in? Does the energy start to drag? Is there a noticeable dip in production quality? Do you think people would notice your track amidst the rest?
Give it some time.
I love this one. When I finish a track, I’ll stick it in a folder on my computer where I’ll leave it overnight.
In the morning I’ll get up and give it another listen. If it still sounds good, I’ll let it sit some more. Even just a night’s sleep can unearth some odd things you might want to fix.
A week later I’ll go back and listen again, if it’s still good - it gets left longer.
A month later, I’ll give it a listen. If I can still say after a month that I enjoy listening to it, and that it sounds great - then I’ll consider it release-worthy (at least in my eyes).
If you can still stand a track you’ve made a month or two down the line - that’s a good sign. The time away from the track should provide you with enough context to listen to it more subjectively when you do return to it.
Artists often get frustrated with music they’ve released too quickly and if you want to be able to continue to support your own music, perform it at shows, play it the radio and deal with people discovering your older stuff in 3, 5 or 10 years time - you have to be able to enthuse about all of the tracks you put out there.
Think about sending it to your musical heroes.
Assume, for a moment that you had the direct email address of your top 5 musical heroes. You knew that if you sent them this track to check, they’d definitely listen. Is it ready to go?
How do you feel about it now? Is it ready for them to check it out, or will you caveat the email with “well, it’s still in progress, so let me know where I can improve!”? How quickly will you regret sending them this track over another that you like more?
Get your mates round.
Have you got a few friends who enjoy similar music to you? Invite them round and play your tracks for them. Watch and listen to their reactions.
How do you feel as you press that play button? Do you get embarrassed? Do you mutter things like “well, I don’t know if it’s quite finished yet” or “I might actually look at sorting the drums here”? Do you get a bit of a pre-emptive cringe before the intro has finished? All good signs that when pushed, you feel like the tracks not good enough.
These sort of reactions might not surface when you’re alone, but having a small audience who are not afraid to tell you what they think will help.
Consult the internet.
As much as I feel like asking too wide an audience will always give you people who like something, and that the faceless nature of the internet means anybody will say anything to appease someone (or the opposite!), I’d suggest as a possible last resort turning to the internet for assistance.
Websites like Fluence or Audiokite can help you determine the viability of a track by getting feedback. Fluence, from a single tastemaker or person of interest (I’m on Fluence, if you feel so inclined!), and Audiokite, from a larger crowd of perhaps less relevant people.
This sort of thing could get you some interesting results, since many people will feel there’s no relationship or friendship at stake, and to give you honest, perhaps even brutal feedback is no big deal.
Honesty from your listener/s in this area is crucial, but you will also get those who likely gloss over how much you have emotionally invested in your own success, and respond with what they think you want to hear. This is the downside.
The bottom line here is that before you go sending music to labels, or starting your own imprint in order to self-release, stop and take some time out.
Consider your tracks. Try to set aside how excited you may be about your own work at the moment, and listen to them objectively. Try the exercises above, and see how you get on.
This advice and relevant exercises form part of my free “Getting Started With Self Releasing” course, which you can enroll for today here.
After taking the course, you should be much better equipped to figure out if self-releasing or starting your own small label is for you. You should also have a better understanding of how it all works, and what you can do to make sure you succeed.