Why all unsigned bands should record their music independently, without any outside help. Part 1/2.
In March 2022 Bally Studios launched our new 8 track recording service, which allows bands to hire all of the equipment that they need to self record, self produce and self release their music on a format that seems quaint and stripped down by modern standards, but which was also the industry standard until the mid 1970s. Over the years we've always been passionate about bands empowering themselves and taking on the responsibility of not only creating, but also selling their own music themselves, instead of relying on someone else to do it for them. This new service is a central part of that.
This blog wasn't written as a way to promote the new facilities. Instead we wrote most of this blog at the back end of 2021 for it to be published in early 2022, and it was whilst watching The Beatles "Get Back" over Christmas that we got to thinking; this album, recorded in 8 track, sounds better than the vast majority of music recorded today, despite the primitive recording technique. The songs are great, (of course - this is The Beatles we're talking about), but the actual recording set up was rudimentary at best, and yet it still captured everything incredibly well. There was never a time that the limitations of options that the band had in 1969 compromised our 2021-2022 viewing experience. The essence of each member was captured perfectly, it sounded like what you'd expect a rehearsal to sound like. It was a perfect capture of a moment in time that can never be recreated. While many would say this was in spite of the limitations, maybe it was because of the primitive recording technique?
So we looked into how much it would cost to buy the modern equivalent of the 8-track recording facilities that The Beatles used, and it turned out to be about £1,850 - £2,000; not actually THAT much money. I mean, considering our income was hit by 70% over the 2 years of the pandemic and the effect that that had had on our bank balance it was quite a bit of money, but seeing as it would add a new service to what we could offer bands, and with the obvious benefits to such a service, we figured that there's worse ways for a studio to invest the money.
So we took the plunge, and now we offer 8 track recordings, and this is the blog that gave us the inspiration for that decision. Here are the reasons why we genuinely think that bands should always record their own music themselves first. Self funded, self recorded, and self promoted.
1) Bands often forget what the whole point of making those first recordings is.
There's a common mindset amongst unsigned bands who are looking to become commercially successful in the music industry that is logical, yet flawed. They use the bands that they look up to as the template for what a successful career is, and try to emulate these bands' success for themselves by following the same process - more accurately, they copy what they think the bands' approach was, and in doing so hope to copy their success. "If they can do it, why not us?"
These bands often use commercially successful albums, or albums with a cult status as their inspiration. Very few bands with commercial aspirations are inspired by an album that sank like a stone upon release. If they were, then they likely wouldn't harbour any commercial ambitions for themselves since, by choosing an unsuccessful album as their inspiration, commercial success holds little value for them. If your band wants to sell records, you'll usually be inspired by bands that did the same. They reason, "these bands made commercially successful/cult albums, so we need to do the same!" The key point is that the successful album is held up as the desired outcome, and the band's plan of action is based around that. This is a flawed approach as it focuses on the outcome instead of the process, and is based on a revisionism of the facts as to how those bands were in the position to release their debut album in the first place.
A band's success is built on a culmination of everything that happened before they became successful. There's a temptation from watching shows like X-Factor or films about bands that became successful to believe that there as one single event that caused the band to become successful - "one simple trick that they don't want you to know" - but that's not the case. Hundreds or thousands of small decisions led to the point where they're finally becoming successful, but unless you've had unrestricted access to the band's journey from the point of their first rehearsal to the record coming out, you can't know what parts of that journey were vital to their success or not. You might think, "they played Glastonbury, and they got a big name producer in, so we should do the same....." but that would be to assume that a successful band equals a band that only had success after success after success on their way up through the music industry, with no setbacks at all, or that if they had setbacks that these setbacks didn't play any part in their later success at all, or that they didn't learn anything from them.
In many cases these setbacks and "failures" will be vital to their later successes, yet they're not focused on as they don't fit the narrative of what a successful bands needs to do to become successful. In short, they use an album's success as their starting point and work back from there, picking and choosing the parts of the process that they feel played a part in the band's success, instead of looking at the process as a whole.
