By Laurel Thomsen
Getting signed to a label was once the benchmark of musical recognition, as many among the general public still believe. I’ll admit to a pang of jealousy when colleagues of mine announced that their group had been signed to a major contract. With record deals increasingly uncommon, their stroke of luck was akin in my mind to finding the goose that lays the golden eggs. Surely, their success was imminent.
Record contracts can have down sides however, and the ensemble parted ways within a year of being signed. Labels control the songs released and have a heavy influence on the overall vision. They own the copyrights, masters, and command a large slice of the royalties—a smaller and smaller pie in today’s streaming world. Promotion and distribution, the most attractive services a label can offer, are subject to the whims of the company, and artists can be dropped unexpectedly.
With the technology available to record and promote albums, even from the comfort of your own home, not to mention the artistic control and complete ownership of your written and recorded material, self-producing an album can be an attractive choice. Creating and producing an album independently that can propel an artist’s career to the next level does, however, require dedication to not just the music, but the business of music.
In order to chart a clear course and accurately measure your success, it’s important to honestly assess your goals at the start of any project. Do you want to sell to a certain percentage of your audience at every concert? Get played on the radio? Gather increasing numbers of monthly listeners on streaming sites? Have a demo to share with promoters? Create tracks that might be attractive to music supervisors in the movie industry? Once you’ve established your goals, here are a few pointers, drawn from my experience releasing independent albums with my duo, on creating a recording you’re happy with, and how to get the word out.
1. Test & Record for Success
The process of album promotion should begin long before your first recording session, at concerts where you test drive material and determine which songs your audience members can’t live without. It’s important to view your album as a product. As much as you want to express yourself and feel satisfied about what you’re presenting, it’s important to identify your target audience early and choose songs that cause them to come up after a show to ask, “Is that one on one of your CDs?”
Once in the studio, be aware of details that can make a big difference to the listenability of your album. Like a live performance, an album needs balance and contrast, and song choice and order can make or break the flow. Similar to the movements of a concerto or sonata, it’s important to start with a gesture that is confident and instantly memorable, and to end with an element that is playful, takes your listeners’ breath away, or finishes on a contemplative note. In between, you can place material that is more introspective, and balance slower tempos with more upbeat ones, changing keys and moods to avoid having any piece sound too similar to one that comes before or after.
Reverb levels and the overall production are also very important. While string players may especially enjoy the sound of their playing with cathedral reverb, too much and an album loses intimacy and articulation. Most audience members want to take home a CD that sounds similar to the concert they just enjoyed, so beware of adding too many elements that could never be reproduced live, especially if you intend to sell primarily at your concerts.
2. Engage Fans Early
Success at your album launch depends on the buzz created in the months leading up to it. Six months before we were set to record our fourth album, we sent out a call to our mailing list and created an online listening team to help select the material. As we whittled down the songs, we previewed rough demos on social media, and later, clips of us recording in the studio. As we started filling our concerts with more and more material from the new album, we started taking pre-orders at our shows.
Even if you don’t need help funding your album, consider running a pre-order crowd-funding campaign through a site like Kickstarter, PledgeMusic, or Indiegogo to help create awareness and get fans involved early. Personalize your approach. Once fans are invested in the project they will help you see it through and want to share it with their friends.
As you get closer to your album release, start sharing sneak peaks with your social-media and mailing lists, such as your album artwork, a “single” from the album, stories about the songs and recording process, or the musicians featured. You might host a few Facebook or Instagram Live events where you play some of the pieces and answer questions.
“The process of album promotion should begin long before your first recording session, at concerts where you test drive material and determine which songs your audience members can’t live without.”
YouTube is a primary way for people to discover new music and artists, so create music, live, picture, or lyric videos for the songs on your album. The first few videos can be released before the album is even available, along with information about how to pre-order. Be sure to tag your video liberally, including not just your name, instrument, and the song title, but the names of other artists and pieces similar to what you’re presenting in order to increase the chances your video will show up in a potential fan’s suggested video list.
3. Investigate Publishing Avenues for the Independent Artist
There are a number of companies dedicated to helping independent artists sell their music online. For two decades, CDBaby has been a leader in helping artists connect their music to consumers through online sales of physical and digital music, as well as distribution to all the major streaming and download sites such as iTunes, Spotify, and Amazon. Artists pay a one-time fee per release plus a percentage of sales, and can choose which sites they want their music shared with, both paid and unpaid.
Bandcamp and SoundCloud are other popular services that share music online. While tracks uploaded to SoundCloud are streamed and downloaded for free, Bandcamp takes a small percentage of sales and allows artists to both stream and sell downloads.
Artists releasing original material also need to register it with a performing rights society, such as ASCAP or BMI, in order to collect royalties for songs played on the radio or used in film. Sound Exchange, AllMusic, and musicbrainz.org are other sites recording artists should sign up with surrounding a release.
4. Seek Out Media Promotion
While your current fans might inspire you to record an album in the first place, a successful album should help grow your fan base. Long before your release date, start to compile a list of print media, blogs, and radio programs that share music similar to yours. As you select material for your album, consider a theme or story surrounding the song selection or recording process that you can later use to grab attention. What makes your album compelling? Write a succinct “elevator-pitch” to share with your album, along with the titles of a few key tracks a busy radio DJ should focus on.
Like getting a record deal, getting the attention of the media is increasingly more challenging, leading many to engage the expertise of publicists. This is a worthy consideration for the independent artist hoping to get reviewed or played on the radio. While there are no guarantees, starting around $2,000 and up, artists can hire the help of people who have contacts in the industry, and most will get at least a couple of reviews they can use in promotional materials.
5. Once You Can, Sell Directly to Your Fans
By far, we sell more albums at our concerts than anywhere else. Still, giving a performance does not guarantee there will be sales thereafter. Successful sales depend on the nature of the venue, the audience, and the quality of the show. The audience has to have enjoyed the material, have the means, and be among a demographic that buys CDs.
We sell the most CDs after concerts in a listening room, such as a house concert, theater, or concert series, where people paid to get in and came to listen. Even then, record promotion during a show is a sensitive topic. Mentioning that you have CDs for sale is appropriate in many concert situations, but becomes annoying when it’s more than once during a set. Consider timing this mention with a song that is particularly well received, or as part of the introduction to a piece you are about to perform: “This next piece is featured on our second album, which we have for sale in the lobby this evening.” Then, make sure to have someone there to work your table!
When you sell an album, you are really selling a memory. Your fans want to take home a souvenir of a feeling they had—of inspiration, beauty, nostalgia, joy, connection. Keep their enjoyment intact with a warm, positive attitude whenever you engage with your fans, after a concert or online. We enjoy signing albums after a show and find that people are often eager to stand in line to buy an album that is personalized with our signatures and an individual message. At that point, it’s not just a CD, but an experience.
This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Strings magazine.