Many Christian bands have been told to focus all their attention on getting their first CD completed as soon as they form the band. Bands believe they “won’t get anywhere” without a CD. So, they rush to write 10 good songs, pay to get into a studio to record and get those first 1,000 CD’s in their hands… leaving them thousands of dollars (often tens of thousands) in debt before they even begin their ministry. This has, historically, been the way to start a Christian band. The idea was to send the CD’s to labels to garner industry attention as soon as possible and to have a product to sell at the bands merchandise table. The initial investment almost never pays off – do the math. How many bands do you know? How many of them ever become a national act? Think about how much kingdom money has been wasted over the years and is now sitting in the form of useless CD’s in boxes in people’s garages.
There is a time to order 1,000 physical CD’s. But for most Christian bands that time is not as soon as the band has written 10 songs.
Reasons NOT to rush into recording and manufacturing CD’s:
• CD’s are not dead… yet. But, they are not selling as well as they used to. The band is most likely not going to many CD’s or downloads at the merch table at first. Most fans expect to be able to download their first music from new bands for free.
• Labels are signing “new” acts. But, by “new” they mean acts that have not previously been on a label, not bands that have newly formed. Labels prefer bands that already have an established following and have already sold many copies of indie released music. They are not necessarily looking for the highest quality or newest style music; they are looking for the most marketable music (bands that can sell the most CD’s and downloads).
• Debt can kill music ministries and ruin friendships. When the band has to borrow money to get its first CD’s everyone agrees that money will never come between their friendships. But as soon as the band members have to start paying the bills out of their own pockets things change. When borrowing money everyone assumes that the band will make enough to make the payments each month. When you don’t band member start looking for reasons why the band does not have enough money… and the blaming and finger pointing begins.
• The bands early music is just not that great. Every band needs time to play and write songs together to really gel. Unless the band members have been playing with each other in previous bands, most likely you need to spend some time working with each other to create your best music. Trying to sell great music is tough enough, trying to sell average music is nearly impossible.
When should your Christian band record and manufacture CD’s and downloads?
There is no one easy, cookie cutter answer. Each band and music ministry is different in its calling, goals, finances, and musical maturity. The band needs to approach this decision with prayer and business wisdom. Unfortunately, most of us want our first CD so badly that we tend to make the decision based on the desperate hope that a CD will fast track us to “making it”. Those desperate hopes have turned millions of artists into debtors who can no longer afford to create art and who are often too discouraged to try. So, turn away from desperate hope, stop looking for the fast track, and settle into knowing that God has a plan for you and your ministry. Remember that your goal as a Christian music minister is to be successful in Gods eyes, which means doing the ministry He has called you to do, His way, and in His time. This one change in your hearts attitude will affect you and your ministry more than any tip or tool of the trade.
There are some general guidelines for when to record and manufacture and, more importantly, what kind recording to do and how much to manufacture. Like any other business, your expenses should grow as your business grows. Too great expenses at the start can starve the business of funds later because of high monthly payments; too few expenses can hinder the businesses growth… both are bad. Having, and spending, the right amount of money at the right time is critical to business success.
I have broken it down into three beginning stages:
The band has recently formed. Members are learning cover tunes and are starting to write songs. The band has not played out much, if at all.
In this stage, you only need a 3 song demo. This demo should only be used in your first press kit to book initial shows. It will not be released to fans or radio stations. It will only be used for a short period of time before it is replaced with better CD’s. So, record as cheaply as possible, hopefully in a friend’s home studio or in the studio of someone who wants to practice on your band. FREE is best, but do not pay more than $20 per hour at this stage to record. The number of hours it takes to record will depend on how well you know your songs and your previous experience at recording (as well as how well the engineer knows their job and equipment).This will provide your band with your first experience together in a studio. You will learn how to be more efficient at recording and be able to save money later on the expensive studios. You do not need the best quality recording; you do need a demo that is a fair representation of what our band sound like live. Burn these CD’s yourselves, a couple at a time as you need them, and put them in inexpensive paper sleeves.
The band is relatively stable and the lineup is solid. The band has a good 30 minute set with several originals scattered among the cover tunes. Songwriting together is getting a little easier. The band has been able to play out several times each month and has gained a few fans.
This is the time to release some FREE music downloads. Choose the 3 songs that get the best audience reaction from your gigs. Spend some extra time at band practice to rewrite and hone those songs. Then, record them. The recording is going to be used mostly in an MP3 format, which is more compressed than a CD, so you do not need to record at an expensive studio. Evaluate the studio the band used for its 3 song demo – if it can produce reasonable quality sound for an MP3 you may want to use them again. If not, look to upgrade slightly. You should be able to find a studio that is adequate in the $20 per hour price range. Do not pay more than $50 per hour. The bands experience with the first recording should cut down the amount of time it takes to record each song. You do not need a masterpiece with layers upon layers. Try to keep the recording time at about 4 hours per song. Remember that these songs will probably be rewritten and rerecorded over time. Do not post the links to the downloads for all 3 songs at the same time… stagger it out to make the most of social media and keep fans coming back to your website. Depending on studio access and funds, some bands prefer to record one song per session, other do all three at once. Burn a few CD’s, as you need them, to replace the first recording in your press kit. Do not try to sell them or send them to radio stations and labels.
The bands lineup is solid; you have a great 30 minute set and a good 45 minute set. The band is playing out regularly and is occasionally being asked for encores. Songwriting has become a regular part of band practice; some of you actually enjoy it. You have hundreds of likes and fans on-line and some promoters are calling you to re-book. Now is the time to record some music to sell – you have good quality songs as well as fans that will buy them.
There is a debate at this point of if the band should release a 5 song EP or a full 10-13 song CD. I tend to agree with neither side all the time. I say, “Don’t go into debt to release crap.” If your bands songwriting skills have developed enough to have 3 great original songs and another 7-10 really good original songs plus you have the cash to do so, record a full length CD. This is probably the ideal, best move for most bands. But if your band struggles with songwriting and you do not have that many great and good songs and/or the cash, put out the best quality product you can with what you have. Many bands start with the EP and it works well for them. Going into debt to add another 5 mediocre songs just does not make sense or cents. Remember that CD sales are not as good as they used to be. Many of your songs will sell as single downloads… why waste money recording those that won’t sell?
Your bands first CD that is recorded to sell to the public should not have an extravagant budget. Most bands spend about $3,000 for recording and the initial run of about 300 – 500 CD’s. If you spend much more than that, you will probably not make your money back. So, shop wisely, especially for your studio which is where most of the money will be spent. Remember include in the budget the costs of travel, food and housing while you are recording. Do not over order physical CD’s the first time. You will probably not sell 1,000 right away. It is better to pay a little more per CD and get a smaller run the first time to see how they will sell, for most bands 300 -500 is a good number. If you have a best seller, you can always order more. Obviously, this CD will not compete with the recordings of national acts; they often spend over $100,000. But your first CD will be accepted on the local band radio shows and will usable for radio interviews. It will also be good enough quality to send to record labels, if that is the direction your ministry wants to go. Most importantly, you will have a good quality product to sell to your ever growing fan base.
Subsequent CD’s should be produced at least every other year, if not every year. The band should be able to upgrade the recording and production quality of each CD as the bands fan base and income continues to grow. The quality of your songwriting and music performance should also continue to improve with each year the band plays together. In short, the quality and expenses of recording your music should grow in the same proportion as your fan base grows.
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