6 Steps for Successful Audio Mixing

Mixing is an art form that takes a lot of time and skill and even though we may spend a long time on any given mix it is a good plan to be able to have a strategy for commencing a mix down session. To some degree this is going to be influenced by the genre of music that is to be mixed but there is a lot one can do to start off on the right footing to create mixes that are likely to have good traits as opposed to bad traits. We are going to discuss mixing strategy and these pointers will assist with consistency and efficiency.

1) Gain structure 

This is fundamental and both technical and artistic, we will focus on technical reasoning for now. We want to avoid noise and distortion which occupy the extremes of the systems which we will use for recording and mixing. Too quiet and we risk hiss, too loud and we risk the dreaded crunch. In analog gear 0Vu was the level to aim for, people are often surprised when I say this equates to approximately a peak level of -10dBFS. (though it depends on transient information and the frequency content of the source)

DAW manufacturers do not help us by making  -10dBFS on the metering in their DAW’s look very  low indeed. Fact is if you keep your levels around -10dBFS you will be mixing at around the same electrical level as those professionals who mix on a big analog console. I suggest thinking very carefully about your gain structure when recording and mixing and a great tip is to always record and mix at 24 bit resolution. At 24 bit there is absolutely no need whatsoever to hit the level meters hard in record or mix stages. It serves no purpose (with the caveat of saturating a specific device for subjective effect) other than to diminish your headroom and create a higher chance of distortion in either the analog or digital domain.

2) Gain structure……. again ! 

So pointer 1 explains why good gain planning is good, now we need to consider how to practically achieve good gain structure. Arguably mixing starts in recording, thats what learned engineers know and teach. So when you record, record at 24 bit and leave headroom. Take level from a practice performance and peak at -12 to -14dBFS to allow for the enthusiasm of a “real take”.

This leaves your signals at just the right level to start mixing with plenty of headroom. Use a ‘peaky’ source in your mix down session like your snare and kick drum and use them as a reference to start your mixing. Let’s say you peak your kick at -12dBFS then add your snare then the rest of your kit, great…. except you are likely to want to process with EQ or compression at some point. This obviously changes level, so bear in mind you do not want to move your reference too far from where you started. So as you eq and compress try and bear in mind your -12dBFS ref and keep the peaky sources in this ball park. You do not have to do this religiously after all the goal is some head room not a bad sounding mix balance based on numbers ! It’s a balance, the right level to leave headroom and the juggling of level and balance that mixing by it’s very nature requires.

3) Throw up the faders 

Mixing is an iterative process for many so it is difficult to describe “how to mix” exactly. However you must start somewhere and no better place than introducing the faders with sources on and obtaining a rough balance. A rough balance is important as it allows you to consider what problems  exist and what ones can be rectified with your tool set. It starts the brain firing off in the right direction as to what sculpting might occur. Usually this is a process which happens extremely fast. You might get a quick succession of thoughts… like… “kick drum is muddy, snare needs some brightness, cymbals are harsh, a short reverb would be nice on snare from plug in “X”, overheads sound a touch wide, a touch of de-essing required on lead vocal, guitars have excessive hiss on them in the pauses, things like this.  If you need note them do so, but often if they are enough of a problem they will stick in mind or be rectified within a couple of minutes. In this way I think software is an advantage as it is very quick to load a plug in and act.

So assuming technical ability a rough mix can be a prototype mix within the hour if you have your chops together. That first hour has always been one which invokes slight excitement and nervousness in myself as you fathom what the sources have the potential to be. The judgement on the the individual sources and shaping them to become something greater when well blended is very exciting. This is where you gauge the potential of the sources and how hard you will need to work to obtain a sonic vision be your own or a producers.

4) Group your instruments

Groups are useful, predominantly for globally adjusting the level of a set of like instruments on a single fader but also for global processing. This could be using send effects such as reverb delays, chorus etc. and of course insert processing like compression or equalization. It is definitely worth setting up a few groups for your drums, guitars and vocals even if you are not sure you will use them at the outset.

5) Color is quicker

Making your project easier to navigate is going to make things more efficient. It might be a good plan to create some colour coding of tracks and channels. You may wish to develop your own colour templates which relates either to your own music or other types of music if you mix professionally. An electronic music production may have differences to acoustic r rock music for example. Once you have decided on a colour scheme that makes sense in your own mind you will find, mix after mix this becomes embedded in your way of working. This can speed up project navigation very nicely and keep the thoughts, impressions and remedial actions in a flow which gets results.  It can be a good idea to colour your groups something specific and as a whole as there tends not to be too many of them.

6) Masterful processing

Stereo master bus processing is very personal, some people like to mix with nothing on the master bus whereas some like to use their favourite eq or compressor. This can of course be digital or analog on the way to your monitoring. I recommend keeping things subtle and if you find yourself using anything that could be deemed as extreme the chances are you probably need to work a bit harder with your mix sources first.

Limiters are extreme processes, by and large they are not necessary to create a good mix. I can understand the reasoning behind them finding their way onto a master bus. A few reasons are that you are doing your own self finalizing so you want to hear how the mix responds when being driven into a limiter or you might want to get a rough idea of what the track might sound like when professionally mastered. Some people simply like the sound of a limiter, after all not all limiting is bad.

With limiters it is most important to consider not boxing yourself into a corner. Mixing into a limiter for whatever reason will effect your mixing decisions. Drums and bass/present vocals will especially will especially be effected. Novice mixers will crush their mix to hold things in place (even limiting on channels), this will stunt your mixing skills progress in my personal opinion. It will also hinder any self mastering or professional mastering procedures. One reason some mixes sound good is often because there is space, interaction, dynamic interplay and transient information that adds excitement and power. Extreme use of limiting reduces all of that.

I would say to use bus compression and equalization you need to have a very true monitoring environment. You should be confident of the accuracy of the response of your monitors in room otherwise you can easily compound problems that already exist. This may make them more difficult to rectify later should you realize there is a problem with translation.So use these processes with care and attention to subtle tweaks rather than extreme changes. If a compressor or equalizer is adding something subjectively euphonic to a mix then there is no problem whatsoever. However if they are there to increase perceived volume only they are best left bypassed.

If you use the right gain structure there will be no need to protect digital zero with a  limiter  as ample headroom will be built in to the stereo master bus.


Mixing is often a very personal technique but applying some well grounded technical information and continuity between projects can bring enhanced results. This makes the way you mix more efficient and can definitely assist in achieving more consistent results and keep the mic down work flow logical and efficient.

My Ever-Changing Career as a Musician

When I was in college, I held several part time jobs to make ends meet. One of those part time jobs was playing guitar at a few restaurants every month. Nothing glamorous, but I was happy to be playing guitar. I started keeping track of how much money I made on those gigs to see if I could justify quitting one of the other part time jobs.

It turns out keeping a detailed list of my music income has served me well over the last 10 years. I was eventually able to justify quitting all of my day jobs and become a full time musician, and since being a full time musician, I’m able to keep a finger on the pulse of my various streams of musician income. Just as a shop owner keeps track of her inventory and carries whatever products are in demand, I’ve been able to assess and adjust my inventory of music jobs that keep me in business.

Over the last 10 years the way I make a living has changed dramatically. I’ve never made a lot of money, but I’ve been able to make more each year despite the changes in the music industry and economy in general. Here’s my method and what I’ve learned along the way.

Multiple Streams of Income

One thing I learned early on was to diversify my income. If one stream hits a drought, you can lean on the others to get by. Here’s how I categorize my income:

  1. Non-Union Gigs
  2. Union Gigs
  3. Recorded Music Sales/Streams
  4. Royalties
  5. Miscellaneous

Anything that pays me to be playing guitar falls under one of the gig categories. Performances, rehearsals, recording sessions, etc. Additionally, I separate my gigs between non-union and union, mainly because my accountant tells me to (taxes are withheld from my union paychecks), but it also gives me a good understanding of where I make more money. Currently, that’d be non-union gigs.

My recorded music income is essentially anything I make from my distributor: CD and download sales, streams, ringtones and whatever other formats exist today.

Royalty income is earned through BMI. There are other avenues to earn royalties, but for now, I’m only earning money through BMI. This income is also reported in a separate space on my tax return, so I keep strict records for my accountant.

The miscellaneous category covers a lot of ground, but none of it is significant or regular enough to warrant tracking under it’s own category. Some of this income includes:

  • Licensing
  • Commissions
  • Teaching lessons/masterclasses/clinics
  • Revenue from websites (MusicianWages and my own)
  • Transcriptions/charts
  • Arranging/orchestrating
  • Backend earnings that don’t qualify as royalties

Broad Categories for Musician Income

Dave Hahn and I have often discussed musician income in two broad categories: Active/Passive and Yours/Others. Naturally, I think of my earnings in this way as well.

Active Income / Passive Income

Active Income, also known as Earned Income, is a finite amount of money paid for specific time or services. Everything under the Gig categories and about half of the jobs under Miscellaneous count as Active Income. Every month I try to make sure there are enough jobs that create Active Income to at least cover my expenses.

Passive Income is the money I make from my recorded music, royalties, website revenue, and various other backend percentage agreements. I usually have an idea of about how much Passive Income I’ll earn each month, but experience tells me that you can’t count on the check arriving before rent is due. Nonetheless, this money is vital in rounding out my income, especially when there are holes in my calendar for Active Income jobs.

Your Music / Other People’s Music

This broad category is pretty easy to understand:

Your Music is basically anything you create as an artist or songwriter. If you have your own original band and play shows and sell CDs, then you’re making money from your own music.

Everything else is Other People’s Music. If you work as a sideman, play in a cover band, in a church, in musical theatre, teach, or any other type of musician job we’ve ever discussed on this site that you can’t call your own music, then you’re making money from other people’s music.

How My Streams of Income Have Changed

Creating Passive Income with my Original Music

In 2007 I was working a full time job at a major record label, a job I’d somewhat fallen into through temp work a couple years earlier. Meanwhile I was playing a few times a month with my own jazz trio, performing mostly original music from an album I’d independently released earlier in the year.

The day job helped me cover rent and bills, which freed up most of my music income to be reinvested. In other words, I could use my music income for things like paying my band, saving up to make a new album, or buying new gear–all things I felt would have long term benefits to my career as a musician. I was my own patron, supporting myself as my art developed.

At this time, most of my music income came from music sales, and most of that was through iTunes. You see, for a brief period of time I figured out a way to use iMixes in the iTunes Store to help people discover my music. I started making enough money that in early 2008 I quit my day job and took a pay cut to become a full time musician.

Because I was making most of my money as passive income with my own music, the logical thing to do was create more content–or write and record more music. In 2008 and 2009 I wrote and recorded a new album for my trio while also creating several DIY albums with friends under various monikers. I figured each recording was a new asset that could potentially earn more passive income down the road. And for a time it did.

By the end of 2009, however, it was clear that the decline in music sales that had been decimating record stores since 2001 was finally catching up to the small, independent artist and DIY scene that had gained some footing a few years earlier. Despite having three times as many albums (for a total of nine) available on iTunes and other online stores, my distributor was paying me a quarter of what I had been making on average the year before. It’s even less today, and unless I wanted to get a day job again, I needed to beef up my other streams of income.

Generating Active Income with Other People’s Music

Having worked for a record label, I knew that a decline in my record sales was inevitable. Once I quit my day job, I had a lot more time to start playing with other people. I began networking with other musicians and gradually started playing as a sideman.

Playing other people’s music is a much different gig than playing your own music.

