Imagine this scenario. You or your band release an EP of six tracks and three of them are awesome.
You've printed CD labels and slip covers into those thin jewel cases and started handing them out to friends. One of your friends went the corporate route and ended up playing your music in the car with a wealthy businessman on their lunch break.
It just so happens that he's looking to start a local record label and loves what you guys have done. He's even willing to overlook the fact that you didn't press even 100 legit copies of your album, because it's hard to come up with all the cash. That's his job.
He's not willing to send you back to the studio to have a professional recording engineer re-track your songs. You managed to do a decent enough job that it can be passed off to a mixing engineer. He just needs you to give him the stems for each song. He also wants to know, are you registered with ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC? In addition, he's going to have one of your songs remixed by an electronic artist he's signing too.
So the question becomes...
How screwed are you at this point?
Opportunity doesn't wait. If you can't provide what he needs for his business to move forward, he'll end up talking to that other local band you have a rivalry with... and there's nobody to blame but yourself.
Today we're going to discuss a list of XX considerations you should take into account every single time you write and record a song. Take care of these and you'll be ready to strike while the iron is hot.
There are a handful of things you need to be doing during the production phase of writing, recording, and mixing your music. Yes, they add extra time to the process and aren't the fun part. When some bigwig is ready to give you a shot they will expect it to be the case that you're a professional. I'm sure you are, but in his or her mind that's going to mean preparation, and usually around things most of us don't know about because we haven't worked in the industry on this level.
What I'm referring to is the opportunity to have your music placed on radio, movies, video games, commercials, TV segments. It's about being ready to have your songs featured on compilation albums, remix albums, distributed on major online and brick & mortar retailers.
Doing it isn't the hard part. Knowing about it is. But we've got 8 tips here that will leave you as prepared as possible to take advantage when opportunity comes knocking. Of course there's more such as having your publishing rights in order so you can receive royalties and one-off payments. But today we're going to stick strictly to production.
First and foremost, you need to be doing everything the other professionals are doing and that starts at the fundamentals. Although there are less convenient ways around it, a lot of sound professionals want access to your raw files along with the work you've done to them. This usually results in "Zip the project folder and upload it to Dropbox for me."
This way they can make mix and arrangement changes if needed. The next point also deals with another way to pass files around that is equally common. But when possible be prepared for this scenario. This means you should be saving your projects to a RAID setup of hard drives, burning them to discs, storing them to USB drives, etc. Have access.
It also means you need to be working in a digital audio workstation (DAW) that everyone else does. Usually this means Pro Tools or Logic Pro. Your funky Fruity Loops and Cool Edit Pro projects aren't going to cut it. That doesn't mean you're screwed, you'll just need to turn to stems (the next tip).
A lot of us like that "live feel" of wavering on the tempo. The only problem is it's not the 1960's any more. Listeners expects you to lock into a tempo and stick to it. Professionals expect this because it allows them to work with your files. It's the only way that stems will work as well.
This means that in your DAW, your song needs to start on the first downbeat. It needs to be recorded to the tempo of the project so all of the grid lines line-up correctly. Now you can copy and paste, cut and drag, snap to lines, etc. Without these two conventions, a professional is likely to open your project, sigh, and delete your project.
Whether you're mixing your own songs or sending them to someone else, make sure you receive the stems of each track. This refers to soloing groups of tracks, such as:
You want to collapse all of your guitar lines into one track, mute all the rest, and export them into one file starting at the very beginning of the song all the way to the last part the guitar plays. They should include whatever compression, EQ, and other effects the mixer used as well. Do the same for every set of instruments. You can typically group all of the drums together if their mix is balanced well enough.
This allows the next person handling your song lots of options, such as boosting the vocals by a couple decibels before mastering. Or just yanking out the guitars to use in a radio commercial. Or creating an instrumental version for a video game. The list goes on.
This is also how you bypass the need to send the full project around (and save yourself the embarrassment of having someone know you used Garage Band). The main key is that you can drop each stem into a DAW and everything will line up perfectly. More points if you tell them the tempo so they can use their editing grid.
This is good practice when it comes to arranging songs anyways, but allow your song to breathe, ebb, and flow. Don't come out of the gates with all six cylinders firing until the song is over. Build energy, let it die, build it up again. Take out instruments and add them back in later. Create anticipation. This isn't just composing for film, this is composing for all listeners.
