How To Release an Album in the 21st Century

A few days ago, I organized and ran sound for Amanda Palmer’s Kickstarter party.

Some of you may know Palmer for her work with her old band, The Dresden Dolls, for her solo albums on Roadrunner Records, or for her collaborations with her husband, the acclaimed author Neil Gaiman.

Those of you who haven’t heard of Amanda Palmer probably will this week. That’s because the final tally of contributions to her Kickstarter campaign exceeded $1 Million – roughly 4 times that of the next highest-grossing musical act to use the platform.

In the brief time I was with her she fielded questions from the The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Economist.

The New Economics of DIY

It may be a little disingenuous to label Palmer a “DIY” artist as some have done.

Although she is no longer on a major label, and certainly puts tremendous amounts of personal time and effort into her career, that term is a little figurative for my tastes when it’s used to describe artists who have management teams and publicists, who recruit Ben Folds to produce their upcoming albums, and who travel with tour support. That kind of thing is normally referred to as “running a business.”

Although I love the DIY ethos, I’d prefer we reserve the term to describe what you or I are doing when we change our own oil, raise chickens in our backyard, silkscreen our own T-shirts, or record an EP in our bedroom and throw it up on Bandcamp. To indiscriminately use “Do It Yourself” to describe all independent success stories dilutes the term and, more dangerously, fails to paint an accurate picture for the artists who would follow in their footsteps.

Still, an example like Palmer’s demonstrates how much the industry has changed, and how it may be coming full-circle in some ways. While her prior album was considered a flop after selling 32,000 copies on Warner Bros’ Roadrunner label, her record-setting Kickstarter campaign required an audience only 75% that size to be a huge success.

How Many “True Fans” Do You Need?

Palmer’s million-dollar Kickstarter pot came from over 24,000 contributors, more than 3,000 of who gave over $100 each. But even by Palmer’s own accounts, she’d count herself lucky to be left with $100,000 at the end of the year.

“[It might] be close to zero as I head off on tour this fall,” she writes on her blog. “And you know what??…That’s FINE with me. It’s almost even THE PLAN. If I break even on this project, I still see this as a massive win.”

After crunching the numbers and taking her major-label past into account, it would be hard to say that Palmer’s Kickstarter success does anything to prove Kevin Kelly’s controversial “1,000 True Fans” theory (the idea that artists can support themselves on the graces of a thousand dedicated fans each spending $100 a year.)

Palmer needed three times that many devoted fans to get halfway to her final tally. Even then, it’s unlikely that she’ll turn much of a profit unless she attracts more listeners once the album is released. (Not to mention that it’s also unlikely she would be able to pull off a Kickstarter campaign on this scale once every year.)

For Palmer’s campaign, the most popular pledge was $25 for a collectible edition of the upcoming CD. 9,000 orders for that item brought her total to $225,000 – almost 25% of the way to her one-million-dollar pot. Other funding options included digital downloads, hand-painted turntables, copies of the book, and VIP concert packages.

The single highest-grossing premium turned out to be the promise of a house party featuring an appearance by Palmer herself. This option cost $5,000 and with nearly three-dozen sold, she earned an additional $180,000 – almost 20% of her total funding.

Of course, Palmer will have to work hard to earn her keep. If she plans to fulfill all of these pledges within a year, it would mean appearing at an average of 1 house party every 10 days for the next 12 months. This is in addition to launching a tour, publishing a book, and finishing production of her new album. If she gives herself 18 months, it would mean one house party every 2 weeks. In the end, the best strategy might be to clump them all together into a short span together and treat those house party appearances like a second type of tour.

While these figures – and this public radio style of fundraising – may seem novel, there’s a deeper reality underfoot. For all of our new distribution options, the most successful independent artists have realized that many of the standard operating procedures from the 20th century can’t be forgotten in the 21st.

In Defense of the Demo

When Palmer wanted to launch her album, art book, and national tour, she didn’t release a product first, and then cross her fingers in hopes that the orders would come pouring in.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what most unsigned artists have been convinced to do, and it almost never works.

