a little random advice…

SO – recently, I was approached by a musical colleague with a proposition to produce his debut album.  I was (and continue to be) flattered – it’s not a scenario that comes up often, even though I’ve been involved in production for some years now.

We’ve been going back and forth for a week or so, exchanging thoughts and demos and such, and tonight he sent me an email with the question:

“…do you think I should even be thinking about making a record right now?”

I sat down to reply to his note, and several hundred words later, I finally got around to hitting “send” and thought – maybe these words might find a nerve with a larger audience, so – here you go.  Reprinted here in its entirety.

 


 

Boy….you’ve asked the $64,000 question, there.

And of course, I’m not gonna be able to go to bed without spitting out an answer of some sort.

There’s really only one person who can answer that question, and that’s ultimately you.  BUT – there are some points to consider when thinking about something like this.

You can’t really base the answer to “should I make a record?” on the number of Facebook followers you have, or how many people are showing up for gigs, or statistics, or algorithms – because none of that is gonna give you the right answer.

First of all, you should come to terms with a couple of universal truths:

1. Your first album will underperform your expectations.  Even if it sells a quarter million copies, it will fall short of some mark you’ve set for it in your mind.  It’s just the way our brains work.  There’s nothing you can do about it either before or afterward, it’s just the way it is.  Might as well prepare for it.

2.You will hate your first record for the rest of your life.  I won’t try to explain that to you in an email, it’s best saved for a conversation – but you should also make peace with that beforehand.  It’s yet another universal truth – you will likely end up hating your first album.  Jackson Browne hates his first record, and it’s universally considered one of the best debuts ever.  Counting Crows’ first record is brilliant, as is the debut by Crosby, Stills and Nash – they’re the exceptions to the rule, as those records represent something unique to their frames of reference….but if you surveyed a thousand bands or artists, 997 of them will hate their first record.  They will almost all have fond memories of making their first record, they’ll have stories about the making of their first record, they’ll tell you all about what they learned making their first record, but they’ll insist they hate it.

NOW – that last point is important.

Because – not unlike having children – making your first record is something that it’s easy to convince yourself to put off, to postpone, to talk yourself out of making that first record.

But days become weeks become months becomes years until it becomes “why bother” and you end up shelving it indefinitely.

So the answer to your question is yeah – you should make a record.

BUT – what’s a record?

Does it need to be a full length, 12 song effort?  Can it be an EP?  Does it need to be physical product?  Can I release it on iTunes/Spotify/etc. only, or do I need to actually have something you can hold in your hand?

This is all stuff you have to think about and come to the best conclusion for yourself, but I’ll tell you this:

Every single artist whos’ ever walked the earth has been in your shoes.  Everybody started somewhere, everybody had to figure this out for themselves, everybody had to make mistakes to learn valuable lessons from, everybody played to empty rooms, everybody slept in rest stops, everybody lost sleep and worried too much…frankly, if they didn’t, they’re not doing it right.

Making your first record is a rite of passage – no matter what the final product is (EP, CD, Vinyl album, iTunes only release)…it doesn’t matter.

You’re gonna learn the process, you’re gonna figure out what works for you and what doesn’t, you’re gonna develop preferences for certain rooms, certain microphones, certain instruments, certain players – and honestly, man…the only way to do it is to do it.

I feel like my job in this process is to make it as painless for you as possible, and the way to do that is to develop as clear a vision as we can for what you want the final product to sound like and come up with a way to get you there.  What form that product takes is up to you, and we don’t necessarily need to know that out of the gate…obviously, with limited budgets, that’s going to affect the process and we’ll have to make decisions around that once we start devising the game plan.  You have options.  A veritable SHITLOAD of options.  There’s no one right way to make a record, and our mission is to figure out YOUR right way to make a record.

I don’t need charts at the moment, but I appreciate the offer.

Since you’re not on a timetable, then right now my advice would be to keep writing.  Keep making demos.

Momentum generates momentum.

If you tell yourself you’re making a record, it grants validity to your efforts, it creates inspiration, and it makes you feel like you’re working towards something.

So write and record at home and think about this vague concept of a “record” and write with that in mind and write so many fucking songs that you’ll lie awake nights thinking about which songs belong on the record, and what the record will sound like based on your choices.

Some folks might call it anxiety, but I tend to think of it as feeling alive.

Let the work call the shots, and we’ll figure the rest of it out as we go – it’s far and away the best way to make a record.

That way, when you’re seventy years old and thinking back on this time of your life, you can look at the whole experience with a smile on your face.

Yeah, you’ll hate your first record, just like everybody else…but if you don’t make your first record, you’ll never make your second, or your third, or your fourth – so at some point, you gotta jump on into the water, brother.

Come on in and join the rest of us.

7 thoughts on “a little random advice…

    1. thanks for the kind words…I think he already knew most of what I told him, honestly. he’s just got some hard choices to make. but by all means, stop back in every now and then. I need to make a commitment to posting here more often (it’s been a YEAR), and that feels like a real possibility of late. 🙂

  1. Well said, as always, Tom. Luckily I made my first vinyl EP back in 1977 and, yes, I hate it! But all these years later, working with your help on album # 6 (although as you know only too well, some of mine have been multi-disc offerings) I agree with everything you say. What this boils down to, you are right, is that a) The artist is doing it for him or herself. If you get an audience it’s a bonus. And b) You make the album you can afford to make and hope you can get great players to play on it for a reasonable amount of money. Once you connect the two and start thinking of player payments in terms of how many downloads or CDs they represent the process sours. There’s the music and then there’s the music business. One is joyous, the other sucks (generally). So your friend should indeed enjoy the process of making the record and be glad he has talent like you to help. Then take care of the rest when the time arrives. Holding that first record in your hands (which is why I’d still advocate a short run of CDs or vinyl discs even in the age of downloads) is a thrill like no other. You did it. And nobody can ever take that away. Even if the only person who buys it is your mom!

    1. I’ve gotten a little (deserved) blowback with regard to the notion of hating your first record…not everybody does. and not everybody should. but mine is just a comedy of errors, a cassette only release that I did well before I should’ve been making records…but that’s the point: you gotta jump in and DO it in order to learn how to make a good one. and I dare say, you and I have both learned a lot over the years. it’s a pleasure working with you, man.

      1. Maybe hate is too string a word. But those of us who have experienced it understand. There’s always a LOT of things on a first record that you’d do differently several years later. It can be an immense frustration knowing your recorded version of a song was not the best you could have done. Dylan has a very casual view of albums, seeing them as mere snapshots of a moment in time. Maybe he is right. Maybe this is how he dealt with the same frustrations early on in his career. He certainly keeps polishing those tunes, gig after gig, year after year.

  2. Great comments. There’s nothing like making a record, it’ a journey and for me documents a piece of here I was in a period of my life So, I’m definitely relating to the Dylan comment Dave.

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