School of The Rock


Improve Your Product

Written by Paul D. Race for SchoolOfTheRock.comô


If you want to reach people with your music, you have to be commercial at some point just to pay for gas and guitar strings.  When I was in my early 20s and independent artists and groups like most of the Jesus musicians were making their own LPs to sell on the road, it typically cost a years’ wage to record ten songs and press 1000 albums.  Bands that toured a lot often made the investment with the hope of recouping money from album sales on the road. In some cases, it worked.  In other cases, bands broke up a week after the record was printed, and the most responsible person in the band (usually the one who put up most of the money) was stuck with 1000 LPs he or she couldn’t sell and a big hole where the bank account used to be. 

And lets, face it, those bands couldn’t exactly afford orchestras, or the best studios with the best gear and the best engineers, so they were lucky if their LPs rated more than a handful of spins once they wound up in the hands of their customers.  On the other hand, many folks used to buy LPs at concerts as “souvenirs,” anyway, so that wasn’t necessarily a crime.

Nowadays, it’s much cheaper to make recordings that don’t suck, and you can even sell music online without having CDs pressed, but MOST independent musicians will tell you they make most of their money selling “merch” at their concerts.  “Merch” includes CDs, T-Shirts, goofy stuff with their name printed on it, etc.  So if you ARE playing “out” often, having something to sell will help you keep moving forward.

At the same time, giving your fans access to good recordings of good music online is critical.   Fortunately, it isn’t quite as expensive to get something listenable out there as it used to be.  Unfortunately, it’s harder to make money selling music than it used to be, since streaming has displaced bootlegging as the way for people to get access to your music free and nobody who isn’t a songwriter seems to care.

So where’s the balance between making recordings that are “good enough” to satisfy your fans and maybe get some airplay on stations that support indy groups and investing the equivalent of a year of college in a CD whose costs you may never recoup?

I dabbled with home recording for many years.  Like playing saxophone, it’s easy to learn, but hard to do well.  You may find yourself dabbling with DAW (digital audio recording) software to use as scratchpads on your home computer (or even your phone or tablet), or get into it pretty seriously.

Or you may have a friend with a good home studio and some chops who works cheap or accepts “payment in kind,” such as sitting in on bass or mowing his grass in exchange for recording hours.

That said, having the best possible recordings and no audience for them won’t necessarily buy you anything either.

Marketing Comes First.

Here’s something to think about.  You shouldn’t even think about putting real time and money into recording until you have some idea of who you’re “selling” to.  Almost NOBODY you hear on the radio started out in exactly the same genre and reaching the same audience they’re reaching today.  Most label-signed acts started out doing something that helped them establish some sort of foothold, then morphed into the acts you know today. 

Who are you getting the best feedback from now during and after your live performances?  What genre has the most places to play in your region?  (Maybe you prefer traditional Bluegrass, but “Newgrass” will get you gigs, or sell more CDs in your part of the world.  Or you love ‘70s Urban styles but only HipHop bands are getting into the clubs you want to reach.) 

Music Sophists often say “Do what you want; you’ll find an audience.”  In recent years, I’ve become well acquainted with dozens of artists who have the “If you build it, people will come” approach to marketing, and very few of them ever find more than a small cult following too small to keep their music “career” profitable. 

Marketing 101 says you find a need and fill it.  An example of a company that knew this back in the 1960s and forgot about it in the 2000s is Radio Shack, which started out as a leatherworking company.  Yes, you read that right.  Tandy Leather’s owner wanted to expand into new markets, so he did a lot of research and realized that the handful of regional companies that were selling consumer electronics as well as electronic components like capacitors were doing well.  So he bought one such store that was struggling because it was still operating under 1920s-era business models, tied off the parts that were hemorrhaging, and turned it into a ridiculously successful chain that filled what was obviously an unfilled need.  Unfortunately later leadership tended to overlook trends until it became too late, abandoned their core business model to compete with cellphone kiosks, and ran the company into the ground at a time when other stores like Tinkersphere were just starting to reach a new generation of hobbyists.  This coincided with a host of bad management decisions, so poor marketing isn’t the only reason the chain’s performance over the last decade has resembled a slow train wreck.  But the point is, they started by recognizing a need and completely reinventing themselves to meet that need. 

I’m not saying that if you like Technopop, but the only gigs in town are Country bars you should adopt a drawl and learn to play a lot of songs in D, but pay attention to what’s working and what’s not working for other people.  And once you get ANY fans, pay attention to them. 

Okay, enough said on that point.

Why Do You Need Recordings?

We’ll be discussing marketing and promotion in other parts of the site, but I needed to post that reminder here.  Before we get into how to make products, we needed to take a look at what products to make and why you need them.

I used to make home-made CDs just to give out to potential venues.  So it didn’t matter if I “made my money back” on them.  You want to have something to hand promoters, venue operators, and radio programmers, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be exactly what you sell to your fans. 

Or you may try “releasing a single” or an “ep” (“Extended Play,” such as a 4-song collection or CD) just to see if there’s interest.  Choices of when, what, and how to release or sell or make public or give away actually relate to marketing.  But how to get the best, or at least the most suitable, products for your fans can get into some pretty technical issues.

This section of the site will eventually contain links to articles on several related subjects.  Some will hopefully be on our site. 

In the meantime, we have several helpful links on home recording and related topics on the SchoolOfTheRock discussion forum pages here:

As always, please contact me with corrections, complaints, clarifications, etc.  If your response is responsible, I'll try to include it in the "reader response" section below.

God bless,



Paul Race playing a banjo. Click to go to Paul's music home page.A Note from Paul: Whatever else you get out of our pages, I hope you enjoy your music and figure out how to make enjoyable music for those around you as well.

And please stay in touch!

    - Paul Race Click to see Paul's music home page Click to contact Paul through this page. Click to jump to the Discussion Forum Page Click to see Paul's music blog page Click to learn about our Momma Don't Low Newsletter. Click to see Paul's music page on Facebook Click to see Paul's YouTube Channel.

Visit related pages and affiliated sites:
Heartland-inspired music, history, and acoustic instrument tips.
Best-loved railroad songs and the stories behind them.
Visit musings about music on our sister site, School of the Rock With a few tools and an hour or two of work, you can make your guitar, banjo, or mandolin much more responsive.  Instruments with movable bridges can have better-than-new intonation as well. Acoustic-based, traditional, singer-songwriter, and folk music with a Western focus. Check out our article on finding good used guitars.
Carols of many countries, including music, lyrics, and the story behind the songs. X and Y-generation Christians take Contemporary Christian music, including worship, for granted, but the first generation of Contemporary Christian musicians faced strong, and often bitter resistance. Different kinds of music call for different kinds of banjos.  Just trying to steer you in the right direction. New, used, or vintage - tips for whatever your needs and preferences. Wax recordings from the early 1900s, mostly collected by George Nelson.  Download them all for a 'period' album. Explains the various kinds of acoustic guitar and what to look for in each.
Look to Riverboat Music buyers' guide for descriptions of musical instruments by people who play musical instruments. Learn 5-string banjo at your own speed, with many examples and user-friendly explanations. Explains the various kinds of banjos and what each is good for. Learn more about our newsletter for roots-based and acoustic music. Folks with Bb or Eb instruments can contribute to worship services, but the WAY they do depends on the way the worship leader approaches the music. A page devoted to some of Paul's own music endeavors.