My Life-Altering Experience
of Recording a CD
As I write this article, I realize that the previous two very informative articles written by Don and Rie have pretty much laid down the guidelines for making and producing a music CD. Without repeating what they’ve already said, I will talk about some of the positive experiences I have had on the way to producing several CDs, some of which have enjoyed a good degree of personal success.
Why record a CD? That is the first question I asked myself. As I tried to answer it, I was forced to be very clear as to the goals and motivations I had in creating the project that was going to involve a great deal of money, sacrifice and time. This clarity gave me faith and perseverance, and faith and perseverance definitely were to become the shield and armor in the battle of bringing my product to successful completion.
In the music world, and especially in the flute world, we live in the reality that only a select few have the good fortune to have an orchestral job or a full-time teaching position. Without the outlet of being heard weekly at the orchestra concert, how is one to let people know how you play, except through a CD? Yes, I realize there are competitions and auditions for this or that concert series, but none of these forces you to develop an artistic concept of who you are musically.
Making a CD puts one on a musical Voyage (sorry Don) of discovery that leads to happy self-realization. This self-realization doesn’t have to be only the self-indulgent gratification of seeing yourself on the cover of a CD, but rather, an inner satisfaction of having made a musical statement to the world. When this happens, the world most often responds positively, acknowledging the growth and flowering of a musical child, (and it is true that I often felt like my CD was a child trying to find his way in the world).
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of forging a musical statement through the making of a CD. Once this statement is created the results will more than pay for all the sacrifice, effort and money spent. I was once involved in the production of a chamber music CD, and although it was difficult and costly to put together, it lead a booking by Carnegie Hall, a residency at a major university, several high profile concerts, and a few prominent Summer festivals – all because the CD was well played and well produced.
As Don Bailey so aptly put it, a concept that is “fresh and new” is a very important step in creating your musical statement. This is hard to do at first, because we have all been fed on the same staple of Bach, Mozart, Dutilleux, etc., and the list goes on. We must break away from the cocoon and sail freely into uncharted territory to discover the musical vessels we really are. My dear and beloved teacher, Thomas Nyfenger, gave me one of the best pieces of advice of my college days. He said, “Marco, if you’re planning a recital where you’re not getting paid, make sure you only play the music you love; if they pay you, then you play whatever they want you to play.” This quote really stayed with me, especially after I graduated from college, when for the first time, I began to seriously explore the music of my heritage, South America. As a child, I often went serenading with my father, playing the folk tunes of my country, only to give them up later to become a “classical” artist. Now, whenever I play Latin or folk based music, I feel truly at home and happy with the outcome. This doesn’t mean that you should go out and start playing folk music, but it is important to really tune in to what you love most, and go for it!
Once you settle on a “concept” and feel emotionally enthused about making the recording, don’t be afraid to shoot for the best possible scenario. If possible, always try to record with the best musicians, engineers, producers that your budget will allow. If you start doing things cheaply, it will show, and it could become a self-defeating endeavor. When I went to Venezuela to record Sunflute (released April 20th, 1999), I was in a quandary as to whom I would use as backup musicians. As I had not lived there for many years, I had lost contact with the best musicians. A good friend said to me, “Why don’t you call so an so; he’s the best cuatro player in Venezuela.” I said, “Well, he’s too famous and too busy. He’s not going to have time for me since he doesn’t know me.” Her reply was, “Why don’t you call? The worst that can happen is that he says no, but at least you will have tried.” I followed my friend’s advice, and when I called this cuatro player, he told me he had heard of me through a fellow flutist and, luckily, he happened to be free due to a cancellation in his schedule. I ended up recording with the “Itzhak Pearlman” of the cuatro, and the sessions were very spontaneous. Again, I would follow this advice through every step of the production process, because you never know who might be out there, willing to help you. BUT, we have to ask!
Once you have completed your recording and are happy with the edits (check carefully over and over, so that you don’t go into the mastering process to find out you need to remix or reedit this or that take), make sure the sound quality of the CD is up to the standard of the CDs you love most. Top engineers advise comparing the sound of your CD with the best sounding CD of the same genre. Once you begin the mastering process, use very critical ears and the advice of a good mastering engineer to achieve a pleasing result. Many musicians only want to be involved in the playing process and leave the editing and mastering to the engineers. This can be a fatal mistake, because the engineer won’t know how you want to sound. Unless you can afford the tried and true ears of a good mastering engineer, you should stay involved in the process to the end.
