Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Making of an album (And why it’s so hard to give away your music)

P We’re about to release our second African themed kids CD called “Stories from the Alphabet Tree” (Volume 1).

The first CD The African Alphabet was released in 2007 and we had planned to try and release a new one every year. This series is a labour of love and I see it as a long term project, something that was not envisaged as a “get-rich-quick” scheme. In actual fact it’s a bit of a "get-poor-quick” scheme! Even though I have my own studio it costs a fair bit of money to make an album. There are session fees to be paid to other musicians who appear on the album. We have a wonderful illustrator who has to eat I suppose, so we pay him. Then there are the mastering fees and the costs of manufacturing the physical CDs. Added to that will be the postage and packaging, phone calls and meetings to try and promote the CD.

But probably the most expensive thing of all is time. You can’t rush an album. It takes time to compose the songs. Time to do the pre-production work of programming the songs, trying out different styles, tempos and arrangements. Time to re-write the songs to try and perfect them. Time to record musicians. Time to edit the material. Time to mix the album. Time to master the album…And then time to market and distribute the album.

But we have to eat too, so we need to earn a living to support this time consuming business of making albums. So what do we do? We do gigs. We write music for commercials. We do albums for other people. We teach. And we try to squeeze in precious time for our album in between all of that.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. I love most of the work that I do for a living and I love the fact that I’m able to produce my own albums. The plan is as follows: To try and build a brand and release an ongoing series of kids CDs. We have loads of great ideas for future albums. It’s exciting and stimulating and it’s something that I love doing, that costs a lot now, but will generate income in the future. Or will it?

But just because I love playing, writing and recording music doesn’t mean I shouldn’t expect to be able to get some kind of financial return for my efforts. What scares me is whether or not there is any future in actually selling music. For years people have been downloading music without paying for it. And more recently many have been advocating the idea that music should be free anyway. We already get it for free on radio and TV, what’s so different about downloading it? Some ideas that I’ve come across: Your songs/CDs/MP3s are marketing tools to get people to pay see you live. At the gig you can sell t shirts and all kinds of other merchandise to help you earn a living. Other musicians are giving away downloads of their albums when you buy a can of soup or a t shirt.

The problem I have with all of this is that I have a hard enough time just trying to be a competent musician. It takes dedication and practice. But in the modern world I’m not able to devote all of my time to practicing, writing and recording music (which is what I’d like to do). I also have to learn to run a record company, to market and distribute my music. And then it suddenly dawns on me that even doing that won’t be enough as no-one is actually going to pay for my music when they can get it for free.

I’m not passing judgement here, just really pondering my future. And I’m not going to stop doing what I do, as I’m still clinging to the hope that with perseverance I will achieve my goals. (besides the fact that I don’t know how to do anything else!)

In the meantime if you have kids, know kids, know someone who has kids or have ever seen a kid under the age of 8, what are you waiting for? Download The African Alphabet now! :-)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The business of songwriting


This post is based on a recent talk I gave at COPA (Campus of Performing Arts)

Its based purely on my own methods and findings

How I got started

I decided years ago that I wanted to be a songwriter. I’d always written songs, but never seriously and I’d never tried to make a living from it. I wanted to be a songwriter, but I wasn’t one. I was too busy being a gigging musician. A book I read gave me a wake up call: I realised it was pointless wanting to be a songwriter and that I should either give up the idea, or really try to work at it. (By the way the title of the book is irrelevant & it was a crap book except for one inspiring chapter, so I’m not going to advertise it here!) I made a conscious decision to do something about it and started to work on a plan of action…

I read Pat Pattison’s book “writing better lyrics” which gave me some amazing techniques and ideas. I worked with a partner & drew up a schedule and we wrote together on a regular basis as if we had a day job. I started telling everyone I knew that I was a songwriter. It took about a year until we got our first professional writing job: A friend asked us to write songs for an educational show to be performed at schools. The show was successful and the songs were well received. We were hired to do two more shows.

Soon after that we found a singer who was looking to record an album. We wrote, recorded and produced the entire album (except for 1 song). She licensed the album to Gallo Records, and we watched as the album become a monumental flop! My partner and I did all the writing and recording for free and earned a whopping R35 each from album sales. However it was the cheapest and best education I could ever have received. From that one album I learned about sales, marketing, distribution, contracts (get a lawyer!), performance royalties, mechanical royalties  and most importantly I learned a lot about songwriting.


My philosophy: All writing is good for you

Since then we’ve written in wide variety of styles for radio & TV commercials, theatre productions, meditation CDs, pop artists, kid’s CDs and a bunch of other stuff. I’m a songwriter, I’m happy to take on the challenge of writing in any style. I’ve lost the musical snobbishness I had as a student.

The obvious starting point is to write. And write. And write. There are many courses & books around to help you, but that’s not what this article is about. As with anything in the music industry you have to be good at what you do. That’s a given. I’m assuming that you’re already at a point where you’re writing songs and are looking for a way to make a living as a songwriter. You have to build up a library of songs, and they have to be recorded. Properly. There is no such thing as a demo anymore. Demos are unacceptable. Your songs need to be adequately recorded and produced. If you don’t sing well enough, pay a session vocalist or barter with one. I recommend setting up a simple home studio as it is far cheaper to do than always having to pay studio time.

