10 Life Hacks for Skint Musicians

 

I’ve been in bands for nearly twenty years (I started very young) and I’ve worked, rehearsed and played on three continents.

That doesn’t qualify me for much in this life but I have picked up a few simple things that have made my life as a musician easier, and most importantly, cheaper!

Most of the time when you’re trying to make something happen with your music and your band there isn’t much money to go around. You’re usually reasonably young with a lot of demands on whatever money you have.

There’s lots of ways that you can stretch your resources to get the most out of them – you can save money on the things you need, you can cut deals, you can earn more and you can hustle.

I’ve scratched my head and come up with ten hacks that have made a difference to my life as a working musician and have helped me get the most out of my meagre funds.

It’s not a full list by any means and I’d love to hear your further ideas in the comments so that we can make this a really useful source of information for every skint musician.

1. Set Up Your Own Online Label for You and Your Friends

Who hasn’t dreamed of having their own record label?

I know – you can easily lose your shirt running a label. So, I’m not really talking about you setting out to build this great visionary label – although it could end up as that. I’m more talking about creating an identity and leveraging your scene to get a lot of music out there at a reduced cost – a modern self-help label if you like!

A lot of online digital aggregators (such as Ditto Music  & NoiseHive) offer you the opportunity to release any music you choose online to hundreds of stores, all for a yearly fee rather than paying for a one-off release each time.

So why not club together with some friends on the scene, pay the initial fee and release, release, release.

I’ve released tons of music by myself and with my mates and it paid for itself after the first few singles.

Not only does this help all involved but you can start to build your own scene. That always helps you to get noticed and you could even end up with an in-demand label. Result!

Ditto offer a paid package (which I haven’t tried) called ‘Record Label in a Box‘ which they say gives you all the tools you need.

ditto

I’ve worked with Ditto and had good experiences so I think this would probably prove helpful, but, equally, you can get started with a bit of online research and some graft!

2. Buy Stuff In Bulk

Strings, picks, merch. You name it, the more you buy the cheaper it is.

Too obvious? – I don’t think so. It’s not just about saving money, but if you’re really smart you can buy your own supplies for your band and sell the rest on at a profit to other bands you know, or, even better, as merchandise.

From some eBay stores you can buy a 10 pack of guitar strings for the price of 4 packs from a shop?!

So, if you have a couple of guitarists in your band – do it now!

My band, The Solicitors, got some custom made plectrums. 100 for $40 – that’s 40 cents a pick!

Not only cheaper than your average store but we had an endless supply of them with our logo on that we sold for a dollar each at shows.

3. Create Your Own Sleeve Artwork – Well

A band’s artwork is one of the most important factors when putting your music online, as a lot of potential fans DO judge a book by its cover.

A good thumbnail can be the difference between someone clicking that play button…or not.

Designers can be expensive and your mate with Photoshop can often let you down which is why I came up with the idea for our app.

If you need good, cheap artwork that  you can create yourself  there are some good on line options but (even though I’m obviously biased) there’s few ways that are easier than using TAD on your phone.

Get it and give it a whirl here – Get TAD

4. Make a Split Vinyl Release

If your band is playing gigs regularly (and you should be!), then you’re more than likely to be part of some kind of scene (even if that is just you and your mates’ bands).

Why not club together to release a split vinyl?

Two bands on a split 7′? Or even better / cheaper – four bands on a 12”?
There’s no denying that vinyl has had a massive resurgence in popularity and sales in the last few years. In doing this release to sell at shows you’re not only promoting yourself but also the other bands on the record – just as they are also doing for you at their shows! Spread the love!

There’s a lot of places you’ll be able to find to make your vinyl but Discmakers are a trusted source for many DIY bands and competitive.

Think about how this could work as a physical release strategy for your online label you set up in my first point – a whole local (or global but niche/genre based) scene working together to promote each other and make a little profit along the way.

I love the idea of a band in Australia splitting a 7″ with a band in the US and having them sold at local shows in each country when the bands have never met in person but come together through some kind of online meeting of the minds. Make it happen!

two-bands-split-7

 

Here’s a great example of two Japanese bands getting together and doing exactly this and tying it in with the recent Record Store Day and some shows. They even managed to leverage it into some press (see my next point!).

5. Do Your Own Artist Publicity- Properly

There is nothing better than a good publicist, and nothing worse than a bad one.
However, both will set you back a lot of money and it’s always a gamble, so test the water first by doing your own publicity. At least you’ll find out whether press and blogs are at all responsive before shelling out.

