Piracy Made Personal: The Making of “When You Can Fly”

I Googled my album” When You Can Fly” yesterday and then I burst into tears.  Page after page of results were links to  free “file-sharing” sites.  Links to music piracy sites.  Links allowing people to steal the music.

As a songwriter, I’ve known for a long time about the problem of music piracy, but this is the first time it’s felt personal.  If I tell you the story of how I made this album, maybe it you’ll understand why.

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“Why don’t you have a CD?  You really should make one.”

I must have heard that question 1000 times over the past 10 years as a performing songwriter, and I always nodded my head in reply and said “you’re right!  I really should!”  But the answer was a lot more complicated than that.

The answer is because of what it takes to make a CD.  I’m not talking about the songs – I’ve had most of the songs on my debut CD “When You Can Fly” ready to record for years.  Here’s what it I’m talking about…

It takes working every gig you can possibly find, from packed rooms to peanut-husk-filled roadhouses with one disinterested drunk guy as your audience, until you save up enough money to pay for one day – ONE day – in the studio with the best musicians you can get….that’s $600 for the studio, $850 union wages for the lead musician, $500 each in union wages for the other 5 musicians, $100 for “cartage” on each instrument (you pay a cartage company to move the drums, keyboards etc), $100 to tune the piano for the day, $500 for the engineer to record the session, and $150 for the engineer’s assistant.  So that’s about $5000 for ONE DAY of recording – that’s six hours and not a second more – to capture 11 songs.  Some major label projects take weeks or even months in the studio and easily cost half a million dollars…but you don’t have that option when you are an independent artist paying for your own CD. So you spend hours and hours at home in preparation, going over and over the songs, writing out charts, making notes about what you want to hear, which instrument goes where, what the solo should sound like, what speed you want the song played at, what kind of guitar tone you want to hear, whether the songs fade or end cold…so when you finally get into the studio that day you know exactly what you need to do.  And six heart-thumping, nerve-wracking, adrenaline-ridden, rollercoaster hours later, you walk out of that studio with the basic tracks for each song.  And you’re not even halfway done.

Then you have to record the vocals.  So you go out and play more gigs. You back up some other artists in their shows.  You paint some houses.  You babysit.  You borrow a great microphone from a good and trusting friend instead of paying steep rental fees, you find a great but cheap vocal engineer for $40/hr and a tiny vocal studio for $400/day and you sing your heart out as fast as you can until all 11 songs are done.  And then you take the tracks home and spend night after night editing the vocals yourself and singing the backgrounds into a $100 microphone in your “home studio” (which is an old desktop Mac with old, constantly-freezing audio software, but it does the job!)

But you’re still not finished.  Now you have to mix and master the record.  Most good mixers charge $500 to $1000 per song, but with 11 songs, you’d never be able to afford that.  Luckily, you are blessed with a dear and loyal old friend who is a dynamite engineer and he agrees to do it for a fraction of that cost because he cares about the project as much as you do.  And he finds you a good mastering service who will master the record for $600.  If the CD is going to be on store shelves you’ll need a good professional photographer to shoot the cover and liner pictures, so that’s gonna cost another couple of thousand dollars.  And then there’s usually at least $1000 more in graphic design.  So when your best friend is a pro designer who offers her services for free – and for the odd shoulder massage when she’s spent hours hunched over her computer screen – you know you’re really blessed.  But the printing of the CDs is still going to cost at least $1000 per 1000 CD shipment, so add that to the pile of bills too.

So you cancel your cable service.  You raise your insurance deductibles.  No vacations, no restaurant meals…you pinch and earn every penny you can.  And after 6 more months, you’re still lying awake at night because you still don’t have anywhere near enough money to pay for it all.  And then one evening when you’re playing a gig at the Bluebird Café a fan says…

“Why don’t you have a CD?  You really should make one!”

…and you can’t even answer the question because you’re choking on tears of frustration.  And the fan sees the look on your face and takes out his pen and writes you a check for enough money to finish the record.

It takes dedication…it takes sacrifice…it takes the help of friends and angels.  That’s what it takes to make a CD like “When You Can Fly”.

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It’s certainly easy to burn a copy of a CD or to visit a file-sharing website.  I know lots of people do it without even thinking about it.  But I wish people would realize what that means to each of us who has put years of time and effort, heart and soul into the music you listen to each day.  When you spend your hard-earned money on a CD, you are doing something very important.  You are helping artists like me pay the costs of creating that music and allowing us to make more.  And you are making sure that it won’t take ten years for us to make the next CD!

So thank you, from the bottom of my heart, to everyone who has bought my CD.  I couldn’t have done this without you.

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