A generation ago, unsigned artists created demos of their upcoming material, and used those demos to secure funding, promotion and distribution before completing their full-length albums in earnest.

This tried-and-true approach has taken a backseat to the “just throw it up there on the internet” strategy for more than a decade. But today, it’s become clear that this step is just as important as ever. The biggest difference is that now, even when independent artists aren’t demoing for label gatekeepers, they’re still demoing to attract an engaged audience of their own.

For Amanda Palmer, this meant sharing portions of her unfinished album and book directly with a devoted fan-base that she built over her decade-long major label career. In her case, the fans are now acting as her record label would have in the past, advancing her the money to complete her production, and giving her an indication of how to scale her plans.

This planned approach to self-releasing isn’t unique to the crowd-sourcing world. When Clap Your Hands Say Yeah managed to sell 250,000 copies of their 2005 debut album without the help of a conventional record label, many unsigned artists made the mistake of thinking that they too could randomly self-release a CD, and pray that it would catch fire.

This is a misconception because it neglects the reality that CYHSY did in fact need the help of publicists, a veteran music-industry manager, and a decent production budget to accomplish their seemingly unprecedented feat. It meant sharing a work-in-progress with a potential manager, and then using established PR channels to distribute a pre-release of their upcoming album with an audience of music bloggers who could then put the band in front of their own ample followings upon the record’s release.

Think of that the next time you hear of an unlikely DIY success story. As much as the internet has changed the world, these key elements have not disappeared – They’ve only morphed in shape.

The Day the Demo Died

It’s hard to say what killed the album demo. Maybe it was the Mbox or Myspace or the ease of online distribution. Whatever the case may be, fewer and fewer new artists have decided to draw a bright line between their demos and their official releases these past 10 years. If your goal is to create a full-length album for the sake of art alone, and you aren’t particularly concerned with recouping your costs or finding a sustainable audience, then this strategy might be fine.

But more and more, neglecting to go through a smart demoing process can be a real mistake from a music business standpoint as well as an artistic one. If your goals include using your music as a source of income, then there’s almost never a good reason to self-release a full-length album until you have established access to a potential audience for it, and planned to make the best release you can.

This is not a Catch-22. Instead of beginning with a full-length album, you can apply that same time and energy to recording and promoting the best singles or EPs you can make. You can devote that energy to playing excellent shows, working closely with other established musicians, and sharing your music with dozens of key influencers. Once you’ve built a real audience that is demanding more work, then it’s time to approach the full-length.

Zachary Cole Smith of the band DIIV (profiled in last month’s issue) has done an excellent job of this.

Smith signed up to fill in on guitar for an established band called Beach Fossils, earning himself some credibility in Brooklyn’s underground club scene. He then released two lo-fi, self-recorded 7” singles, and decided to make free downloads of these tracks widely available. He even managed to persuade outlets like Pitchfork and Stereogum to include those downloads on their own websites.

Although Smith and his label, Captured Tracks, were able to recoup some costs by selling vinyl editions, the most important function of these releases was their ability to help build an audience for DIIV’s future work. The success of these tracks also helped prove that it would be worthwhile to invest meaningful resources in DIIV’s upcoming LP, which the band could now justify recording in a real studio with a great engineer.

In a sense, DIIV’s initial lo-fi self-recorded tracks acted as a demo that was made available to the general public. Putting out four great songs at this level quality was enough to build real anticipation and intrigue. But releasing fourteen of them might have been the kiss of death.

The Internet Has Not Diminished the Importance of Good Pre-Production

Unless you’re recording music in the style of Calvin Johnson, Lou Barlow, Robert Pollard, or The Raincoats, it almost always makes sense to thoroughly sketch and review your material before recording it in earnest. Many new bands learn this the hard way.

“[For us], there was really no distinction between demos and final tracks,” Leo Maymind of the band Spanish Prisoners told me when I interviewed him about his first full-length for this month’s article on self-recording musicians.