When you write and perform your own music, it’s easy to cater to your strengths. When your job is to play other people’s music, you really can’t have any weaknesses.

To become a well rounded guitarist, I started transcribing players from all genres, especially genres in which I had less experience, like country. Gradually I felt confident copping the styles of many major guitarists. You never know when the person hiring you will ask for a David Gilmour lick in one song and a Vince Gill lick in another. You don’t have to play like every guitarist all the time, but you have to convincingly play like any guitarist some of the time.

I also had to think about earning active income, which meant playing a lot more gigs. One of my goals was to play 100 shows in a year, and doing whatever was necessary to make that happen.

In New York City, original bands play about once a month locally, more if they tour. Cover bands might play once or twice a week. Broadway and Off-Broadway shows run 8 times a week, and as a sub you can usually count on at least a few gigs a month. In order to reach 100 shows, it was clear I needed to play a lot of different gigs as a sideman.

This was a lot easier to do without a day job. Learning music can be a full time job in itself, and for every band you play with you can expect at least one rehearsal each month. Networking also takes time. I spent many late nights going to friends shows trying to meet other musicians.

Eventually I began playing with singer/songwriters, rock bands, pop singers, a bluegrass band, jazz vocalists, and occasionally playing private events and club dates. At first I didn’t ask for much money, but as I got busier it was easier to value my time. I found that if a gig wasn’t paying much, and especially if I wasn’t that into the music, it was best to walk away amicably because a better gig was always around the corner.

In 2012 I’m on pace to play about 125 shows. The active income I’ll earn from playing other people’s music this year will more than make up for passive income I’ve stopped earning with my own music.

Nurturing the Odd Jobs

Along with playing and recording, there are many types of musician jobs to supplement your income. These jobs help round out your days and can often get you through sales droughts and slow months for gigs.

The first job that comes to mind is teaching private lessons. Now, for many musicians, this is actually their main gig. I enjoy teaching motivated students, but for the most part I never have more than a couple weekly students at a time. Most of the time I’ll teach a few lessons to intermediate to advanced level students that want to work on something very specific. I’ve attracted many of my students by posting semi-regular free guitar lessons on my website. Currently I have one Skype student and one local student.

Other services I offer include recording demo tracks for songwriters, writing easy to read charts for bands, and arranging horn or string parts. These are all active income jobs.

Although recorded music sales are dwindling, there is still money to be made from recordings. Licensing your music is an incredibly viable way to keep some passive income flowing. I’ve delivered most of my music to various music libraries and fostered relationships with people in music supervision. The music I’ve recorded so far has been licensed more and more frequently, and I’m also earning quarterly royalty checks through BMI. The big money, however, is in exclusive custom jobs, and I’ve submitted several demos for commercials. I haven’t landed anything yet, but eventually I will.

I also earn some money through my websites. MusicianWages.com was created as a passion, but Dave and I have built it up to a point where we can make a little bit of money each month.

Looking Ahead

There are limitations to the work I’m doing now, and I’m constantly thinking of solutions.

There’s only one Friday and Saturday night a week, and as I get busier I get more calls to play those nights. Eventually some of those bands are going to have to replace me with somebody that’s more available. The only way to make more money is to land gigs that pay more. These gigs are higher pressure and have more competition, so I try to play all of my current gigs as perfectly as possible. You never know who’s listening. I sometimes tell people who ask me about my career that I’m no rockstar, but if a rockstar called and needed me for a tour, I could get the job done.

Another option is to find gigs earlier in the week. Most of these gigs pay less, with the notable exceptions of tours and Broadway gigs. This year I started subbing on a couple shows off Broadway, including the revival of Rent, and I believe I’m well equipped to play more of these highly competitive gigs.

I also see the importance of writing music. All kinds of music. Publishing is still a viable source of income for musicians, and if you have a writer credit on a few successful songs, you can make decent money. I try to write something every day–even if it’s just four bars of melody–and am always open to collaborate with other musicians.

And finally, I’d like to keep developing my own music and create art for the sake of art. After all, that’s the reason I started playing music in the first place!

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the music industry, it’s that these days nothing stays the same for long. Multiple streams of income makes it easier to adapt. Owning the rights to my albums means I can exploit them however I see fit in the future. Playing a lot of gigs with a lot of different bands prepares me for bigger, higher paying gigs. If any of these miscellaneous jobs turn into a bigger gig, I’ll be prepared for that, too. I can’t control when opportunity will knock, but I know I’ll be ready.

Half a Million Downloads and 500,000 Dilemmas

Allow me to start at the end:

And in the end, I feel conflicted about the project.  As I continue to build my songwriting career, I feel encouraged by the numbers.  500,000 people downloaded my music (and not the easy way – they had to create a profile on a single clunky website to get the songs).  400,000 people have watched my YouTube videos.

I don’t care what anybody says – you don’t get those numbers with crappy music.  Someday, maybe, people will say, “Man, did you know that Dave Hahn had a million YouTube views before he ever had a hit?”

On the other hand, in the two years I’ve been working on the project, I’ve made $673.02.

$673.02 is about what it costs to live in Manhattan for 4 days.


This is essentially a story about a side project that took off.  And it’s about the state of the music industry today.  And it’s about fart jokes.  Well, not fart jokes, but whatever the musical equivalent of fart jokes is. Which is:



I was bored, maybe. I had been ignoring my songwriting side for too long.  I had spent all my time hustling after gigs on Broadway and no time on music that I really loved (no offense, Broadway).

Songs started coming out. Silly ones at first. Goofy ones. Marginally inappropriate ones. But all catchy. And they were funny – some of them very funny.

So I started recording them and showing my friends on Facebook.  And people liked them! 300 downloads in an hour – that kind of liked them.

It’s fun to make things that people like, so I made more.  They were just 30-second joke songs.  It occurred to me that they’d make great ringtones, so I started writing them with that in mind.  I made about 30 of them in, I think, about 2 weeks.

If you’d like, you can listen to them here.

My friends wanted to know how to get them on their phones – and what could I tell them?  How would I know?  I’m not a phone expert.

The Rush

So I found a site that would let me distribute homemade ringtones – Myxer.com.  I put them up for free and my friends would download them to their phones.  But then everybody seemed to get into it – 2,000 downloads a day, that kind of everybody.

I thought, “Wow, cool. Goofy or not, these are songs I wrote and people really dig them. That’s a really great feeling.”

And also: “There’s a real demand here.  I could start a whole business.  I’ll have my friend make a logo. I’ll make a website.  I’ll start developing an app.”

And finally: “I’ll just charge $1 each. Perhaps I won’t get 2,000 downloads a day, but surely a percentage of these people will pay $1 for these songs.”

But I was wrong.  People wouldn’t pay a dollar.  Downloads fell immediately to maybe six a day, then nothing.  I made the price just $0.50 each – still nothing.  I put it back to free for a day and within a few hours the rush was back. 2,000 a day or more.

Part of the problem was Myxer – they promote free ringtones on their home page and dismiss the premium ringtones to the abyss of invisible content standing dormant in the innards of their site.

And part of the problem was the medium.  You can sell ringtones yourself, but there’s two problems:

  1. There are more than 50 different ringtone file formats used in the world. Which is difficult enough in itself, but then it’s combined with #2…
  2. As I described before, people want to know how to get your ringtone on their 1997 Zach Morris brick phone (or similar), which you don’t know how to do – especially for 2,000 people a day.

I’m sure you can picture the dilemma. I had to use Myxer, but Myxer was no help.

“Ok, fine,” I thought, “I don’t care if people ever hear this music. If somebody wants the ringtone on their phone it costs $1.” It stayed like that for awhile.  I made maybe $0.90 a month.

My Wise Friend

A little while later a songwriter friend came to stay with me. I told him the story, complete with my indignation over the unfairness of Myxer and those fickle ringtone consumers!

He said, “Look, man, you’re a songwriter.  Would you rather have 2,000 people a day hear your music, or 3 people a day?”

And, wisely, “How much money would you pay to have 2,000 people a day listen to your music? Would you pay $0.90?”

I felt like he made a good point.  And what was there to do? By then I’d submitted the songs to all the placement services I knew of at the time – without any responses back.  They’d be great in a cell phone commercial, I imagined, but landing a major corporate placement was a big leap from my little perch in the Broadway scene. I was now selling them on the iTunes Ringtone Store through Tunecore, but marketing options were limited (ie, you can’t link to a ringtone in the iTunes Store – hell, you can’t even see them unless you are looking at iTunes from a mobile device).

So I made them free.

And I promoted them.  I created YouTube videos for them. For awhile I had a whole site for them (now absorbed into Songwriter.fm). I released a 22-track, mastered album (with commissioned album art even!) of these funny ringtones.

Counterintuitively, making the ringtones free and promoting them actually helped grow sales in the iTunes Store (perhaps an important lesson in itself).  These days the Tunecore revenue is around $80-100/month. And the YouTube channel brings in ad revenue – a humble amount I’m not allowed to disclose as part of the standard Adsense contract.

And now they’ve been downloaded to 500,000 cell phones worldwide.  They’ve been viewed on YouTube 400,000 times.

And I’ve made a profit of $673.02.


So, in the end, you already know how I feel. I think I’ve succeeded (in a quirky, farty-joke kind of way) as a songwriter on this project. I wrote songs people like to listen to – songs people share with their friends. That is a difficult thing to do in any format or any genre.

But I didn’t make much money. And maybe that’s just how it goes this time. Maybe that’s what I get for making musical fart jokes. If I’d written an ALBUM (like a NORMAL HUMAN BEING) that was formally downloaded 500k times, I might have a different story to tell.

So maybe that’s what I’ll do.

What would you do?

Making Free Downloads Work For You

Most independent musicians don’t have large marketing and advertising budgets to spread the word about their music. You’ve spent most of your money on the recording itself, why not use that as your marketing tool? Giving away your music might seem counter-productive if you’re ultimately trying to sell it, but giving away the right amount, and to the right people, can help you build your email list, learn more about your audience, fuel word-of-mouth marketing, and spur greater sales in the long run. After all, the end goal of any marketing, advertising, or promotional plan is to get people to listen to your music.

How much should you give away?

Usually one free track from your new album will do the trick. It’s hard enough to get people’s attention, so focusing on a single track will help even a small amount of buzz gain some critical mass. If you have older albums or demos, perhaps you can make some of that music available for free as well, but keep the focus on your new material.

How should you give it away?

Just because you are giving away your music for free does not mean you should give it away freely. Employ some strategy, using the following ideas, to make your free music work for you.

Build Your Email List

There are a number of ways to use a free download as an incentive for people to join your email list. I manage my email list with FanBridge, which allows me to send a free download automatically to every new subscriber. There are also some distribution services, such as Bandcamp or Topspin, which offer the free download in exchange for an email address.

Don’t forget to actually offer the download to those people already on your email list–after all, you should treat them like VIPs since they’ve already opted in. A free download is a great excuse to send an email blast, and you can ask your fans to share the mp3 with their friends.

Learn About Your Fans

Give a free song away or make it available to stream in places that can provide some metrics about who is listening. Widgets that can tell you who is listening, like those provided by Bandcamp and Topspin, or music-centric social networks like Last.fm, will help you understand who listens to your music, and where they are listening.

For example, I use Bandcamp widgets on my site. One is in the sidebar, though there are others throughout the site. Using Google Analytics, I know which pages and blog posts are getting the most traffic, and Bandcamp tells me which pages people are on when they listen to music on the widget. Combining this information, I’ve started to learn how to write blog posts that attract the most people that will be interested in hearing my music.

