Let's Make A Deal—
The Ins & Outs of Record Deals
Our last article dealt with the proverbial record contract and took a realistic glance at the ins and outs of working with record labels. To sum up the article, it established that there are basically three functions that a record label executes and allows for through the recording contract: recording, distribution and disbursement (or accounting for the non business major). I am going to have to introduce you another phenomenon of record contracts – the stipulated addendum. Record contracts allow for an addendum or change to be stipulated in writing to all contracted parties with due notice if necessary for the faithful execution of the contract. In other words, the label can change the rules if necessary to faithfully exploit your recording for more revenue under the illusion that more revenue for the label means more revenue for you. **See recoupable. I digress. Honestly, I said this would be a two part series. I would be doing a disservice to the aforementioned three label functions if I tried to lump them into just one article. Harmony Central pays me for articles, not novelettes. Today, we’ll look solely at one function – the business side of recording.
Now the folklore of half million dollar recording budgets would lead one to think that actually recording a typical 10 song CD would be out of the reach of the common man. This could not be further from the truth. With the advent of high quality yet economical recording technology, many great recordings are being made daily in garages around the world. What could be a better location to record for a garage band?
First, let me present a caveat for your protection. If you are still fixated on getting that record deal in spite of the fact that we’ve moved on to alternatives, you won’t have to dig deep on the internet to find sites and “producers” promising to bring you to Nashville, Los Angeles or New York to record for the sole purpose of getting the deal. They’ll claim to have “connections” and have a litany of names to drop for which they’ve been exclusively and intimately involved in breaking as artists. In the unforgettable words of Jenny from Forrest Gump, “Run, Forest, Run”! 999 out of 1,000 of these guys will take money that you’ve borrowed against a second mortgage on your parent’s house and leave you with a mediocre recording and a broken promise. If you’re not sure, I beg you to visit my website listed below, find my contact information and let me behoove you personally to avoid this. Don’t be one of those proverbial suckers born every 15 minutes. In these next two articles, I am going to give you some ideas for making an economical recording and then creatively marketing and exploiting it to create your own revenue stream. It might not be a global pie per se but you will end up with 100 percent of it to share with your band. And, your parent’s can keep their house.
1. Finding the right studio – as I mentioned before, the availability of world-class gear at very affordable prices has made recording and therefore the creation of boutique economy studios very common. Warning, don’t make your first band recording be your own introduction into recording technology and studio operation. If you are already operating a studio and you have the gear and the real estate to record your full band – great. But I don’t recommend that you go out and spend 25K for a rig that you don’t know how to operate and set it up in your bedroom that is not insulated or fabricated for isolation recording. Good studios with competent engineers and well-designed space are available in most urban areas for decent rates. Search on Google, visit your local music store and ask around. Once you’ve found some prospects, check their websites, visit their rooms and listen to recordings and mixes from their studios. The proof is in the pudding – A higher hourly rate doesn’t necessarily indicate better sonic quality.
2. Budgeting for your recording – one thing that record labels do very well thanks to bean counters and CPA’s is budget. You have to sit down and consider the amount of time that it’s going to take to record your project from start to finish. Then consider this against the hourly rate of the studio you plan to record in. If you don’t have studio experience, you need to budget extra time to track your instrumentation and sing vocals. A good benchmark is one hour per song. This gives you time to run through the song a couple of times and flush things out. Often playing in the studio with headphones will illuminate issues in arrangements or rhythms that you might not have been aware of. An hour should give you adequate time to ferret these issues out and capture your track. The same goes for vocals. Give yourself adequate time, especially for the lead vocals. You’ll need to establish with the house engineer how long he or she usually needs to mix each song. Also consider the potential expense for things like vocal editing or tuning, mastering or even something as simple as piano tuning. The studio manager will be helpful in getting figures and helping you estimate costs. Put all of these figures into a written budget so that you can viscerally see exactly what the process will cost from start to finish. You might even do a recording budget for each potential studio for cost comparison. One great way to save some money on studio costs is to be willing to go in during non-peak hours. Often, studios will offers great rates for late evenings or even over night recordings because of less demand for these hours.
3. Preparation for your recording - this is where you can really save yourself costly studio time and therefore recording budget. Don’t wait to practice your material in the studio with the clock running. Schedule adequate rehearsal time before the sessions to work through your material. If you have the capacity, mic everything and practice with headphones on. Playing live with wedges is much different from monitoring through headphones. It will be excellent prep work to be familiar with headphone recording. It is also an excellent way to hear what everybody else is playing. The same goes for vocals. It’s even harder for a singer to get used to relying on the headphones for reference when you are used to the physical sound of your voice in the room or on the wedge. Also, make sure that your gear is functioning properly. Nothing is more of a groove buster and cost multiplier than getting set up in the studio only to find that your amp needs a tube or the right side of your keyboard output is not functioning.
