Recording music is a huge investment of time and money and very often, it is an investment that ends badly for musicians. Less than 5% of all CDs produced sell at least 1,000 copies so that means that more than 95% of all CDs produced ending up losing money.
Many people want to record because it is on their bucket list. I understand and appreciate that. I started recording because it was on my bucket list. If you want to record for that reason and can afford to lose the money you invest, you can ignore everything I am about to write. Some Christian musicians want to record as a ministry, knowing that they might lose money, and if that is you, you can ignore the rest of this as well.
I am not like that to be honest. I love recording and I like the ministry aspect of it, but when I record a CD, I want to sell and give away a lot of them and I certainly have no interest in losing money on a recording project.
In my mind, I have two goals for music that sort of have to be met if a CD is going to be successful. I will tell you what those are in a second, but first, let me tell you some things that I don’t consider that important.
* Technical brilliance. Technique does not hurt, but here is a question for you. How many of your favorite pieces of music are very technical? Likely, not very many of them. There are people that are drawn to technically brilliant music but they are a distinct minority.
* Overly arranged arrangements. Don’t get me wrong–I like clever arranging and great arranging is important. But arranging by itself will not make a CD sell. The obvious example of that is classical music which is shunned by the general public even though it is often brilliantly arranged.
* Diversity. Many artists think that they need a lot of diversity on their CDs. I will tell you a little secret: every time I have chosen to put a song on a CD for diversity, I have ended up regretting it. “Tis So Sweet To Trust in Jesus” on Portraits of Hope is a great example. That track should never have been recorded.
So what are my two questions that I would challenge every potential recording artist to consider?
1) Can I sell this project to people that don’t know me? Obviously, your mother is going to buy a CD or two. So will your church friends. But if you are typical, you are going to run out of friends and family to buy CDs very quickly–you will be lucky to sell 100 CDs that way. If you have any chance of making your project financially successful, you are going to have to make music that stands on its own and is appealing to people who have never met you.
2) Will people listen to this CD over and over? Musicians send me CDs constantly and I have more CDs than I can count. I usually try to listen to them once but it is rare that I listen to a CD more than once. The music I listen to more than once is music that goes beyond good arranging and technical proficiency. It has something special that hits me usually in an emotional way.
If you want to be successful, make CDs that people that have never met you will wear out. It sounds simple and it is simple but it is also a daunting task. The good news is that we live in an age where you can easily test ideas to see how people will respond to them. On my recent Heirloom project for example, I posted mixes on Facebook to get a gauge of how the audience would respond to me incorporating nature sounds into the music and how loud the nature should be. I ended up changing the final mix as a result of that feedback.
It is not always possible of course to get that kind of research and if you can’t, you just need to be brutally honest with yourself and seek out honest feedback. These two questions will decide your future as a recording artist. Take it to the bank.