Today's recording studio looks like this.
Right now, all across the country, bands are recording music in dingy bedsits, crap rehearsal rooms, disgusting garages and humble garden sheds. Whilst these locations may not be particularly pleasant, so long as they are equipped with a computer and an audio interface, they house recording studios that the rock megastars of yesteryear would have drooled over. Even today’s most basic recording packages generally allow you to multitrack a huge (often unlimited) number of instruments; they also come with a vast range of digital effects, software synthesisers, pitch-correction tools and a library of drummer jokes (compare this to the 4-track tape recorders that the Beatles had to rely on for most of their career – although they probably had quite a few drummer jokes to hand). Whereas in days of rock yore, you really had to be signed or very rich to go anywhere near recording equipment this good, incredible music production tools are now cheap and easily accessible to even the most pauperly of bands.
This has led to a an explosion in DIY music recording, which has led to millions of albums being recorded at home or in the garden shed. Most are not very good and not heard by very many people, but on balance, DIY recording is probably a good thing. Although it means a lot of crap records will get made – obviously, there is a difference between having fab recording equipment and knowing how to use it well – at least bands that would not have had access to good recording gear now get the chance to use and experiment with it; and occasionally, they come up with something terrific that captures the public’s ears and imagination.
DIY recording arguably reached the masses in a serious way about 10 years ago, when consumer-grade computers and hard drives became fast enough to handle professional audio recording duties; but over the past couple of years, we’ve seen bands starting to use DIY in all areas of their music career. With DIY recording, artists got their mits on the means of production, but serious manufacture, distribution and promotion were still largely the preserve of record labels. But that’s been changing; over the past couple of years we’ve seen that a combination of technological developments, new online services, an explosion in broadband access and improved awareness of what’s available to musicians has resulted in a huge number of artists not just recording DIY music, but also doing the following:
- distributing their music globally (through services such as Zimbalam, Tunecore, and CD Baby)
- building their own websites (via services such as Wordpress and Squarespace)
- creating HD videos or hi-res press shots on cheap-but-incredibly-effective digital SLR cameras (or even an iPhone 4)
- buying their own online advertising (on Facebook, Google etc.)
- collecting their own royalties (via online tools provided by the PRS / PPL)
- manufacturing their own merchandise (thanks to services such as Cafepress or Zazzle)
- promoting their own gigs and selling advance tickets online (via Stubmatic or Paypal)
- running direct marketing campaigns (using services such as BandCamp, Reverbnation, Mailchimp and Aweber).
In other words, pretty much doing everything labels, publishers and promoters would normally do – but usually on a ‘micro scale’.
The question for musicians about DIY is this however: just because you can do all these things, should you? We often come across artists who have spent years perfecting their sound in their own home studios, and who excel at DIY recording...who then ruin a fantastic home-recorded album by designing a crappy cover in Photoshop and shooting their own video (making it much harder for us to get journalists or bloggers to take them seriously). It’s easy to see why bands do this: it’s infinitely cheaper and often quicker than hiring a professional. And in some cases, it’s absolutely fine to take the DIY route – for example, there might be a guy in the band with a day job in online advertising, who can set up an excellent, cost-effective campaign. Or there may be a photographer in the group who can sort out some fantastic press shots. The problem is that there often isn’t, and with a plethora of cheap gadgets and online services available, it’s very tempting for musicians – who are so used to taking a DIY approach to their music – to assume that a) this is a good way of filling the gap and b) that a DIY approach to everything will always yield positive results.
Obviously, you might not always have a choice around DIY promotion: there may be no budget at all to play with. But even if you are releasing an album on a shoestring, here are some key pointers to bear in mind when you are considering all the other DIY stuff you can do...
- Before deciding to shoot your own video or take your own photos, see if you can rope in a mate who is better at that sort of thing than you (who could be convinced to help you out in exchange for a pint of larger and a bag of crisps). Or if you do have a budget, just pay somebody!
- If you are creating any online assets yourself – websites, e-newsletters, etc. – do some research. Take a look at some megastars’ efforts and see what works well. Take a leaf out of their book (read: nick their ideas).
- Keep things simple: if you’re not an expert graphic designer, your best chance of making something that looks professional, whether that’s an album sleeve or a t-shirt, is usually by taking a minimalistic approach to design.
- Before spending any money on online adverts, do a dry run – allocate £20 to £50 to a test campaign to see if it generates any sales, Facebook ‘likes’ etc. Try out a few different targeting options and advert creative, and ensure you are getting some sort of a return on your investment before you spend hundreds of pounds on ineffective ads!
- If you are approaching the media yourself, make sure you are targeting the right kind of critics for your music and that you don’t email them too many times.
- Run everything you create past somebody impartial to get a sense of whether or not the video / website / poster in question comes across as professional. By impartial, we do not mean your mum.
Above all, take a look at where your strengths lie. If you are a musician who happens to be a good web designer, then by all means, design your own website. But if you know the video you’re going to make to accompany a brilliant track that you sweated for days over in the garden shed is going to look rubbish, it’s time to look elsewhere for help.