If you’re unfamiliar with Last.fm, it’s a site that tracks users’ listening habits. For example, you can visit my Last.fm profile and see what I listen to at my computer! It’s a great place to give away a free track because the people who will download it there probably track their listening habits as well (called “scrobbling” on Last.fm). I’ve learned that the people who listen to my music the most don’t always have much in common with me. Naturally, we’d assume anybody that shares our taste in music would also like the music we create, but it turns out that’s not always true. Once I saw trends in my listeners’ libraries, I was able to promote my music to a wider yet still very targeted audience.

In both cases, using metrics helped me understand my audience and make better use of the time I spend online. But this can also come in handy when you promote shows, or just talk to people about your music. Learning more about my fans has been the most valuable result of giving my music away.

Target Fans with Fans

Offer free downloads to fans with the greatest reach. Do a little research and figure out which of your fans have popular blogs or use social networks regularly to talk about the music they love. Maybe they’re musicians themselves, or perhaps they’re just interesting people that write entertaining blogs. You never know who might be considered the “go to guy” for new music recommendations amongst his friends.

Send them a personal note with a download link and thank them for their support so far. Be specific–it helps to know what show you saw them attend last, or the last time they mentioned you on their blog. Tell them you’d like them to hear your new music before you release it. Chances are they’ll reciprocate by mentioning your music online.

Free Tracks Love Metadata

Whenever you give away your music, make sure you tell people where and when they can buy more! If you’re offering a free download before your album is released, make sure people know that. If the album is available, embed the link in the MP3 metadata. The importance of embedding your track with extra information (ie. metadata) cannot be overstated.

This is especially true when you send your music to your email list and bloggers. Give them all the information you’d like them to tell other people in a nice, neat few sentences that they could just copy and paste to their blog. You are essentially giving them a press release, but in a more personable fashion.

Again, the importance of metadata cannot be overstated. If you use iTunes, right click on a track and choose “Get Info.” I’m sure other media players have similar options to enter extra data for MP3s. Fill out as much of that information as possible. Include lyrics, sidemen, composers, links, or anything else you can think of. When your tracks end up on somebody’s computer, you want to make it easy for them to find more of your music!

How My Song Ended Up in a Movie

It was about this time 5 years ago that I had been diagnosed with cancer and had started 6 months of chemotherapy treatments.

Cancer, you might imagine, is a drag. And one of the most tedious parts of the process is the boredom. Sitting around hospitals, waiting for tests to come back…I’m a guy that likes to always be busy with 10 projects at once, so 6 months stuck in chemo was just not my speed.

I made up projects and goals for myself to get through those 6 months. One of the things I decided to work on was an album. It was a difficult time for my family, my friends and myself – and I like to think that music made it easier for all of us.

The Album

At the end of the 6 months I had a short collection of recordings, just 6 songs, and I decided that would be enough. In the end it was less about creating the perfect album, and became more about sharing some hard evidence that I had triumphed over cancer.

So out Straight Ahead came, digital only, in the summer of 2006. Cameron cleverly helped me get one of the songs into a popular iMix, and I sold a very modest number of copies of the album. I never made a great deal of money, but again, there had been non-monetary and even non-musical reasons for putting the album out there. I was satisfied.

The Offer

Skip ahead to summer of 2009. I was working as a music director at a summerstock theater in upstate New York. One afternoon an email arrives from a music licensing house. The email says that Sony Pictures is interested in licensing my recording of Nearness of You for a feature film called “Takers”.

I nearly deleted the email. I thought it was spam. It seemed like one of those “Nigerian businessman needs your social security number” kind of emails. And it has an attachment (always a dubious sign). Just to be safe, though, I sent the email to a cousin that works in film, asking him if it looked legit to him.

To my surprise, it turned out to be a legitimate offer from Sony Pictures. They were interested in my recording. They said that had a scene in the movie where one friend plays piano while another friend proposes to his girlfriend. They thought the recording was a good fit for the scene and they wanted to secure the rights prior to filming the scene.

The Source

My first question was: How did they find my recording? The answer: iTunes.

If you think about it, that is quite incredible. Just a few years ago, before iTunes was invented, it would have been unimaginable that a normal, non-famous musician could score a song placement in a major feature film without the help of an agent, radio play, a manager or a friend on the inside. If Sony is, in fact, combing iTunes for songs in their upcoming movies, we should sit for a moment and marvel at how resolutely iTunes has democratized our industry. You, dear reader, can get a song in a movie. Just pay CD Baby $35 and get your material into digital distribution, and you will have just as good a chance as anyone.

The Movie

I considered hiring a lawyer for the contract negotiations, but I decided to rely on the good advice of my cousin and another friend in the film business. Everyone agreed that the offer they gave me was reasonable, so I signed the contract and faxed it back.

The movie was filmed soon thereafter, and “Takers” was released a year later – just last month. In the scene, the recording is performed by Hayden Christensen’s character, “AJ”, as his friend Jake (Michael Ealy) proposes to his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana). They used about 1 minute of the recording.

I went to see the movie in Manhattan with Cameron and a few other friends. What a trip to hear my music on the big screen! What a thrill to sit with friends in a movie theater in New York City and see my name in the credits! How incredible is it that something that started with a cancer patient in suburban Illinois could end up in a Hollywood movie at that AMC in Manhattan?

Do Something

So how did I get my song in a movie? A little work and a lot of luck. My guess is that somebody at Sony searched iTunes for “solo piano ballad” or something similar.

Will I be able to repeat this stroke of luck? Can I give you advice on how you can do it too? I don’t know. It’s hard to predict what the good folks in Hollywood will be looking for in the future.

Obviously, though, none of us will have any hope at all if we don’t continue to make recordings and put them into digital distribution. So keep creating, keep recording, keep releasing – and see what happens. You never know what people will be looking for.

Or, as Cameron more succinctly summed up in The Art (of Act) of Doing, the best advice I can give is this: do something.

Registering Copyrights for Musicians

Copyright is a form of intellectual property law granting exclusive rights to the creators of intangible assets, such as music. Under the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, which the US signed in 1989, copyright is granted the moment the intellectual property becomes fixed in a tangible form.

In other words, the moment your write down or record a new song, you are automatically granted a copyright. Unfortunately, that copyright does not have much viability under a court of law, and  you should consider officially registering your copyright with your government.

Officially registering your music is a voluntary, but important step if you plan on commercially exploiting your recordings or songs. It will legally protect your intellectual property should somebody else blatantly copy it, or if somebody claims you have copied their work. While copyright infringement doesn’t happen often, every year there are always a few stories of a relatively unknown artist making a claim against a major pop act. To make a claim, or defend against one, the most important piece of evidence is the date the work was created and published. The best way to prove this in a court of law is with a properly registered copyright.

If you are a resident of the United States, you can easily register your works with the Library of Congress online at the United States Copyright Office. At the writing of this article, the registration service costs $35. To save money, you can register many works at once, as a single collection.

The process is actually quite easy. Until registration was available online, I procrastinated doing so for my own songs. Today I registered some new pieces in less than 30 minutes. This outline will show you how easy it is to do, and hopefully encourage you to consider it for your own music.

How To Register Your Copyright

To get started, head over to http://copyright.gov and follow the link to the eCO (Electronic Copyright Office). The registration process involves three steps:

1) Application

This is where you fill out all the information about yourself and your works, and therefore is the most confusing part of the process.

First you must select your type of work:

  • To register the recording of your music as well as the underlying composition, choose Sound Recording.
  • If you are only registering the underlying composition, select Work of the Performing Arts.

Note that for copyright to exist, the work must be in a fixed, tangible form such as a recording or sheet music.

Next you will enter the titles of your work. If you are registering multiple songs under one claim registration, you will need a title for the whole collection. This could be the title of the album, or something less specific. For example, I just registered my latest album, Tributary, plus a number of recordings I created for other purposes, like licensing. I decided to call this Cameron Mizell Anthology. That title is entered as a “Title of Work” and each song is entered as a “Contents Title.”

When registering multiple works under one claim, the ownership must be the same for every work in the collection. In other words, every song must be written by only you, or have the same co-writers on each track. If the writer credits vary from song to song, you can still register the pieces as one claim if all the writers are part of the same umbrella entity, such as a publishing company, and the copyright is registered to that entity.

2) Pay the Registration Fee

Pretty self-explanatory.

3) Submit Your Work

Once you’ve paid, you’ll have to submit your work to the Copyright Office. You can do this by either shipping physical copies to the office, or uploading electronic copies online. Considering the heightened security measures at most government offices, it’s probably best to submit your work electronically. In fact, their official instructions advise “that CDs/DVDs packaged in standard full-sized jewel boxes are more likely to survive the mail radiation process than those packaged in slim-line cases.” Yikes.

Sound recordings can be submitted electronically as MP3s, WAV or AIFF files, or any of the acceptable formats listed in the help section.

If you are uploading a large number of songs, I recommend uploading at 128kbps MP3s because the eCO system will time out after 60 minutes of uploading. Smaller files will simply upload more quickly.

If your work is commercially available, for example you are officially registering your album released last year, my understanding is that you will have to send physical copies anyway. I recommend doing this registration process before you release your music so you can submit electronically.

What’s Next?

Once you have completed your registration, you’re done! I’ve learned that the Copyright Office doesn’t file every copyright registration claim right away, but should information on one of your works come into question, they will pull it from their database, see the date they received your claim, and process as normal.

Copyright Alternatives

Finally, I should mention alternatives to copyright such as the Creative Commons. Some people believe that copyright law is too restrictive and actually hampers the creative expression. Copyright law was first established as a financial incentive for creators of intellectual property, but over time critics have been concerned that the expansion of copyright laws actually discourage creative collaboration.

I admit that I am no expert on this debate, but I understand that it is an important development in my line of work so I pay attention. If you would like to learn more, check out the Creative Commons website.


The information contained in this web site is provided to you “AS IS”, does not constitute legal advice, and we are not acting as your attorney. We make no claims, promises or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained in or linked to this web site and its associated sites.

Creating a Budget for Your New Album

Creating a budget for a new album means figuring out not only how much money you’ll need, but also how much time it will take from your first rehearsal to release day. After releasing a number of my own albums and answering questions from many of my friends doing the same, I’ve been caught off guard enough times to know where the hidden expenses are, how to save money, and where my money is best spent.

Naturally, the DIY environment is changing increasingly fast as technology makes releasing your own album easier than ever before. When I recorded my first CD in 2004, just making it available to sell online seemed like a big deal. Years later, my latest album has been an entirely different experience. From recording (we went analog this time), to setting up a direct to fan CD pre-order, I’ve been able to produce a far better product today for only a little more money than I spent on my first album.

Better technology does have it’s pitfalls, however. Just because it’s possible to record an album on Monday and have it available on iTunes on Tuesday doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for your music. Taking some time to establish your goals, determine what you can realistically afford and how you will afford it, can help you create the best album possible.

In this article, I’ve tried to give you an idea of a realistic cost scenario for every stage of creating a new album, along with some tips from my own experiences, to help you create your budget. It turns out this is a lot of information. Use these quick links to skip around:

Do It Yourself or Hire Some Help?

Before you start, you need to know what you’re trying to accomplish. Do you want to make a stripped down acoustic album? Or maybe were you hearing a gospel choir singing back up when you wrote that one song. One you might be able to do on your own, the other is going to involve at least a gospel choir for help.