It's a bit like a new coffee shop saying, "we want to be the next Starbucks, so we're going to open 500 stores in our first year!! Starbucks have 20,000+ stores, they think big and have huge ambitions, so there's no point in opening just one or two stores. If we want to compete with them, we need to go big!" They see the huge success that Starbucks have, and think that they need to match those grand ambitions with their own grand ambitions. On one hand that sounds logical, yet Starbucks opened it's first store in 1971. They concentrated on that store until the early 1980's, a decade later, when they started adding more. By 1986, 15 years later, they had 6 stores. Hardly dramatic growth, but from there they expanded to 11 stores in 1987, 46 stores by 1989 and 140 by 1992.
Starbucks have acknowledged that there was no point in them growing their operations whilst they did not have the expertise or infrastructure to support that growth, so they focused on building that infrastructure first, and bands should do the same. Instead of saying, "look at how they grew, look at how successful these bands are!", they should work out what the band did prior to that album, and what came before that success and then work forward, instead of looking at the success and working backwards.
Whilst many bands use the success of their debut albums to launch a 20+ year career, in 95%+ of all cases the band will have released an EP or a basic demo of their music first in order to get to the stage of releasing that debut album. You may not have even heard of it, it could have sold less than a few thousand copies, but it will still have served it's purpose.
Looking at a list of debut albums from the last 20-30 years that are listed in "Greatest Albums Of All Time" lists, all of which propelled the bands that released them to the level of success that most bands can only dream about, it includes Arcade Fire's "Funeral", which was actually released 3 years after "Arcade Fire EP". Oasis's Definitely Maybe came a year after "Live Demonstration", Arctic Monkey's " Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not" came out the year after"5 minutes with the Arctic Monkeys", The Strokes "Is This It" came nearly a year after their "The Modern Age EP", and all of these earlier releases had primitive versions of the songs that were later re-recorded for the debut album. All of them.
Any band thinking that they should 'keep their powder dry' for their debut album are also airbrushing earlier releases from their memory, or haven't realised that the success of the debut album was built on the shoulders of these previous recordings which were released, promoted and sold to the public. Both Coldplay and Keane recorded their first demos in our Studio 1, with Coldplay's "Safety EP" and "The Blue Room EP" and Keane's "Call Me What You Like" and "Wolf At The Door" EP's being recorded in 2000-2002, while the studios was trading under it's previous name, Sync City. The debut albums of these two bands sold more than 20 million copies between them, and the releases before them have been largely ignored by everyone apart from the band's hardcore following, but in both instances, as well as the other examples above, those releases laid the groundwork for everything that was to come afterwards. They laid the foundation that everything was built on.
All of these bands released albums that are regarded by many as "classic first albums", and all of them built up to it by self produced/small budget releases that led up to those albums. Any band that thinks. "we'd rather wait and save up to do a really professional recording," is free to take that approach, but they also need to recognise that it is the exact opposite approach that most successful bands take. The track record above is clear: record songs in basic format, build up hype, and then re-record and re-release those songs to a better, more professional standard later.
2) Recording your own music is only for "Independent bands", whereas we don't need to do that, as we want to be signed.....
You have one of two choices for how you can build your band's career:
- independently, where you retain all artistic and financial control over the band, taking on all of the hard work that is needed yourself.
- you get signed to a record label and allow them to guide the band onto their path of success.
The vast majority of bands that want to stay independent are already recording their music themselves; it's this second option of focusing on getting signed that holds many bands back. "There's no point in us recording and releasing our music ourselves, we'll wait until we get signed so that a record label can do it for us." This is not to say that signing with a record label will be a bad choice for all bands; it's to say that even if you want to eventually get signed, putting the emphasis on the other party (the record label) to achieve that is a really bad idea. There is no decision that will hold a band back more than this one, for so many reasons which include, but are not limited to, the following:
a) How is the record label meant to find out about you if you don't have that great demo? Anyone who reasons that they'll discover your band at a live gig forgets that an A&R person can really only go to 1 gig a night, maybe 2 if they're lucky. Any A&R person who sees more than 5 bands a night is doing well, and there'll need to be factors that go in their favour for them to even be able to see those bands. Unreliable public transport, a bad live sound engineer, the gig selling out so they can't get tickets, illness, last minute band nerves that compromise their performance, there are so many factors that could mean that they either can't make the gig, or they don't get the true impression of all of the band's talents at the show. Putting the fate of the band's progress on a live gig is a risk not worth taking.
