It was the logical next step for my band Living Illusion. We had played tons of local shows, did some minor touring and gained a little buzz, so we decided it was time to get serious. Our first album was an experiment more than anything and considering it was self-recorded & produced in a friend’s studio it sounded pretty good. For our next album, we wanted more. It was time to throw our best material out there and build a future for the band.Go big or go home.
To be honest we could have went “bigger,” but seeing as I was the sole financial backer on the project, we kept going until I literally ran out of money. I learned a lot from the process but it’s scary to look back at how naive I was. Full of piss and vinegar, I wanted to get the best product out there to the world, assuming that this would lead us to success. Initially when we decided to record our second album “Suffering” it was only supposed to cost around $10k, but once production started it became a never ending slew of unforeseen expenses. Going through 3 different mixers had to be the most expensive addition. It also didn’t help when you get so far in over your head that you think, “What’s another $3k when I already spent $10k”.
If there was one thing I would’ve done differently it would’ve been to save my money for marketing and promotions, because spending a whack load of money on the album to get the best production did not lead us to success. It’s not to say quality production has no value, it’s just that production alone is no longer enough to get your music heard and praised by others like it used to.
We’ve hit a crossroads where more quality music is being self-produced than ever before and a person’s interests and tastes can be more hyper specified than ever. Giving access to your music has become easier for independent bands, but that’s not where the problem lies. It’s about getting it in front of the right people, people who like your style, making them a fan and hopefully a customer. You have to seek out your fans now. No one will be googling your band unless you give them a reason to.
I now present to you the lessons I learned along the way that will hopefully help you avoid some of the mistakes I made, give you a leg up and assist you on your path to building successful music careers.
1) Build Your Buzz FIRST!
There are plenty of great bands out there that DON’T have an album or recorded songs released who can still draw people out to a show. Through word of mouth, social media and by having an engaging live performance you can actually gain an audience without investing in recording your music. Once you start performing, people will ask YOU for the recorded music if they like your songs. Build your audience first before you go investing money into a product you aren’t certain if people even want. This isn’t to say you can’t record yourself affordably; it’s just a matter of making sure the songs themselves are solid, that the music has legs and that people want it. When it comes to recording, the best plan is to start with just one great song, not a whole album. So…
2) Strive to Write One Great Song… then keep writing!
When it comes to songwriting and the deciding factors of what make a great song, it can be difficult to measure, as taste is subjective. People’s musical preferences can vary greatly, but as far as songwriting itself, there is a simple test that I am going to be using from now on: you should be able to break the song down to nothing but the chord progressions, melody lines and lyrics.
If it’s truly a great song, especially for popular music, it should be catchy, relatable, and emotional; it should make the listener feel something. Once you have the foundation it should translate well into most other styles not just the genre that it is in. Obviously this wouldn’t work to well with Death Metal or Dub-Step, but for most styles of popular music, this is a great philosophy that I will be adopting going forward. If you break the song down to an acoustic guitar with a strong vocalist and great lyrics and it’s well received, you might have something worth investing in. Once you do…
3) Give Away Your Music for FREE
One of the promoters that I work with in the industry is strictly against this. He says that giving away your music for free devalues your work and people perceive your music to be better if you charge for it. As much as I understand his sentiment, I’m going to have to agree to disagree. You can’t devalue that which has no value. No one can judge the value of your music without listening to it first.
The music itself has become a promotional tool to get people interested in your band and get them out to your live shows. If people really like your music and want you to keep creating it, they will give you money to invest into your creative works. However, they need a point of reference first to formulate their opinion. They can’t be expected to invest when they have no context. Also, over the years I think people got tired of being duped into buying an entire album of music when all they wanted was the single. Which means…
4) Promotion is as Important as Production
If you build it, they will NOT come… unless they know about it! This rings true for all creative projects but even more so for new ventures, musicians in particular.
When it comes down to it, you need to invest just as much energy if not more into promoting your music as you do into producing it. Production no longer separates independent bands from the heavy hitters with big money. You need to find creative ways to get your music out there through promotions, advertising and word of mouth. If your music is appealing, people will share it with others. People love to say “I was listening to that band long before they were famous,” your songs just have to be good enough to get people to share them. Invest in online promotions, upload your songs to blogs and send CDs to College & University Radio.
There is also an abundance of indie movie producers looking to acquire new music to use in soundtrack compilations. Offer them your music for free! There are a lot of opportunities available to you. Do whatever you can to get your music out there! And lastly…
5) Never Give Up!
As musicians we will face many obstacles on our journey to make a successful career out of our creations. It’s the ones who keep pushing through when obstacles appear that are able to reach the next level. Make music that makes you happy. When mistakes are made or things don’t pan out the way you expect, take time to reflect and learn from your experiences. You have to be willing to grow, to learn and keep going. Rejection is rampant in this industry where some ones subjective opinion decides the fate of whether you get that awesome gig or those spins on a radio station.
The best advice I can give is to just keep going. Every album and performance you make will only get better than the last one if you stick to it, work hard and actively participate in evolving your abilities. How many popular bands have 3 or more CD’s out there before they become popular? Your relationships will develop as well and things will get easier, the snowball bigger. Don’t be discouraged and remember why you are doing it in the first place, because you love it!
And there it is. The 5 biggest lessons I learned from this whole experience. I really hope it can help other artists out there. I love making music, so this isn’t going to stop me, but let me tell you, I wish someone would have mentioned this stuff to me back before I invested all that money!
Would love to hear feedback so please feel free to comment below!
That being said here is a copy of the last Living Illusion album Suffering for all you awesome folks that read my blog to download and enjoy for free:
(Just click the link and the download will start / it may take a second)
And here’s the first Album because people were asking for it:
The continued support from you guys is what keeps us going.
Musician / Blogger
Digital Media Designer
* Big thanks to We Are the Music Makers Reddit community who helped make this article possible.
2 thoughts on “5 Lessons YOU Can Learn From My Mistakes: I Spent $20,000 Making an Album I Can’t Even Give Away”
Hi Shane! Awesome blog. It’s been a long time. I was thinking the other day about Living Illusion and wondering what happened with you. Many years ago you won a Battle of the Bands in St. Paul. The prize was a free demo produced by me… never heard back from you. Good to see your still at it. I will download your new album and check it out (still have your first one on cd). Please take a minute and check out my website http://gerbrandtband.com/
I need to check these comments. I do remember you Mike! We’re still at it in a different form those these days. Glad to hear you are doing well. We will definitely check out your stuff! Grab our NEWEST album for free http://livingillusion.bandcamp.com