It is really hard, time consuming work, but if you’re serious about your music then that shouldn’t be a problem, should it?

Make sure you delegate the tasks between your band mates and go hard on the internet looking for the people you want to reach. Check out Hype Machine, an online database of Music Blogs, for starters, but you can go a lot deeper and more niche to get started.

You can contact blogs the world over and share your music and story with them, but here’s a few tips:

Make sure you know what blog you’re writing to, and reference something you like about their blog;

DO NOT copy and paste a message – it’s so obvious and impersonal;

DO NOT attach MP3s or press releases – bloggers hate that, so have a nice Soundcloud link ready and downloadable.

There’s a lot more to it than that though!

Pretty much the best ‘step-by-step’ article I’ve ever read on this is on the blog of a professional PR firm, Sunshine Promotions.

It’s really detailed and is so good it’s been reposted on a lot of bigger DIY Music sites.
Well worth reading.

6. Record Yourself, But Get Someone Good to Mix

If you can’t afford the full weekend at Abbey Road with their in-house engineers (and not many can these days..) and you have to cut corners somewhere, then push your limited budget to the rear-end of the process.

A good mix engineer can do wonders as long as he has something not completely useless to work with.

That microphone you use for gigs/rehearsals (an SM58) is what they use in the ‘big boy’ studios to record guitars (well they use an SM57 but that is the same mic – you just have to take off the 58’s popfilter!).

You can do that at home, stick a room mic up too if you’re feeling really posh.

A good set of drum mics you can hire for $80 a day.

DI the bass – no-one mics them up anymore anyway.

A good friend of mine (and awesome artist), Adult Cinema follows this path as you can see with his self-built home studio below.

mikes-studio

 

As long as you can play well, a good mixer can make you sound great, but if you spend all your money on an incredible recording and scrimp on the mix it’s going to sound like crap regardless.

We like the guys at MixButton who you can hire for a very reasonable rate, and they have plenty of great recording tips on their site too!

That said, our go to guy for recording and mixing advice is Graham Cochrane at The Recording Revolution . He has some paid training but also loads and loads of free stuff that will improve your recordings no matter what level you think your studio skills are at!

 

7. Use Online Mastering

Opinion is divided on this, as the purists will tell you (probably rightly) that there is no substitute for the human ear.

However, those purists may have a spare grand to spend on a master.

If you’ve spunked all your money on a great mix (as I just told you to) and have nothing in reserve, then you can use online mastering services such as LANDR  for less than it costs for a pint.

I use it quite a lot and I think the results are pretty great.

Just make sure your mix engineer gives you a bounce with plenty of headroom (peaking at around -6db).

LANDR offer a free trial so don’t take my word for it – give it a go and see what you think of the results.

 

8. Share a Rehearsal Space

I shudder to think how much money myself and bands I’ve been in have given to unsanitary rehearsal rooms that don’t maintain their gear over the years.

Last year we came across a guy that had decked out a private rehearsal room for his band and asked if we wanted to share it with his group and a few others.

Secure lock-up, we all had keys, we all knew each other and we worked out a roster for who needed the room when.

It was like a breath of fresh air.

We could keep our gear set up and then just rock up and play. We had air conditioning (this is when I was living in Melbourne!) and parking and it was a fraction of the cost of rehearsing twice a week in a dive (and there was no loading in or out or setting up!).

So if there’s a few bands you know who all (hopefully) rehearse, try and find a place that works for all of you and pay the monthly rent.

When you do the maths you’ll be surprised how much you’ll save.

rehearssal

 

Ours didn’t look quite as fly as this space from Gem Studios in Birmingham (UK), but they recommend and offer this kind of facility and, if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to find a similar space in your area.

 

9. Set Aside Some Time for Boring Admin

Don’t skip this one!

This is something no-one really likes doing, but if you’re serious about your craft and sustaining a career then stop complaining about how there’s no money in the industry and file your taxes and fill in your live performance returns!

There’s money there – you just need to ask for it.

In fact, if that makes no sense to you, go and read this brilliant article from Sentric Music  that explains how they collect royalties for their clients from them playing their own songs – even in tiny local gigs.

That’s clearly something you should do – it’s sort of money for nothing – just a bit of admin!
You should also be registering your band as a business and getting your tax code, depending on the rules and regulations in your country or state. This might give you some additional ability to apply for grants or tax breaks as well.

