Come away from the studio with more for your money
When people talk about making money with music, they talk about two sources: Gigging and CD/Download sales. If you have a great live act and you’re very popular, gig money can be significant, but it’s no secret the sales side is hardly ever big, and much has been made of its imminent demise. That part’s debatable, but it’s a fact that record sales have never been the main revenue stream for major labels or the companies that own them. Not to mention, few of us are rock stars, and believe it or not, some people don’t want to be! In short, the rock star business model is non-viable, and even labels know this. Thankfully, there are many other ways to generate revenue from music.
Alternative music income is talked about a lot, but what can musicians DO to maximize income? In this piece, I’ll focus on the first part, the part without which nothing else can happen: the product. Specifically, what do you need to leave the studio with in order to maximize earning potential? Or, what are the studio’s “deliverables”?
When I think about all the hopeful bands that have come and gone in studios I worked at, who went away with only stereo mixes, I cringe. They’d leave the studio with a brand new set of 10 songs, mixed to perfection, hoping to make it rich. Not only is that not enough, that’s the ONLY part of the recording that probably isn’t valuable financially!
So if beautiful amazing songs sung with passion and purpose, mixed by the best mixer in town aren’t what you want to leave the studio with, what is? First off, of course you need those main mixes. You might refer to these as album or straight mixes. These are the songs that go on your CD, go out to iTunes, go your website and go on the radio…right? Not quite.
Your album mixes aren’t necessarily the ones that go on the radio. So your first new deliverable is radio mixes. Obviously, you need mixes with no cuss words. With a DAW, it’s no problem to do a “save as” and save a radio mix, where the engineer cuts words from the vocal, or reverses them, or does some other magic to “censor” your song. Even better, write a version of the song with no cussing, and when you’re overdubbing vocals, record the “clean” version with the same mic setup, same vocal style, etc. This is the method Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg used to make palatable versions of otherwise un-airable songs, which also didn’t sound edited or censored. The benefit was multiplied when anyone who bought the album heard a new, harder-core version of the lyrics.
Lyrics are not the only thing at play though. While not universally true if you include avant-garde shows, you might as well tell yourself that no one will ever air a song over 3 minutes. That doesn’t mean the 4:20 album version needs to be cut. That’s another opportunity to give a fan something more. But whenever possible, do yourself a favor: do another “save as”, and edit a version with less intro, a shorter guitar solo, whatever it takes to get in the 3:00-3:10 sweet spot. Just like with lyrics, it may help to perform this ahead of time.
One of the biggest possible revenue streams requiring the least amount of fame, as well as one of the best ways to develop great industry connection, is licensing. This is another hot topic lately, and for good reason, but all you have to do is watch TV for an hour, and you will realize that however clean you made that previously raunchy lyric, you probably won’t hear it behind a movie or TV scene. You may want to write instrumentals, but first do another “save as” and print your mix without vocals. You can do one with the backing vocals in, but make sure you’ve got one that has zero words whatsoever. Great lyricists may resist this, but a song WITHOUT words is usually more valuable to a video production. Why? Two reasons: one, movies and TV shows have dialog, and lyrics clash; and two, your lyrics tell a story, and that story probably doesn’t fit. Without words, though, your track might go great with the story.
As an added bonus, if you’re a vocalist with no band, you can use instrumentals as performance mixes for live shows. If you’re very detailed, you might print an instrumental with less reverb on the instruments, for venues where the room is already pretty live. Don’t forget that DJs like to have acapella versions they can pair with alternative beats, so print a vocal only mix.
That’s not the end of alternative mixes. Remember when you edited the length of your radio mixes? You’ll want to do that again for licensing libraries. Start with 30, 60 and 90 second versions. While you’re at that, you probably want some 30-45 second promo clips for your website. Make both vocal and non-vocal versions of these.
That’s not all. Let’s say a big movie needs a song about being crazy, and your song is actually CALLED “I’m Crazy”? It’s perfect, but it has a horn solo, and the movie wants a bridge, no solo. No problem, if you’ve done another edit or performed a version that has a bridge and no solo.
You may also want an acoustic version, or, my favorite, a bunch of ready-made breakdowns. Do just the drums and bass, just the drums, a drumless mix…use your imagination. Remember to pay attention when you’re editing breakdowns to keep things sensical. A fade in may have worked in the full mix but not now. Maybe there’s a four bar drum solo which will turn into inexplicable silence in a drumless mix. Track wisely in anticipation of this. If your drums bleed into your vocals, you can’t use that track for your drum-free mix. You might have to TRACK multiple versions to have multiple versions available later. (For more flexibility and responsiveness, see the sidebar where I talk about separations.)
