It may not have started this year, but I think it’s safe to say that 2012 was the year the self-produced musician became a viable force in the music industry. And more power to them! I think it’s a fantastic use of fan power, technology and social interaction. It may not have first happened this year, but without a doubt, 2012 was the year that the wall was finally breached, and financial as well as critical success spilled through. However, for all of the opportunities and potential that self-production means for bands, there are just as many drawbacks involved, and I’d like to talk about both.
Four of my favorite bands went the self-produced route this year. Three of those four I would consider an unmitigated success, at least pertaining to artistic vision being realized and a successful sound being a by-product of it. There’s a lot of fantastic perks and opportunities that come along with self-production. One of them is creative freedom without the hassle of label execs trying to streamline it for more financial success; this is a point that is appealing to most bands who go self-produced, but it is far from the only reason for choosing that route.
Another major opportunity that is a deciding factor for bands is financial. It’s much more financially beneficial for a band to go the self-produced route (if done right, and if certain criteria are met, which I will go into later). I mean, think about it. Generally speaking, record labels engage musicians in what is called a “360 deal.” Essentially, labels give bands loans, which then are paid off by the band with their album sales, touring, merch, etc. If that loan isn’t paid of in the band’s activities, the rest has to be paid off somehow… generally not good for either party involved.
The following video was made by self-produced artist Jack Conte, who many may recognize from the Youtube sensation Pomplamoose as the “instrument guy.” While I’ve moved away from their music as of late, they’re one of the earlier examples of commercial success despite not being on a label, going back to about 2008. He can explain the way a label works much better than I:
Keep in mind that this was made before things like Kickstarter got big, so the corporate sponsorship bits may be a bit outdated, but it paints an interesting picture of the record industry.
The financial benefits of being self-produced, at least to my understanding, is the fact that in essence, the same loan system labels implement with their bands stays intact, except for one critical difference: the money given isn’t a loan. It’s an investment. With the advent of Kickstarter and similar systems, the fans themselves offer up the funds required to help bands record and tour, cutting out the necessity of the middleman that the labels act as.
All of the funds raised go to the expenses that need to be paid for the production of the band’s music, meaning that any returns the band makes (provided of course they stayed within the projected budget that they raised the funds for), is automatic profit, providing for the band members themselves, and the Kickstarter backers get (usually) awesome benefits for their contribution. A win-win for everybody. Except the record labels, of course.
However, I’m sure many bands look at those pros, and are too starry-eyed to see the cons of self-production. There are just as many dangers to this approach as there are benefits, and both must be considered if independent production is the direction a band wants to go.
First off is financial. I know I just lauded the financial benefits of going self-produced for a couple paragraphs, but there is a major catalyst to that potential. And it’s a step that is easily forgotten in the vigor of a band trying to buck the traditional record label system. What is it?
Thing is, if a band is a new start-up, who’s going to know of it to offer money in a fundraiser? A band may be a local hit, but if that band tries developing an album via Kickstarter, there’s a good chance that it will fail. A local audience generally won’t be invested enough to invest enough of their money to make a difference. A successful album fund-raiser is tens of thousands of dollars. The minimum amount I’ve seen one of the bands I’ve followed raise for a successful album was about $13k, which was Showbread for their most recent Cancer,and that’s on the low end of the spectrum. I’ve seen other bands asking for more than $30k and $40k in Kickstarters, and that’s more or less middle of the road as far as finances for an album go. It’s doubtful that a recent start-up or even a long-running niche band would benefit from self-production.
Recently, I spoke with a friend who is in a fairly well-established, long-running band who partners with a label for distribution and other such services. They’re not enormously well known, however. In their travels, as well as their interactions with other bands who have had long-lasting financial success, they have been told not to throw away the benefits of a record label. While this partially may be because the band that stated this has seen enormous success over their time in the industry due to being signed to a label, what they say is true to an extent.
For a band just starting out, they NEED that marketing and wide-open exposure that a label offers (even if labels aren’t the exclusive path to this end, there’s no question a band needs to extend beyond their immediate community to grow). Self-production will not launch an unknown band to instant stardom 9 times out of 10, especially if that band is depending on a successful Kickstarter. They need a fanbase willing to invest in them, and if they don’t have it, they will fail. There is a lot of risk inherent to self-production.
But beyond the financial dangers of a self-produced band, there is a threat that is aimed less at the commercial side and more at the creative side that bands need to keep in mind.
If you talk to a lot of bands and music fans, or even consult the popular opinion of the industry in general, many will tell you that record labels are evil, greedy corporations, whose only goal is to assimilate promising young talent, ring out all creativity and individuality from them, and make them commercial robots with no creative merit, whose only purpose for existence is to make oodles of cash. I’m not saying that there are not instances of that, or that everything said here is false (everything mentioned above can at least in part be directed Simon Cowell….), but needless to say, bands are justified in their fear of loosing creative control over their art.
