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If you’re a gigging musician, you are probably starting to feel the strain. Your livelihood is all about entertaining the public at gatherings, or at festivals or live music venues, and most opportunities have more or less dried up due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We are seeing major festivals being postponed, we’re seeing pubs and restaurants being closed and even the small intimate gigs at coffee shops and clubs are gone. Social distancing is the new norm to stop the spread of the virus. 

Things are going to be very different for (at least) the next few months irrespective of where you are on the spectrum of nonchalance to panic. As a musician, you’re either choosing to, or being forced to, take a significant financial loss for the good of the larger public. 

What can you do to survive during this time? 

Well, in addition to the other WaterBear blogs in the Musicians Guide series, you can take the following steps to conserve cash. The old maxim “Cash is King” is hugely relevant right now. 

What support schemes are out there for self-employed musicians? 

Temporary changes to benefits have made it easier for musicians to apply. 

Hardship Funds being implemented for musicians facing genuine hardship. 

Health and welfare with financial assistance offered by organisations. 

Reassurance and support services. 

There will also be many more. So now you’ve got time on your hands, do some research. Keep up to date with the government website as things are changing fast. Maybe consider watching the live news conference at around 5pm everyday to get the real news - avoid fake news on social media for your mental wellbeing. 

What can you do differently to conserve cash?

As a gigging musician, you are already probably very good at managing tight budgets so carry on with that. At a time when hoarding and rationing is the norm, it seems strange to encourage thriftiness, but it can be a means of survival.

Review all your expenses and identify what can be postponed or stopped.

Mortgage or rent – get in touch with your lender or landlord and ask about payment holidays or reduced payments during these times. With mortgage lenders offering mortgage holidays even for buy to let mortgages, most landlords should be in a position to provide some assistance.

Council tax and services – contact your suppliers and again agree a holiday or reduced payments. I know that this creates a future debt but once things get better the economy will bounce back. Hopefully it will be quick, as people have been locked down for some time and want to go out and be entertained.

Credit cards, banking and loans – contact your financial suppliers and ask about delayed or reduced payments. Can you get a coronavirus business interruption loan guaranteed by the government for your business?

Household expenses – draconian times require draconian measures so you should look to reduce your intake of non-necessity items such as alcohol, tobacco/vape juice, crisps/chocolate and snacks. Teach yourself to bake bread, and other food stuffs using basic and cheap ingredients – you’ve got the time and it’s fun and rewarding to eat something you’ve made for a few pence!

Running out of cash?

Cash in hand – how much cash do you have?

In a spreadsheet (or “old school” it with paper and pen), work out what you will need each week after you have deployed some or all of the foregoing. You’re now creating a budget for the next few weeks. How long will your cash last and when do you need to worry about running out?

Sources of cash generation for an isolated musician

Live streaming concerts

Can you go live from your home? If you can, it can generate funds.  Be sure to include a link for donations

Check out these live-streaming options:

Instagram Live for musicians 

The complete Facebook Live toolkit for musicians

YouTube Live

Remember to show your fans that they can support you

Remember your fans can:

Buy a t-shirt, hat, or other merch from your online store if you have one.

Buy a CD/Vinyl/Tape/USB/MP3, whichever music format is most useful. This puts more money in your pocket than streaming.

Listen to you on your streaming platforms. This is great as every play is monetized.

Add one of your songs to their playlist.

Include your song in their own videos.

If they have design skills, design you a cool shirt or poster that you can sell.

When touring does resume, buy a ticket and help you pack out that venue.

Contribute to your crowdfunding site if you have one (if not, you might want to set one up).

If you're interested in learning more and are serious about progressing in your career as a musician, please join us at WaterBear HQ for an Open Day or Order a Prospectus.

How are you going to create the budget for recording an album in 2020? And, more importantly, how much are you going to spend overall? The immediate answer is somewhere between nothing (it is entirely possible to create an album for no money) to £30,000 and upwards.

That’s a lot of money in 2020, but in historical terms it’s peanuts. My album “Jam” which was released in 1993 cost at least three times that. We would have probably spent £30,000 on the preliminary demos before tracking the actual record. However, we would have been selling CDs for £20 which were manufactured for 25p. There were huge margins, and we do not have this luxury today, hence there are smaller budgets and different approaches to monetizing music.

