The Template: Planning Your First Album
Posted by Justin Boland on Oct 01, 2009 | 30 comments
Here’s some blunt honesty you need to hear: your album is almost definitely nowhere near ready.
At the end of 2007, I thought I had an album done, too. It was called Algorhythms and I’d put several years of obsessive re-writing into it. We mixed everything down, balanced out the levels on every track, tagged the files properly, and called it a day. What I’ve learned since then? We were not even halfway there. Your album content is not a single finished product but a media portfolio, and it looks like this:
This means you’ve got 8 folders (4 versions x 2 formats) so for a 15 track album, this amounts to over half a gigabyte worth of data. If you can add stems, you should, and that would definitely increase the size of your Album Content collection further. The concept here is to get as much value out of your work as you possibly can.
Speaking of work, get ready to hate me even more. What I’ve just laid out is less than 50% of the work you need to do for a successful album launch. In 2009, hip hop has become so over-saturated that you’ll need to create a whole other project just get some attention before you drop the actual album. That’s not all: if you’ve got a back catalog of completed projects already, now is the time to start making bonus or deluxe versions to release at the same time.
Here’s a flowchart of what I’m talking about:
It’s up to you what kind of project you kick it off with. Obviously, an EP is less work so I’d recommend that. Once you’ve crafted 4-5 new bangers, you’ll probably be re-assessing what goes onto your album and what goes onto the EP. This is not a setback—this is healthy.
In order to launch a project successfully, you want at least 4 months in advance. It’s perfectly acceptable to release an EP and wait over a year to release a follow-up, but as long as we’re planning in advance, you should plan on keeping your momentum and going big. Don’t allow the online conversation about your music to die down.
When you’ve got a good budget, of course, you can simply step to professionals like Audible Treats and let them handle the planning and execution for you. I’m a big DIY advocate, but seriously: if you can afford them, get them. Nobody has the time or connections that a good PR team does, especially nobodies just getting started in this industry. Audible Hype is a support group for those exact nobodies, though, so let’s talk about…
Managing Your Online Album Promotion.
If you don’t already have a Gmail account, now would be an ideal time to upgrade from whatever bullshit you settled for…your career depends on your tools. Set up Google Alerts immediately for your artist name and album name, and then set up a Tumblr account so you can post links to and snippets of every single review and mention of your project, including your own content.
Next, sit down and make a list of artists you like and think you sound similar to. (If you can’t think of any, take this as a reliable sign you have no future in this business.) The reason you’re making that short list? So you can look up which blogs are consistently talking about those groups. Start writing down domain names, because you’ll be taking that list over to Compete.com.
Heads-up: Compete is a useful tool but not the “real numbers” on visitors to a website. You should check out their explanation, and especially bear in mind that their numbers are only for US internet users. I definitely recommend signing up for their free membership, which allows you to search subdomains, such as specific blogger and wordpress hosted blogs. (My favorite is Poisonous Paragraphs…respect to Dart Adams.)
What you’re doing at Compete is checking up on who’s getting the most traffic on your list. Those are the blogs you want to be reaching out to. Here’s a really key point: your relationships are more important and more powerful than your tools.
Bloggers have needs and goals of their own. They’re looking to increase traffic and a surefire method for that is exclusive releases of new music. Give them exactly that: first dibs on your new singles. (Other blogs will re-post it after the fact—reach out to those sites, too.)
Remember the point of all this work: you want your album to be put in front of the audience that wants it. You need to do research in order to figure out where that audience is. Getting your name in front of 100,000 readers of The Source might be totally useless for you…seriously. You might be much better off getting rotation on a blog that reaches 6,000 people who are already into your style of hip hop, instead of 100,000 people who are not interested in you at all, and never will be.
With this added layer of album planning, now our 4 month template is looking more complete:
1. What about reviews? Most reviewers are happy with a link to a digital copy of the album, some of them insist on CDs. Like all other human behavior, I can’t give you a single answer. What I can tell you is that you want to get all your review copies out more than a month in advance. This gives everyone breathing room to get their reviews done in time for your release…and yes, you run the risk of getting leaked beforehand.
