A Tale Of Two Records: How To Mug Yourself Making An Album

July 17, 2012 — 16 Comments

AKA ON RECORDING BUDGETS

Console Monitor Keyboard

A friend of mine is standing there the other day and he says this:

‘People don’t give a fuck about sound quality. They just don’t. Musicians think they do, but people either like a song or they don’t and the production might help a little, maybe…but most people don’t hear a good song and imagine how a different type of production would have made it better. It’s just good or it’s bad. And it’s mostly good or bad because of the song itself.’

Is he right? He’s definitely right some of the time. The definitive original version of a song is always what you release. It can be covered and improved (maybe) but you are always first to market with how it is originally going to be heard. You get to decide. And maybe you need your songs to be gleaming diamonds on arrival. That’s the gut instinct option a lot of the time. But maybe the songs are good enough and maybe it won’t make much difference anyhow? Tricky territory.

So let me tell you about two decisions I’ve been privy to in the past.

A TALE OF TWO ALBUMS

Exhibit A

I made a record that cost $15,000 dollars once and it was cheap at that price. I put this album on the other day and it’s pretty effective: all the songs sound tightly wound together, all the instrumentation sounds big, fun and accessible.

I don’t remember much about recording it. It took a month.

People liked it. It got a good write up in Rolling Stone magazine. Radio ignored it.

We had distribution, a small label, a limited promo budget. We toured. This all happened back when people still bought CDs so we sold a few, but not that many. Through retail sales, we probably covered the label’s manufacturing costs and the promo budget, if that.

The only money the band made back was a our cut of album sales at the merch desk. We probably made two thousand dollars, absolute maximum, on the record.

And our profile lifted a little so we got some better shows. About three years later, the band put out another EP and split up.

At the end, we were worse than broke. In the red. Owed money to someone’s sister, if memory serves.

Exhibit B

I made a record that cost $150 dollars once. I put it on the other day and it’s pretty effective: all the songs sound like someone grinding metal. All the instrumentation sounds big and loud.

I don’t remember much about recording it, not specifically. It took months of weekends. We recorded it in someone’s house and we worked slowly. On the audio gear the engineer owned. The entirety of this recording gear would cost about $6000 to buy outright.

(He did, essentially, work for free. But he’s building a business and he’s in the band. There are other ways to make records that cheaply though.)

People liked the record. Radio ignored it. Rolling Stone magazine ignored it. Forbes magazine thought it was okay, go figure.

We sold the album entirely on Bandcamp and via store consignment. We toured very occasionally but we did pay-what-you-will for the digital MP3 files and these files seemed to travel around on our behalf. This all happened (in 2011) when people preferred vinyl albums so we sold about two hundred physical copies on wax, not that many. We covered our manufacturing costs and there was no promo budget. We probably made two thousand dollars profit, absolute maximum. And our profile lifted a little but the shows stayed about the same.

Two years later, the band continues. We’re working on a new album with a 100% higher recording budget of $300. Thanks to advances in software and the home studio we use, the new stuff sounds significantly better. More than 100% better.

The band has enough money in the bank to fund the manufacturing of the next record.

Even if we paid our engineer the market-rate for someone of his experience, Exhibit B would have come in at less than a fifth of the cost of Exhibit A. Easily.

(The prosecution rests.)

IN THE JURY ROOM:

So, which one of these records is your band going to make next? A or B or something in-between?

The one you want to make or the one you think you should make?

The artistic gamble or the smart product?

The short-term glory or long-term sustainability?

Or is the polished album the long-term one for you? The one you’ll like most, looking back?

You’ve got to know.

I learned a lot from Exhibit A.

But I learned a lot from Exhibit B too. Confusing isn’t it?

IT CAN BE, SO DO THIS:

Whatever you’re planning, work the math beforehand: Assume that 30% of your Facebook followers / mailing list are going to hand over their money.

What budget does that give you?

If your record costs more than that figure, you’re not just making something, you’re buying something and – just like everything else in life – it’s a good idea to know what you’re spending your money on.

Are you getting good value for your money?

Is this batch of songs worth as much to your band as a small car?

VERDICT:

I don’t often listen to the albums that I’ve made. Who does?

So, looking back, it’s a pretty simple equation.

While I like the big fancy studio album a lot but I prefer the scenario where I didn’t mug myself.

For me it just didn’t seem like the right play.

I look at the $15,000 one and think, ‘Yep, that happened. Whoops.’

And I look at the $150 album and think, ‘Worth every cent.’

I wish it was more romantic than that but with the benefit of hindsight it isn’t.

I do this blog to collect my thoughts and to gauge everyone’s reaction. Or as Flava Flav would say, I like to know what time it is. So if you read this and have stories to share, please do. I feel like every band who’s been around a while has learnt something about how to deal with the studio and what works and what doesn’t. So I’d love to hear some anecdotes in the comments. Alternatively you can email me at iankeithrogers@gmail.com. I’m always on the hunt for things to write about and articles to read, so please send suggestions to that address too. 

16 responses to A Tale Of Two Records: How To Mug Yourself Making An Album

  1. 

