Creating an album can be an overwhelming experience. It takes much more than just musical talent to create a good album: it takes months of hard work, careful planning, and a sizeable amount of money. But creating a successful album can significantly increase your fanbase and offer one of the most rewarding experiences of your music career.
In this article, we’re going to go over every step of making an album, from conception to release and beyond.
Before you ever sit down in the studio, there are dozens of factors to consider and decisions to be made. Some of the most important points include:
- Theme: Does the album have any sort of overarching concept or recurring theme? Or is it simply a compilation of your songs?
- Budget: How much can you afford to spend on the album? Keep in mind, these are not just recording and mixing costs; you also need to account for distribution and marketing, as well as any art or other additional materials you may commission for the album.
- Song Selection: Which songs will appear on the album? Which songs can you confidently perform? How many songs will the album include? The average album consists of anywhere between 10-13 songs, but there’s no hard-set rules. Consider how many songs you can afford to record, and remember that you can always save songs for the next album.
- Studio Musicians: If you don’t already have a full band backing you, you need to find studio musicians to hire. Maybe you also want guest musicians to feature on certain songs. Either way, you need to factor the availability of everyone involved before committing to an album.
- Recording space: Where are you going to record the album? Are you going to a professional studio, or do you have the means to record in your own home? If you’re going to a studio, you have to consider the gear that they will provide, their availability, and their rates before you commit to the recording.
- Engineer: Who is going to engineer your recording? This is extremely important, as an unreliable engineer can ruin your recordings and throw off your plans. Before you hire, find out who your engineer has worked with in the past. Are they artists of a similar genre? It never hurts to reach out to their previous clients and ask about their experience working together. You should also consider your engineer’s price and availability. Alternatively, some musicians choose to engineer their own recordings, but even if you have the proper experience to do so, engineering and performing songs at the same time can prove overwhelming.
Only once the entire process has been carefully planned and budgeted can you begin actual production on the album.
Recording is a very subjective process, and no two artists have the exact same recording process. However, there is one rule that all artists must follow: Manage your time! You don’t want to spend too long on any one song because you can’t go over budget. On the other hand, you don’t want to rush through the recording process and churn out a sloppy album. Make sure you always go into the studio well-rehearsed and with a clear idea of what tracks you will lay down on any given day. This allows you to maximize the efficiency of your studio time and avoid stressful time crunches.
Additionally, the studio is a great place to start your marketing campaign. Some bands start posting pictures and small video snippets from the studio onto their social media pages. Other bands film entire documentaries following their process through making the album. Either way, “behind the scenes” content is a great way to engage fans and build up hype for the release.
Other than that, just remember to have fun! If you’re stressed out and miserable through the recording process, it will probably bleed through in the recordings. But if you enjoy the process and pour your passion into your songs, your fans will pick up on it and appreciate your energy.
Congratulations! You recorded an album! Unfortunately, the work is far from done. Between mixing, mastering, legal steps, distribution, and marketing, there is still a long road ahead before you can set a release date.
In most cases, your first mix won’t be your final mix. If you’re working with an engineer, expect a few back-and-forth exchanges while you get the mix just right. Make sure when you check your mixes, you use a good pair of speakers to do so. Low quality speakers won’t give you an accurate representation of the mix.
Even if you’re happy with the mix, it never hurts to get a second opinion. Many artists will get fellow musicians or even members of their own fan club to listen to the mixes and make suggestions. This can also give you an early idea of audience reactions to each song and help you identify the strongest tracks.
Mastering is often misunderstood by musicians, and many believe it is not necessary. However, if you want your music to get placed on the radio, in films, or in any other media, mastering is an absolute necessity. Mastering equalizes the mix across the entire album, eliminates hums and other minor flaws, adds dynamic expansion and compression, and makes various other small changes. While these may all seem minor, mastering is ultimately the difference between a good recording and a professional recording.
The criteria for choosing a mastering house is almost identical to that of finding an engineer. You want to make sure that they have worked with artists in your genre before, they’re available and dependable, and they will ultimately produce a high-quality master.
It’s important to note that the time elapsed between songs is usually determined during the mastering process. Sometimes it’s best to put very short break to keep energy high, while other songs need more room to breathe within the album. It’s ultimately your creative choice, but whatever you choose, choose it before you go into the mastering house.
Now that all of the recordings are completely finalized, you can begin to legally split the rights. There are two primary rights to divide: the songwriters split, and the rights to the sound recording. The songwriter’s split is unusual because it is divided from a total of 200% The first 100% is lyrical writing, while the 2nd 100% is for contributions to the song’s melody.
The sound recording is a little more straight forward with a simple 100% total. If you have a band, this will usually be an even split between your band members. Studio musicians usually don’t receive rights to the recording, as they simply collect a flat fee upfront. Guest musicians who feature on songs can go either way with a flat fee or a share of recording rights, or sometimes even both. It’s ultimately up to you to negotiate fair terms.
Rights division becomes even more complicated when it comes to sampling. Unless they’re from a royalty free library, all of your samples must be approved by the publisher of the media which they came from. To do so, you must send the song to the publisher and tell them the exact timestamps for when each sampled section starts and ends. Assuming your track is approved, they will either charge you an upfront fee or demand royalties, depending on how prominent the sample is and how successful they expect your track to be.
