NOTE: Although this multi-part article is intended as a practical guide to indie musicians and recording artists for releasing their own music, I do think it might be of interest to those of you who aren't putting out records. Hopefully, it's a little peek behind the curtain of what music artists have to think about.
Releasing a music album is scary and a huge uphill climb. But if you choose to make music, don't you think your album deserves you giving it your best shot to get it heard?
In my other life, I operate a small software development firm. Very often we hear from potential clients with an idea for a website. That website can always be made and efficiently for not very much money. At each intake meeting I tell them that making the website work is 10% of the difficulty. The other 90% of the problem is getting people to know about it.
Music: Not A Moneymaking Career
The same applies to music. In the modern era of music software and studio tools, you really can go make a great record by yourself. Having talent, having friends with talent on the album and engaging a professional engineer can really help your chances of making a terrific album. Unfortunately, that's the easy part. Getting people to hear an unknown artist's record is difficult. Extremely difficult.
But there's only two alternatives to the uphill climb of promoting your own album: 1) Throw a LOT of money at a P.R. firm that can't promise results and can barely promise any tangible efforts, or 2) Giving up.
I have a few friends in music here in San Diego who have self-produced some truly great records. But their idea of marketing was about 5 social media posts and sending copies to the local newspaper, SiriusXM and Rolling Stone magazine and that was about it. They didn't want to put themselves out there - or didn't know how - and then after a fizzle of a release and maybe three online reviews, they give up and spend the rest of their music careers basically sitting on a barstool lamenting that the music industry is not a meritocracy. Which is not wrong, by the way.
Are you willing to outwork the competition? That means, are you willing to put a stupidly insane amount of energy into evangelize your own music? If so, then you have a small chance to be heard. No, you can't expect to be playing your single on the Tonight Show in six months. But you can get thousands of people to hear your music, make some of your investment back, and be on the road to having a little bit of a music career.
I'm Hardly One To Talk
I am truly a D.I.Y. music artist. I don't have a record company, a manager, a booking agent or a single that's charter. Despite that, I've done the self-promotion of five album releases of two bands and helped two other artists with releases.
Our unknown band has been played on 40 radio stations that we know of and been reviewed in 80 places we've seen. Our songs have been in 4-5 tv shows, 3 indie movies and 2 are the theme songs to popular podcasts. We've seen our ASCAP royalties reports and have had weird sneaky heavy airplay in other countries at times. We've clawed and scratched our way to breaking even on small tours we had no business going on. We spent a grand total of $10,000 on our first album in 2008. And in 2018, our spreadsheets show that the album finally recouped its money. This isn't a smart businesses decision for making money, yet we're proud of that track record. It means we're credible enough to continue making music - even if we're "in the red" for the first 10-15 years of each album.
So, I feel a little weird on one hand giving advice on being a "successful" music artist. We've never been played on SiriusXM radio and have never been on TV beyond a few appearances on local television in San Diego. But on the other hand, we are the poster boys for low-level successful D.I.Y. indie promotion.
We basically wanted our music to not be pointless, just have it be one solid notch above a hobby. We defined that as wanting to get heard by more than 5,000 strangers. Which we did.
30,000 Foot Vantage Point Advice
What's your goal? There's nothing wrong with making a vanity record. Seriously. There are lots of hobbies in this world and music is one of the best. Even if I lose $5,000 a year on music (which I don't) there's plenty of friends who spend that much on bar tabs and gambling losses, much less fancy cars and expensive vacations. If you love music, you love music. There's no shame in making a vanity record.
Here's the good news about being a total unknown: Nobody is waiting for the album. No record company pressuring you. No reddit comments wondering when you'll stop being so lazy. As a result, you can take your sweet time.
No matter how long it takes to make your record, once you're wrapping it up you are going to need at least 4-6 months to do it promotional justice. Even so, I do recommend a longer schedule than what I describe in this article. This is going to be a slog. You probably don’t have 3 hours a day to devote to this for 4 months; with 6-8 months instead, it won't seem as hard. That said, I'm sure you want to hurry up and get this record out.
This can feel overwhelming. In fact, this list and article may overwhelm you. We hope that’s not the case. Our intent here is for you to break things up in chunks in a very realistic and do-able schedule to make the most out of making your album.
First - Your Website, ASAP
Musts - Photos, video, bio, lyrics, live show schedule. Those are the basics.
Design and Hosting - Host on a DIY platform, or look for a good consultant (such as Plannedscape www.plannedscape.net) to help you.
Music Player - Have this "above the fold", meaning at the top of your site. If you have a music site, you want users to be able to press Play and listen to you within about 1.5 seconds of your site loading. Hearing the music is 10x more important than any photo or award.
Google Analytics - If your music site doesn't give you the ability to track who's visiting, for how long and what they're doing, it's not a serious site. Hell, if your business site does use analytics, it's not a serious site.
Mailing List - You should already have one. If you don't, start one among your close friends and family and build from there.
Testing - Look at your own site on multiple browsers; and smartphone and tablets as well. Have a couple friends check it out. You'll be amazed at what you can miss.
We’re going to leave you in suspense just as we got in the to-do list.. Next week in Part 2 we’ll get into the meat of the to-do list (available starting Oct 4, 2022).