How I Budgeted For: My Debut EP

Photo provided by Kyle Guffey

Photo provided by Kyle Guffey

Written by Kyle Guffey

I’m a pretty stereotypical bedroom producer. I spend a lot of time in closets, I own a misfit collection of microphones, and most of all, I release my music independently. No record label, just me. Until last year, I’d never commercially released anything. I was a freelance composer living in DC: I wrote catalogue music that would maybe be used in reality television, taught piano lessons, and walked dogs to supplement my income. I released my first record ever, Good Mood EP, in January 2018.

EP stands for “extended play,” and consists of 4 - 6 songs. This type of release is quite popular with independent artists as it doesn’t require the financial commitment or time commitment of a full-length album, and I didn’t have a lot of money to work with. Releasing independently was a great experience for me and I’d like to share the highs and lows of my budgeting decisions. I’ll reflect a bit on all aspects of the process throughout, but since the main point is the budget, here’s mine:

Buckle your seatbelts, it’s time to release a record!

FUNDRAISING

I decided to use Kickstarter to fund the EP. Kickstarter is a crowdfunding site and its most successful campaigns tend to be for music, films, and video games. It’s different from other crowdfunding sites in that if you don’t reach your fundraising goal, you don’t receive any money. None of your patrons are charged unless you get full funding.

Pros:

  • Free!

  • Forced budgeting: for fear I wouldn’t make it, I didn’t ask for more than I needed.

  • It focused my mission and my expectations by putting it all in one place online.

  • It allowed me to offer rewards to patrons based on the amount they donated. This really made me value my skill set and gave me something extra to hype up the project.

  • It is the only reason I could afford to produce my EP, thanks to a lot of really wonderful people.

Cons:

  • Funding not guaranteed. However, I’ve hated all the other crowdfunding sites I’ve used due to clunky navigation, visuals, and the fact that they are often left open-ended online forever.

  • Required some risk, as I decided to start recording before my funding was confirmed. While I reached my goal relatively quickly, it was still a bit nerve-wracking.

I budgeted for the entire project before I launched my Kickstarter. I set a date for the last task and planned backwards. This forced me to visualize the entire scope of work and it assigned a date to each payment I had to make. An independent release is draining. Don’t risk diminishing your quality of life by letting these costs pile up or catch you off guard. Once this plan is set, follow each step and don’t get ahead of yourself. For example, without a recording, there is no point in thinking about your cover art outfit. 

MUSIC

Part of my goal for this EP was to showcase my arranging, so I spent a month doing that and started rehearsing with the band.

The musicians: spot on!

For my band, I relied heavily on friends, instead of session musicians (session musicians are professional players, hired for one job, who are meant to read anything you put in front of them on the spot or with little rehearsal). I called on two friends to play instead, and they found the rest of my band for me. We rehearsed twice, then recorded (not reflected in this budget are roughly five pizzas given as a token of my gratitude).

Inevitably, something will go wrong and relying on people you trust allows you the flexibility to shift your plan. These people already believed in my project, were willing to be patient and to call me out on things I neglected, and showed support beyond their assigned job.

Pros:

  • They doubled as my backing band.

  • It was fun to spend hours in a room with people I like.

  • They were more willing to be flexible: they helped carry stands, they were patient with me, and frankly they cost less.

  • They’re all beautiful players.

Cons:

  • Stylistic inconsistencies: my band was predominantly made up of jazz players who were used to less specific charts. Unlike session musicians, I could not expect them to be impeccable sight readers. We had to spend more on rehearsal and translating my notes, but this was an awesome learning experience.

Photo provided by Kyle Guffey

Photo provided by Kyle Guffey

The Recording: Under Budget!

Initially, I budgeted for a recording session in a studio. Our guitarist offered me free access to a live room in the basement of his university. We did not have access to the recording equipment and my personal setup was too small, which meant that I had to rent external equipment. There was a vent we couldn’t turn off in the room and the room was more of a rehearsal space with recording gear than a studio. But otherwise, the building was very quiet and secure. Lesson learned: Take time to assess risks when making decisions that affect your budget. The benefit of my home recording experience outweighed the crappy room.

Not spending money on a studio meant I had room in my budget for equipment. I rented microphones, stands, and cables from Guitar Center. The rental guy was very helpful and gave me a discount (I’m told that’s an exception). I found an unnecessarily high-tech live mixer that could act as my interface. The price was super right for the need (I would not be able to record without it).

For the session, it was important to overprepare! As artists, booking a session means we are booking the time and expertise of other artists: recording engineers, musicians, and producers. They've spent many years practicing and refining their craft, just like we have. Creating or feeling something out happens at rehearsal or in your home studio, not in a booked session.  If I had rented studio space, I would’ve been even stricter about this preparation.

How to overprepare:

  • Send your players parts in advance of rehearsal.

