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DIY Musicians: The Balance Between Just Doing It, and Doing It Right

This article is adapted from a piece I posted two years ago at The Developing Artist. DIY musicians face an ongoing dilemma between spending huge amounts of money (which they may not be able to afford) on their recordings, or cutting corners just to get  their music out there. I discuss these issues in the post below. Enjoy!

 

Despite that fact that modern technology has made it easier for independent musicians to self-record, there is still a fierce amount of competition out there, and a pressure to release the best product you possibly can. When it comes to doing a recording, I phrase the musician’s dilemma this way: do you “just do it”, or do it “right?”  In other words, where do you find the balance between getting your music out there to people, and holding off until you’ve raised enough money for a high-budget recording?

Digital technology has made home recordings sound much better than they used to; however, technology has made its way into the the studios, too, not just the living rooms. Our ears can still tell the difference between the sound quality in a $10,000 project and a $100,000 project.  And yet, obviously there are plenty of successful indie projects being released on low budgets (just like there are plenty of high-budget projects that flop).  So how do you decide on a budget? Where do you cut corners, and where do you refuse to compromise? At what point do you stop trying to tweak your project and just say, “Hell with it–let’s just get it out there”?

Are you confused yet?

I’ve seen indie artists land on both sides of the spectrum.  I’ve seen those artists that strategically go into debt to finance a high-dollar recording that could play well on the radio (or possibly garner attention from the labels). I’ve also seen some artists release lesser-quality recordings just to keep their fans engaged, and manage to get away with it.  And of course, I’ve heard some really bad recordings that should never have been made at all.  My point is–there’s no set answer to this question, and unfortunately, there’s a bit of guessing and a lot of plain old luck involved with it. As an artist, when you’re ready to record, you alone must decide how much money you can spend, how much you’re willing to spend, and what you’re willing to allow on the market, in order to find the balance. Do you just do it, or do you wait, and do it “right”?

And what is “right,” anyway?

Some might argue cases on both sides of the argument, but I personally don’t believe that one size fits all here.  Like I said, I’ve witnessed successes and failures on both sides.  That being said, there is some common sense that can be applied here, to help guide you to the right decision for you.  So let me just throw out a few thoughts.

  1. Quality of music trumps quality of recording. Obviously, it is possible for a bad recording to ruin a good song, but a great recording will NEVER rescue a bad song. It doesn’t matter how awesome your equipment, your studio, or your engineer are: if you are recording a crappy song, it will still be crappy.  Before you spend all that money, make sure you have a song worth spending the money on, and make sure you can perform it well. For that matter, if you make your performance the priority over the recording quality, you will be more likely to get away with a lower-budget recording. In other words, if you’ve got a really good band with good songs and a good sound, you can potentially win fans even if you can’t afford the $100,000 record.  Always make sure you have a good product, regardless of your budget.
  2. Technology can only fix so much. You might be able to cover up your pitchy vocals or sloppy rhythms at an expensive studio in post production, but the more tech you put into “fixing” your record, the more you have to live up to when you play live for your fans.  If your live performance doesn’t match the record, the illusion will be shattered, and people will hear how pitchy and sloppy you really are. Again, my advice is that whatever your budget, don’t cut corners on your musical quality.  The better your original tracks are, the less you’ll have to fix, and the less you’ll have to spend. :)
  3. Money wasted is money wasted–no matter how much. Not to make the stakes higher, but if you cut too many corners on your recording budget and release a record that hurts people’s ears, it doesn’t really matter how much money you “saved.” By the same token, if you spend loads of money without the quality of music to back it up (or you don’t have the marketing machine in place to make the record pay for itself), you still have wasted money.  In either case, whether you spent a lot or a little–people aren’t buying your record.  Take this into account when deciding how much to spend, and try to spend enough money to make your music marketable without spending so much that you can’t recover your investment.
  4. You can wait forever to make the “perfect” record. Frankly, some musicians use perfection as an excuse to hide, or to put off success. There’s something to be said about “doing it right”, but if the illusion of “doing it right” prevents you from ever “doing it”, then you’ve leaned too far in one direction. Sometimes failure is guaranteed simply by never trying. It’s always “safer” to put something off into the future, but if you find the elusive quest for “perfection” to be your comfort zone, it might be time to lower your standards just enough to get rid of the excuses.

As a musician, when it comes to recording, do you “just do it”, or “do it right?” Where do you land on the spectrum? Perhaps “doing it right” doesn’t automatically mean doing it high-budget (although sometimes it absolutely does).  Perhaps a good rule of thumb is to spend what you need to spend in order to ensure that your record correctly reflects who you are as an artist.  If the recording quality wouldn’t do you justice, then it’s too cheap–and if you are leaning on the technology to fix your flaws, you’re about to pay too much.


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About the Author

on MUSIC IS MY OXYGEN WEEKLY.

Jeff McQ is a songwriter/composer/musician with a diverse resume that includes everything from directing music in church to scoring short films. In addition to his role as chief editor for Music Is My Oxygen (and writing our DIY Musician Channel), Jeff also covers the local music scene for Examiner.com in his hometown of Denver, Colorado, and maintains The Developing Artist [http://artistdevelopmentblog.com], a blog dedicated to offering advice and encouragement to indie musicians.

When he's not tinkering in his home studio or blogging for hours on his laptop at the local coffee shop (to the annoyance of the baristas), Jeff McQ enjoys taking in local shows, going on road trips, wandering aimlessly, and talking to himself.

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