work the mic

Recording Part IV: Things No Musician Likes to Talk About

December 5th, 2014

Welcome to the end of the road, my friends... the last of my 4-part series on recording. You've stressed yourself to the point of exhaustion with all the planning and preparation that an album requires. You've slogged your way through long days of painstaking performance. You've driven yourself nearly mad by listening to the mixes 100 times over. You have a result, a final product, a reward for your effort.

For this final chapter, we'll be discussing a few things that fell outside the other articles, including the group dynamics that come into play during a recording session, some of the issues surrounding money, and working hard vs. working smart.

Let's kick things off with the subject that absolutely no one (even non-musicians) ever likes to talk about:


When I imagined the rock star badassery of recording as a kid, I never thought of the money that goes into such things. I guess I assumed that the record labels would pay for everything, and that money would be no object. I pictured flying to the studio on a chartered jet, being handed the finest instruments money could buy, and having dinner at 5-star restaurants, all on the label's dime.

In reality, I and the guys in my band are working stiffs, so we are our own accountants and managers, and we take money out of our personal bank accounts to pay the musicians, engineers, and producer. If you're in the same boat, prepare to be shocked by just how fast the money disappears. When you're mapping out funds for tracking, mixing, mastering, and musicians, it's pretty easy to overlook food, alcohol, and travel.

I don't know if they teach accounting to most musicians in music schools, but if they don't, they really should. I would imagine that they also don't give you tips on negotiation, or the awkward discussions one has to have regarding credit and potential royalties. (If you know of a school that does cover these things, let me know, and I'll post a link.)


When I recorded my first couple of albums, all the session players I used were really just friends, or friends of friends who were doing me favors. I offered payments (however small) to all of them, and some accepted while others declined. When I worked with my first producer, he insisted that every person who contributed anything to my music be compensated.

If a musician isn't paid up front, he may expect something on the back-end.

Aside from the obvious notion that anyone who does a job deserves to be compensated for their effort, he reasoned that if a musician plays on a record and isn't paid up front, they may think of themselves as having participated in the writing of the song, and may expect a cut of any profits that the song makes. He cited specific examples of bands he had worked with who had traded on favors, only to get into legal trouble later on because the terms weren't agreed upon and put on paper in advance.


This may not be a concern for this article's target demographic, especially given the current state of the musical economy, but you may not be aware that some of the more "big-time" producers and engineers expect more than just a payment for their services at the time the service was offered. They may wish to be included on the back-end of your album, meaning that they would get a cut of any royalties you make.

Steve Albini, one of the most famous engineers in the world, has been quite controversial for going against this trend and refusing to accept a cut, despite the fact that if he had, he would never have to work again, or at least worry about money. He is, however, a unique exception among his contemporaries. There's nothing good or bad about giving or taking a cut of any royalties, but I want to make sure that kind of thing is clarified before it becomes an issue.

Giving away your rights & royalties could mean you don't make your monthly bills in the future.

You may think, "my song will probably never become a megahit, so what's the harm in handing out back-end cuts like they're candy?" and you might be right. But what if you're wrong, and one of your tracks randomly gets placed in a popular sitcom, and starts earning money that's not mind-blowing, but serious enough to offset some of your monthly bills? If you've promised that money away, you could be jeopardizing your future. Just something to think about.


It's probably wisest to pay your people with checks so that there's a paper trail, but since so many people prefer cash (I can't imagine why), I would at least suggest that you pay them in front of someone else, or pass the money through the producer or engineer so that there is a witness to the payment. Money can tear apart the closest friends (I'm speaking from experience here), so be very careful with your actions here.

Be sure to pay people on time. Musicians travel in small communities, and word travels fast. If you develop a reputation as someone who takes their money seriously, your "employees" will be happy to recommend you to their friends for future work. However, if you're slow to pay, or fail to follow through on your promises, don't be surprised if you find it hard to recruit help in the future.