It is so easy to make your own album these days that you might feel like you can do it on your own. Let’s face it, your budget will be much smaller if you do it all yourself. This a valid approach if you can truly assess your capabilities. Learning to work within your limitations forces you to flex your creative muscles and face your own strengths and weaknesses. But just as you specialize in writing and playing music, there are people out there that specialize in the rest, and getting the right people on board can help your vision become a reality.

Furthermore, while making music is the most important part of releasing an album, it is really only the first step. Depending on how far and wide you want your music to travel, you’ll need to create some aesthetically pleasing artwork, manufacture CDs and other products, and market and distribute all these materials in an effective manner. Few people know how to do all of this stuff equally well, and almost none can do it alone or for free.

Favors from Friends vs. Paid Professionals

Part of creating a realistic budget is looking for places to cut costs. One way is to ask your friends for help. This is especially attractive when your friends are professionals. Why pay when you can get the same quality for free? But anybody that’s ever gotten married and used a friend or family member to handle the photography, catering, or other service knows where I’m going with this–sometimes it just pays to pay.

In my experience, favors are a very slippery slope. You can easily put a strain on your friendship if you don’t like the results or the job is taking too long. If the issues can’t be resolved, you may end up needing to hire somebody else anyway. You know the saying, There’s no such thing as a free lunch? That absolutely applies to this situation. Nothing is free. What you save in money will cost you in time and control.

Consider this: Whenever I use a friend on a job, and especially when they’re working for free, I allow them as much time as they need (within reason), and give them creative control over their piece of the job. Most creative types work to please their clients, and it’s not often they get a job that allows complete creative freedom. If your friends are really excited about working on your project, they are more likely to invest themselves in it. In other words, you want them to feel like the opportunity itself was worth their efforts.

As much as I (and probably most of you) want to believe people love to work on good art for art’s sake, the truth is, money motiviates. If you want to get something done on a schedule, paying for it usually does the trick. If your friends are trying to help you out while juggling paying clients your project becomes a lower priority. One of the advantages to hiring a pro is being treated in return as a pro. As their client, you are their priority.

Here’s a piece of advice when you do hire somebody. Always send it back at least once. Even if you’re blown away by their work, send it back with at least one piece of constructive feedback (but don’t be one of these guys). No matter what you discussed up front, it’s impossible for them to know what you’ll think of something.  Don’t be shy about asking for changes, but don’t be a jerk about it. There’s always something that could be a little better, and a true professional wants you to be happy and get your money’s worth.

The Music

From the first rehearsal until you have the production master in your hand, most of your albums expenses will fall under this category, and it should. The music in and of itself is the product your selling.

1) The Other Musicians

If you are a solo artist, or even a solid four piece band, making a record often involves bringing in extra musicians to fill out your arrangements. The cost of hiring other musicians can vary greatly depending on their skill, how much they contribute, or simply how much their time is worth. Name recognition is also a big factor–hiring a more established artist might help you sell more albums, and is therefore worth more. Here are a few examples of how sidemen might be paid:

Example Rates for Session Musicians:

  • By the session. ($50 per rehearsal, $200 per day of recording) This could change based on the number of sessions, the length of each session, and how many songs you expect them to learn.
  • By the song. ($50 – $100) Highly skilled session musicians can knock out a song in just a few takes. Because they are more productive than your average player, they might want to be paid per song.
  • By the album. ($200 – $500) If you’re a solo artist, using the same musicians for your entire will not only make your album sound more consistent, but can also save you money.
  • Supply and demand. Many first-call musicians are in such high demand that to book their time, you have to pay them accordingly. Remember, musicians don’t get paid vacation. If they have to sub out of other gigs or cancel lessons to make your recording sessions, they’ll probably ask to be paid at least as much money as they would have otherwise made that day.

Generally, when it comes to making an independent musician’s album, sidemen or session musicians are paid based the rehearsal and recording time. Royalties for subsequent sales or use of the music (such as being licensed for a commercial) only become an issue if the sideman had a creative contribution to your song.

For example, if you hire me to record lead guitar for one of your songs, a lick, melody, or solo that I wrote or improvised could become a central component of that song. Or say you hire a horn section and need them to come up with their own background parts. In both cases it’s fair to say the sidemen made a creative contribution. This is not necessarily a co-write, but arranging music can sometimes be equally as valuable to the end result. If you believe this could be an issue, discuss royalty rates ahead of time and make an agreement in writing. That will avoid future disputes should you be lucky enough to make a significant amount of money from that song.

2) Rehearsals and Rehearsal Spaces

One of the best ways to save money on your album’s budget is to be prepared before hitting the studio. Rehearsals are cheap compared to recording time, and typically a more relaxed environment for working out the things that matter most on a recording, like dynamics and arrangements. Depending on where you live, rehearsal space could cost about $25 an hour (typical for New York City), or it could be in your basement for free. If you need to pay musicians to rehearse, see the section above.

3) Producer / Recording Engineer

While a producer and recording engineers are two separate roles, it’s not uncommon for producers to be engineers. A producer traditionally oversees the creative direction of a project, while an engineer’s role is to control the entire recording environment. Finding a producer that can also act as the engineer might help you save some money.

If you choose not to use a producer, produce the album yourself, or just look for another person to engineer your album, I’ve found that most freelance engineers work regularly at one or more recording studios. In these cases, their fee is usually bundled into the cost of renting the room. More on this in the next section.

Understanding what you need here is incredibly important, and I recommend reading two other articles that cover this topic:

  • Preparing for the Recording Studio” has a more in depth discussion about the roles of producers and engineers, and can help you understand what to look for depending on your projects needs. As the title suggests, I also give a few more tips to help you get the most out of your studio time.
  • DIY Musician & Working with a Producer” by Gary Melvin has a very well written section on producers fees. If you’re unfamiliar with terms like up-front money, back-end money, credits, and points, then this article will really help prepare you to discuss contracts with a producer.

Both producers and engineers may charge you one of three rates, as discussed in Gary’s article. The monetary amounts I have listed here are based on discussions I’ve had with producers, engineers, and other musicians that work with independent, self-funded artists.

Example Rates for Producers and Recording Engineers:

  • By the hour ($25 – $60)
  • By the song ($100 – $500)
  • By the album ($500 – $3,000)

In my experience these are rates are accurate, but they can vary greatly depending on your project, how prepared you are, and how you want to record. Jazz albums can be recorded in two days if the band is well rehearsed, everybody plays together, and you just hit take after take after take. Other types of albums can require at least two days per song if you need to record many parts individually. Ultimately, you just need to interview producers and engineers, allow them to quote your project, and decide if their rates will work for your budget.

In addition to the up-front fees, a producer may also be interested in royalties for his or her creative contributions (similar to the sideman contributions discussed above). This is called back-end money and is discussed in depth in Gary’s article. If there is potential for the producer to make some back-end money, it is reasonable to expect them to lower their up-front rates.

4) Recording Space and Studio Time

My approach to recording in a studio has always been to find the producer or engineer first, and then discuss the recording location. Many producers have their own studios that could work for much of your project. Other times it might be important to find a studio with good acoustics for group vocals or drums. Chances are your producer or engineer will know where to go to get your desired results.

The space in which you record could be one of the most important factors when making your album. Recording studios like Abbey Road in London or Gold Star in Los Angeles are renowned for the acoustic spaces that produce rich, signature sounds. Now, if we could all afford to record in studios like these, there would be no point to this article. My point is simply that the space can make a difference.

For example, I have recorded acoustic guitars in two different apartments on many occasions using the same equipment and virtually the same mic placement and levels on the pre-amp. My apartment has an average ceiling height and bookshelves all over the place, and the sound is very dry and unforgiving. You can hear every fret noise, string buzz, and sometimes even my breathing. In comparison, my friends’ apartment is a loft with high ceilings, concrete walls, and an area with a raised wood floor much like a stage. In their apartment, the sound is open, spacious, and extraneous noises are much less noticeable.

Most recording studios will also have much more, and perhaps better, equipment than your average home studio. I believe you should leave the equipment choices to the engineer, but you’re allowed to have a preference. For example, I wanted to record my last album to tape, so I first had to find an engineer that could operate the tape machine, and then find a studio with the right equipment.

I’ve priced out plenty of studios for my own projects, but did a little extra research to get some averages here. In most cases, a recording engineer is included in the price. Again, you’ll notice rates based on different blocks of time:

Example Rates for Recording Studios:

  • By the hour ($25 – $100) Hourly rates are best for vocals, overdubs, or whenever tracking does not involve much set up.
  • By the day ($400 – $1,000) Many studios only book by the day because it is unrealistic to schedule two clients in the same room on the same day.
  • By the album ($500 – $3,000) On some occasions, private studio owners will quote you for your entire project. It usually means they’re willing to block out a week or more to give you exclusive access to the studio.

Other studio expenses might include:

  • Piano Tuning ($100)
  • Tape Rental ($25 per reel)

One of the most time consuming aspects of recording in a studio is simply getting everything set up, putting microphones in the right places, and getting the levels right. Drums alone can take a couple hours! Therefore the best way to save money is to book consecutive days so you can leave your gear set up over night and get straight to recording on day two.

5) Mixing & Mastering

Despite the fact you’ve finished recording your album, it is still far from finished. This is where many musicians make the mistake of rushing through mixing and mastering because they already booked their CD Release show. Before we discuss the cost of these steps, I can’t stress enough:

Budget plenty of time to mix and master your album.

A properly mixed album can be the difference between a professional sounding project and a beginner’s first home recording. Mixing is a skill that takes practice, experience, and patience. You’ll learn a lot just by listening to somebody else mix your album.

In an ideal world, I prefer at least 4 weeks to mix an album. The actual time spent mixing might just be two or three days, but it’s a good idea to give yourself time to NOT listen to your album. When tracking is done, give yourself a week to not listen to the album so you go into mixing with a fresh set of ears. After the first round of mixing, listen, take notes, sleep on it for a couple nights, take more notes, and then go back for another mix session. In my experience, more time between mix sessions means you’ll need fewer sessions to get things right, which will save you money.

The cost of mixing usually involves hiring both an engineer and a mixing studio. But like sections above, these rates are often combined. Rates for a mixing engineer are similar to booking studio time.

Examples Rates for Mixing:

  • By the song ($100 – $500)
  • By the hour ($25 – $60)
  • By the day ($250 – $700)

A professionally mixed 10 track album could very easily cost $1,000 – $1,500 or more!

Mastering is the last step in completing the music on your album. During the mastering process, adjustments to the EQ, compression, and levels of the final mixes will make your music sound bigger, more exciting, and equally balanced from track to track.

Greg Calbi, one of the senior mastering engineers at Sterling Sound in NYC, explains the mastering process in a series of videos on YouTube. If you’re unfamiliar with the process I recommend you start by watching this video. To summarize, he explains that the job of the mastering engineer is to “[take] something which is essentially already finished, and actually [finish] it even more.” In a nutshell, it’s an enhancement process.

The cost of mastering can vary greatly based on the equipment at the mastering house and the experience of the engineer.

Examples Rates for Mastering:

  • By the song ($50 – $100)
  • By the hour ($75 – $250)
  • By the album ($500 – $1,500)

A professionally mastered 10 track album could likely cost $1,000 or more.

Be wary of mastering “deals” bundled with CD manufacturing or distribution services which might seem very inexpensive, but you’ll get what you pay for. I’m not saying you can’t get good results, but the only time I’ve ever heard anybody tell me they were unhappy with their mastering experience was when they used a bundled deal. It’s always better to know the work of the person who will master your album and discuss the job with them beforehand.

