Shazam is a mobile-based smartphone application that allows users to identify songs from radio, television and film simply by holding their phones toward the audio source. Though I use it sparingly, I’ve racked up over 100 Shazams in the past couple of years and I felt that it was finally time to pursue some of these artists. As I browsed through my list, I realized that there were several bands and even songs which I had captured more than once. In one instance, I even “Shazam’d” the same song three different times, leading me to conclude that it must have been something special. That song was “Soundcheck” by Catfish and the Bottlemen.
As I listened to the song with a new perspective, I spent the first 0:48 seconds perplexed. I didn’t really like it, and I couldn’t even remember having heard it. Then the chorus kicked in at 0:49 and I was immediately hit with an upbeat punk rock anthem that made me want to head-bang at my desk. The first chorus was short and sweet, and moved directly into the second verse within just 14 seconds. That verse already felt familiar to me and I enthusiastically hummed along while anxiously awaiting the next big chorus. The bridge hit around two minutes in and was as sparse as it was haunting. It built into an emotional and tense guitar solo which evoked scenes of chaos before returning to the familiar verse structure and a huge double chorus before ending abruptly.
The rest of my data was equally enlightening, as I found eleven artists in total whom I had Shazam’d more than once. Next up was Icelandic folk group Of Monsters and Men, followed by American-turned-English rockers Cage The Elephant. I quickly noticed a pattern in which 45% of my Shazams were indie-rock bands from the UK with California (36%) coming in a close second. At times it can be difficult to discover new music, especially with radio, retail centers and film replaying a lot of the same homogenous drivel. Shazam gave me the opportunity to identify the songs I liked and prompted me to discover and pursue these artists. Many say that technology is hurting the music industry, but with apps like Shazam, technology is only the beginning.
One of my earliest musical memories is watching Michael Jackson videos on TV and begging my dad to tape them and painstakingly write down all of the lyrics so I could sing along. He didn’t hesitate to buy me a guitar, and didn’t scold me when I never touched it and asked for a drumset a year later. I ended up playing drums in various bands for about ten years before I picked up guitar and vocals around the year 2008. I remember telling all of my friends that I was going to release a solo album, and I honestly really tried. I’ve probably written 20 – 30 songs a year since then, but have never really been satisfied or had the time to pursue releasing a proper album.
All that changed a couple of years ago when I woke up in the middle of the night in a tent in the mountains of West Virginia with a tune running through my head. I had fallen asleep the night before listening to Rufus Wainwright’s latest album and thought maybe for a second that whatever was stuck in my head was simply a reincarnation of one of his songs. Conveniently I had brought my ukulele and iPhone camping with me, as I never leave home without them, and started demoing this song, much to the chagrin of my neighbors (which is a whole other unbelievable story).
That song turned out to be “Wrecking Ball,” which is my first proper solo release and single which is now officially on iTunes, Spotify, and the like. It’s the first song I wrote where I didn’t poorly rip off Neutral Milk Hotel or attempt to sing high-pitched whiny pop-punk songs just to fit into a mold which didn’t fit me. I also recorded, mixed, and mastered all of it myself, except for the help of audio engineer Ryan Liptak (of Happy Tooth & Dug fame) who recorded the drums and lead guitar.
In the year 2015, I set one and only one goal for myself: to finally release my solo album. I even came up with a fancy name, “Some Things Never Change,” which is spot on considering this has been my great white buffalo for the past six years. I’ve written and demoed the majority of the songs, buying fancy recording equipment and trying to push myself to the outer limits of my comfort zone. It has been rewarding and stressful all at the same time, and when you actually think about everything that goes in to making an album, it can certainly seem daunting.
The first step in creating an album is being a competent musician. In all my years of private lessons, practice, ripping off my favorite bands, and trying to create a niche for myself, I finally feel competent enough as a musician to be able to write a decent song. I usually start with a lyric, or a “hook,” craft a melody based off of that, then pick up an instrument. My go to instrument is usually guitar, ukulele, or piano as of late, and helps me craft the chords with which the song will take shape.
Then I do a free-write to help me fill in the lyrical holes, and basically just journal like a sixth-grade girl until I pull something from deep enough within to be taken seriously as an artist. Being a marketing graduate, I crafted a press kit with the quote “lyrical topics include accepting your past, fatherly advice, marriage and income inequality, suicide, and of course a self-deprecating song about hipsters.” Pretty serious stuff, right? It’s not all bad, I did attempt to write a self-deprecating song about hipsters, but honestly it seems so gimmicky and vapid that I’m not sure it will even make the cut.