  • Print out these parts and bring them to rehearsal and the session, including a copy for yourself.

  • Create guide tracks or at least tempo maps if you're isolating instruments in recording (this is often a requirement by a studio).

  • Create a schedule for the session. Mine was drummer, then bass & guitar, then piano.

  • Bring snacks & water.

  • Make sure you have access to the internet.

Another quick tip on session recording: if the track has large sections of rest for a certain instrument, don't record a minute and a half of silence. I recommend rehearsing the track in full, but it's not necessary to record the track in full if you have moments like these and you're isolating instruments. I recorded my parts in my mother's basement. That was free and I was able to flesh out whatever I wanted.

Self-Recording Without A Proper Studio

If recording alone, it’s great. For a band recording, I may ask for help next time.

Pros:

  • Free space!

  • Endless hours with myself. More flexible hours with my musicians.

  • Increased my knowledge on mic technique and recording.

  • Bragging rights for not totally screwing it up.

Cons:

  • Less than ideal room.

  • I took what I could get, not exactly what I wanted. Acting as the recording engineer took time away from my role as producer.

  • I set back my schedule an hour trouble shooting this mixer and everyone had to wait on me. My fix got the job done, but wasn’t all that professional.

  • Time. I spent so much time getting the equipment and setting up the space. A studio would do this for the client.

POST-PRODUCTION

Don’t forget to back up your recordings! I put mine on an external hard drive and Google Drive. Having a back up puts you in control of your work and ensures you don’t have to do everything over again in case someone’s computer dies.

Mixing: Above Budget (but soooo worth it)

The mixing engineer takes out frequencies that muddle the sound and boosts frequencies that enhance the sound. They will apply minor effects to achieve this. All editing and stylistic effects should be implemented before mixing.

I budgeted too little for mixing as I expected my preferred engineer to be too busy and intended to use someone local. I was lucky to have Camilo Rodriguez, as he knew me and worked very collaboratively with me. Traditionally, a mixing engineer will remain objective and consider timing or tuning inconsistencies to be stylistic choices rather than mistakes. Camilo knew my work well enough to know what wasn’t quite right and would send me back to work or do fixes himself. I was also lucky he’s a fan and was willing to be flexible with the budget. Lesson learned: Discuss rates and scope of work upfront.

Mastering: Also Above Budget (and also soooo worth it)

Mastering happens after mixing. A mastering engineer will enhance your sounds and bring your track to standard volume for distribution. Your mastering engineer will also provide you the codes you need to register your tracks and embed your artwork and metadata for release online and in physical form.

Camilo sent my mixes along to mastering engineer Camilo Silva F. I also under-budgeted here, thinking I’d use someone local and cheap. I didn’t totally understand how important the master would be to me. Camilo really polished everything perfectly. He made the record sound awesome on all platforms and he provided me with the International Standard Recording Codes (ISRC) I needed to register these tracks later.

Producing My First EP

Should've budgeted more for post-production at the time. Would produce it myself again though.

Pros:

  • Free labor!

  • I produced my first EP. This work is now also a production example for my portfolio.

  • I learned more about my preferred digital audio workspace, ProTools.

Cons:

  • I was at times in over my head and this made more work for my mixing engineer.

Mixing & Mastering

I knew mixing my own work would be hard for me so I asked for help!

Pros:

  • My EP sounds great.

  • I know exactly who to go to in the future.

  • I asked for help where I needed it and that feels good.

Cons:

  • Literally none.

ART & DESIGN

CD Printing will require a UPC number for your “product.” If you choose to print CDs, that should happen as you’re registering your work with a distributor like CD Baby, Tunecore, or Distrokid.

Once I'd sent my first round of tracks to my mixing engineer, I revisited my schedule for visual assets. A mastering engineer will need your album artwork.

Photo provided by Kyle Guffey

Photo provided by Kyle Guffey

Content: Spot On!

Album Art: Katy Layman, my cousin and lifelong creative collaborator. We discussed everything via text.

Photography: Nadijah Campbell. I met her in Philly one morning and we ran around town hall taking photos.

Manufacturing: Spot On!

CD Design: Me! I used Canva. It's free and it's amazing. I adjusted these images to my design in Disc Makers.

CD Printing: Disc Makers. I shopped around and quoted prices on every link on the first page of my Google search and read reviews as well. I asked friends. Disc Makers saves your designs so you can easily re-order CDs later. I ordered 100 copies because I wasn’t playing in public constantly and the shows I was playing were generally rather small and intimate.

Pros:

  • Cheap and flexible!

  • Very fun process – use the creative people in your world (like right here at Indicoe!).

  • Design process was easy. The pricing was straightforward. If you are really atrocious at graphic design, hire someone or work with your CD printing site – this is an added cost, of course.