By contrast if an A&R person works an 8 hour day and listen to each band for 5 minutes they'll have the opportunity to discover 100+ bands a day from listening to their recorded music, all of which bypass these other factors that could scupper your chance of being discovered. Even if you are holding out on being discovered at a gig, a better demo recording will increase your chances of attracting the attention of a better promoter, or being put on a better bill in the first place. Any band thinking that being discovered at a live gig will replace the need for a great live recording forget the role that that live recording plays in getting that gig. It's not like A&R people just wander around randomly from gig to gig, expecting by chance to come across a great new band, (if that was their approach then you wouldn't want to sign for them in any case). No, they need to plan which bands to target, and the live recording is a vital part of this.
b) If you've ever watched Dragon's Den you'll know the usual questions: "How many sales have you made so far?" "Can I see a prototype of the product please?" and "What feedback have you got from the people you've sold it from?" Each and every one of these questions is designed to assess the risk of investing in a person or their company. It's one thing to have an idea about a product that has potential, but when you are able to say, "5,000 people bought the product", or "here is the feedback that we've had from our customers, who are placing repeat orders,", or "the main buyer of a big supermarket chain really likes the product" or even "here's the product, try it for yourself!", each of these examples removes doubt from the investor. Instead of the business owner promoting it, once it's been released then the product can speak for itself.
Likewise, even if you do want to go down the route of getting a record label to finance the recording of your music, recording yourself first allows you to get reviews, to sell directly to the public, to get radio play, and to build up your audience. If you're able to do that on a modest scale then it can be used as a "proof of concept" for the record label, whilst also giving the band an advantage when it comes to the terms of any contract You'll be able to say "we've already proved that we can record great music, get good reviews, and that we have a certain level of commercial appeal, all we need to do now is scale it up a bit." Your modest success reduces the risk for a record label investing in you as they've already got a platform to build from, and it shows you have less need for a record label, giving the band more power in the negotiations.
3) You can learn your recording technique, and what suits your music best, so that you can get the most out of a more expensive, future recording session.
This is by far one of the biggest selling points. Sometimes it’s only once you put yourself into a recording session that you learn what works best for you, and what doesn’t. I’ve been in sessions myself where a band says that they want to play to a click track, and they just don’t prepare for it. It’s an afterthought for the band, and particularly the drummer. I remember times when a drummer was playing the same song for 6 hours at a time, as they just couldn't get the hang of playing it to the click track, and this was at £40 an hour back in 2004. The whole process just felt so unnatural to them, and they were more focused on hitting the right drum at the exact right time than they were at getting ‘the feel’ of the song right. If only he’d learned that lesson in a cheap recording session.
Likewise, I’ve seen band members that just froze in a studio; they’d never played with 6 people gawking at them before. A few days into the process they’d gotten over their nerves, but again, it’s was a shame that it cost them so much money to learn that lesson. I’ve seen bands that tried to play with just drums and bass guitar, that after about 8 hours suddenly worked out that if the guitarists play at the same time as them, even if the guitars were not recorded, it made the other members play so much better. I’ve seen guitarist forget to check all of their pedals before a session, and spend 45 minutes trying to fix 'pops and clicks' in the chain that they can't identify, and vocalists who wanted to get their vocal recorded as quickly as possible in overdub sessions, first thing, so that they can get their parts over with. They later learned that their voice is a lot better later on in the day, once it’s had a better chance to wake up. All of those morning sessions needed to be wiped and re-recorded.
There are factors that will limit your band, and other factors that will make your band deliver their best performance, and the more recording sessions you do, the more of these factors you will learn. Recording your sessions on an 8 track multi-track recorder will not only move you forward as a band, but it’ll also make your future recording sessions more productive and your future recordings better from the lessons that you learn in them.
4) Many bands are copying the approach of bands from 60 years ago, forgetting that the obstacles that these bands based their approach on haven't existed for 20 years.