You may be closer than you think to making a career-defining record

Let’s pause and think about this, recording an album is secondary to the important aspects which are songwriting and pre-production. This is where the album is made, and these two things are entirely free. With that in mind, let’s examine the tips which will facilitate the budgeting of your album.

Tip no.1 - decide on the overall spend

We are solely talking about making a record, the promotion, marketing, and social campaigns will be dealt with in another video. Right now, let’s formulate the budget which will get this record made. I want to break this down into four financial categories;

Example 01 | budget £0

What do you do if you have nothing to work with? It may be surprising, but you are actually in a strong position, some of the best music ever produced has been made in similar circumstances. Very often the things that restrict your art are the primary contributors to the reasons why it becomes great. Diamonds are formed under extreme heat and pressure, and music is the same.

We have five stages to consider; writing, pre-production, recording, mixing and mastering. All of this stuff can be done at home, it can be done in garage band, you can borrow mics and gear to get the thing done. The only thing that will restrict you is your creativity and imagination. If the songs are great, then the album will be a hit. Can it be done for free? It absolutely can.

Example 02 | budget £500-£1k

All the band members have chipped in, you have a small budget and in essence a homemade album. You now have a few options that will upgrade your art, it’s essential to prioritise. With a few hundred quid, you can’t do everything and so you need to decide on what will make the biggest difference, I would recommend the mixing and mastering.

This allows you to give a home-recorded album to someone with a bit more gear and experience who can step it up at the mix stage. This could make a fundamental difference in the quality of the record. This immediate upgrade is going to cost hundreds of pounds as opposed to thousands.

When working with these limited budgets you need to pick battles that you can win. There is no point in spreading yourself too thin. Take a few hundred quid and put it into something that will count. This will undoubtedly be the mixing and mastering.

Example 03 | budget £1k - £3k

What happens if a couple of band members have day jobs and between you, there is slightly more to throw at the project. This is not a huge budget, so you need to make it count. With this extra bit of capital, you have two choices and your decisions depend on the record you are making.

If it's a live based indie or rock record, the drum sound will make the most difference. However, if it's pop or electronic orientated put your money into the mix. When I say drum sound, I’m specifically talking about tracking in a world-class studio, you will be paying for an excellent sounding room, a competitive mic collection, a brilliant desk, some industry-standard outboard, and an experienced engineer. If you can also get a bit of bass and rhythm guitar, that's a bonus. However, let’s concentrate on making the drums great.

Due to the fact you have planned this album carefully before you have even started the recording process, we will not need as much time in the studio. This means that with a limited budget you can still afford to use some of the world's best studios. You could look at studios like Rockfield in Wales for example, where major albums have been tracked by the likes of Queen, Oasis and Royal Blood. With a budget of two to three thousand pounds, there is nothing to stop you from being at a studio in that league.

Example 04 | £???

What do you if money is no object and there is an unlimited budget? It may be surprising but after the £30,000 threshold, you do not get much more for your money. At this point, you can work with some of the world's best producers, engineers in the top studios for very affordable prices these days.

You need to find the right producer and engineer, to do that you need to conduct research, google them, ring them up and make a deal. You should be expecting to pay somewhere between £200-£300 per day for an experienced and current producer.

Tip no.2 - allocate and cap individual budgets

The individual costs for recording are comprised of; songwriting/pre-production, the producer, the recording process (studio rates), mixing and the mastering. It’s that simple, if we allocate for this then its job done.

It's important to allocate the budget for this and cap it, as recording is an open-ended process and budget control can go out of the window very quickly. To illustrate the point, here is a simple budget that I have used;

Songwriting and Pre- Production - £0

Producer (10 days) - £2.5K

Recording Drums and Bass (3 days in a higher-end studio) - £1.25K

Tracking (7 days in a cheaper studio) - £1K

Mixing - £1.2K

Mastering - £350

Total - £6,250

Tip no.3 - budget your time

In the same way that you have a plan for how to spend your money, a plan for how you spend your time is needed. As we all know, time is money. Most artists think that a record is started the day they set foot in the studio; this is not true. It commences before that, in the rehearsal rooms where you take the songs and start to analyse the arrangements and parts.

The great thing about the pre-production phase is that it is free. If you have your pre-production, recording, mixing, and mastering stages, a logical way of segmenting your time is to spend a longer period (a month to six weeks) getting the arrangements right. Then record quickly in ten days, mix in five, and then send it for mastering for a one day turn around. Get it done in two months, job done.