2. So really, what about reviews? Personally, I think you should let bloggers review your album after it drops. Having reviews come out later, even months after the fact, is actually a good thing because it extends the “tail” of your online buzz. The exceptions should probably be the blogs you’re giving exclusives to—let them have get the first review out, too. It’s easier to trust a single source because they know it’ll be obvious where the leak came from. Overall, though: let blogs review your singles and your EP/mixtape. If that content is strong enough it will build your buzz without risking leaks.
3. When should the tracks be done? You really should not be starting this 4 month process without having your tracks completed. I know that’s unrealistic, but then again, your goals of making a living off music in a genre as over-crowded as hip hop? That’s pretty unrealistic, too. This whole process will run more smoothly if the project is finished, instead of trying to finish an album at the same time you’re promoting it. The outcome is almost always the same: missed deadlines and lost credibility.
4. But what about…? “The Template” is going to be an ongoing series. I’m not gonna pretend I know everything—or even enough to call myself an expert. I’m wide open to suggestions, refinements, and most insults. The next installment will look at several case studies of how successful indie labels break an album, so we’ll be seeing many variations on the chart you see above. If you’ve got experience and you’d like to be interviewed, hit me up: powerweirdo at gmail dot com.
Until then, I want to leave you with two outside perspectives—one from independent powerhouse Godamus Rhyme, and the other from the genius behind Duck Down Records known as Dru Ha.
JB: Now that you’ve got a few finished projects under your belt, what are the biggest lessons you’ve learned about planning an album or EP?
#1. There is no one way to make an album.
#2. Mastering engineers are your best friend, but a shitty mix is a shitty mix. If your mixing engineer is retarded, get a new one. I don’t care if he’s free and your best friend. Your record will sound like shit and no one will listen.
#3. Quality is way more important than quantity in a tracklisting.
#4. I make better music when I have a definate goal in mind.
#5. Every artist works differently. As an engineer and producer, you have to adapt and be flexible.
The Final Word: Dru Ha of Duck Down Records
Source: Making the Mogul—(a very dope site)
Moe Arara: How do you approach your online strategy for an older, more established group like Bootcamp Clik?
I think that we’ve done some of that some over the years, and we continue to do it. Twitter being the newest craze, we haven’t really set that up too tough yet. Some of the guys here are setting that up and are showing it to Sean [Price] and other members of Bootcamp who would do it.
We keep music out there though; we’ve used the internet to document the process of putting out a new record. We post new music early ““ we like to put our music up first on our site before people hear it anywhere else so that we can drive more traffic to duckdown.com, where you can hear new music, and like you said, be part of the process…
The majority of our staff are all internet people. People like Franz, Othella and Mazza from our staff and a couple other behind-the-scenes people that we have, they help the artists with that. Sometimes they’re creating the artist’s pages for them and even maintaining them…
What it’s done now, is that you create such a following online, that even before an artist is signed, you know whether or not that artist has a fanbase, and approval form the general public, not just a group of industry insiders. You’re able to see real feedback in real-time.
It’s definitely changed the game. Most artists can’t come to labels anymore and ask to make a demo or just spit 16 bars. Now the labels ask how many friends you have on MySpace and Facebook, what are your total views on YouTube. We want to see a following…
good article... i just dropped my first solo album and i called it "The Album B4 The Album" for a lot of the reasons you stated here... thatz whussup... too many people dont know whut it takes to REALLY release an album and make a living as a musician. me, ive been doin it my whole life.... big ups for the article... btw.. you can check out my album at:
i'm down for any type of cross promoting as well... hit me up
Posted at 2:17 p.m. on October 2, 2009
4 David Salinger says...
Thanks again. You might have an irreverent style and even (fucking) swear occasionally, but you think and write like a lean, mean textbook. The way the ideas are laid out here = perfectly paced.
You're really hitting a stride these days, between the instructive content and the great interviews. One of my favorite sites,
Posted at 2:52 p.m. on October 2, 2009
5 David Salinger says...
The biggest element overlooked on your template is radio. Even when you're not going major label and looking at national markets, you've got to be getting your local city radio station psyched about your album. At least get some connections at the local college station. For most independent hip hop, you're wasting your time at FM "hits" stations.