The world has moved on a lot in the last 60 years, and the music industry has changed more than most, yet that's not reflected much in the approaches of most bands. Years ago recording and releasing your own music yourself was nigh on impossible. Recording sessions were super expensive, and the equipment would require a team with a collective of years of experience to be able to get the most out of it. Pressing records was expensive, shipping them was expensive, selling them was expensive, advertising them was expensive, so no wonder bands would turn to a record label to get their music out there. Records needed to sell a lot of copies to justify the huge costs that went into making them. The costs - and the risks - were high, and the means to do that was beyond the reach of most bands, so they turned to record labels as a means to an end.
Today most bands still turn to record labels despite the fact that records cost a fraction of what they use to cost to record, and despite the fact that the internet means that there's no need to stump up huge amounts of money in advance to get the records pressed up, advertised, distributed and sold. Whilst there used to be a trade-off between the obstacles that bands had in releasing records, and the rewards that they'd pay record labels to overcome those obstacles, by now we have a situation where the obstacles to overcome the records are largely gone, yet the terms of record contracts that were specifically written around those obstacles have remained unchanged. We're basing our approach in 2022 on the approach of 1960, and that's just weird.
This recording facility is not meant to directly compare with going to a professional recording studio, and unless you’ve had lots of recording experience and everything falls into place then you're not likely to better the results of going to one - if it was that easy to get the same results with a fraction of both the equipment and cost then studios around the world would all go out of business pretty quickly - but by the same token..... you don't need to. You’ll come close to it, closer than you think, and that's enough. That'll do. Spending 5% of the money, with 1% of the risk, and 1% of repercussions of failing to sell the end product means that even smaller rewards are well worth it.
Imagine a world where the possession and transportation of cocaine was legal, and where you simply needed to pay a tax on it. Right now if you wanted someone to smuggle cocaine into the country you'd need to pay them thousands of pounds due to the risks and the amount of effort they'd need to go through. High risks need a high reward. By contrast if cocaine was legal then you'd be paying a fraction of the fee and just buy it legally off the internet. The risks of smuggling it are gone, and that was the justification for the high smuggling fees.
The same applies in the music industry. Back then records used to sell 100,000 copies as standard, but that's because they needed to. The risks were high, so the rewards needed to be high too. The risks are not high now, so the rewards don't need to be either. Recording your album independently and selling 5,000 records at £6 each will bring in a turnover of £30,000, so even factoring in a few thousand pounds to record the album and the commission that the online retailers will take for selling your music, there's no reason that the band can't have £20,000 sitting in a fund to re-record those songs with a world class producer in a professional studio for a month, which is what the record label would have done anyway, the difference being that in this case you're getting all of the benefits of being with a record label, without them taking most of the rewards as a result. You don't need to learn how to sell 1 million records, you need to work out how to sell 5,000 at £6 and build from there.
5) It’s a realistic and lower risk option, and there's value in the lower expectations that should never be underestimated.
Sure, many professional studios are “only” £300 a day, and for what you get that's a great price, but we’re living in times where some bands haven’t made any money at all for a year or two, where inflation is high and money is tight. Most bands can’t justify spending £1,500 for 5 days in a studio. If they only buy 2 days of studio time as a means to save money then they risk rushing the whole process, leaving them £600 poorer with a recording that’s a compromise in itself. When you spend that kind of money on a recording then you need to hit a certain standard in order for it to be justified, which brings with it an element of risk and pressure. By comparison this is a £29/£55 investment, that’ll get you 8/10 results for a minuscule fraction of the costs. There’s a huge difference between throwing £29 into a project and hearing the odd squeak here and there, and spending £1000+ on getting the same results.
If you want your band to become your main source of income, you need to start to think of it in business terms; what are you going to invest into each activity? What do you want to get out of each activity? What are the pay offs if you succeed? What are the downfalls if you fail? The potential rewards need to match the investment made.