4. Recording Day – plan adequate time for arrival and set up. If you know it takes an hour to set up drums, make sure drummer is there accordingly to allow for the designated start up time. Studios usually don’t start the clock until the specific time you booked for recording rolls around. They usually allow for some set up time. Don’t waste an hour with late arrivals and poor planning. Plan your day realistically. Try to plan tracking instruments and vocals on different days. Everything in the process is important from instruments to vocals to mixing. Give each part of the process your best. Finally, plan on taking time for proper nutrition and hydration for the day. Don’t come in hung-over or plan on using alcohol or chemicals during the recording. You might think that you play better with a couple of shots but the odds are that your attention and dexterity will prove you wrong. There’s an old saying in the industry that “tape don’t lie”. Even though most modern recording is digital, the spirit of the axiom is true. Garbage in – garbage out. Save the celebration for after you’ve completed a great day in the studio.
5. Mixing Day – Every engineer has his own preference for mixing with the artist there or getting up a basic mix and then having the artist show up. By the time you’ve tracked and sung everything, the odds are that you’ve articulated your production preferences from song to song. It’s very helpful to keep a song hit list to keep track of what you’ve recorded. You can use this to keep production notes and therefore create a good roadmap that the mixer can use to fashion mixes from. I recommend that you come in after the engineer has a good start and fine tune. It gives you the advantage of having fresh ears and objectivity. If it’s possible, take the mixes and give them a listen in multiple mediums with varied outputs like car stereo, home stereo, jam box, or iPod. Your fans will be listening in a variety of mediums so try to make sure there is continuity from device to device. If it sounds good on a $12 pair of ear buds, it’s probably going to translate to your high fidelity system. Usually, mixers will offer one or two tweaks for a mix if after referencing you aren’t hearing something or hearing too much of something else. Even if you have to pay for another hour, it’s worth it if something is going to bother you for the rest of your natural life.
6. Mastering – this is a post mix process that enhances a mix and improves things that perhaps you and the mixer missed. It can also normalize every song to a consistent mix level and even sequence the songs for your master CD that you use to duplicate.
7. Preparing for duplication – I want to say a word about mechanical royalties here. When you record material written by someone else for the purpose of commercial sale, you are legally responsible for paying mechanical royalties on the units duplicated prior to the actual duplication. This is made very simple by visiting the Harry Fox agency, (https://www.harryfox.com) the industry standard royalty aggregator. This agency allows you to purchase a mechanical license to duplicate and sell the song you’ve recorded. The website will search an exhaustive database of song titles and then distribute the funds correctly. The statutory mechanical rate for any song under 5 minutes is 9.10 cents per song. Doing the math, this would mean for a 10 song CD of which you are duplicating for 1000 units, you would owe $910 in royalties. But, if you sell your CD’s for $10 each, you are holding potentially $10K in sales. Be honest. These are your brothers and sisters who write the songs and deserve to receive compensation for you using their intellectual property. Also, you need to have some pro photography for your CD cover. Don’t plan on going out with your camera phone and snapping something coming out of the elks club. Remember, j cards require hi resolution photography for templates so take the time and expense required to give layout people something to work with. Finally, make sure that you have all of your copy written with song titles, thanks, and track acknowledgements ahead of time. Have someone else proof it prior to duplication.
8. Duplication – You can do a Google search and find hundreds of resources for duplication. The going rate for a Digipak (cardboard sleeve) is about $1.00 per CD. This includes layout and shrinkwrap. You can find cheaper alternatives but it makes sense to stick with a company that has a track record for good service. There is nothing worse than taking the time and expense to print 1000 CD’s only to see that the j cards or Digipaks look like grade school renderings. Often, customers will buy something on a visual basis as much as having heard you.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list but it a good consideration of some of the broader points of recording from the perspective of a musician and/or band owner. I encourage you to explore the process. Don’t be afraid to go into a studio and record, even if it’s a shorter EP with fewer songs. It’s still something that you can sell and pad revenue for the band. It’s a great promotional tool, both for potential gigs and sending home CD’s with fans from shows. Next week: distribution and disbursement. No more stipulated addendums… Record wisely, my friends!