A better way to save money is to look at the people who mastered some of your favorite albums, find out where they work, and see if you can book a “junior” engineer at the same studio. Most mastering houses have staff engineers with less experience than the senior engineers whose names you might see on many albums, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the result is of lower quality. They use the same equipment and many of the same techniques as the expensive guys, but just don’t have the clout to charge as much.

Another tip for saving money during both the mixing and mastering stages is to deliver great sounding tracks to the engineers. This usually starts with taking adequate time for getting sounds at the beginning of your recording session. If the unmixed tracks sound as good as possible, the mixing engineer can focus on bringing out the best in your mix and not waste his or her time (and your money) correcting poorly recorded material. Likewise, if the final mixes are consistently balanced within a dynamic range, the mastering engineer’s enhancements will be more effective.

Artwork & Packaging

Now that you’ve spent so much money recording your music, it’s time to blow through the rest of the process so you can release your album! Whoa, not so fast. Reward your efforts so far with an equally stunning visual presentation. This doesn’t have to be much, but an eye catching cover image and a few updated professional photographs of you will tempt more people to sample your music and hopefully like what they hear.

Far too many musicians try to save money here by doing everything themselves. If you can do it, then by all means go for it. But just because you have a pirated copy of Photoshop doesn’t mean you’re a designer. Plan your time and budget accordingly, do some research to find the right people to work with, and you can have a very professional looking album for less money than you might think.

For more thoughts on album design, see Before Designing Your Next Album…

1) Photographer

Not every album design needs photographs, but every professionally released album includes a photoshoot. By updating photos on your website, press materials, and social networking sites, you’re sending the message that something is going on, like a new release. Because a few photos can go a long way, investing in a professional photoshoot should be a no-brainer.

Rates for a professional photographer range from $200 to $1500.

Prices will vary based on how many shots are needed, how long the shoot takes, and how much post-production (ie. retouching) is done.

To get the most of your photoshoot, discuss your needs with your photographer and plan accordingly. Album covers are square, website headers are wide, headshots are usually 8″ x 10″, and the list goes on. Set up your shots to fit these various crops to save yourself a headache in post-production.

2) Designer

In my experience, a good designer is as vital to your new album as a good mastering engineer. People tend to notice when something looks wrong more than they notice when something looks right. If you want your album to look like it belongs next to your favorite artists’ albums, you need a great looking cover design.

In addition to the aesthetic considerations, there’s the technical aspect of design and print production most musicians don’t fully understand. If you don’t have the skills to create a print ready design in your manufacturer’s templates, then you’ll probably end up paying one of their in house designers to bring your files up to spec. At the very least, I’d recommend hiring a designer to help get your design into the proper templates and ready to print.

Examples Rates for Album Design:

  • By the hour ($25 – $75) Hourly rates are ideal for smaller packages, or placing a design into templates.
  • By the album package ($200 – $1,000) Prices will vary depending on how many panels you are in your package, including any inserts or booklets.
  • By the project ($500 – $1,500) Along with your album, you may need promo materials and merch designed as well.

Get the most out of your designer and consider all the items you need using their design. The continuity between your album, promo materials, and merch designs will help you sell more in the long run.

3) Should I make CDs?

Many musicians are saving money by simply not making any physical product at all. It’s understandable, given that digital distribution is affordable and digital sales can easily outpace CD sales for independent artists. Yet fans still buy CDs at shows, and CDs are still the preferred format for radio and promotions. Perhaps most importantly, a great looking CD still helps legitimize you and your album in the eyes of potential fans.

The cost breakdown of CDs can vary greatly depending on your package options. Jewel cases with a two side insert will always cost less than a 6-panel digipak with a 16 page booklet. Luckily, it’s very easy to get exact quotes for yourself online. The prices below assume you are choosing from the most standard packaging options.

Example Costs for CD Packaging

  • Large Runs, minimum 1000 Units ($800 – $2,000) For higher quantities, CDs are created using a process called replication, which essentially means the actual CDs are created specifically for your music. Because of the manufacturing parts required for replication, this method is only cost effective at high quantities.
  • Short Runs, 100-500 Units ($200 – $1,000) Options for smaller quantities are typically more limited. For starters, the discs themselves are duplicated onto CDRs, which is essentially the same process as burning a CD at home (with a really nice CD burner).
  • On Demand Manufacturing ($1 – $8 per CD) Some companies offer this option for very small quantities. Depending on how simple your packaging is and how much shipping costs, this is a nice option if you only need a few copies for promotions or to quickly replenish your inventory while on tour.

One other option is to get creative and make CDs yourself. I’ve seen this done very successfully first hand. Lauren Zettler designed a handmade package for her On Your Back Porch EP we recorded last year. Check out this video to see The Making of On Your Back Porch. Making her own CDs adds a personal touch to the album, and it makes it easier to maintain inventory in our small NYC apartments that really don’t have much room to store boxes of CDs. But the cost per CD actually isn’t that much lower, and the time investment is also a big factor. Luckily my wife really enjoys making EPs!

Marketing & Promotions

Finishing your album’s music and artwork is really just the preliminary stage of a new release. Now the real fun begins. If you want to make some of your money back, you’ll need to tell people about your new music! Save a little room in your budget for some marketing and promotional materials and services to give you that extra edge.

1) Promo CDs

Even if you opt for a digital only release, there are some instances where you still need a CD to hand somebody. Record labels make promo CDs, usually well before the artwork is even done, so radio, retail accounts, reviewers, and other press contacts can hear the music prior to the release date.

Promo CDs (sometimes called advances) typically just have black printing on the silver disc, and a single black and white insert or disc tray that includes the track list, credits, and release information. If the cover art is ready, another nice option is to print cardboard wallets, or minijackets. Full color artwork adds a little extra to the price, but they can double as CDs to sell at gigs. Keep in mind, however, that the current industry standard is to use a jewel case with a spine so the CD can be easily shelved.

Example Costs for Promo CDs

  • Jewel Cases / CDs Only ($1 – $3 per CD) To save money, order bulk CDs and jewel cases separately, then print your own inlays.
  • Minijackets / Wallets ($2 – $4 per CD) This option is usually only available for quantities of 100 units or more.

2) Merch

The brilliant thing about good merch, like t-shirts, is that fans happily give you money to proudly advertise your band on their chest. Even though merch can be a profit center for bands and musicians, I’m still going to categorize it as marketing materials because, well, we’re musicians, not clothing designers. If it’s not the music, it’s only purpose is to support the music!

Example Costs for Band Merchandise

  • T-Shirts ($5 – $12 each)
  • Hoodies ($15 – $25 each)
  • Hats / Caps / Skullies ($5 – $15 each)
  • Bags / Totes ($1 – $5 each)

The options for merch are virtually endless. Anything you can slap your logo on could work, you just have to know your audience. If your fans are older, professional types, maybe coffee mugs or flash drives are better than t-shirts. How about some custom reusable grocery bags? Do something different and turn some heads. I ordered custom label hot sauce for my latest album, and a lot of people ordered it along with the CD!

If you’re crafty, you can save money by making your own merch. I know somebody that knits hats while on the road and sews custom patches with her band’s logo on the front. The personal touch and one-of-a-kind nature of every hat goes over really well with their fans.

3) Posters, Postcards, Stickers, etc.

If you’re going on the road, posters are invaluable. Most clubs will expect you to send some ahead of time. Postcards, stickers, buttons, magnets and other simple items make great freebies on the merch table as well.

Example Costs for Print Items

  • Posters ($0.30 – $2 each)
  • Postcards ($0.15 – $1 each)
  • Stickers ($0.10 – $1 each)
  • Buttons ($0.25 – $5 each)
  • Magnets ($0.25 – $3.50 each)

Pricing for these kinds of items will vary based on how many colors you use, and of course, how many you order. Keep in mind that many of these items are printed on large sheets and cut down to size, like postcards or sheets of stickers. Expect to see minimum order quantities for these items. For smaller quantities, check out your local copy shop and see if you can save some money.

4) Advertising and PR

If your music is ready for it, advertising and PR / Marketing services can really help take you to the next level. However, I’ve run into a few companies that simply try to get as many clients as possible, run a standard campaign, and don’t produce many results. If you’re going to invest in these kinds of services, make sure you have something going on, like a tour, that could really benefit from a solid marketing campaign.

Example Rates for Advertising

  • Print Ads ($200 – $1000) Print ads depend greatly on the publication, size of ad, and placement.
  • Online Ads ($20 – $500) Online advertising is generally bundled in two ways: by impressions or by start/end dates. Paying per impression (the number of times your ad appears on the site) is most cost effective.

Example Rates for PR / Marketing Services per Campaign

  • College Radio Promoters ($1,000 – $3,500) Radio promoters will send your music to stations and follow up with calls trying to get targeted stations to play your music. They may also set up radio interviews for you.
  • Press and Publicity ($1,000 – $5,000) These campaigns will send your music and press materials to specific press contacts. Prices will vary depending on how many contacts you would like to reach.
  • Marketing Services ($500 – $2,500) Marketing teams can help coordinate all your promotions efforts and maximize exposure across different markets. They can be especially helpful if you are trying to run a broader campaign that covers tour and retail promotions, publicity, and advertising.

When you hire these kinds of services, you need to look for experience. This part of the business is built on relationships and reputations. Hiring people that are well known and have good reputations among the press and radio stations they’ll be contacting. Otherwise you might as well be doing it yourself.

Other Expenses

Finally, there are a few other items that might cost you a little more money. I’m sure I’m missing a few things, feel free to add them to the comments below.

1) Your Website

Releasing a new album is always a great time to update your website, or get your own website if you don’t have one yet. Designing a simple website on your own, using pre-existing templates is easy enough, or you can hire a web designer to make a slick, professional looking custom site.

For more thoughts on musician websites, see Website Design for Musicians and Bands and Designing a Website for a Freelance Musician.

Example Website Related Costs

  • Custom Domain Name ($10 per year) At the very least, you should own [your-band-name-here].com!
  • Hosting ($10 – $200 per year) Pricing really depends on all the fixings you get with your hosting package. There are some excellent musician-oriented hosting services out there that include everything you need to create a slick musician site.
  • Web Design Services ($200 – $1,000) Prices will vary based on the complexity and customization of your website.

2) Distribution

If you plan on selling your music anywhere other than your shows and website, you’ll need distribution. Distributors are responsible for getting your music to retailers, collecting the money from those retailers, and then paying you. In the current state of the industry, independent musicians are probably only concerned with digital distribution. The prospects of getting your album in brick and mortar stores is slimming by the day, although it is possible.

For the sake of this article, I’m simply going to focus on the two most popular digital distribution models by CD Baby and Tunecore. Both services are great, some people just prefer one pricing model over the other.

Example of CD Baby Digital Distribution Costs

  • $35 Set up fee (one time cost per album)
  • $20 Barcode (required if you don’t have one already)
  • 9% Commission for CD Baby (on all digital sales, no annual fee)

Example of Tunecore Digital Distribution Costs

  • $46.99 Album set up (includes all available stores up to 100 tracks)
  • $19.98 Annual fee (due one year after initial distribution, no commission charges)

These rates are subject to change, but current at the publication of this article.

3) Cover Songs

If you have any cover songs on your album, you’ll need to license them for both physical and digital copies you will sell. I recommend using Limelight’s online licensing service to pay royalties for any cover songs. With Limelight, you’ll pay a $15 service fee per song, plus the statutory rate for your mechanical license. To learn more about cover songs, see our article “Recording, Releasing, and Performing Cover Songs.”