OK, now you have a good concept, a beautifully played and recorded master tape, and you dream of being picked up by a major record label. This is a very common and understandable dream, but it is a bit delusional and impractical from the economic point of view. Major record labels are only really interested in artists that already have a track record, because obviously, they want to make money. Often, how well you play, how well the CD is recorded, or how fresh the concept is has nothing to do with your success at getting signed by a major record label – sad, but true. Of course there are exceptions, and you should still send your CD and press kit to as many labels as you can. But please, DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY when they don’t reply, or if they reject you outright. It does not mean your record is bad. (This is where that faith and perseverance I mentioned earlier come in handy.)
The most practical and cost effective thing to do is to finish the CD yourself, so that it has your vision throughout; plus, manufacturing it yourself will enhance your ability to recoup your monetary investment. If you sign away your CD to a record label, you will have to buy the CDs back at $7 or $8 dollars a piece if you want to sell them at concerts, but if you manufacture them yourself, you will pay only $2 or $3 dollars a piece, depending on the complexity of the artwork. Again, don’t cut corners – use a reputable manufacturer so that you get a good product back.
Once you have the beautiful finished product, you will want to give it to a lot of people who could be influential in furthering your career. In this respect I am very generous; I like to give CDs to cab drivers, street musicians, and even beggars. I figure if they like it, they will talk about it, and that’s publicity I can’t buy.
Even before you begin setting up a distribution situation, you could benefit by sending the CD to presenters who might be able to book you for concerts. Concerts are great outlets for selling your CDs (some record labels won’t sign artists unless they have already arranged touring schedules, management, etc.). So, if your CD helps you get concerts, you’ll be well on your way to maximizing your return economically.
Also, think of the CD as a very fancy business card. Our business is music. What better way to let someone know what you do, than by giving them a sample of your playing and your sound? Every time someone comments on how good your CD is, you’re maximizing your return because it is creating awareness of your artistry to someone else, and it grows from there. How true it is that careers are built one stone at a time. Every step you take leads to a build up of experience and an awareness of you as an artist. Persevere and be patient.
The World Wide Web
Besides using the traditional channels of distribution, I agree with Don that the Internet is a vast uncharted territory that is open for all of us to explore. Even though I recently signed with a record label for the release of Sunflute, I have decided to focus my attention on developing a strong Internet presence and strategy by launching my own web site called http://Sunflute.com.
There are many ways to start a web site. Most ISPs (Internet Service Providers) provide a small amount of server space, where you can have your own pages. Other places, like WebJump.com, offer free web hosting in exchange for displaying their ads on your site, and most search engines like Lycos and Yahoo, also offer free web pages. On my site, I have placed pertinent information about my CD, plus bios, pictures, reviews, sounds clips and news of upcoming events. There are also links to the online retailers where people can buy Sunflute online, or they can order it by printing a form and sending it to me along with a check. To my amazement, the web site is already serving me as a virtual press kit which people can access it in the comfort of their homes or offices. There’s no longer a need to mail it. A presenter recently got all of my information from the web site without having to wait for it to be delivered. In the future I plan to include repertoire lists as well as printed arrangements of the Venezuelan music I play. There’s also a forum on the site for the discussion of flute-related topics, especially topics about South American music.
Now, once you’ve launched your web site, how do you get people to visit it? Feature the address of your site on all of your presentation information, including business cards, the CD tray card and booklet, and send emails to all of your friends announcing the site. Several Internet listings such as Yahoo, Lycos, Excite, etc. will list your site for free. Find other flute-related web pages and ask if they would put a link to your site on theirs, and vice versa.
Needless to say, make every effort to keep your web site looking as professional as possible. There are a lot of software programs that make it easy for you to set up a web page. After looking at three different programs, I decided to use Symantec’s Visual Page 2.0, which is included as a bonus on the latest Norton SystemWorks 2.0. Other user-friendly programs include Adobe’s Page Mill and Microsoft’s FrontPage. All of these applications offer generous 15-30 day free trial periods.
A couple of tips when designing a web site: make sure you design it at 800x600 resolution, which is the standard resolution for a 14-inch monitor and most laptops, and try to give it a consistent look throughout all the pages, so that all are based on the same design. The programs I mentioned above come with templates that make it easy for you to get started with this.
Well, enough of all this technical talk – my point is this: Try not to become jaded or disheartened while waiting for that invitation to play at Carnegie Hall. So much can be accomplished by recording a CD showcasing your talents. It’s one of many available resources which allows us to enjoy what we love so much – playing the flute.