Cover songs also present a slew of legal issues. You must first obtain permission from the copyright holders and pay a licensing fee to recreate the song. The original artist will likely receive all 200% of the writing credits unless your cover significantly alters the lyrics or melody of the song, in which case you can try to negotiate a share of the songwriting credits. Either way, you still get rights to the sound recording.
It’s important to know that if you plan on printing the lyrics to your cover in the album’s liner notes (or anywhere else), this is an entirely separate right that you must obtain.
They say not to judge a book by the cover, but the same cannot be said about albums. For many listeners, your cover art will be their first impression of your album, and if it fails to capture their attention, they may just skip over your album all together. As such, finding the right cover art is one of the most important steps in the album making process.
The first step is conceptualizing the art. Perhaps your album has a running theme that you would like to express through the art. Maybe you just have an awesome image in your head that doesn’t have much to do with the music. Consider the medium: do you want your cover to be a watercolor painting? A collage? Or maybe you have an idea for a really fun photoshoot to use as the cover.
You should also keep in mind any additional art that you want to commission. Will there be art on the back cover? What about the inside? You can just leave these blank, but filling them in gives your album a more professional presentation. If you are commissioning additional art, will it be a continuation of the front cover art? Or will it be completely independent?
Whatever you decide on, you want to make sure that all of your album’s art represents a similar tone to that of your music so that fans know what they’re getting when they purchase your album.
The next step is finding an artist/photographer to work with. You want to find someone who is well established, dependable, affordable, and is experienced in your chosen medium. While not essential, it helps if they have worked on cover art before, as they will be familiar with the collaborative process of making cover art, as well as the formatting specifications (the art must be a perfect square, usually 10” by 10”).
Once you find your artist/photographer, share your initial concept with them. In most cases, they will have some of their own ideas, and you will probably swap ideas back and forth several times before you land on one shared vision for the final product.
During this conceptualization, it is also important that you consider the size and placement of your band and album’s name. This must be established ahead of time so that the text doesn’t overlap with any important aspects of the cover art and create too much visual noise. Some bands don’t put their name or album title on the cover at all, instead opting to put it on the back side or even in small text on the album’s spine. This leaves more room for the art to shine, but is highly inadvisable from a marketing standpoint, especially if you’re still establishing your name and fanbase.
Now that every aspect of the album has been finalized, you’re ready to start preparing your music for distribution. There are two aspects to distribution: physical and digital. Digital distribution involves getting your music placed online. The most popular form of digital distribution is via streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music. To place music on these streaming platforms, you must go through a digital distribution service. Some of the most popular services include TuneCore, CD Baby, and Orchard. Depending on the service, you will either have to pay a small fee or relinquish a percentage of your streaming royalties to the provider. These providers will then upload your music on all their associated streaming platforms and collect your streaming royalties for you. This also results in your song being placed as a “sound” on various social media apps, such as Instagram and Tik Tok. As we’ll discuss later, this is an important tool for marketing.
This entire process should be completed well ahead of the release of your album, as this allows time for you to “pitch” your music to certain streaming services. When your music is pitched it is put up for consideration for placement on the services’ editorial playlists. If you are placed, these playlists can net you hundreds of new listeners.
Streaming services aren’t the only form of digital distribution though. Sites such as Bandcamp, SoundCloud, and Audiomack offer totally free platforms for artists to upload, share, and sell their music. These sites take a percentage of your earnings, but are usually still more profitable than streaming services, as they allow bands to directly sell their music to fans instead of collecting miniscule royalties for each stream.
There are multiple mediums for physical distribution, and countless services with which to produce them. CDs are the most popular form of physical distribution, and the cheapest to mass produce. Vinyl records are more expensive to make, but well worth it, as many fans are willing to pay more for the higher sound quality. Plus, vinyl records are often viewed as collectors’ items, which always get fans excited. Some bands also choose to produce cassette tapes, which can also be seen as a collector’s item. However, cassette players are highly uncommon, so if you choose to produce cassette copies of your album, make sure it’s a very limited run.
Once you have your physical product, you need someplace to sell it. There are several online marketplaces from which you can sell your product. Additionally, you can reach out to local record stores and see if they show any interest in selling your album. Finally, assuming you play live concerts, you always want to keep some inventory on hand to sell at your shows.
The final step of your journey is to ensure that your album gets in front of people. Thanks to the internet, marketing your music is easier than ever. Advertising can be as simple as posting album-related content on your social media platforms, whether it’s behind the scenes content, snippets of songs, lessons on how to play your songs, etc. Most social media platforms also offer affordable targeted ad campaigns that will get your music in front of the people who are most likely to enjoy it. Additionally, many platforms allow you to add your songs to posts as “sounds”. This means you can take add your songs to anything, such as a popular meme, and just like that, anyone who sees the meme gets turned on to your music.
Even outside of the digital space, you can always find ways to promote your music. Booking interviews, getting airplay, playing shows, collaborating with other musicians, and just about anything else you do as an artist is an opportunity for you to turn people on to your album.
Perhaps the most effective way to promote an album is by releasing tracks as singles. This draws extra attention to the strongest moments of the album and offers people a convenient peek of what they can expect from the full release.
Making an album is a long, arduous process that takes months, if not years, of planning, dedication, and hard work, not to mention a whole lot of talent and a little bit of luck. There is no one right way to make an album, but hopefully with these tips have given you the groundworks for making a successful album that launches your career to the next level.