What I Learned From Releasing Four Albums in a Year
What I Learned from Releasing Four Albums in a Year
One of the most ambitious and alluring endeavours for a musician is the concept album. Many of us have dreamed of doing one, but few of us are able to make the time or refine our focus for its realization. On March 1st, I finished a concept album series with my own group, Locomotive Ghost. I wanted to share my experience of that project in the hopes that I could stimulate your creative ideas, expose some of the reality, and aid in my own reflective process.
Over the course of eleven months, Locomotive Ghost released a series of four seasonally-themed vinyl records about life, science, and the passage of time. Each 7” release included four songs and came with a coloured record, a hand-made jacket, a chord/lyric insert booklet, and a digital download code. Our goal was to do everything we possibly could on our own and with our project collaborators. To that end, we made ourselves responsible for all of the songwriting, arranging, producing, performing, recording, mixing, project management, artistic design, merchandise manufacturing, promotion, and event production. The only things we didn’t do were the mastering (I refuse to master my own mixes) and the record pressing (we didn’t have $30,000 for a record lathe). Part of our concept was to create everything ourselves so we’d end up with a product that was truly us.
If I remember correctly, the DIY approach was also supposed to be a way to save money. Here’s a word of caution – if you’re choosing DIY for this reason, you might be making a mistake. We thought that we would cut costs significantly by making all of the record jackets and t-shirts ourselves, but the numbers just don’t work out that way. Companies like Bands on a Budget orPrecision Disc are working in quantities that lower their overhead significantly. Even though you’re paying a markup for their services, your end costs are not much higher than if you purchased small quantities of blank t-shirts, record jackets, and crafting supplies, and added shipping for whatever you can’t find locally. If you choose to pay your band members for their crafting time (even at a slave wage), then your costs are astronomically higher than just buying the product pre-made.
We were proud of having tea-stained, silk-screened, painted, folded, cut, stickered, and assembled everything ourselves. It gave us something to talk about at the merch table. If you share that aesthetic, and you’re prepared to put hundreds of hours of your time into not playing music, then go for it.
One area that we definitely did save money was the recording. However, unless you’re a trained professional or want a lo-fi sound, I would again advise that you carefully consider this choice. I run my own production company, and have been doing sound work for six years, so I knew I would have an end product I was satisfied with.
To continue with the seasonal and DIY concepts, we designed related merchandise, undertook guerrilla marketing, and planned themed release events. The events were all collaborations with local visual artist, Rachelle Quinn. Spring took place in a laundromat that was decked out with cherry blossom branches hanging from the rafters. Summer was an outdoor picnic party. Autumn happened in a cellar venue and featured garlands of pressed leaves as well as papier mache lanterns. Winter occurred in a theatre with scattered “ice” chunks, suspended snowflakes, and glowing sculptures of atoms.
In case you haven’t gathered yet, this project took a lot of time and effort. I went through periods of having no work or only working part-time because I didn’t have enough available hours to make an actual living. My girlfriend bought most of the groceries for six months while I scraped together rent money from sound gigs that I could squeeze into my schedule.
So what made the experience worthwhile?
We learned about project management and self-promotion. Managing timetables to record one record while releasing another and promoting a third was mind-boggling. It required planning and scheduling months in advance. If we’d gotten as much attention for Spring as we did for Winter, we could have gotten even more notice in the independent music scene. The fact is, though, we wouldn’t have learned how to do that without trying. Most of what we did would apply to any album release, not just a series like ours, and we now have a much better idea of what to do for the next, “normal” release.
We discovered how to promote our art. One of the toughest things for any musician is learning how to talk about yourself effectively. Saying, “Hey, I’m in a band that writes songs and recorded a CD,” is not compelling. You need to give people a reason to care. By sticking to our concept and learning how to present it, we were able to make people pay attention much more closely than we did with our previous album.
We challenged ourselves creatively. We chose to focus on a theme of “seasons” for this project, which meant that our music had to justifiably fit onto the appropriate record. Sometimes we started with the theme and wrote a new song. Other times we took existing song ideas and shaped them to fit the theme. Both approaches were equally valid, and both challenged us with constraints. There are few things more artistically stimulating than setting limitations. If you sit down to a blank page with the idea that you can do anything, chances are good you’ll write something very similar to what you’ve done before. By coupling our thematic constraints with limited vinyl play time, we came up with topics and arrangements that forced us to grow.
We created a story. It can’t all be about making pitches to sell yourself. Life is about writing your personal story. It’s about having something to tell to your grandkids, or on a first date, or to a hitchhiker on the highway. I always want to hear other people’s stories, so it only makes sense that I should have a few good ones of my own. By challenging ourselves to release four records in a year, we ended up having some pretty neat experiences along the way.
The bassist, manager, co-songwriter, poet for Calgary-based indie folk-rock group, Locomotive Ghost. He also works as a sound engineer, producer, and consultant around town with his own company, Mossy Rock Productions.