    I agree with your friend. I’m definitely of the opinion that recording quality is secondary to song quality.

    An real life example would be that all the good Guided By Voices records were the ones that sounded the worst in terms of fidelity and all that. I love the quote often associated with GbV’s Alien Lanes – “The cost for recording Alien Lanes, if you leave out the beer, was about ten dollars.”

    Being able to use a compressor isn’t a substitute for creative genius. Perhaps I’m being cynical but many producers might get the shits with you Ian if such revelations start depriving them of income streams they get from costly recordings.

  2. 

    I should clarify – “Being able to use a compressor isn’t a substitute for creative genius.” I’m not having a shot at producers or anything like that. Most I know are great at what they do and have good ideas. My point being that expert production is not going to make a shit song suddenly golden.

    • 

      Hi D, I’m going to post specifically about GBV at some point in the future. I love them, they’re the ULTIMATE occasional musician archetype in my mind.

      I’m not worried about producers and studio engineers. They’re like any other creative professional at the moment, they have to constantly work at finding their niche. The really innovative and talented ones still get paid. And it was – from the stories I’ve been told – always a field where you had to have the hustle down.

      PS: I love producers. The idea of having someone in the studio giving an objective opinion makes perfect sense to me. Even when they’re wrong, they’re still a sounding board. Finding the right person for a band like mine is borderline impossible. ‘Hey, come argue with us for $10/hour!’

      Also: SO FKN SORRY about last weekend. My life is half in boxes. I’m posting to my blog from a coffee shop.

  3. 

    I care more about the sound quality of live shows than albums. Always baffled by bands who spend thousands of dollars sounding crisp and amazing on the version of their music that we put on while we drive/fuck/jog/do the dishes, but are happy to sound slapdash and shitty in concert when we’re, hopefully, focussing our full attention on them.

    (Not that I never pay attention to an album I put on at home, but it’s usually divided attention with a drink in my hand and maybe email open even then.)

    • 

      That’s an excellent point. We live in a time where a set level of studio-styled perfection is pretty much available to everyone. You don’t need to be overly skilled with a digital audio workstation to quantise drums and tune vocals. But live, that all goes out the window. I’m not sure what the answer is. I once played some shows with Eskimo Joe (I’m not super proud of it) and they were running a digital desk live that had many of the studio plug-ins running. The show sounded slick and people LOVED it. But it wasn’t for me.

      Then again, I’ve seen my fair share of smaller bands and thought, ‘Yeah, it wouldn’t kill you guys to practice a little more.’ I’ve got to be super careful about that stuff. I’m in a sludge band that I think loses something when we practice too much. And I’m in a band that almost never practices because that’s the whole point. But when I was in a indie-pop band, we were pretty much as heard on the record. I was listening to some demos from that band the other day and I was thinking ‘Yep, can’t even play like that any more.’ We practiced twice a week for maybe 5 years straight.

      We practiced twice a week, made expensive albums (as above) and it was a blast for the most part. I feel like my writing here is too grim sometimes. I don’t ever look back at this stuff and go ‘Oh poor me.’ I’m sorta chuckling to myself while I write this stuff. Like…’Oh yeah, look at these young, guileless, ambitious, funny and awesome idiots that we once were.’

      • 

        I have some friends who are big Eskimo Joe fans. I don’t really get it either, but maybe that’s because I’ve never seen them live. Maybe I could be converted by a super-slick and polished Eskimo Joe gig, but I’ll probably never find out.

        I’m more forgiving of the support band or the guys who are playing at Ric’s or whatever, but I do expect somebody like Saul Williams to put some effort into having a live show that doesn’t sound like a fuzzy mess, like the audio equivalent of Mr. Messy scratching his scribbly pink arse against my eardrums for an hour.

        My impression of your writing isn’t that it’s grim. It seems grounded and sensible to me. Unless I’m grim too and just can’t see it, I guess.

  4. 

    I feel like as more and more people listen to music more on ipods or computer speakers, this argument is becoming really relevant.

    That said my ego always makes me want a great bass sound.

    • 

      I often wonder if fidelity is going to come back into vogue. Apparently the majors are investing his-res digital technologies so they can reintroduce us to records we already own, again. It seems likely to me. At some point soon, storage and access will be 100% covered. Then maybe we’ll all want Blueray for ears. With extras. I want some sort of holographic sensory audio experience that makes me think I actually am in Black Sabbath. When I get that, I will pay all the money I have.

  5. 

    “The definitive original version of a song is always what you release.” – dunno about definitive. Maybe more so now? I hate to use him as a case but Dylan got famous by other people playing his songs with much savvier (not better) production. Buckley’s version of Cohen’s Hallelujah might be a more contemporary example of a ‘version’ that is arguably much better known / loved than the original – then there’s the songs that have been covered so many times that any notion of a definitive version becomes meaningless. There’s some regurgitated pop hooks that are starting to fall into this category too. Finally (coz I’m feeling argumentative) I don’t think it’s always helpful to conflate ‘production’ with ‘audio fidelity / quality’ – they’re related but not the same thing. Sometimes good production results in poor fidelity at high cost and vice versa (and every imaginable combination in between too).