Keep ALL your receipts – musical instruments, rehearsal space costs, petrol to and from your gigs, that new pair of ripped jeans that makes you look like Kurt Cobain. Then at the end of the financial year you can claim that back against your earnings (band related AND others).

Join APRA/PRS (whatever relevant society for your territory) or a company like Sentric Music who will deal with it for you. There’s’ a similar set up with a company in the US called Song Trust.

Make sure you check in regularly and register all your compositions and collaborations. The agencies or companies will look after all your music globally and you never know, your new jam could be on rotation on a station in France and that could get you that new Jagstang you’ve been dreaming about.

 

10. Put Your Money Where You Can See It

How many times do you ‘umm’ and ‘aah’ over purchasing new gear?
“Well, we do reeeally need a new PA but that’s gonna cost about a grand, and no-one has that kind of money”.

Except, between the band you blew that much last weekend getting fucked up.
Admit it, you did.

I can’t preach about this –  I’m the world’s worst, but if you can, TRY and invest your hard earned cash in something that’s going to benefit you and your career.

If it means all of you staying in one weekend, eating toast and watching a Star Wars marathon with the sound of Tie-fighters blasting through your slick new PA system is that really so bad? Is it?…

 

More Hacks for DIY Musicians

That’s my ten, but I’d love to have your feedback and other ideas on how every musician can save money and get a better result on any aspect of their career.

Drop them in the comments below and I’ll be there to join in.

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Lee Jones

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Adrian Breakspear - April 25, 2016 Reply

– I would say DON’T record yourself unless you’ve got good experience. It’s easy enough to record vocals, but drums are one of the hardest things to record well, and unless you’re happy with the mix engineer completely sample replacing everything, it makes sense to book a “proper” studio to do the bed tracks and do the vocals/programming yourself.

and yes, I’ve done a lot of salvaging in the past. You can do wonders, but it’s always a case of “this could have been so much better had someone competent been involved at the start”.

Not to mention the fact that self-recording bands often never finish anything.

– people very much do mic up bass amps…..again, the less you fake in the mix the better it’ll sound.

– don’t use LANDR – it’s $50/track to get someone competent to master these days. LANDR destroys as much as it makes things better. fine for reference mixes. Not if you actually care about what you do.

It simply doesn’t make sense to skimp on the important part – the product.

    Lee Jones - April 25, 2016 Reply

    Yes totally Adrian, I’m kind of presuming one of the members might have some nouse about them when it comes to recording. It sounds to me you are a long-suffering sound engineer who has had to do some turd-polishing! (believe me I know that feeling). I guess it’s kind of accepted now that a mix engineers work sort of tripled in the last 20 years with advancements in technology. And I agree the product is the most important thing. I personally have had some great results from LANDR BUT it is hit and miss depending on what you put in for sure.

Sylvio Pretsch - April 25, 2016 Reply

1. point should be: Find a well-paid job in another industry! The music industry is almost dead! A lot of established recording studios had to give up because they couldn’t earn enough money to survive. More and more young musicians and composers offers their work for free. This destroys the music industry because ad companies asks why they should pay e. g. 20,000.00 USD for a 30 second commercial spot soundtrack if they could get it for free from so many music students. This is problem all recording studios and composers have at the moment.

    Lee Jones - April 27, 2016 Reply

    Sad but true Sylvio, we can only hope things improve over time, but as we pass through this era of antipathy towards music as a whole we must do whatever we can to keep our heads above water and adapt to the changing climate in the hope of better days ahead. Music is about passion, generally speaking, though making a career out of it is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of course!I guess it’s becoming more like being a sports-person, only a select few ‘make it’ and a lot are just in the Sunday leagues!

Howard Byrne - April 27, 2016 Reply

I know it is tempting to just entrust CD Baby or another company to post your downloadable music on YouTube as part of their package deal…BUT…nothing promotes your band and gets a buzz going like a decent music video on YouTube. It doesn’t take much time (as compared to writing and recording a great song). Show your band. Take scenic video of the area where you live. Heck, use stock video allowed through Creative Commons. The point is: EVERY song released as a single, E.P., and on an album should have a custom video for promotional purposes. The CD Baby-style videos get little views compared to everything else on YouTube and Vimeo. Get creative! You may just become the next OK Go.

Personally, I don’t promote any CD Baby-style videos on my Power Pop Stew Playlist Forum Page. I’d much rather add a live performance video of a song than have a stagnant image. Soundcloud is great for letting reviewers and radio show hosts/programmers listen and download a song for airplay/review. But, a YouTube video and a download link in an email is much more effective.