The reason for this beyond making a good song is that not all professionals have the time to go tinkering with your files. Some need a 15 second bumper for a radio spot and they can just use the right segment of your song that's already in the mix-down. If a TV show needs a 30 second spot of low-energy they can yank out your first verse before you have both guns blazing by the second verse.
You get the point. The easier you can make someone else's job, the more likely you are to get the spot. Everyone is under a tight schedule. Make life easy for everyone above you who's reaching down to lift you up.
You're writing songs, not a 2 hour long suspense movie with a confusing plot and a twist ending. I'm not saying don't have a 4-bar intro. I'm not saying jump straight to the chorus. If you suspect a song could be a hit or have some other use for other professionals, then don't do the 32-bar first verse and wait for almost two minutes before you hit the first chorus.
There are formulas for song arrangements for a reason, especially when it comes to pop music. You're in the stage of your career where you're trying to get attention. You don't have the sway and swagger to pull super artistic stunts that break the mold... yet. You have to breakthrough first, and first impressions are what matters. With attention spans steadily declining, you need to hurry up and build energy through the first verse and blow the listener away in the chorus.
This goes for almost all other uses of your music not related to the music itself. Cycling through sections of the song quickly keeps things interesting, especially when you have 30 seconds or less.
I personally hate fade outs. They are lazy and don't offer anything emotionally or impactful. You can end your songs with fade outs but it's recommended that you create a full-stop motif as well that's included in your projects and stems.
Movies and television will often edit the length of their scenes around the length of stingers, but the music can't just stop abruptly with no sense about it. Create a small 2-bar or 4-bar section with a drum break and other melodic cadence that clearly depicts an ending. Without this, you may ruin your chances to end up on some silly TV show that ends up with re-runs played constantly on 3 different channels. Say goodbye to that lifelong royalty check!
Music of this variety has already lost a lot of its humanity. No human can play an instrument the way our over-produced, hyper-quantized songs sound. No human sings like we hear on today's songs with auto-tune. You need to maintain as much humanity as possible while still abiding by these expectations.
One of the things you can do is follow the trends. If the current trend of ear candy is to use air horns, pitch shifted snare rolls, and weird Dubstep style blips and bleeps, then do it. Another is to breathe life into your productions by using randomizers. By this I mean randomizing the velocity of your drums, the micro-timing of your drums, randomizing the automation track of your equalizer to emulate hitting drums in different spots. We've covered these drum programming tactics here.
Any time there's something based on a human, such as hand claps as snares, you can layer in or use real hand claps to help trick the listener's brain into connecting deeper.
While you have your finished and mixed project open, you should go ahead and create radio and TV edits. Mute the vocals and create 10 second, 30 second, 1 minute, and 2 minute long segments. Now you'll be ready when your manager scores your band a nightly radio commercial slot. Now you're ready when MTV needs a 15 second clip to play while some pregnant teenager walks from her car to the front door.
Back to my original point above, not only are these sound designers not going to take the time to open your project and create these segments, but they're not even going to chop your full song file down. They expect you to have it ready. In some situations you may be able to say "Yessir," hang up the phone, and get it ready real fast. At other times you might be on the road and need the secretary for the record label to do it. I hope you're organized and ready when the door opens.
Finally, you need to tag all of your music files with the appropriate meta-data. This is how iTunes and iPhones know the artist name, song name, album cover, etc. This is how your band's songs pop up on Spotify or any other searchable database when someone is looking for a certain genre or emotional feeling. And this is how you get credit when your music is used.
You can cut out a lot of extra steps for everyone and drastically increase your chances of your music appearing in other media formats like TV and radio by creating stingers and stems and having them available in commercially usable databases. If all of your meta-data is applied, a TV show might go ahead and use your song because you allowed it and cut you a check. It'll show up in your mailbox or Paypal account one day and you'll be like "noice, I was on TV" and go on about your day but a lot richer.
The quicker someone can get their job done with the less annoying hoops to jump through, the higher your chances to make cash.
The music industry is getting smaller and cheaper. Every since giant record labels started manufacturing fake singer-songwriters in the 70's, it's only gotten tighter. They're trying to make profit margins. Meanwhile the number of artists is exploding thanks to the availability of computers and audio interfaces.
The barrier to entry is infinitely lower, but the number of opportunities are insanely smaller. He who is the most ready will get the job. It's first come, first serve most of the time. And it's about who you know. If someone's ready to know you but you don't have your game together, you lose. They'll make the connection with someone else. And when they need the next job done, they'll contact those same people again because they know they have their game together.
Be that person. Always be able to deliver the highest quality at the fastest speed.