But there is also a danger here; a danger of the pendulum swinging entirely in the opposite direction. Some bands, in their fervor to maintain 100% creative control, will cut down any instances of criticism, constructive or otherwise, claiming that those who oppose their concepts are attempting to “compromise their artistic vision.” Many of these types of musicians are drawn to the idea of self-produced music because then they don’t have to listen to naysayers, or even just genuinely invested individuals who want to help make the music the best it can possibly be.
That’s obviously an extreme, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a band or musician who’s quite that defensive, but you can see tiny hints of this mentality in many bands that leave labels to be self-produced. Heck, some bands don’t even consciously think of this, nor does it even cross their mind. But even so, the same effect can definitely be seen in some instances of music.
You’ll notice at the beginning of this now monstrous blog that I mentioned only 3 of the 4 bands that I follow, who went totally indie, I would consider successful. The reason for this is this exact point I’m making. The bands that I was referring to are Circa Survive, and their new release Violent Waves, mewithoutYou and their album Ten Stories, Showbread and their newly released album Cancer,and Minus the Bear’s latest,Infinity Overheard. Circa Survive, mewithoutYou and Showbread I all found tremendous enjoyment out of, while I found MtB’s Infinity Overheard to be fairly dull in comparison.HOWEVER the problems I had with Infinity Overheard is also present in all of the aforementioned albums as well, to varying degrees, however the overall quality of the albums are able to counterbalance it. I wouldn’t even consider Infinity Overheard a bad album! Just an underwhelming one. Now, at the risk of angering my fellow MtB fans, allow me to explain myself.
Infinity Overheard,in a nutshell, reeks of lack of focus testing and refinement. The album as a whole is very same-y sounding, with little differentiating its tracks, and few to none of them have memorable hooks. I have tried on several different occasions to develop an appreciation for Infinity Overheard, however as many times as I listen to it and attempt to garner an enjoyment out of it I had not found before, I cannot. I can’t really claim it to be a “Grower” album like their previous album OMNI was, either, as I was eventually able to not only appreciate it, but also consider it one of my favorite albums in the band’s discography. This is turning into a review of the album, so I will end this example here and get back to the point.
Record labels have been accused of wrestling or signing away creative control over music from the bands that write them. That may be true, but that doesn’t mean that an element of what these producers do is unnecessary. What smart producers and engineers do is understand what the band is trying to do, but also know what elements of a song or album as a whole can be refined, or even completely re-worked to be a stronger product as a whole. There is merit to this, as long as their input is kept to suggestion and as long as it never attempts to compromise what the band itself stands for or is attempting to get across.
Showbread’s prior album Who Can Know It? was one of the most potent examples of this I can recall. You can tell that it was a sort of “stream of consciousness” album, in that, I don’t believe there was much alteration from the initial draft of the song frontman Josh Dies wrote and the final product. There was no refinement by someone who was an outsider looking in, who could act as a surrogate for the eventual listening audience that could tell Dies and the rest of the band what could be done to make the album work better cohesively and help make their message be better brought across. While Cancer seems to have learned from the mistakes of its predecessor, it is still there to an extent, but with more contrast between tracks, allowing it to work better as a whole and better get the message across.
Circa Survive’s album Violent Waves falls into a similar trap of same-iness as Showbread and Minus the Bear, but less so. Some decisions pertaining to song composition, such as the length of “Birth of the Economic Hitman” seems to be an indication of the band doing their own thing (which I absolutely love, don’t get me wrong!) where really, a critical outside ear could have told them that the song could have ended much earlier and ended much stronger if they hadn’t repeated the pre-chorus again after a lengthy pause making the song sound like it was over. Additional “flow” problems with this litter the album, but it does not take away from the fact that the album is amazing because of its fantastic writing, instrumentation and absolute passion that went into it.Violent Waves, despite its flaws, is still my favorite album of the year, barely beating out mewithoutYou’s Ten Stories (another fantastic album) for the top spot.
I really started ranting in this last section, but that’s because I think this is the element of self-production that bands and musicians really need to keep an eye out for. Sometimes the best results come from some criticism, and they ALWAYS come out of refinement. Bands should never see outside suggestions (within reason, of course. Bands should never release such things to a large group and do design by committee, it clutters the final product) as a deterrent, but as an opportunity to develop each song and album even further.
So that’s my thoughts on self-production and Kickstarter-based music. It has benefits, it has deterrents, but everyone can agree it is a style of music production that isn’t going to go away anytime soon, and musicians should know the up and downsides before embarking on the path. Because, after all…