How good do you have to sound?

“Great song, just needs a good production”. “You need a top-notch production to get played on radio”. “Better two or three top produced tracks than an album of ten self-recorded songs”. Quite well-known sales tactics preferrably used by studio owners trying to sell “the big thing” to unsigned musicians. But are they right? Okay, some musicians still have a long learning curve yet ahead of them. But can a well-done home recording be just good enough or do you really have to compete with the Katy Perrys and Nickelbacks out there?

Anything goes
With so much music available today our fans’ ears are dealing with many different types of music production quality all the way from the ‘50s to the ‘10s, from major to indie. So it has become difficult to constitute an official standard for what a good recording is about. Most small-town studio owners may throw their hands up in horror over a recording in the style of classic Elvis or Beatles just because it doesn’t match today’s standards, but still fans, both young and old, enjoy it.

Especially the alternative and independent genres provide so much sonic variety that any boundaries get blurred easily: that garage sound of the White Stripes, the super-dry Gossip album, way too thin sounding drum loops from the 1940s and not forgetting all the electronic freaks that create sounds far off the mainstream. Should that all be bad?

…and the Fans love it
The reason many musicians are unsigned isn’t because they are bad, but because they create music the big record labels don’t really care about. We are talking about niche products such as Jazz, Art Rock, Hair Metal, Old School Rap, Rockabilly, Oi Punk, Minimal House and many others. Music that’s being listened to by people who have developed an individual taste without the mainstream machinery telling them what to like. These people are often aficionados and music collectors who don’t just give underground bands a chance, but even specifically look out for them.

They justify their position with authenticity, credibility and real emotion. Music played and recorded the way the musicians themselves intended it to be without the obligatory extra polish but still with all those crazy elements deemed commercially unsustainable by the majors.

Quality is key
No doubt, a certain level of sonic quality is a must. A music production should be transparent, not muddy, not boomy and shouldn’t hurt your ears in the upper mid range. But do we really need the final 10 percent that put us in one league with the major superstars? Does a heavy metal drumkit have to sound exactly like the current machine-gun bass drums or is a genuine sounding kit just fine? Does a synth need to be as ‘fat’ as Dr. Luke’s? Does any fan really care whether the guitars are up front or a little more distant in the mix?

The most important ingredient, next to a great song, is emotion. Listeners care if they can perceive the mood a singer is in during a performance. They probably don’t care, however, about the type of microphone she sang into or how far the mic had been placed from her mouth. I remember being only a listener before I actually started playing an instrument. I didn’t have any clue about how the music had been played, neither could I tell the difference between rockabilly sound and hard rock. I just liked it.

Costs vs. Benefits
I don’t want to keep anyone from renting a state-of-the-art recording facility and hiring a great producer. Most producers (not all of them) have their rights and the price-performance ratio is well-balanced in most instances. But how does a self-marketing musician justify the costs when the budget is actually far smaller?

Many bands who are signed to smaller indie labels only license the finished masters to their respective labels, which means they carry all production expenses themselves. Most sell in the range from 1,000 to 3,000 units and with the current share provided by the labels they probably do not recoup their costs. Many such bands admit that they give priority to the fun part, but one day their expensive hobbies may no longer be sustainable.

If you believe some stats provided by CD Baby, unsigned musicians sell an average of 100 copies (yes, that’s one hundred) per album. Even if they sell all of the one hundred copies directly to their fans and may keep 10 dollars per sale, the production costs should not exceed 1,000 dollars then – and that includes manufacturing, cover design and promotion.

EPs seem to be an alternative for many musicians who cannot afford a full album production but still want their songs to sound great. However, manufacturing costs of EPs are about the same as the costs for the pressing of a full album while sales prices are definitely lower. And fans are usually hesitant about buying that neither single nor album thing anyway, both in the physical and digital world.

So wouldn’t it be wiser to self-produce a full album and only reach those 80 or 90 percent of the ‘required’ production quality but leave the window open for some actual money being made – or some being spent on promoting that new album?

Bottom Line
As described above, a certain sound quality is definitely required in that a song doesn’t sound ‘bad’, ‘wrong’ or ‘amateurish’. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and so is the perception of sound. Some like it raw and original or just love hearing how a band gets the best out of its resources. There’s a certain attractiveness to such recordings, especially among insiders.

Better keep trying and learning and go the extra mile to get the best out of your music, and given the many styles of popular music all the way from 1950 to 2014 you won’t have too much trouble staying competitive once you’ve given your all.

Finally a quote by Eddie van Halen, found some 15 years ago in some guitar magazine: “You cannot polish a pile of shit. The song has to be there from the very beginning”.

Let that encourage you – Julian Angel

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About MusicBizMadness

Julian Angel is a chart-noted songwriter and film musician with Hollywood credits. He has successfully released six (physical) records by himself. MusicBiz Madness started as a business conference in Germany and keeps sharing hands-on advice for musicians and people in the music industry.
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