When someone tells me they’re working on an album I give them as much encouragement as I can. For an independent artist, making an album is a thankless job that will likely cost money even in the long run. No one wants to buy them anymore, and the streaming services pay pennies. But, all the great music that we get to listen to is only here because someone took some initiative to make it. That deserves encouragement.
When I released my jazz album, Unmei, back in 2006, the scene was more hospitable. You could rely on a few sales from the iTunes store, and CDs weren’t entirely extinct yet. Seattle supported jazz artists. There were places you could play, and if you drew at least a small crowd you could make $100 per man. I even saw my CD at the Bud’s Jazz Records (which has closed its doors since). All in all, I sold a few hundred CDs, and after you subtract your production costs I only ended up down a few thousand dollars. It didn’t bother me, since that was mostly money I made working on cruise ships. Most of the other cruise ship musicians spent their money on beer, so I consider my album a slightly better investment.
That was 10 years ago. That meager amount of return, coupled with the knowledge that my chances of recouping costs has only diminished means I haven’t recorded anything since. And it’s not because I don’t have anything to record. I’ve got enough jazz septet music to make an entire album, as well as half a dozen big band tunes that I’d love to have a finished version of.
Now it sounds like I might be wishing recording was like the old days, but I’m not. I don’t miss the days of ordering CDs on Amazon and waiting a week to hear them. I don’t miss shelling out 15 bucks to find out the new album stinks. I’ll take the good with the bad.
But with that in mind, when someone tells me they’re working on an album, I ask a couple questions:
- Is there a reason to do a whole album? Would just a few tunes be enough?
- Should it all be released at the same time? How about releasing one tune per month?
- Is there a reason to make physical CDs? How about a download only? There are a million web services where you’d have full control (bandcamp.com is one).
- Do you need to book studio time? Do all the musicians need to play at once? Do they all need to play separately?
- Is your recording promotional or is it supposed to make money?
- If you have a home studio, what would it take to record it there? Do the other musicians have gear (mics, etc.) that they’d contribute?
- Who is this album for? Critics? Educators? Niche fans? How do they find new music and how do they listen?
- What other products could or should be made in conjunction? Lots of bands have t-shirts, but are there other options?
Ten years ago most of these questions had one answer. It made sense to do it the way we’d been doing it. But the value of recording the traditional way is decreasing while our options to try new things has dramatically increased. Taking some new roads may make the whole adventure more worthwhile. And it actually gets me a little excited about recording some music again.