“It was a very long process of adding and subtracting until we thought it was ready. There were even some sessions that dated back two years or so.” Maymind says that he’s “pretty burnt out on that approach now,” adding that in the future his group plans to “use the demos as demos, and then record everything together as a band.”

While Spanish Prisoners’ album may have turned out great regardless, they’ve come to recognize that it can be more gratifying and more sustainable when demos are used to explore possibilities, and to identify which songs and arrangements are working and which ones aren’t.

The Baltimore band Beach House (profiled in this issue) have learned this lesson as well. Their earliest recordings were made largely at home, and often grew out of their initial demos. Although these releases received some degree of critical acclaim, Beach House sounded like a band longing for a more immersive sound, and the albums failed to find a wide audience.

On their two most recent records, Beach House decided to use the demo process to plot a distinct road map of their albums in advance, essentially recording each of these new albums twice by the time everything was said and done. The result is a pair of painstakingly well-crafted albums, and both Teen Dream and Bloom have become some of the most talked-about new records of the past few years. “They didn’t just bring the songs, but a completely mapped-out demo,” co-producer Chris Coady told me. “They had drawn out charts, and they had a plan.”

In an ideal world, no band would go into a final tracking session until their demos sound almost good enough for release.

There are times when I’ve been frustrated to find myself working with incredibly promising new artists who have written music that I love, but who have under-prepared for their first real studio sessions. They may have excellent songs, great energy and an unforgettable personality, but it’s not until they’ve exhausted their basic tracking budget that they’ve finally whipped their arrangements – and their playing – into shape. The sounds may be great, but if the band isn’t at their best, it doesn’t matter much.

In cases like these, when we’re able to treat those sessions as the exploratory pre-production demos the band should have done, we can then quickly re-record their songs once again from the ground up, and the effect can be phenomenal. In cases where this isn’t possible, I’m left thinking of what might have been if they had thought of pre-production as an essential step.

(As an additional bonus, unreleased demos can be excellent perks to include in retrospective releases and Kickstarter campaigns. Die-hard fans love tracks like these, even if they only scare undecided fans away. It’s kind of like how you don’t mind handling your significant other’s dirty underwear on laundry day, but you feel differently when it’s your roomate’s dirty underwear instead.)

Some of this may seem obvious to our older readers who are familiar with traditional production budgets and timelines. But for a generation of musicians who learned to use GarageBand at the same time they were learning to play guitar – who were persuaded that once any song is recorded, it should go straight up on the web – this tried-and-true approach can sound counter-intuitive.

Don’t Delay – And Don’t Rush Either.

There are a million ways to make a great record that has a shot of finding a sustainable audience – One for every dollar that Amanda Palmer raked in through Kickstarter.

But for all the methods that do work, there’s one that almost never does: Namely, that’s starting a new band, immediately whipping up a full-length release, and slapping it up for sale on a website somewhere without a release strategy. Every time a band does this, the world is robbed of what might have been a life-altering record, and I want to stick a guitar string in my eye.

We may live in an internet age of crowd-sourcing campaigns and easy, unlimited distribution, but the most basic strategies of the record store era have not become irrelevant. If anything, these methods are more powerful than ever – precisely because so many independent artists have abandoned them completely.

All the self-release and indie-label successes that I’ve studied help confirm that artists still have the best chances of 21st century success when they embrace these neglected 20th century strategies.

For all our new technology, musicians still fare best when they: A) thoroughly demo their material, B) gain access to a wide potential audience before launching their big product, C) make direct contact with appropriate members of the press in advance of their release, and D) seek sustainable production budgets and veteran advice.

Look a little closer, and behind every “DIY” success story, you just might find a dozen people hard at work.

Justin Colletti is a producer/engineer and a journalist. When he’s not mixing music or writing articles for SonicScoop and Trust Me, I’m a Scientist, he volunteers for Vaudeville Park, WFMU and WNYC.

This entry was posted in Behind The Release, Featured Stories, Industry Trends, June 2012, Most Popular. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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