When you're interviewing underground but national level artists in the future, ask them about who they're working with to get college radio play and international play. Most of the work being done there is highly networked individuals who run companies that are just them and a website. I don't do much hip hop so I don't know who's good there. But there's always good trustworthy people who will take $300-$500 from you and put you on several hundred stations around the world and put you in touch with DJs and programmers around the world, too. It's still a good step for artists in 2009, I think.
Posted at 9:15 p.m. on October 3, 2009
10 A. Williams says...
I've been following your blog for awhile and I appreciate all the hard work. I'm here in Springfield, IL as well and was sort of taken back for moment. Keep up the good work.
Posted at 9:38 p.m. on October 7, 2009
Yeah, being in Springfield is like purgatory. Even the few venues we did have for live hip hop have been shut down in the past year. We had Krukid over in Champaign for awhile but now he's in Vegas...and of course Agent Orange had his 106 & Park winning streak. I feel bad, like I should do more, but I just don't see myself ever making much money here, or the midwest period.
You must know R2, then? That dude is a MACHINE.
Posted at 11:46 p.m. on October 7, 2009
12 Ghost Data says...
The best point you make is about having your tracks done before this process starts. I know SO MANY artists, caught in the cycle of making announcements, setting deadlines, and then failing.
Now here's the fuckt up thing about missing a deadline: it kills projects!!! The disappointment/shame of public failure, 9 times out of 10, will TOTALLY DERAIL the project instead of just being a setback. I see this as one of the most grave mis-steps an artist can make. Set deadlines....AFTER the project is COMPLETELY finished.
Or better yet?
Radiohead it. Don't even announce, just release when it's done.
I would, on this note, be most interested to see you do an analysis or interview with Oddisee. His release schedule / product model for Diamond District, to me, is the most innovative thing that happened in hip hop this year. The "buzz curve" has been a slow, steady build for over 6 months now, and I don't think ANYONE in the biz has pulled that off in 09.
Posted at 6:23 a.m. on October 15, 2009
13 DV8R says...
PERFECT TIMING - THANK YOU 4 THIS
WHAT COMPANY SHOULD WE USE FOR DIGITAL AND PHYSICAL ALBUMS AND MERCH?
Posted at 8:24 p.m. on October 15, 2009
This is one of the most perfect articles on here. It brings up the possibility that buzz can actually have a negative effect on a project, and that's something a lot of artists won't even admit to, until they themselves get burned and learn from experience.
However, on the other hand, I think devoted fans will always want to know your status as an artist. Fans appreciate honesty above all else. The whole deal with pre-emptive buzz is a double-edge sword. Sometimes it can work to your advantage, and other times it can completely kill a project as Ghost Buzz said. True words.
Posted at 10:10 a.m. on October 22, 2009
16 Robert McDougal says...
I would definitely like to see interview content with Audible Treats, Big Hassle, and other publicity houses. It's a world I'm unfamiliar with but it's looking like they've got a huge amount of control over blog content. Am I correct in this assumption, Justin? Near as I can ascertain, most of the hip hop blog universe is people who are posting essentially the same content, which is fed to them by email lists. Artists pay the staff who curate these email lists and this is how "Blog Hype" is happening.
Posted at 8:17 p.m. on November 4, 2009
17 F.T. Industry says...
I think you're on the money, brah. That's about the speed of things in 09. New boss, same as the old boss, etc.
In a lotta ways its even better than the old print medium because print publications were stabilized by ad income and subscriptions, but these blog kids are fighting each other every single day! People fall off left and right and there's always new kidz on the block, so their position is less stable. This means they're more willing to obey orders on BULLSHIT LIKE ASHER ROTH, and less willing to exercise some editorial balls!! Kind of like ROLLING STONE after Jann Wenner took over.
Posted at 6:24 a.m. on November 6, 2009
18 Verta Britt says...
I'm sure you've been reading the recent Oh Word articles on hip hop blogging? I see you've got a link to it, at least. If not, check it out! Rafi has been doing great work so far this month.