  6. 

    Excellent read as always; although I think mugging yourself can be part of the fun. Even if it is only for self gratification or the experience which will hopefully get you close to that middle ground of quality and price for the next release.

  7. 
    Stephen Goodwin July 17, 2012 at 9:57 am

    “It’s just good or it’s bad. And it’s mostly good or bad because of the song itself.”

    Yeah, as a listener (I have all the musical talent of a dead duck) I agree with this. A song just resonates with you, or it doesn’t. Either lyrically or melodically or because of the groove or rhythm or some combination of all of the above.

    Still, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that sound fidelity and production values are utterly irrelevant. A pop song that sounds like it was recorded in a public toilet is going to find it harder going, even if it’s catchy as all fuck. On the other hand, polishing turds is a pointless exercise.

  8. 

    I love going into the studio and doing something “official”. I also love making the bedroom tapes. But whilst in the mastering process the other day, I thought, hey I better go and play this on some stereos to just check it out on everything, and then thought, besides a decent car stereo, do the majority of people actually listen to music through stereos anymore?….even stereo speakers? A lot of parties Iv’e been to in the last few years, people are just playing a laptop through a small set of iPod speakers,or through a laptop. I assume most people have become accustomed to listening to music through headphones. So production wise, I love the idea of having something nice for my stereo and to get played on the radio (depending how long that lasts), but low budget stuff, most of the time sounds great through headphones and really was made for listening to on headphones, so spending thousands of dollars has kinda become this prehistoric idea. I mean you could make a pretty good record for a couple of thousand split between a few people…..but yeah I never think about making the money back….that’s just wishful thinking.

  9. 

    It horses for courses isn’t it? I mean, could you make your $16000 record the $150 way and have the same effect? I’m not sure. Yr ‘cheap’ band has a sound that is perfect for your style of recording now IMO.

    Imagine spending thousands making a dead c record or prince recording a record in someone’s bedroom for $300 ( he hasn’t done that has he ). The important thing is that the recording suits the style.

    People care about making good sounding records because this is what people are going to play when you stop playing music (if you are lucky). This is the evidence for all time that you could make a song sound good. That’s why musicians care. That’s what David Bowie thinks anyway and dude’s got a lot riding on it. (citation needed)

  10. 

    Oh, also, I bought the demos for the sonic youth album ‘goo’ one time and that is a really good example of what spending some decent money on a recording will do. The songs are the same but they don’t SOUND the same. The demos were weak and lacking any complexity. Maybe it depends about how much texture the type of music you are making needs?

    I mean ‘space invaders’ is a great video game and you wouldn’t need anything more than an old Atari to play it. Does that mean all video games can be limited to that bit rate and be as successful? Come on, the world neeeds moon patrol!

  11. 

    A little late to the party, Ian, but this is a good ‘un and a thought provoker.

    Basically I’m in the horses for courses camp on this one. I am, as you know, a vinyl tragic and a lover of all of the classic rock bands you are seemingly bored by in your more recent post. And there’s a reason why they sound as good as they do.

    Kurt Cobain may have hated the glossy production of Nevermind, for example, but I doubt it would have been the musical/industrial game-changer it became had Steve Albini “recorded” it. And thank god he didn’t. I should say I’m one of those who’s no great fan of Albini – the way he buried Polly Harvey’s voice on Rid of Me being arguably his worst Crime Against Music in my eyes – but then again, he was perfect for the Jesus Lizard, who perhaps had the meanest rhythm section in rock and roll back in the day. Albini sure did great things with drums and bass.

    Then again, there are always the famous counter-examples. The Ramones’ first album cost $6000 and it’s absolutely perfect. Closer to home and more recently, Eddy Current Suppression Ring probably haven’t spent more than a couple of grand on any of their three records put together – and they cut them in a matter of hours.

    Then again, how many records did they sell? They’re successful, probably beyond their wildest dreams, but they’re not megastars, not that they ever wanted to be. The Ramones are a different case. Of course they’re legends and heroes – they’re my favourite band of all time, hands down – but at the time, they wanted to make hit records, and seriously felt they had failed in their mission. That can’t be ignored.

    It all depends. Rumours probably cost squillions and half of it would have been Stevie Nicks’ cocaine rider, but I’m pretty confident that had it cost $6000, the songs would still have been great, but I can’t for a minute imagine it would have been as good a record. To say that Rumours is fabulously well-made – which it is – isn’t damning it with faint praise. The songs demanded that treatment just as surely as the Ramones required minimalism.

    The democratization of record making is certainly the best thing about music in the digital age. My fiancee is currently in the process of making an acoustic album. It’s not costing us much, and even then it’s maybe costing a little more than it needs to for a solo acoustic project.

    But even so (and taking bias into account) I can’t help but wonder what the result might be if we had money to burn, because to my ears some of the songs sound like hits. You can’t polish a turd, maybe, but you certainly can spit to see the shine, as Babes in Toyland once put it. (Then again, one of the tracks is a version of Pour Some Sugar On Me, the Def Leppard song, which just proves to me once and for all that you really can make scones out of shit…)

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