If you've ever thought about releasing your own music on CD or cassette, but haven't, you may have had some of the following thoughts:
All these concerns boil down to one basic thing: you do not feel worthy of producing an album good enough to live and compete in the marketplace with every other release. Let me assure you, your feelings are legitimate and real. However, the reasons you feel that way may be due to misconception, lack of confidence, and a tendency to draw incorrect conclusions from past events.
Misconceptions about why artists are signed to record labels leave many musicians stranded at the starting gate. They gig and gig and gig some more, hoping that for all their efforts and hard work, that some day the right person (preferably a high-level record executive) will walk in the club they play at and be thunderstruck by the power, originality and potential of the band he sees before him. After all, it has happened countless times before to well-known bands and musicians. Another popular option is to attend an industry showcase, where musicians and labels get together for a three-day battle of the bands. The winners get contracts, right?
The music industry is a business, first and foremost. Your talent, ability, creativity, originality and hard work mean nothing to a record label if they do not feel that they can make money from what you produce. Does it mean that you are not worthy? No. Record companies have their own agenda. Most of the time they are looking for bands and musicians that fit an image of what they have come to find. If hair bands are hot, and you are a hair band, you've got a shot. If Seattle grunge is hot, and you play heavy metal from North Dakota, then you will likely be ignored. Record companies need bands capable of generating big sales, because their costs are quite substantial. It makes good business sense for them to narrow their search down to groups playing music in the hot musical style of the moment.
You, on the other hand, do not need big sales to make money, if you release your record independently. If it is not your responsibility to feed and clothe the administrative department, the promotion department, the A&R department, etc. of a large or mid-sized record company, then your overhead is a tiny fraction of what it would otherwise be. This means that instead of hoping someday you become 'blessed' by the power of a record executive, you can use your own power to release your record independently. Your music is 'free' to appeal to a much smaller audience, yet still generate enough sales to make it worth doing. It also means that it's irrelevant if your music does not seem to fit the current musical fashion. There are an amazing number of consumers who do not follow trends, and who may be looking for unusual or off-beat music typically not released from money-oriented major labels. In fact, the more distinctive your music sounds from that produced by Columbia, Epic, A&M, RCA and MCA, the better off you will be because you are avoiding direct competition with major label product.
Another common misconception about the music industry is that the most talented artists are, or soon will be, signed by major labels. Again, bear in mind that profits, not an altruistic motive to present the finest musicians to the world, drive record companies to sign the artists they find. If a record company thinks they can make $500,000 by signing an act with a lead singer who can't sing, or by putting a band together of musicians who can't play (remember the Monkees?), then that is exactly what they will do. Chances are, if a record company finds a very talented musician who is knowledgeable enough about the music industry to demand a fair initial contract, they may refuse to sign him or her, finding them 'unreasonable, and impossible to negotiate with'. Instead of accepting unreasonable terms (and potentially unprofitable terms for the artist), it could be in the best interests of the musician to either seek a better offer, or release their own record. It's possible you know of some musicians who you feel are better than a lot of the current musicians signed to major labels. If you do, you also know that there are a dozen reasons why they may never get signed to a major label. For them, or yourself, self-release could be the only option to keep their career moving forward.
For many musicians, a lack of confidence in their musical or songwriting abilities stems from an unfavorable comparison with their peers, or an unfair comparison with current recording artists. This leads to an excuse for inaction along the lines of, "I'm just not good enough, and there are a number of others who deserve to be heard more than I."
First of all, releasing a record is not the end result of a grand talent competition. If only the 'best' musicians could release albums, there would be far fewer records released each year. Who is deciding who is 'best' anyway, or what it means to have a 'better' album than someone else? Listen, if you look hard enough you will always find friends or associates who can play better or possess more natural ability. Use their talent as inspiration to become a better musician, don't just stand back in awe and admire them. At the same time, recognize that if you have something to say musically with your instrument, you have the right to take your best shot and record a record using whatever abilities you have at the moment. You are in the best position to judge yourself and your readiness to record music, and everyone else's current status is completely immaterial.