Posted at 11:38 a.m. on November 9, 2009
19 Bout It Bout It Inc says...
Yo, we talked about this already on email but do an article about Oddisee because that man is a genius ahead of the curve. Talk about leveraging your way up into the game. He spits gems in interviews all the time, but I mention him here. Because the guy plan'd out Diamond District like a chess master. Now, like 8 months after we all first heard it, it finally gets released and it's getting reviews fukkin everywhere! And they all say 5 stars, album of the year, all rave reviews. They played their hand so well it should be studied.
DMV owes more to Oddisee than they do to Wale.
Posted at 8:30 a.m. on November 11, 2009
20 Infinitez says...
More thoughts on this...
Overproduce by 3x - 4x because you'll need to have a big damn pool of tracks to draw from. Find ONE PERSON who u trust and make them SOLE executive producer. They decide what the final cut is, that's your album. Then you need two mixtapes and a bunch of exclusives and remixes.
You're telling people to do the full package on every track, but that adds up too A LOT OF WORK for pro tools engineers or tired friends. It's OK to only do accepellas for 'singles' if thats what we still call it today.
Lately what we do with iTunes is plan far enough ahead so that it's already been on digital services on the sly for like a few weeks. We overplan so that we never look like we missed a deadline or dropped the ball. I always think itunes feels fake. But it's real enough to get people to buy product and even though they take a big cut it's still good money.
Posted at 1:25 a.m. on November 16, 2009
*WHAT COMPANY SHOULD WE USE FOR DIGITAL AND PHYSICAL ALBUMS AND MERCH? *
Merch is pretty diverse, I don't know of any one-stop shop that covers everything as good as specialty houses. (If they only do stickers, they're doing stickers good and stuff, right?)
For albums, Oasis. I interviewed Micah Solomon awhile back, he's good peoples, it's real small business and since then, Diskmakers has gone Borg. Plus every artist I've talked to who uses Oasis was very happy. That kind of track record is not normal in this business!
I'd be interested to hear who readers would nominate...
Posted at 2:11 a.m. on November 16, 2009
22 BornLikeThis says...
Awesome article. Awesome comments.
Posted at 12:01 p.m. on November 16, 2009
23 Neocon Logical says...
one thing i always wonder is how do people make money off mixtapes? I see how distributors and stores make money but do artists get paid cash up front for hosting or what? Never made sense to me why so many artist make 4, 5 mixtapes a year but dont drop an album at all.
If they get cash up front, that makes sense. Didn't Drama get busted by the feds? how do they still sell mixtapes? I guess we can still buy weed too lol so that answers that
Posted at 3:57 p.m. on November 16, 2009
24 Candice says...
I got told to read this by my boss and you're pretty dead on with this. For an artist without the means to get press connects or supervise a radio campaign, this is a pretty total package and similar to the work we do.
The biggest thing I would want to see added is affiliate marketing-using your missionary fans to spread your music and giving them financial rewards for doing so. I'm sure you're familiar, but this system means you'd have a referral tag/code coming in with each referred sale. A small percentage of those sales then goes into an account for the fan who referred the sale. We've been having a great year with this system, although all our clients are metal bands.
Posted at 12:04 p.m. on December 4, 2009
THIS IS A DOPE ARTICLE AND SITE !
I THINK THIS WILL LAY THE BLUEPRINT OF THE GRIND FOR ALOT OF PEOPLE DOPE
I'M OPENED TO MORE SCHOOLING
U CAN CHECK OUT MY MIXTAPE HERE
Posted at 1:04 p.m. on December 24, 2009
27 Oyen Dozen says...
Hells yes. I feel like I should throw my Passman book against the wall. This was so much simpler and it actully applies to my own music.
What about working my old stuff into a back catalog, though? How do I organized that?
Posted at 10:50 a.m. on May 21, 2010
29 Lucius says...
What if you're behind the curve? I think this is already changing now that everyone has caught up to it. Where are you at in 2010?
Posted at 6:25 a.m. on June 2, 2010