Example Rates for Mechanical Licensing with Limelight

  • 1,000 copies x $0.091 (statutory rate) + $15 (fee) = $106 per cover song

The royalty rate increases for songs over 5 minutes long. You can pay for as few as 25 licenses with Limelight. Also, don’t forget that you will need to license songs for both digital and physical releases, each requiring a separate transaction.

Additional Reading

Here’s a list of related articles on MusicianWages.com:

DIY Musician & Working with a Producer

In these modern times, musicians have ample, low-cost resources at their disposal that allow us to write, record, distribute and promote our own music (often referred to as “Do It Yourself” or “DIY”). But is it always a good idea to do everything yourself? If you are looking to make your album sound as good as possible, when is it the right time to bring in a producer, and how does it work alongside the DIY model?

What does a producer do, and why might I need one?

The producer of an album is like the director of a film: it is his or her responsibility to oversee, and often interpret the creative material, bring out the best in the performers, and deliver it all in a cohesive final product that’s (hopefully) as good as it possibly can be. While there are many variations in the role that the producer can play, it’s fair to say in a general statement that the producer is an added member of the band who can maintain an outside perspective and help guide the performances.

Gary in the studio with producer Chris Hobson

The benefits that a producer can bring to the table will differ from project to project, and from producer to producer, but here’s the main reason why you might need one: a new set of ears. Just because you can do everything yourself, it doesn’t mean you should. Having another (potentially more experienced) set of ears along for the ride yields ideas, sounds and approaches to your music that you might never have thought of. While it is possible to produce yourself, recognize your abilities and your limitations. You may be a great singer or instrumentalist, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you are a talented producer, and production is an immensely important part of the recording process. Sometimes the right producer is the difference between an okay-sounding record, and a professional masterpiece.

How do I find the right producer?

It used to work like this: a band plays shows and develops a following, gets discovered by A&R people, gets signed to a major record label, and then the label puts the band in a studio with a producer, both chosen by the label. That model has all but vanished, requiring that artists and bands who want to hire a producer find one on their own. It can be a difficult and daunting task, but remember that producers are in the same boat – many are on their own as well, looking for bands to work with. Here are some approaches to finding a producer, and what to consider while doing so:

Go With What You Know

One of the best places to start looking for a producer is in your own music collection. Look at the credits for albums that have a sound like you want to achieve, and then use the web to learn more about each producer. While many may be big-names who don’t fit into your budget, you might be surprised by how many of them are accessible and cater to independent artists and bands. It never hurts to ask, and email is an easy, polite way to do so.

Indie + Indie

In addition to major label releases you have in your collection, listen to independent releases by bands in your area and you might find a producer who is just getting started or has a few albums under their belt, and is hungry to work. This level of producer might work more in the range of your budget, and isn’t necessarily poor in talent. Remember, even George Martin, Mutt Lang and Rick Rubin all had to start somewhere.

Ask Around

If social networking has taught us anything, it’s that a quick post asking a question can get you a lot of results, and fast. Ask your fellow musician friends (and ask them to ask their friends) if they know of any producers they can recommend for your project. An added benefit from this approach is that you can hear first-hand accounts of what it was like to work with a particular producer, much like a product review. That kind of input should be taken with a grain of salt as everyone’s experiences are different, but it can help you narrow down a potentially large pool of choices.

Know Your Budget

The DIY model can be deceptive when it comes to finances. It can be pretty easy to make an album for next to nothing, but realize that a producer will most-likely want to get paid. Be realistic about how much money you want to (or can) spend on the entire project, subtract estimated known costs (studio time, mixing, mastering, physical manufacturing, etc) and what’s left is your budget for a producer. In some situations, a producer’s fee might include things like mixing or even mastering – that will be addressed a little later.

Make Sure It’s the Right Fit

Finding the right producer can be a difficult task, and for good reason. In addition to covering their fee, it’s also quite necessary to have the proper marriage of-sorts between an artist/band and their producer. You’ll be spending a lot of creative time together, so not only do you need to be like-minded musically, but you need to simply be able to get along. When you’ve got a list of potentials, meet with each one or talk over the phone and discuss your vision for the project (in whatever detail you have). Discuss things like organic versus scientific, analog versus digital, favorite records, style/approach preferences, open-mindedness versus specific ideals… In other words, get to know each other and find out if you can be friends. Chances are you’ll have a gut feeling early on in the conversation whether or not it’ll work.

What Else Can You Offer?

Many producers also wear other hats, and this can help give you more bang-for-your-buck. A common skill set with producers is the triple-threat: producer, mixer, engineer. Those three talents tend to go hand in hand, and can allow you to streamline your project, both in terms of schedule and budget.

Many producers are also musicians themselves and might be able to lend a hand in the tracking department. Hiring a producer who can play an instrument or two and sing some backing vocals can make things a little easier on you. Remember, however, to make sure that you are comfortable with these extra skills outside of producing. If they say they mix and can play some keyboards for you, make sure you’ve heard examples of those abilities and that they will work for your project.

Lastly, find out about potential hook-ups a producer might have. They may work out of a particular studio that gives them a great rate, have a portable recording rig, or know of studio musicians that can help supplement your existing band. These things can really help a DIY project come together.

Play Some Music

Not only do you need to make sure the producer is right for you, the producer should have an interest in your music and (hopefully) be excited about it. Throwing money at a producer who doesn’t really like what you do is not the best recipe for making a record. Play some of the songs you want to record for them (a rough demo or live in person) and see if you can peak their interest. Hopefully any producer worth their salt will want to be into what you are doing and ask to hear some stuff before committing to the project. However, there are people who will just “go through the motions” without integrity or individual attention – decide how important those elements are to you and find a producer who reflects them.

Payment Plans

Every producer will have their own possible scenarios/rates to work under, and the function of this section is not to tell you which one to choose, but rather to give you an idea of some typical options. Also, you might suggest one of these options to a potential producer who doesn’t offer it already.

The big three producer’s rates are:

  1. By the hour
  2. By song
  3. By album

Take a look at your material and your budget and figure out which one works best for you. Working by the hour might be best if you are not really sure what you are going for and want to give a producer a test run. It could also end up being the cheapest way to go if you are well prepared and highly efficient. Paying per song might be best if you want to do an incremental album, an EP, or if you aren’t sure how many songs you’ll want on the record. It’s also good way to ensure that each song gets the attention it needs without having to keep an eye on the clock. Finally, paying by the album might work best if you already know what you’re going for as a whole, and maybe are looking for a thematic or concept record approach. You might also encounter producers who discount their per-song rate after committing to doing more than a certain number of songs.

Credits and Points

While this topic is often discussed as part of a producer’s fee, I felt it needed its own section. The costs addressed in the previous section can be referred to as “up-front money,” whereas this section deals with “back-end money.” It is important to discuss with your potential producer if they have any interest in a percentage of your publishing, and/or writer’s credit. These areas are the determining factor for how money gained from the album’s laurels is divided.

An example of this would be a song from your album being licensed for a use on a TV show, or another band doing a cover of one of your tunes. Some producers will charge a smaller fee in exchange for publishing credit as a way of investing themselves in the project. Also, if the producer works with you on your songwriting, they may wish to have a percentage of writing credit to reflect that. Be comfortable with how you wish to release credits in these areas – they are legally binding and come into play in the unpredictable world of the future.

Lastly, it is somewhat of a tradition for producers to receive “points” on a record. In laymen’s terms, a point is a percentage of earnings from the sale of your album. A typical amount is 3 points (3%), so if you sell $1,000 worth of product, your producer would get $30 of it. A typical and friendly specification is that money from points is only collected after the costs of making the album are recouped. Giving a producer points can be a smart alternative to giving away publishing, and it also shows the producer that you are willing to reward them long term for helping you to make an awesome record.


Most producers will bring this up themselves when speaking with you, but it is important that you and your producer draw up some form of contract to protect both of you in your endeavor together, in case things unfortunately go south. The contract should outline everything that you’ve decided upon with your producer. The main bullet points are duties (or “services to be rendered”), payment amounts and schedule, royalties and credits, and some sort of clause that limits the amendment to your contract without both parties consent. You can get as detailed as you and/or the producer want – understand it fully before signing to ensure that you, your music and your money are all protected. This can be a bit more complicated if your band is large and everyone is equally involved, but it is an important part of the process, and it also shows that you are professional and serious about your project.

That’s a whole lotta info to consider, so before I wrap this up, let me fill you in on how I arrived at all this with a quick recap of why and how I chose to work with a producer on my current album in-progress:

I made my first album almost completely on my own, only outsourcing the bass player, drummer and mastering chairs. When beginning to assemble songs for a second record, I realized that I wanted more people involved, and hoped that doing so might help improve upon the weaker areas of my first album. I started asking musician friends for recommendations, as well as asking for potential collective involvement from them. It evolved into looking at producers I admired, and then into finding a producer who had done a really good-sounding record with a fellow singer/songwriter I had met. Email led to a phone call and in-depth discussion, and then I sent him rough demos of my stuff. We started brainstorming ideas, came to an agreement, drew up a contract, and signed it. I’m very happy with the producer I chose to go with (his name is Chris Hobson – chrishobsonrecording.com), and it’s an experience I’ve really enjoyed.

It can be a challenge to relinquish some elements of control with your music, but if you find the right producer, it won’t feel like pulling teeth (Chris’s approach is: “I’ll tell you what I would do, but ultimately it’s your record, and you need to be happy with it – I want to make the record that you want to make”). Be honest with yourself about what you do well, what you do not-so-well, and decide how much control you want to give up to someone who can complement you in those areas. It’s your music, your album, and your money – do what feels right by all of those things.

Note: For related reading, Cameron Mizell briefly addressed working with a producer and more in his article “Preparing For the Recording Studio”.

Interview: Hip-Hop Artist Marvalous

I met Marv last week.  I was walking up 6th Ave. on my way to a gig and he was standing outside a grocery store near 12th St., trying to get people’s attention as they walked by.  I have a soft spot for people trying to talk to strangers – I have enough experience with cold calls and passing out flyers to know that it ain’t an easy thing to do.  I had some time to kill before the gig, so I stopped to talk.

Marv, aka “Marvalous”, is a musician selling his CD.  I had no idea what his music sounded like, but after talking to Marv for a few minutes I bought his album. I just have to admire a guy that is willing to stand out on a New York City street for hours at a time, facing the early February cold and sustained rejection, in order to give a pitch and a hard sell to one face after another.

And after talking to him awhile, two more things impressed me: 1.) He does this full time. 2.) He makes a living doing this.

I think about my own albums, which I’ve safely stashed in the big, anonymous cloud of iTunes, and I sheepishly push from behind the shield of Facebook and Twitter – giving my hard sell to profile photos and not real faces. Could I stand on the corner and sell my music? I think I could, but it doesn’t matter – I don’t.

As Marv tells it in the interview below, he hit the streets when the music industry machine started to break down. He had used standard music distribution routes before they started to go out of business, and then – not to be stopped – he just walked outside and starting doing it himself.

As we move further and further into a new musician industry, it is, and will be increasingly, tempting to settle behind the largely faceless infrastructure that the internet is building for us – where we interact largely through email, wall posts, newsletters and bursts of text 140-characters-or-less. For a lot of us, this infrastructure is working – certainly it’s working much better than the infrastructure we had in place before this. But look at Marv – he’s doing something right, too.

I asked Marv for an email interview, and his answers are below.

Q. How many hours a week do you stand outside and sell your album?

A. It’s a full time gig year round, unless the weather is to an extreme that people won’t be inclined to stop and listen. Like the old adage says you get out what you put in. So I’ve put in many a 12 hour day.