So let's look at the potential risk and rewards for recording your music yourself. If it turns out well then you've got a great recording that you can sell and use to promote the band for barely any money at all. The risk was low, the rewards were high, that's a pretty great investment. If you spend your 3-4 days and £55 on your recording and it doesn't go well, your attitude will determine the value of the session If you go away and analyse what went wrong, and work out what the limitations were that stopped you from getting good results, then it's likely to actually move the band forward, so long as the "failure" is put into the correct context of actually being a study on what the bands strengths and weaknesses are. With the budget price of a cheap 8 track recording. the upsides are above-and-beyond what you can expect for the money, and the downsides can be chalked up to a cheap learning experience.
Which brings us to the risks and rewards for getting your music recorded at a professional studio. No doubt, the end recording may be a lot better, so it may be a lot easier to build a fan base, to get radio play, and to generally attract the attention that you need to progress through the music industry. There is no scenario where recording your music to a better standard is going to hold your band back, and splashing-the-cash and going into a better recording studio is likely to get you better results, no doubt. However, if you have this great recording made, and then you're not able to follow through and use it to create the commercial success you want, it can be a much harder pill to swallow than it would be if you had invested much less into the project.
So many bands say, "if only we had the chance to record our songs properly, we'd show everyone how good we really are!" Yet when they actually have the opportunity to record those songs properly, and when it doesn't then correlate into commercial success, it says one of two things: either your music just doesn't have mass appeal potential, and at best it will be restricted to a small niche - which is unlikely to make the ears of any nearby record labels prick up - or that if the band is going to enjoy the commercial fruits of their artistic labours, then it won't be them that does it. Instead the emphasis of creating that success is going to be placed upon the shoulders of whatever record label it is that takes a punt on them, which swings the balance of power back to the record label. They're now in a position to say, "well, you've tried to become successful independently, and it didn't go so well, which really shows the value that we bring to the party, which comes at a price......"
A rough, ragged and ready recording brings with it less chance of being commercially successful, but at the same time it brings much less expectations, which means any of the downsides of commercial "failure" are mitigated. The White Stripes had happily ticked along for years, with their first two albums selling barely enough to crash in at the charts at #142 and #137, but on the other hand they were an independent blues rock band that recorded their music themselves. With such an approach you could hardly blame them for their lack of commercial success. By contrast the winner of the very first series of X Factor, Steve Brookstein was eventually dropped despite his first single and album entering the charts at #1, as his album "only" sold 100,000. I mean, what's the point of being the winner of the biggest TV show in the UK that is basically a 24 week advert for the eventual winner, if you're only going to sell such a paltry amount of records?! In his case the much greater investment made into him meant that his success needed to be bigger by comparison in order for it to truly be regarded as a "success", whereas The White Stripes were able to say that they were the most commercially successful blues rock band at the time, due to the low expectations that come with the territory they were in. Success is measured compared to the expectations.
We once had a band who went on to be moderately successful that self recorded their first Ep and printed up 2,000 copies, which sold quickly, within about 10-12 weeks of release. Within days of it selling out there was press attention around them, and soon the Ep's were being traded on eBay for about £15, much more than the £5 they were selling them for. The band members were now saying, "if we'd known they'd sell so quickly we would have done a better recording, and printed up more." It's an understandable way of thinking, yet the band never got as much press attention as at that point ever again. There was a big buzz around the band specifically due to the fact that there were so few records on sale, and because the recording was essentially a demo. The band was tipped for great things, and some people were buying it specifically on the basis that better things would come later, in the hope that if the band became successful then these recordings would be worth more at a later date; but in order for people to expect growth after the record, it needs to be recorded at a lower level to begin with. If you go straight to the "professional recording" stage then you jump the whole "this band has potential!" period, and that's where much of the buzz around a band comes from.
Don't give them what they want straight away: tease your audience, build up the suspense, enjoy what is one of the best parts of being in a band. There's no universal barometer for what "success" and "failure" is in the music industry, everything is relative to the expectations of the band and the resources that are available to them. Therefore the limitations that come with you deciding to record your music yourself may be the very factors that result in your independent recording being deemed a success, and launching you to the stage of recording that classic first album, with that early success giving you the negotiation power to get a better first record deal. Trying to skip this formative part of the band's ascent through the industry is a bit like skipping foreplay: I mean..... you could do it, but it's not half as much fun, and it also kind of defeats the purpose of what being in a band is about.