When it comes to alternative mixes and breakdowns, the point is to leave the studio with a lot of material in hand, so you can respond to industry needs quickly. You don’t want to be stuck waiting for studio time to reprint an instrumental if you’re asked for it. Not only is that inefficient, it’s not as cost effective as leaving the session with what you need.
The point is to maximize the amount of valuable material that comes out of what you were doing anyway. To that end, there are a couple of other things to consider; things you may not need to spend costly studio time on, but could prove valuable.
Lead sheets, tabs and sheet music
It took me a long time to see any value in having written music as part of the package of material that goes with a release, but they can be crucial. If you’re a solo artist who needs musicians for live settings, lead sheets or sheet music are critical for efficient learning. Tabs and sheet music are also publishable, giving you a possible new revenue stream, and if you’re submitting demos to publishing companies, they often require lead sheets and lyric sheets. It’s very valuable to have proper musical documentation. For natural improvisers, this can be tedious, but I highly recommend putting in the effort.
Video and photos
Behind the scenes footage or footage of performances in the studio may not always be directly monetizable, but it’s well known by now that YouTube is a critical part of a musician’s promotional arsenal, and there is SOME possibility of revenue from YouTube advertising. Not to mention that pictures and video clips are a huge value-add for websites and other promotional material. Heck, you might as well shoot your next 8×10 glossy with a cool mix desk background while you wait for the engineer to set up mics.
I’d be remiss not to mention surround sound. It would be false to claim that surround mixes are a necessary part of a production’s deliverables, because for the most part they’re not asked for, and there’s virtually no consumer market, but if you happen to be in a studio that has the capability, doing another “save as” and creating a 5.1 version of a mix could be a cool addition to what you offer. I highly recommend starting with the finished stereo mix and enhancing from there (although one could argue other methods), since you want to create the same basic musical experience. Especially if you’re going after movies, 5.1 versions could be valuable. But do consider your potential cost/benefit ratio before doing surround.
Documentation and project files
Last but not least, never leave the studio without copies of ALL your project files, raw tracks and any notes or documentation. Copy the folder the DAW project is in, and make notes of the software version, hardware, and especially the plugins used. You need this material in your hands, not just stored at the studio. You never know if the studio will lose your stuff, or if you may be halfway around the world needing to fix something at the last minute. Unless it’s owned by a label (in which case this advice is for them), you put yourself in a much better place by keeping your material on hand.
Hopefully now you can see how much more value you can pull from your studio time. If you’re efficient, it won’t cost much more to get everything you need. Then your living needn’t be tied to your fame, and that, in my humble opinion, is a huge relief! Happy monetizing!
Since I work in various DAWs, I’m a huge fan of separations. I leave the studio with full separations of a mix, so I can call it up and deliver breakdowns or alternate edits at will in any software, without going to the studio. I also sometimes send full separations to the mastering engineer, so he has better control.
Full separations means every track is separated; kick, snare, guitar, vocal, etc. These tracks can import into a DAW, set at zero with no processing, and the mix sounds exactly like the finished stereo mix. It’s easy to mute a few tracks and create a breakdown, or edit an new version. You can also take the separations to a totally different studio to do surround versions later.
With separations, even if you don’t have the same rig as the studio, you can do breakdowns and re-edits to your heart’s content without having to go back. This is a great way to be able to quickly deliver what’s needed to a client without having to own a full-fledged studio yourself.
Exporting full separations, however, can be a long process. Some software (and tape) can only mix-down in real-time, which means you have to mute all but one track and mix-down over and over to achieve full separations. 24 tracks equals 24 passes, which for a 3 minute song is 72 minutes – over an hour of studio time. Also, if you’ve got processing like EQ or compression on the final stereo buss, running just one track through that processing will hit differently than the whole mix, so your final set of separations may not be what you thought. Some software like Sonar allow you to export all busses at once, so strategic buss assignment can speed things up, but you still need to be careful about overall processing.
So, proceed with caution, but consider the value of getting separations, or the alternative: get your own copy of the software and plugins in your favorite studio, so you can call up projects as is and deliver new edits. You don’t need the whole studio to do this, only the same software.