The good thing is you never stop selling. In the course of even a traditional conversation, someone is bound to ask you, “What do you do” or a similar question that allows me to segue into my spiel. So assuming I have product – I’m always promoting.

Q. How do you get people to talk to you on the street? Do you have an opening line that always works? How do you get people to buy your album?

A. I genuinely love people, and that helps I’m sure. Especially in NYC people are many times apprehensive and guarded. So I smile, and ask open ended questions or make a remark based on an observation, it could be a shirt or a brand that they’re wearing or A sports team, etc. People are like squirrels they want to see your nuts, they just don’t want to get hurt or victimized in the process. Selling is about product knowledge after that it’s just a matter of tailoring it to the individual.

People like new music/artists and people gravitate to confident assertive types, too. It’s like they can or want to identify with you and how they would like to see themselves. Many have abandoned their creative side in some way due to fear, societal pressures, or just the everyday harsh realities of life. We’ve all been there and very few, if any, escape.

Q. In your experience, do you feel like you receive primarily positive feedback from people you talk to on the street, or primarily negative feedback?

A. I appreciate any feedback I get. It’s really gratifying when someone tells you that they can relate to something you’ve said or experienced. It’s like the palms on the proverbial glass. I know everyone won’t like my music, but maybe they’ll respect my story. I even tell people that, it’s the truth and I pride myself on being honest.

Q. Do you sell your albums through traditional distribution sources (stores & online) as well? Which is more successful – selling through traditional distribution sources, or selling one-on-one on the street? Why do you think one method is more successful than another?

A. I’m in the process of re-launching my web-site, and getting back into the online markets. I was one of the many artists who several years ago thought we were ahead of the curve, by having a fancy website and a company that would house and ship my product for us. The company was absorbed, then eventually went out of business, so I found a different avenue, literally.

It’s not a matter of which method is more sucessful, when you can do both. The online market pretty much takes care of itself, and being outside on the Ave in NYC gives you a similar kind of world accessibility. Plus you’re always thinking marketing, and dealing with and overcoming rejection, two essential skills in business.

I will say this – in one day I can move more CD’s than in a year in a storefront (when there were store fronts). I remember going to the Virgin Mega Store just to show people the CD’s I was featured on, which no one was really promoting. Now both have gone, and are going, the way of the dinosaur, so the web is definitely the place to be. But like with anything else you gotta research and work it.

If you’d like to know more about Marv, visit his myspace page, or visit him on 6th Ave. Marv also produces a show called Fire Your Boss, a party for the independent artist. The next show will be May 6th, 10pm, at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City.

Make Yourself a Merry Little Christmas Album

Merry Christmas! Every November, as soon as the table is cleared after Thanksgiving dinner, many families turn on their favorite Christmas music. Holiday music is synonymous with the season, and despite a relatively small repertoire of standards, there’s never a shortage of new Christmas albums being released every year.

My wife is a huge fan of Christmas music, or at least the classics. For years, she told me I should make a Christmas album. I resisted, because I felt recording A Cameron Mizell Christmas would scream commercialism and I’d be shunned at all the hardcore jam sessions I imagined I might attend someday in the future. But a couple years ago, I made a Christmas album with some friends under a pseudonym, and after watching the album generate $2,500 in profits, I decided to start a new holiday tradition. Thus began my secret career as a Christmas Musician.

Choose your songs.

There is a wealth of public domain Christmas music available, so if you want to avoid the hassle of tracking and paying royalties, you shouldn’t have any problems. I start by looking at the Public Domain website’s list of Christmas songs. Many Christmas hymns and spirituals are public domain, along with old traditional carols. A lot of times these melodies were written years before the lyrics were added and the tune became associated with Christmas (ie. Greensleeves).

Hymns and spirituals are great for instrumental albums, but won’t always work for vocalists. After all, many of the vocal standards recorded by Harry Connick, Jr. or Nat King Cole are secular pieces written by tin pan alley era composers or later. If you’re interested in recording songs that are not in the public domain, you will have to pay royalties. The easiest way to do this is by using Limelight, an online service that collects royalties and administers them to the copyright holders for you. For further reading, see my article on releasing cover songs.

My forumula has been to put 11 songs on an album. So far I’ve only released these albums digitally, and at the default $9.99 price point on iTunes, the 11th track is sort of like a bonus track to encourage full album sales.

Find a niche.

Yes, Christmas music in itself is a niche, but take it one step further and do something very specific. Christmas albums sell well because they are either considered classics, or they’re different enough from the classics for people to want to add them to their collection. So if you want to attract some attention, find a way to make your Christmas album unapologetically different from most of what you hear during the holidays. Don’t try to please everyone.

My approach has been to choose some of my favorite artists that have not released Christmas music and try to make it myself. Not only does that give my friends and I a blueprint for sonic textures and arrangements, but it helps with some targeted marketing efforts later.

Note: I’m refraining from sharing my specific ideas so this article won’t look like an advertisement for my albums.


When you title your album, try to make it search friendly and as descriptive as possible. You don’t need to be extremely creative here, simplicity will usually get the job done.

Also consider the spelling of your song titles. Is it “O Christmas Tree” or “Oh Christmas Tree”? Or maybe it’s “O Tannenbaum”. There’s no wrong answer, only wrong spelling. Choose the title that you think fits your genre most appropriately.

To be or not to be?

My initial reservation to record Christmas music was simply because I felt like I would tarnish my reputation as a an independently minded jazz/funk musician. Many of us are trying to create a brand around our music, and veering off our focused path to record a holiday album just doesn’t jive with our integrity. But who says you have to be yourself?

Pseudonyms have been prevalent in the recording business for as long as it’s existed. Sometimes they’re blatantly obvious or just the musician’s way of having a little fun. Historically, artists under contract with one label would use a pseudonym to be able to record for another label, usually as a sideman.

I’ve found a great deal of freedom in using pseudonyms. Not only can I record literally any type of music I can imagine, but when it comes to Christmas music, I can record the same song as many different ways as I can imagine. It’s a nice challenge to play music in a variety of styles, and be as authentic as possible.

This is not to say you shouldn’t release Christmas music as yourself. I know many artists that do so successfully. In fact, many people find their Christmas albums first, and are then turned onto their other recordings. So if you do it right, you can boost your sales across the board.

Have fun!

Making a living as a musician is challenging and can sometimes make you a little dark, but recording a Christmas album is an excuse to have a some fun. Not only do my friends and I brainstorm concepts for future Christmas projects, but we decide what kind of food and drink will accompany the recording session. One album was beer and pizza. The following album was, well, beer and pizza. Maybe we’ll change that up next year.

The money is great (how many musicians get Christmas bonuses?), but we’re having a good time with the process. I used to hear Christmas music and sometimes think, “I can do better than this.” Now I put my money where my mouth is and get to work on making better Christmas albums. Care to join me?

For additional ideas, check out 5 Things I Learned About Releasing Christmas Music at MusicianCoaching.com.

What I Learned at My Record Label Job

At 16 years old, I got my first job at a video rental store.  Since then, I’ve worked at a mall, been a waiter, caterer, bartender, bar back, bouncer, sofa bed salesman, and office supply salesman.  I also got my first paying gig as a jazz guitarist at 16, playing at a cafe in the middle of the mall.  I think that gig paid $22.50 (the band leader took a 10% finders fee and split the rest four ways).  That was the beginning of my double life–the kid that worked hard to make a paycheck and the kid that really just wanted to make music.  For the most part, the first kid kept the other one kind of quiet because music is a hobby, not a job, right?

My attitude changed when I quit the office supply business and decided to find some mindless temp work to pay the bills while I tried to get things rolling with my music.  I was completely honest with the interviewer at the temp agency:

“I’m a musician, and I just want a job where I can punch out at 5, forget about everything I did that day, and go focus on my music.”

He asked me what I played, what I listened to, all the typical music related questions.  Then he said he might have just the position for me–Verve Records needed a long term temp to do some data entry.  Perfect.  Sign me up!

I had an interview a few weeks later at Verve.  I showed up early, and in a suit.  I later learned that nothing runs early in the music industry, and my boss would joke with people that came to work dressed too nice, “Interviewing for a new job?” she’d ask loud enough so everyone down the hall could hear.

My first day at Verve was in early 2005. At that point, I had only a vague idea of how any business worked, much less the music industry.  Not only had I never worked in an office, but I was a jazz studies major in college. I studied music as an art, not a commercial product to be exploited as a business asset.  Never the less I kept my eyes and ears open and learned as much as I could about all aspects of the business.  After all, if I wanted to function as an artist someday, I needed to know what I’d be dealing with on the business end.

I ended up leaving the company about 3 years after I’d started.  It was a very tough decision.  If there was a day job designed for me, this was it.  But when I went home at night and looked at my guitars, I got the feeling that I wasn’t using my time appropriately.  My job was stressful and mentally challenging, which put a strain on my creative output outside of work.  There was also a money issue.  Despite what you may imagine, record label jobs pay relatively little.  Most people are OK with this because it can be a pretty fun, socially relevant job.  But I was starting to see opportunities to make a real career out of my music, and knew that if I dug in and worked with the same intensity, I could make the same money and eventually more with my own music on my own terms.

The lessons I took away from this job will serve me for the rest of my career, not because they taught me specific things to do, but because they taught me how to adapt.  What works today will not work in 10 years. But the ability to see changing trends, stay ahead of the curve and ultimately balance my long term revenue streams with low, short term costs–which don’t have to cost money–will keep me in business doing what I love for the rest of my life.

Digital production, strategic marketing.

When hired, I was assigned the digital production responsibilities. I entered boatloads of metadata from out of print albums into a database.  I was perfect for this because I already knew a lot about many of these albums, and whenever I didn’t know something I had access to several complete jazz discographies, the entire Verve library full of nearly every LP and CD ever released, and several very knowledgeable coworkers.

In short, the position straddled the Production and New Media (online sales and marketing) departments and involved coordinating the release of digital products–ie. digital albums, ringtones and other mobile configurations, and videos. I had to make sure the metadata was entered into a few systems properly so it would show up in online stores like iTunes without incorrect track listings, timings, misspellings, etc., and then get the artwork and audio uploaded to some other systems by a deadline.

The term metadata refers to all the information for an album.  Simply put, it’s the interactive digital version of everything printed on a CD booklet, LP jacket, or other packaging, stored in a database.  When I would add an artist to an album, the database would know who this artist was and which recordings they were on (at least whatever had been entered so far).  I would gather my information by looking at the packaging, searching through discographies, listening to the music (timings were often approximate on LP jackets, but they must be exact in the digital era), and using a variety of songwriter dictionaries and online resources to make sure I had the correct composer and publisher information.  There was a lot of research involved.

I could have blown off a lot of the attention to details and it maybe wouldn’t have affected my job, but someday the accuracy of all this information will be crucial.  With trends shifting away from physical albums, liner notes, credits, and anything else printed on the packaging is being lost.  But that information is invaluable, and will eventually be accessible online and embedded into the tracks you download.  I took a sense of pride in thinking my work would give some relatively unknown artist a place in history.  Perhaps this was positive thinking as I faced the grim possibility of obscurity for my own music.

My biggest ongoing project while handling the digital production responsibilities was the Verve Vault, a series of reissues released exclusively to iTunes (here’s a random blog post about the series).  We were looking for out of print albums in the “vaults of Verve” to make available digitally–albums where manufacturing physical product wouldn’t have been cost effective.  In other words, I was working with albums that make up the Long Tail of Verve’s catalog.

