[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Patrick McGuire.]
For most musicians working today, DIY (‘do it yourself’) feels like less of choice than something to be forced into through necessity when it comes to creating, releasing, and promoting work. We’re at an unprecedented, exciting, and frustrating point in the music industry where it’s never been easier to make and share music, but it’s more difficult than ever before to find and connect with audiences in an enduring way.
This makes deciding what you can do on your own with your band or solo project verses paying for services a real challenge for many musicians. How do you know whether for paying for outside help is worth it or not?
The first step towards deciding whether enlisting outside help for your music career is worth it or not is to determine what’s absolutely essential for your immediate goals.
What you’ll be able to do on your own and what you’ll ultimately need assistance with completely depends on your identity and skill set as a musician, but most of us will need to hire outside help when it comes to things like digital distribution, mastering, and CD or vinyl duplication. There are exceptions, but most of us don’t have the expertise needed to master songs, press vinyl records, or get our music posted on digital streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music without outside help.
In today’s music industry, some of us can get away with not offering our music through physical listening formats, but distribution and mastering services are crucial for bringing great-sounding music to wide audiences online.
Non-essential help in music is a vast category that could include everything from a $72 yearly “Pro Unlimited” membership on Soundcloud to a $15,000 PR campaign.
When it comes to the music industry, there’s the cast of characters we all think of like songwriters, managers, and labels, but there’s also a whole other side that most of the world never pays attention to. This is the growing industry revolved around catering to independent musicians. Artist-facing companies in this industry promise musicians everything from songwriting help to more opportunities for their music––for a price. Whether giving one of these companies your business will be worth it or not depends on your career, goals, and budget, but it’s important to note that doing your research is critical. Take a close look at the fine details behind what these companies are offering, and you’ll quickly see that some are simply not worth paying for.
But, of course, there are career-changing services out there that would do a great deal of good for your music. Unfortunately, most of them cost a whole lot of money. Professional radio and PR campaigns can cost you or your band thousands, but they have the potential to bring your music to large audiences who probably wouldn’t have heard it otherwise. There’s also a large risk to consider because there’s no guarantee that forking over lots of cash will make people want to pick up your music for review or airplay.
What outside help is right for your career?
Deciding what, if any, non-essential help to pursue when you’re releasing new music isn’t easy, but it’s something we all have to do. Musicians without extra money to spare actually have an easier time with this because paying for an expensive yearly subscription or a pricey PR campaign isn’t an option by default.
But the rest of us have to weigh our specific long and short-term career goals vs our resources. For some artists, the $5,000 they budget for a professional radio campaign would be better spent renting a house in the wilderness to write music in for a month. For others, that same radio campaign could mean the difference between earning a living and gaining access to career-transforming opportunities or not.
Common sense advice applies here, which is to approach potential investments in your career conservatively and to be as organized as possible. Today’s fast-paced music industry values artists who consistently release new music over ones that don’t, so that’s a major factor to consider.
Is your new album/EP/single good enough to meaningfully change your career? If so, it makes sense to throw lots of money and resources behind it. But if you have any doubts, the money you have available might be better used in ways that help you write more music in the future. Studio time, equipment, and even touring to test out new material are important and costly parts of making new music. Taking a week or month off of a non-musical job to write and record is also a massive investment, but it’s something that could result in an unestablished artist fulfilling their potential and making truly great music.
But no matter who you are and what you decide to spend your money on as a musician, do it very carefully. These days, recouping your investments is often a major challenge.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, composer, and experienced touring musician based in Philadelphia.