Also keep in mind when you start making comparisons with current recording artists that you are comparing yourself now (without one album to your credit) to an established artist (with one or many albums released). It's an unfair comparison because the situation they are in now is where you want to be in the future. They have already gone through the process of recording and releasing and are in a different place than you. You must go through the same process as they did to honestly make a similar comparison (as if it were really necessary to compare at all). Realize most established artists were having many of the same thoughts of self-doubt from time to time before they stepped out to make their first record.
I've already talked about the role that talent plays in being selected by a major label, and the conclusion you may wish to draw is this: As soon as the desire is in your head, heart and hands to create a record, your primary focus should be to immediately begin making plans to accomplish the goal. It's not in your best interests to wait for anything to 'happen', or to belittle yourself into thinking there are others more deserving than you. All the talent in the world will be wasted unless the desire to achieve is already in place, and it that sense, desire is even more important than talent. You would not have the strong desire to accomplish something unless you also had the ability to do it, or at least, a sense of what needs to be done to acquire whatever skills, resources and tools necessary to do the job.
Taking the experiences of others and applying them to your own life is a great way to keep from making a lot of the same mistakes others have made. However, each of us is still an individual, and as such we are capable of making new distinctions and deciding on alternative actions when planning our goals. Simply to take another musician's failure with their own release as proof that the concept of self-release is flawed is a major error in reasoning. I contend the decision to release a record, even if it fails miserably, is the right decision. However, the approach to the release may need rethinking. If you ever have the opportunity to talk to someone who had released his or her own record without much success, you might ask some of the following questions to try and determine exactly what their expectations were, and why they thought the venture failed:
Asking questions such as these to someone who has released a record will help you understand how much advance planning went into their project, and how realistic they were about the sales prospects. It's important to get beyond blanket statements such as, "It didn't work out", or "Don't waste your time and money". The idea is not just to take their advice, but to learn from their answers and understand their thought process. Don't accept questions as answers to questions either. Examples of this are, "Where you gonna sell 'em, huh?", or "If I couldn't do it how could you?".
Asking yourself these same questions will help you to think through your ideas, and help you to set realistic, achievable goals. For example, allowing only $50 to advertise a record you spent $10,000 to produce is probably not going to get the sales you are looking for. If you can find out what others have spent to promote their records and how the money was spent, it will help you make better decisions when you are allocating funds to the promotional side of the recording project. In addition, if you can get information on how money was spent in the studio, or for duplication, you will be able to investigate your options with someone's actual experience as your guide.
One final question you should ask someone who has released a record is: Were the songs on the record the best songs you would ever be capable of writing and recording? It's highly doubtful any creative individual will admit they have already done their absolute best work. And if it's true they were capable of better work, isn't it also true they deserved another chance to create again? Couldn't you almost make a strong case for someone to never give up, until success is achieved?
Changing your approach would be twice as important if it was your own first attempt at self-release that failed. Surely in the process of releasing your first record you made a number of mistakes that you could learn from, and apply what you've learned to a second record. You are actually in a better position than most people because you know what does not work. You have a list of things that you will not do the second time around. If you have released two records, then you know more than those who have only released one record. Successful people know that your chances for success actually increase with each failure. So it's critical that you give yourself the chance to try another approach.
In a sense, the question, "Are you worthy", is a trick question, because if you've followed me this far, you know that the answer is a resounding "Yes!". Knowing that the answer is yes, however, may not be enough to get you to start moving and take action towards your first record. The idea now is to get you beyond the stage of questioning your worthiness, and start giving your brain more empowering questions like:
Questions like these, even if they can't be answered at the moment, will fire your imagination and solidify your will. Ask yourself questions like these on a daily basis, once you have assured yourself you are worthy to join the thousands of musicians who have decided to leave a permanent record of their musical efforts for the world to appreciate. You will eventually persevere and create something unique, and hopefully, establish a habit or pattern of behavior that you can use to continue to release better and better records in the future.
Dan McAvinchey is a guitarist and composer living in Raleigh, NC.
He believes every musician or composer has the power to write, record and release their own music.
His 1997 CD release on Guitar Nine was entitled "Guitar Haus".
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