This taught me invaluable lessons on working with niche oriented music and how to make the most out of digital distribution scenarios–lessons directly applicable to independent artists.  Albums deep in the Verve catalog, by artists like Illinois Jacquet or Ray Bryant have no advantage being owned by a major label.  They have roughly the same marketing budgets as a Cameron Mizell album, so we had to apply low or no-cost strategies to help these albums sell.  The most effective methods were things like optimized online announcements, creating iMixes or other user generated playlists, and targeting specific niches that would help introduce these lesser known jazz icons of yesteryear to the download generation.  In the exact same way, I learned many strategies to help people find my music online.

In general, the best form of online marketing is to not be a marketer.  Or in other words, just nudge either your music or your target fans towards each other and let them meet on their own.  Ultimately, encourage discovery.  It may just be the illusion of discovery, but it gives the your music greater personal value and the fan’s excitement becomes viral.  Word of mouth begins.

Production, design, manufacturing, distribution.

After a while, I ended up as the head of the production department.  I didn’t intend for this to happen, but the inevitable downsizing of record labels hit Verve pretty hard at the end of 2006 and I was the only person left from the original department.  I didn’t have the official title, but I had the responsibilities.  In a very short time, I learned everything from pricing out packaging to tackling manufacturing related issues at the last minute.  I was also heavily involved with quality control and put my ear to every master and proofed all the artwork prior to manufacturing.  Verve is known for it’s quality releases, and I was lucky enough to learn from some of the best. I wrote an article about preparing to release your next album on this site which applies much of what I learned to indie musician releases.  It’s what I’ve done for my recent albums.

One of the perks of working production was getting credit in all the albums.  You can see a list of my credits on All Music Guide. The credits with Production Coordination or Release Coordination are from my work at Verve.  I hope to some day match those with Guitar and other musically related credits.

A job in production, for those unfamiliar, is essentially that of a taskmaster.  It was my responsibility to make sure all the pieces of the puzzle came together on time so the company would have a CD to sell on the street date.  Unlike digital production, where I was able to do my job pretty much all on my own, physical production put me in contact with nearly every department:

The master came from the A&R department (Artist & Repertoire), as well as all the credits for an album.  Among other things, the A&R department works with the artist and studios to make sure the music will be done on time.  The schedule for “on time” had to be provided by me.

The earlier we had music, the sooner I could create advances and radio singles for the Publicity and Promotion departmentsAdvances are CDs with little or no artwork serviced to writers, radio stations, and anyone else that would need to hear the music early enough to help create buzz around the album.

The artwork came from the Creative department. Along with simply looking great, the text (or copy as it’s called in the industry) had to be free of errors.  This involved a great deal of proofing, a process that started with me, was routed through the Marketing department to the artist, then to the Legal and A&R departments, past the desk of the General Manager and eventually the CEO, and back to me.  Proofing involved looking at all the credits (musician, production, and writer), liner notes, song titles, timings, lyrics, special thanks, legal lines, spacing, punctuation, font styles, spelling, the UPC, catalog number, and anything else the artist wanted in their package.  Needless to say, not everyone looked at everything, so it was up to me to make sure enough eyes were put on it to catch things somebody else might have missed.

Working the the Creative department also taught me a great deal about print production.  Printing is a pretty complex beast, and while the technology is pretty advanced today, at the heart of it people still print with four color CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black).  The design files had to be set up perfectly so the right amount of ink was hitting the paper in the right spots.  Things that seem simple on a computer, like white text on a black background, can be problematic for a printer as the ink might close up the narrow white spaces.  Working with the designers and art director, I had to check that the artwork met the printers’ specifications.

Meanwhile, the Sales department was busy drumming up interest in various accounts, so the albums would get as much distribution as possible.  If you’ve ever tried to get your local CD store to sell your CD, you have an idea of what the sales department does.  They have to pitch each album to every retailer (often times there is a one large buyer that supplies several retailers with product).  The only way to pitch an album is to have a story–something that would suggest people will actually go into the store and buy the album.  Their main tool is called a sales sheet, or one sheet, which is kind of like a one page summary of all the marketing, publicity, radio, tour info, artist bio, and past sales performance.

One way to understand the whole process of selling records is to actually start with the Sales department suggesting a new angle on a product, such as a reissue series, that they feel will do well at certain retailers.  Then the A&R, Creative, and Production departments jump into action to make the product a reality.  Sometimes this involves creating exclusives for particular accounts (such as a Borders’ version with a bonus track).  Exclusives are usually added to the schedule last minute and involve some quick manuvering through the processes mentioned above.

I would also act as a liaison between the Sales department and UMG Logistics department which oversaw the actual manufacturing and inventory.  One of my shining moments, which was nearly a nightmare, was when Herbie Hancock’s album River: The Joni Letters won the Grammy for Album of the Year.  In the five months between it’s release and the Grammy Awards, I believe it sold about 50,000 albums.  In the week following the Grammy win, it sold nearly that many again.  It took some quick action and teamwork between myself and the Sales and Inventory departments to make sure we had enough product on order to keep up with the demand.

I remember one day in the thick of all this when my boss came into my office and asked me to create a report of the inventory numbers from all the various warehouses along with what was in production and when those would be delivered and to what warehouses.  And he needed it in an hour so he could get on the phone with his boss, the CEO.  Normally, when I pull these kinds of reports I double check my numbers with the guys in Inventory, but they were in a meeting for the next hour, so it was all on me.  I managed to pull an accurate report but the numbers were a little to close for comfort, so my boss and the head of sales sweetened them a bit for the CEO.  What he didn’t know didn’t hurt him.

I also worked with the Sales and Marketing departments to create POP, or point of purchase items, and promotional tools like t-shirts, match books, cocktail stirrers, chapstick, posters, postcards, you name it.  If somebody thought it would help sell the record, I had to figure out the cost.  If the cost got approved (it usually didn’t), then I’d have to orchestrate the design and production of the item.

While working with all these different departments, I tried to learn as much as I could.  I asked lots of questions, but not questions like “what do you want me to do next?” or even “how do I do this?”  No, my questions were either “why do they do it this way?” to figure out the method to the madness.  I also tried to work things out for myself and then ask the appropriate people whether I’d gotten it right.  I did this with anything involving the label’s lawyer for two reasons–quicker answers, and because understanding how legal issues effect decisions will probably save my ass somewhere down the road.

The biggest lesson I learned here: Marketing is marketing, sales is sales, publicity is publicity, etc.  Just because you’re in the music business doesn’t change the game, and as a musician I can learn a lot from other savvy and creative business people.

In many ways, I was always cut out for a production job at a jazz record label. My training as a musician has developed my ear to the point where I can pick out tiny ticks, clips, distortions, and other non-musical sounds on recordings, even those engineered by the best.  Besides music, art had been a big passion of mine growing up.  In fact, had I not studied music, I was considering an art major.  This gave me an advantage when looking at artwork.  I understood concepts of composition, balance, color and fonts.  I was also a quick study when working with some excellent designers and a very particular art director who had a knack for teaching.  Add to that my natural anal-retentiveness and the job fits like a glove.

Inertia and changing course.

Perhaps the most important but least tangible lesson learned was that of inertia.  Verve was a tiny part of a the largest recorded music company in the world, Universal Music Group.  The collective power of all the UMG labels enables massive distribution leverage.  You needn’t go further than any popular music news website or blog to hear about how UMG uses it’s power to force startups to pay extremely large up front licensing fees for access to the UMG catalog.  UMG managed to even get a royalty of every Microsoft Zune sold (the Zune was supposed to be an iPod competitor).  And just like any other large company, the quantity of work they can give a third party such as a printer or digital aggregator, gives them a strong hand in negotiations.

But this kind of inertia is a big problem when it’s time to change directions.  The times they are a changin’ and the old model is proven less effective.  The cost of running a huge company can no longer be supported by selling CDs, and while monetizing digital assets is promising, it does not fill the void.  There is a lot of discussions of 360 degree deals, where one company controls all the major revenue streams for an artist.  That doesn’t sound like a viable solution for developing artists, and worse, it only compounds the issue of changing directions with new trends.

Large companies also tend to over-insulate their artists.  New generations of fans will want more contact with artists, and when they can’t get it they manufacture it by making their own music videos or other various activities that are technically illegal until the major label attorneys are able to figure out a way to monetize it.  Remember when Colbie Caillat told her fans that Universal artists were only allowed to post 90 second clips of their music on MySpace?  This is just one example of an artist feeling alienated from her fans because of a large label.  The situation could have been handled better, but by putting a choke hold on MySpace using their artists’ music (which doesn’t actually belong to the artists) as the noose, UMG figured they could turn the popular website into another revenue stream.  The problem here is that even though the music belongs to the label, the artists’ reputation and relationship with fans is more valuable.  This kind of relationship is more easily maintained when fewer people are involved.  Fans, artist, and maybe a small team to facilitate the technology.

Looking ahead.

As I mentioned earlier, I resigned from Verve after about three years.  That was the longest gig I’d held, unless you count being a musician.  My record label job was the ideal 9 to 5 for a guy like me.  But then I’d remember that kid with the hobby playing music, and I realized that I had the tools to support myself with my hobby.  In fact, over the few years I’d been working at the label and applying what I was learning to help sell my own music, I was actually bringing in a decent amount of cash for maybe three hours of work each week.  Meanwhile the 50-60 hours a week I spent at the office was bringing in about three times that of my music income.  I wondered what would happen if I applied myself full time to making music?  How long before I could double it?  Triple it?  I struggled with the decision, but after looking at the finances with my wife and painting worst case scenario after worst case scenario, the decision was made.

I write this almost 6 months since my last day at the office.  Each month has brought in a little more money than the last.  One month in particular brought in more than what I had been making with the record label job.  There will be ups and downs in the future, but I’ve proven to myself that I made the right decision.  I continue to diversify my revenue streams to help me through dry spells.  Ultimately, it’s a lot easier to cut my income in half now and build a solid foundation for a long term career.  This foundation is constructed by writing more music, playing more gigs, recording more albums, producing and playing on other people’s albums, establishing a broader internet presence, and building more relationships as a musician.  But the cornerstone of it all is in finding my voice as a guitarist.

While I continue to develop a career of my own music, there are other facets that help pay the bills.  I teach guitar lessons.  I’m a production consultant for a small company that provides sales and marketing expertise to both independent and major labels.  I work on jingles with a fellow musician working on her own music.  And along with some other musician friends, I record niche oriented albums under different pseudonyms to create different brands (as well as avoid confusion with the brand I’m trying to establish with my music).  If I have a slow month in any of these areas, I’m covered by the others.

This is an exciting time to be an independent musician.  I believe the future will be bright for knowledgeable artists that retain ownership of their recordings and understand how to keep costs down. Quality recordings can be made for relatively little when the right group of talented people get together, and once the recording is made there’s no reason to sell it to a label. The business relationships independent artists should cultivate are those of mutual benefit, with a team of experts that believe in the artist and his or her music.

As an independent artist myself, I understand that there is simply too much to do day to day to release an album to it’s full potential.  There is no way I could do everything the people at Verve did.  Proper business relationships are established through repeated business, and if I’m only releasing one album every couple years, those relationships will never fully develop.  But I can establish relationships with other artists, and use our collective continuity to establish working relationships with experts in sales, publicity, marketing, promotion, and distribution.  I envision someday being involved with a virtual label of like minded artists inspiring each other creatively while helping each other stay aware and ahead of current business trends, all to create a new adaptive form of momentum.  I imagine I’m not alone.