So I’ve got the bare bones of the song done; chords, melodies, and lyrics, and the next thing to do is to record a scratch track or demo track. These two are not technically the same thing, but I’ll often demo a song and use it as a scratch track later when I’m recording the master. Many engineers and musicians will tell you to always record drums first, and I’ll have to agree with them. Trying to record drums over anything is a serious pain in the ass, even if you’ve followed your metronome like a robot. But music isn’t robotic. Music ebbs and flows and is rarely static.
I always record drums first, and always close enough to a click that it sounds like I know what I’m doing. I guess I forgot to mention the step where I also have to write the drum part. One summer when I was on Vans Warped Tour I spent the whole two months without access to recording gear, so I would listen to my acoustic demos and tap out drum parts with my hands or think of them in my head. I remember my bass player asking me with a genuinely confused look why I always listen to myself. He must have thought I was extremely self-centered. Well, he wouldn’t be wrong in assuming that.
I write and record the drums, and then it’s off to the races with the rest of the rhythm tracks. I lay down a rhythm guitar, bass guitar, scratch vocal, then I start crafting my leads. I never truly appreciated leads until I joined the band Someone Like You and we recorded our debut EP as professionally as we could afford to. I watched our three guitarists come up with lead after lead and heard them seemlessly melt into the verses and choruses, adding texture, melody, and harmony to an otherwise bland rhythm guitar.
Once I have all the leads written, I record the main vocal, add some harmony, back-ups, and listen to the song on repeat enough that if it were on Spotify I’d be rich by now. The next phase is mixing and mastering, which is honestly so much of a science that I wouldn’t do it justice by discussing it here. I add some compression, equalization, reverb and delay, adjust the levels, and once all that is sorted out I start the mastering phase. When mastering, I always refer to the phrase “Radio Ready” to compare my final mix with what one might hear on the radio. Is it loud enough? Have I panned appropriately? Is it clipping anywhere? What about unwanted noise, or even sounds getting lost in the mix?
Mixing and mastering is probably the hardest part of the whole album process, as you can never truly be done mixing. I learned early on to realize when something is the best it’s going to get and just roll with it. Once I’ve got the masters, I can start uploading them to bandcamp, SoundCloud, YouTube, and get my wavs sent off to iTunes, Spotify, Amazon and other digital retailers. At this point in the game, I’ve spent practically no money on recording as I already own or borrow the instruments, have cheap home recording gear, and most websites and retailers are free. I’ll spend about $20 getting CD Baby or TuneCore to put my music on iTunes, but it’s not a bad return on investment.
Artwork and photography are a very important visual representation of your music. I’ve got a decent camera and some free editing software, and can easily come up with some promo pics and album artwork. In the day and age of digital purchases, artwork is less important, but it’s not difficult to create something professional on your own in one evening. Next I’ll take my camera and make some YouTube videos, lyric videos, or promotional videos, throw them up for free online and publish them to my social media accounts.
I went to school for marketing and public relations, so it’s easy for me to come up with branding, distribution, press releases and media kits. I work in business administration so I’m able to stay organized and within budget. I’m just a kid from a small town in Ohio, so trust me when I say that if I can do this, anyone can. Getting out and playing shows is the next step, and honestly networking is key. Music is all about community and one of the most valuable lessons I learned playing in punk rock bands is that we all look out for each other. Trading shows with bands or getting added at the last second is common, and concerts are one of the most important means of keeping the momentum of your music going.
If this sounds like a lot of work, it is. You’ll likely have to invest some money before you even get started, and be prepared to make a lot of personal sacrifices (sorry babe). I can only imagine that I won’t earn much income with my music, and having a day job and a personal life can hinder that even more. The important thing is having fun, not putting too much stress on yourself, and sharing one of the most basic human rituals with others. That’s why I’ve decided that in 2015, I’m finally going to release a new album for a new year.
I think it was in Texas in the spring of ’06 when I bought the Arctic Monkeys CD Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not; which went on to become the fastest selling debut album in British music history. I also picked up an Anti-Flag CD, Coldplay’s live album, and I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning by Bright Eyes that day. I’ll never forget the smirk on the cashier’s face when he said I had an “interesting” taste in music. I had actually been introduced to Arctic Monkeys a year prior when a friend gave me a mix CD with one of their songs on it. Remember those? I found some of my favorite music through mixes.
After reading this article on The Guardian, I was very impressed to learn that in the UK, the Arctic Monkeys’ latest album, AM, was “the biggest selling vinyl LP of 2014.” The article also mentioned that vinyl has become “an attractive format for object fetishists and committed fans.” Now object fetishists and committed fans are two completely different types of people, so I had to find out: who is buying vinyl records?
