Lessons From a New Medium
Last summer, my band SPACESHIPS went into the studio to record our second album.
But it might as well have been our first: our debut was conceived as a solo record. I recorded everything myself over the course of three years. I played every instrument, barring a couple guest musicians, and toiled over the mix for months. When all was said and done, I released the album digitally on Bandcamp and assembled a band to play the songs live.
For the follow up, we veered hard in the other direction. That band had taken on a life of its own, and we wanted to capture the chemistry we had playing together. We went into a professional studio and recorded all of the instruments live over the course of two days.
We wanted to give the album a proper release. I’m a vinyl junkie myself, and it’s always been a dream of mine to press my own album on wax. There’s only one problem there: pressing to vinyl is expensive. Pressing the vinyl alone would cost over $1,500. That didn’t include studio time or mastering fees.
We didn’t have that kind of scratch on hand. So we did what every independent band does in the twenty-first century: we set to crowdfunding.
With the help of some generous donors, we were able to pay for the pressing. We’re now a proper band with our own vinyl records for sale.
But it wasn’t without its hiccups. Here are the lessons I learned.
Know the Limits Of Your Medium
The digital revolution has erased a lot of the limitations on our art. And it’s easy to take that freedom for granted. The internet is filled with musical works that stretch well beyond the hour mark.
When you’re working with a physical medium - and especially a medium as physical as vinyl - you need to respect the boundaries of the material. For us, that meant operating within time limits. A twelve-inch record can typically hold twenty-two minutes of audio. So when we arranged the songs for the album, we had to think about where we would put the break between side A and side B.
It also meant that we had to make some songs a little shorter. Which is a struggle for a post-rock band.
DIY What You Can, Work With Others on What You Can’t
I cut my teeth in the punk scene. And when I was starting out as a music maker, that meant I did everything myself. My earliest “album” was recorded with a computer mic and burned onto CDs in my dorm room.
As I’ve honed my craft, it’s been tempting to keep that same ethos for everything. I still personally screenprint all of our t-shirts. I do all of our graphic design work, which includes everything from stickers to album covers to lyric sheet layouts.
Looking back on the first SPACESHIPS record, though, it’s now painfully obvious that having some extra help would have been a good call.
In this process, nowhere was that more clear than during the mixing. After we cut everything to tape, I sat down with the raw files. My goal was to edit the takes together, build the song transitions, and get a basic mix that the mixing engineer could use as a starting point.
When I sat down to do the mix, it sounded perfect to me. I didn’t have the faintest clue about how I could make it sound better. Of course, once it was handed to the mixing engineer, he worked pure magic on it.
Had I tried to do it all myself, the record wouldn’t have found its true potential.
Over-communicate With Your Partners
His work was like magic, but my relationship with the mixing engineer wasn’t perfect. We started recording the first week of July, and by the end of the month, I’d finished my portion of the editing. We scheduled a Halloween show to celebrate the album release, thinking that would give him plenty of time to finish the mix.
Long story short, we didn’t have an album to release that night. In fact, the mix wouldn’t be finished until the following May. He got another job working sixty hours a week, and our album slipped down his priority list.
I was patient through the process. After all, the few songs we had already heard sounded incredible. And since he was working for the same company who recorded it, I assumed that the deal I made with the studio owner included his work as well.
I was wrong about that. We still got a great deal for the product he gave us, but having that conversation was a rude awakening.
For the rest of the project, when I spoke to printers or mastering engineers or the vinyl plant, I established a clear timeline and payments from the start. From that point, things went way smoother.
Pay Close Attention to Details
That wasn’t the only detail I overlooked. There was also the matter of the crowdfunding fees. If you’ve ever gone through a crowdfunding site, you know that they charge a nominal fee for all donations received through the site. We used Indiegogo, which charges 5% for hosting the project, plus another 3% + $0.30 for credit card transactions.
I’d pored over the numbers for CD costs, lyric sheet printing, vinyl pressing, and whatever else, so I knew exactly what we needed to break even on the printing. Amazingly, we were able to meet that goal.
When the money was deposited into our account, I realized I had completely forgotten to account for those fees. When it was time to pay everyone, we were under by the exact number we lost in fees. Had I worked that 5-8% into my original calculations, we would have been much better off.
By that time we were able to pay all of our debts and get the records into our fans’ hands, the album was already a year old. Some of those songs had been in our live set for three years.
Despite these setbacks, we had finally completed our project. Now we have to focus on something new: not becoming complacent in that success. It’s time to keep writing, keep playing, and keep stretching ourselves as artists. We’ll keep selling these records, sure. But we’re not going to stop there.
And when it comes time to release the next record, we’ll be all the wiser for paying attention to these lessons.