Thanks for reading, if you are interested in learning more and serious about progressing in your career as a musician please join us at WaterBear HQ for an Open Day or Order a Prospectus.

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

Benjamin Franklin

No matter how big or small the band is, too many musicians arrive at the studio under-prepared for the physical and psychological gauntlet that they have to endure during the recording process. How many times do we have to be disappointed with the end product to realise that the blame is maybe due to the songwriting, performance or musicianship?. You can avoid the common pitfalls by working out what you are looking to achieve and by having a clear plan.

(1.) Invest in a recording set up

There are no excuses! We’re happy to spend our hard earned cash (or from the bank of mum and dad) on accessories such as mobile phones, fashion, games console, nights out and holidays but we’re not willing to sacrifice a little and buy ourselves a laptop, interface and a microphone.

In fact, music shops couldn’t make it any easier to give you interest free finance. This is where the fun begins! I would start with a Universal Audio Arrow, Sontronics STC-2 mic and an Apple Macbook Pro. Add a recording software (Digital Audio Workstation), cable and a pair of headphones and you’re on your way.  Before you consider going into a studio you should be demoing at home for weeks, if not months, in advance.

(2.) Pre-production

So you’ve written your songs, demoed them on your laptop and practiced in rehearsals. Are you ready for the studio? The answer is: Not yet.

I spend a lot of time with bands during this important part of the process looking for ways of improving the song - whether it’s the arrangement, tempo, tone, parts and also feel. Understanding what felt good is crucial so it transfers across into the final version.

Most of the time we work it out in a rehearsal room or we sometimes go back and re-record parts on the demo. Be critically honest to yourself. For example, if you couldn’t perform the song competently from start to finish then you’re not ready. Don’t be afraid to re-build the song again from the ground up. I know it’s arduous, but time in the studio is a luxury.

(3.) DIY at home

You know all that lovely gear you have purchased to get you started (see point 1 above)? Well, the technology that is condensed into a tiny box is now at a pro-studio standard. I’m not kidding. I’ve worked on a number of label releases where it’s the same recording chain used at home and we ended up using the vocals or certain elements from the demo because it sounded good. We never felt the sonic quality was tangible enough to retract from the listening experience – what’s more important was the performance captured!.

Back in my own band days I would spend a lot time prepping my song templates before going into the studio. This means, all the tempos are set with all the guide instruments recorded (including vocals) and all we had to do was record a sonically better version of the same parts. This will save you hours and buy you the opportunity to get creative on some ear candy. You know all those romantic stories you’ve read where Producer X forced the drummer to set up a drum kit on the roof to get the perfect sound… The fun part!

(4.) Be realistic

We all love larger than life sounding records. It’s part of the reason why we fell in love with music, and you asked yourself how did they do that?. I want to sound that big! But let’s be realistic. Those records take a lot of time, skill and resources to make, but it doesn’t mean you can’t achieve success.

Focus on the writing and nailing the performance.  What’s more important is the ability to make your song resonate with the audience. Put your hand on your heart and can you say, “Did I put everything into the song and did my absolute best?” “Is it conveying what I’m trying to say?” A great song is a great song and a great performance will bring it home - no matter how or where it was recorded.

(5.) The Mix

I remember back in the day when I started my band and bought my first humble recording set up. I thought this is it; I can finally make my own record, send it out to labels, upload it online and everyone’s going to love it. Wrong.

I went through the above process and it wasn’t sounding close to a finished product. It had no punch, energy, and the balance was all over the shop. I had a go mixing, but it opened a whole new can of worms. I didn’t know where to start on getting this to sound like the records I grew up with.

It dawned on me that I needed someone with; experience of mixing albums on a daily basis, who understood the dark art and is able to translate what was intended onto a pair of speakers. I got obsessed and started my search for a Mix engineer, listened to albums that were in a similar genre and worked out who was the mixer from reading album liner notes. I contacted a few engineers and attached a link to a couple of songs I had done. Establishing a mutual respect and understanding here is key. If he or she feels excitement in the songs, they will be able to put their heart and soul into it.

There are plenty of mixers out there and don’t dismiss someone who is local and relatively new to the art. Have a conversation and start with a song. If it works, then take it from there. Again, be realistic - a mixer can only work with the material given!. If you’ve done your job as musician, then you’re 75% of the way there.

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