I don’t have a Facebook account and as you get older your friends generally start to move on with their lives, so I posed a question to an online vinyl record forum: “Why Do You Buy Vinyl Records?” I didn’t expect to get much of a response, but the one that I did get was not only qualitative, but quantitative. Perfect strangers opened up to me over the internet detailing exactly how they listen to records, their childhood, what their hobbies are, and what kinds of music they listen to.
You can probably guess who the majority of vinyl consumers are: 20-something men in major cities with enough disposable income to afford the average $20 record. If you guessed this, then you guessed correctly. What astounded me however were the vast lifestyle differences and reasons for purchasing that varied by respondent. Approximately 76% of my audience were males between the ages of 25 and 39, with all other respondents being female (obviously) and/or between the ages of 18 and 24.
Sound was first recorded in 1857, which was over 150 years ago. The tail end of vinyl record sales slowed in 1996 with just over one million units sold, so what does that say about the staying power of vinyl? The majority of my respondents were still teenagers when vinyl “died out,” yet somehow still find themselves drawn toward this mysteriously popular format.
So what caused this shift back to traditionalism? Was it Napster, KaZaA, or SoulSeek? How about iTunes, Zunes, or CD players? Or maybe it was the final nail in the coffin: YouTube, Spotify, or Pandora. I can’t say for sure, but after reading some of the responses to my question, I found that the main reason for this shift was the physical and emotional connection that the listeners felt to the music on the record. If we look at the timeline mentioned above, from vinyl to CD, and Napster to Spotify, let’s think about how this affected the artist. In 1996, bands were selling vinyl and CDs for upwards of $20, but today they only get paid mere pennies for however many hundreds of times their songs are streamed on Spotify.
The second highest response to my question was to support the artist. Bands clearly aren’t making any money from streaming, and they definitely don’t have major labels backing them any more, so where is their revenue coming from? For some lucky artists, it’s coming from their vinyl record sales. 21% of my respondents purchased just to support the artist. Two of the other major responses to my question were that listeners are buying vinyl for the higher audio quality and physical packaging.
Some of the more interesting lifestyle statistics I gathered from my audience were geographical location and annual household income. Most lived on the east coast of the United States in major cities, some were unemployed, and others made almost $200,000 per annum. Music has always been something that brings people together, and often transcends cultural and socio-economic barriers. It was really exciting to see so many people from different backgrounds come together just to talk about their love for music. Many of them talked about the feeling they get of nostalgia or warmth once they touch the needle to the record, or how much closer they feel to the artists that they love.
The artists have noticed this cultural shift too, and have started to give back to their fans. Record Store Day is usually the third Saturday of April, an international holy day for musicians, fans, and record store owners alike. Many bands release special records and CDs and even perform concerts at independent record stores all around the world. It has become a unique and important observance for die-hard music fans allowing them the chance to collect rare memoribilia, meet the artists they love, and provide a revenue boom for small businesses and independent musicians.
Though music may be seen as a commodity to many, to others it is life. The anticipation running through their veins as they tear off the shrink wrap, pull out the liner notes, and delicately place the needle on the track. Turning the lights down low, the bass and treble up, and simply enjoying being nowhere with only your favorite song as company. I’d like to say that the recent uptick in sales of vinyl records is not a trend, because trends don’t last for 150 years. Trends come and go as technologies and cultures change, but one thing that will always remain the same is the connection that we feel to the music.
Once you’ve figured out what your release will be, you’ll want to start focusing on packaging. Packaging is the visual and physical representation of your product before it hits listener’s ears. Important aspects of packaging consist of cover art, track listing, and liner notes. Cover art is easiest to achieve with digital releases, as you often only need one image to act as the cover of your album. Track listing is also as simple as writing up a text document of the songs included on the album, which order they’re in, and each song’s length. Liner notes may take a little longer to create, as they include lyrics, credits, art and photography contained within a .PDF document. Barriers to physical releases (CD, vinyl, cassette) consist of creating front and back album art including barcode/UPC, designing the actual CD face, and artistically creating the layout based on the format’s physical space limitations. Not only are physical releases more costly to produce, but they often take longer to complete.
In order to create a successful product, the music, lyrics, and recording quality need to be good, but I’ll leave that topic alone in the hopes that you’ve already achieved those traits before preparing for release. When you are finally ready, you can use the checklist below to narrow your focus.
– Your album is a single, EP, or full length
– Your product will be released digitally, on CD, vinyl, cassette, or all of the above
– You have album art/professional photography, track listing, and liner notes
Above all, you should only release your album once it’s ready. If the songs are poorly performed, or the art isn’t appropriate, the audience will recognize that and respond accordingly. One question I always ask myself is “am I proud of this?” If I am, then I can move forward. If I’m not proud of my work, I go back and tweak every little thing I can until I’m satisfied. I encourage you to take pride in your work and never try to run before you can walk.