Also, let it be known that many artists have made a career from licensing their music as Creative Commons. Not only does it mean that more visually creative people can use your music to create videos that are free promotion for you; radio, bloggers and other media can use it to promote your music too! Artists like Jonathan Coulton have established themselves to sell downloads, merchandise, and more (and make a pretty decent living) because they took the risk of licensing their music under Creative Commons. Think about the minuscule paycheck you’ll receive from Spotify, YouTube, radio (terrestrial and internet) film, etc. I constantly hear other musicians complain that they just received their $1.37 quarterly royalty check from their collection agency. They have the audacity to be pissed-off at those companies that are cheating them out of money they somehow think they deserve. What they fail to realize is that those companies are providing an avenue of free promotion. Embrace them all!…even if you think they don’t pay a high enough percentage in pay-per-play. 2 additional downloads is all it would have taken to cover the difference of a royalty check – something much more feasible with better promotion and letting your fans help you promote your music through their creativity. The only people getting rich from collection agencies are collection agencies! Worry about publishing your music if you are creating music specifically for a particular established artist or a big budget film. In the meantime, promotion by making a name for yourself is the only way you will catch the ear of more established artists or film music directors. I see it over and over again – artists are too concerned about monetizing on everything and earning a pittance, rather than working to become better known so they can really earn money. Most successful-earning music artists (little-known and established) make much more money from playing live and merchandise than from actually selling their music. That business model has never changed! Also remember what the terrestrial radio template formula is: “A penny a play” to their listening audience, which may be 20,000 listeners (depending on the market). Are the streaming sites like Spotify really doing you an injustice? You would need 1000’s of people to listen to your song on Spotify to justify the same royalty rate as terrestrial radio…one penny. Last I saw, Spotify was paying about 6 cents per 1000 listens. Don’t get caught up in that! It’s free promotion for people to become your fans and eventually buy your music…just like YouTube!

Don’t be afraid to release singles and E.P.s frequently, rather than wait to record an entire album. Your output of music will tend to be higher quality because you are just working to make each song as good as it can be. Plus, you are constantly promoting your music and staying visible to the blog readers and radio programmers. It works much better than releasing an album, then trying to get attention by releasing singles after the fact. That only works for established artists. Release singles or E.P.s. Then, compile them to an album with some bonus tracks later. Most radio bloggers and radio programmers will promote your music for about a month. Isn’t it better to get promotion every month or two, rather than one month of every year or two?

Finally, creators are their own worst critics! You put your heart and soul into your art. You are biased, and that skews your perception of your art. It never hurts to have an experienced blogger or radio programmer/host give you their honest opinion whether you’ve created something appealing. I can’t tell you how many of the best songs I’ve found and played on my show that are buried in the middle or end of an album. I am also the music director an one of the largest internet radio stations in the world. Most music submitted for airplay consideration is not good enough to receive radio airplay. You are competing with everyone else that wants radio airplay (and the promotional value it creates) too! I’m looking for the cream of the crop…the best of the best. Those large paid-by-artist and record label promotion companies are sending music directors constant emails of new releases. Music Directors are busy people that are listening to dozens of songs each day. How do you get your email read without getting lost or discarded? They don’t have time to listen to the entire album. They expect to hear your best 1 or 2 songs (maximum). Give them a link to hear the rest of your music if your first song catches their ear. Find a trusted critic (not a family member or personal friend) that is not afraid to tell you what is good and what isn’t…what should be you first and second songs on an E.P. and when you eventually compile an album. There are lots of bloggers and radio programmers out there for your style of music. Ask one that you trust to critique your music. Many will be happy to help, especially if they are given the opportunity to premiere a great song ahead of other bloggers/radio programmers.

Best wishes!

    Lee Jones - April 27, 2016 Reply

    Thanks Howard! People should definitely take heed of this advice, from someone who really knows what he’s talking about! Definitely agree that every avenue for a musician should be explored, there is money out there! And also, yes a Youtube video representation is so important, even if you can’t afford a mega-bucks budget it’s still good to have something there. Thanks Howard!

Jorge - April 27, 2016 Reply

Thanks Howard ! you said it all !

Darren Randell - May 6, 2016 Reply

We do everything ourselves no complaining here just for fun with no mun, so right about the getting fucked up part if im gona die poor im doing it with a guitar and a whiskey!

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