Cons:

  • I did not make merchandise and that really could’ve been a tool for me in the marketing phase. I was trying to distribute as cheap as possible. Looking back, I would’ve budgeted in more on aesthetics to showcase the beautiful visual work.

Distribution: Spot On!

In my budget, I simply list my distributor, CD Baby, as my expense. A distributor is a company that makes your tracks available on streaming and digital sales platforms like Apple Music, Tidal, Spotify, Google, Amazon, and the list goes on. This part of the process is as much about clearing your music so that you can get paid in the future as it is about paying to put it out in the first place. It is your responsibility to get yourself paid. Your distributor will not take care of you. For original music, you will have both publishing royalties and licensing royalties on each track, so you need to register all your music with the appropriate entities.

Register with a PRO (publishing right organization: pays publishing royalties) and SoundExchange (pays out licensing royalties)! May you be blessed with breaking even.

BandCamp: This site uses a 1 to 1 profit model. You get exactly what people pay for your record. It’s free to register.

Distributor: I chose CD Baby because I pay one time and my music stays on any and all distribution channels I choose forever without ever paying again. Also, it gets you verified status on Spotify.

Using CD Baby as My Distributor

The most important thing to me is that my music is readily available and looks professional. Until I don’t need one of these distributors, I will probably continue to use them. The upfront price is right.

Pros:

  • My music is available everywhere forever. Other sites only keep your music online so long as you continuing to pay for it.

  • Opting onto streaming platforms was easy. Monetizing was easy.

  • I got a UPC number that registers my EP as a product (like a pair of shoes or a bag of oranges). I’m verified on Spotify. I’m legit.

Cons:

  • The upfront price is higher. Other sites charge a much lower monthly or yearly fee.

  • CD Baby takes a cut of your revenue from streams and album sales on their site. Other sites pay you 100% of what you make.

  • CD Baby creates a “Topic - Artist Name” page for you on YouTube. This could be a pro if you don’t have a YouTube presence, but I had a small, yet loyal following on my channel and wasn’t able to take over the channel they created for me due to my low follower count.

MARKETING

Press: Over My Remaining Budget (and poorly executed)

I dipped heavily into my marketing budget to pay for everything else. I did all the emailing and pitching myself. I compiled a list of outlets in DC & Miami. I had a friend’s “don’t tell anyone I gave you their contact” list of outlets predominantly in New York & the UK. I drafted a press release, sent hundreds of emails, submitted to review outlets like SubmitHub, entered some competitions, used social media ads, and crossed my fingers that maybe it would get a little reach.

My plan was CRAP. I missed the window for anyone to premier it as I only started sending pitch emails after the single came out and just before the EP was due to release. I also wasn’t nearly collaborative enough. In place of money I didn’t have, I should’ve fully utilized my artistic community following release. Some low or no cost ways to promote the EP could’ve been:

  • Taking a mini tour or lining up shows in my area

  • Doing live performances online

  • Using the delivery of rewards as content for promotion

  • Collaborating with other artists

  • Reaching out to other artists asking for a little hype

  • Reaching out to other artists for good contacts.

My “Winging It” Marketing Plan

I would never do this again. My spending was unfocused and the reward was not worth the little I spent.

Pros:

  • Some wins: I was a finalist in a songwriting competition (didn’t win), got some radio play in the southwest, and had a few DC publications review the EP.

  • My extended circle was really aware of the release. Friends of friends, so-and-so’s cousin’s daughter. The social media reach was effective.

Cons:

  • My wins were not worth what I spent on them.

  • Time. I spent hours drafting and sending emails.

  • I wasted other people’s time. Most of these people listen to music all day and besides the audio itself, which everyone has, I gave them no reason to set aside time for me: no loyal following, no fun aesthetic, only sometimes free tracks.

  • I should’ve used this as an opportunity to brand myself more. Aesthetics are a big part of music and shouldn’t be underestimated.

THE END

There are many beautiful things about self releasing. When it comes to budgeting, the heightened collaboration and freedom of creative control can be huge tools in saving and making you money. Planning can take you far on not much.

Ultimately, I reached my goal. My music is everywhere forever. It’s totally mine, I can sell it, I can share it, and I’m very proud of the work we did. I was over budget, but I had a wonderful experience working with each person. The best advice I can give is to lean into your good relationships, value the work that isn’t yours, lift up the people that help you, and be very, very transparent. Independent doesn’t mean alone.


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Kyle Guffey is a composer, songwriter, and music coordinator based in New York. Working in music licensing and supervision, she encourages industry professionals to be transparent with their team of artists and strives to bridge the gap between management and creatives. When she's not working with the catalogue at Flavorlab NYC, you can find her playing her tunes around the city. Her EP, Good Mood, can be found here. To learn more, visit http://www.kyleguffey.com/.