Something that I have found invaluable is having a songwriting partner. Someone to share the writing means less insecurity that you may be writing crap, and also helps to take you in directions you wouldn’t otherwise consider. A songwriting partner may also add skills/talents that you lack, such as a different vocal range, a good keyboard/guitar player etc.

Now back to the part where I assumed you already have songs recorded. What do you do with them?


Here is a list of things I’ve done (and often continue to do)

  1. Tell everybody and anybody who will listen that you are a songwriter. Work often comes from places where you least expect it.
  2. Make sure your songs can be heard easily by anyone. This means carrying CDs with you; putting up a website, MySpace page, FaceBook page etc.
  3. Keep your ears open for bands/artists going into the studio to record, and remind them that you’re a songwriter.
  4. Pitch your songs to artists or bands whenever you can. Be careful of playing just any of your material though, make sure it fits their style.
  5. Network. In real life and online. Go to jam sessions. Hang out with musicians. Try and meet people in the record industry and the advertising industry. Use FaceBook, Twitter, write a blog or whatever else is out there. Engage with people.
  6. Be an opportunist. Always be on the lookout for ways to market yourself. My partner & I were commissioned to write a love song for a woman who wanted to propose to her boyfriend. We approached Radio 702 and the whole thing was broadcast live on radio.
  7. Join sites like Songlink and Taxi but be warned: Songlink and Taxi are expensive and there there are some dodgy sites out there waiting to take your money. Do your research before paying for anything and have a library of songs ready to send.
  8. Read and contribute to relevant forums. You’d be surprised at the amount of information out there. A few that I like: Sound on Sound, Cakewalk, CD Baby, Composers Association of S.A. (CASA)
  9. Get a routine. Write regularly. You’ll start to develop a method and a style.
  10. Carry a notebook around and always be on the lookout for song ideas. Write them down, record them into your phone.
  11. Don’t be too precious about your songs. Be open to criticism, but be aware of who who is doing the criticising. If it is someone you respect, take note, if it’s not then take it with a pinch of salt.
  12. Pump Audio licenses independent music for film, television & commercials. As with anything, do some research before sending them your music.
  13. CD Baby is a great place for indie musicians to sell their music
  14. Some good places for info on various aspects of the music industry: http://sivers.org/ http://blog.artistshousemusic.org/  http://www.arielpublicity.com/

The business side

I learned most of the business stuff the guerrilla way, by making mistakes and later the right way from Donald S Passman’s “All You Need to Know About the Music Business”. It should be mandatory reading for all musicians

Join Samro immediately. They will handle your performance royalties.

I use Norm for my mechanical royalties, but there are other organisations handling mechanicals too.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK BEFORE JOINING! This means reading the organisations literature, asking them as many questions as you need to. Ask other industry professionals for advice. 



For me songwriting has become the primary focus of my career, but I’ve had to be creative to be able to make a living from it. I’ve learned to create my own platforms for selling my songs which include recording, distributing and marketing my own CDs. Empower yourself by learning all there is to learn about your craft and that includes the recording/programming techniques, marketing, distribution and sales.

Songwriting is a great way to earn a living even if you don’t ever have that number 1 hit song in the U.S.A. Getting enough good work in circulation in enough places should see you getting a fairly steady stream of income, and who know perhaps that hit will come along when you least expect it.

Good luck!

Friday, August 7, 2009

People die from exposure.

DSC00489 So my songwriting partner & I write a song. We hear that a popular local TV drama is looking for a song for one of their characters to sing, and our song happens to be the right genre. We submit it. They love it. In fact they gush. And ask us to submit another. They love it even more, and shower us with praise. They’d love to use it in an episode and they’d like us to record their cast member singing it. We’re ecstatic. They tell us how they had paid a well know local songwriting team loads of money to come up with something suitable and it wasn’t a patch on ours.

And then came the bad news. There was no more budget left to pay us anything. “But think of the exposure”.

Ok, I’m thinking about the exposure:

  1. Our song gets played on national TV. But wait, how will anyone know it’s our song? Oh, of course we’ll be credited. I’ve seen those credits zoom across my screen so fast I’m not even sure what language they’re in. And does anyone actually even try to read them?
  2. The cast goes on a national roadshow and our song may be performed all over the country. Great. Remind me how that benefits me? Oh yes, the singer will be singing along to backing tracks recorded by me…for free.
  3. The singer might record our song on an album. Which might sell. And we would then receive our share of the 6.7% mechanical royalty (divided by the number of songs on the album, and based on the wholesale price of the CD)

So I go to my dentist and say. “You’re actually quite lucky. I can’t pay you, but you see, I’m a musician, and I play a lot of high profile gigs and whenever someone sees my lovely smile, think of the publicity you'll get.”