Here again, I'll speak from experience. It's wisest to divide your payments into two (or more) so that you can make sure you don't get burned. Pay someone half up front so that they know you're serious, and half when the work is complete so that they don't quit before the job is over and leave you hanging.

People get weird when it comes to money. Be clear about what you're going to pay and when you're going to pay it. Then pay it.

Some people get weird when money issues arise. Communicate with 100% clarity about what you intend to pay, and when you intend to pay it. Do not assume that the person you're paying is on the same page. Everyone has different ideas about how money works, so set out the terms as early as possible to avoid confusion and upset.


Setting aside money for travel, food, or alcohol might be pretty obvious if you live in Sheboygan, and are planning to record in Nashville. However, it might slip your mind if you live in the same town where you plan to record. You're going to be stuck in the same small space for long days, and you will want food and drink breaks.

Don't let the cost of food get away from you. Plan ahead.

Since you're going to be working your creative muscles for long periods of time, you probably also don't want to forsake food quality and just eat Big Macs all week. Most studios at this level of the business do not have very well-stocked kitchens or craft service tables, so you're going to have to plan for ordering in.

If you have enough foresight to brown bag it, great, but keep in mind that it's generally understood (at least in my experience) that you're paying for the food of your session musicians, engineers, and producer. This can add up real quick, particularly if you're recording in a city where the only restaurants are a little pricier than you might be used to.


Keep track of everything you spend. Keep receipts and write receipts for every dollar that passes through your hands. Whether your band has an LLC or you just handle your taxes through your personal finances, you can get tax credits for some of what you put out if it's treated as a business. I'm not going to go into details here since I am both a) not a tax professional, and b) impossibly bad with money and math. I'll just tell you that it's nice to get some help from the government for funding the music industrial complex.


Who has the final say when it comes to your album? Are you the unilateral decision-maker? Is the band run as a democracy, so everything has to come down to a vote? This is something you want to establish prior to the argument you're absolutely going to have when you're in the studio. You wouldn't believe how the tiniest disagreement can become a relationship-ending disagreement, and just how quickly it can achieve that level of volatility.

On one of my albums, I wasn't feeling good about the way a song was going. The producer and I were at odds, I can't even remember what about, specifically. After a long discussion, I finally said, "okay, look, this is how I want it. End of story." The producer responded by saying, "yeah, well it's my name on this album, too, so we're going to have to work something out." He had a point. Even though I was paying him for his services, some of the things I'm paying him for are his reputation, knowledge, and credibility. If he's willing to contribute all those hard-earned and fragile elements to my work, he has a vote, if not final say.

The same issue can arise with band members, engineers, and less so with session guys. It's your money, yes, but it's their reputations and names. You as the president of "Your Band, LLC" have to balance these factors with every decision that is made.

Saying "this is my decision and it's final" is a nuclear option that can damage or end relationships, whether personal or professional.

I try to only play the "this is my decision, and it's final" card at the last possible moment, and only if things have gotten out of control. It's the nuclear option that can damage professional and personal relationships if it's thrown down at every possible opportunity. Use it sparingly, and cautiously.

Kids and inexperienced, immature musicians throw hissy fits, stomp out of the room, and slam doors. Mature professionals know how to negotiate, compromise, and choose when and where to fight. Those artists who publicly and frequently freak out over decisions because they're "true visionaries" get a lot of attention, but they also may have a hard time finding other people to collaborate with in the future.


One of the studios I've worked with was staffed by a guy who was a consummate professional. He showed up on time, was always sober, varied tasks in order to give himself and others breaks (especially if he saw someone's mood deteriorating), kept a consistent meal schedule, communicated when he needed to make a schedule change, and ended the session on time every night. Sessions rarely ran over an 8-9 hour standard.

Another guy I've worked with was late every morning. He would take arbitrary breaks without saying anything to anyone... he would just silently leave the room in the middle of tracking or mixing. He would come back from a 20 minute break and then get up to take another break 15 minutes later. Sessions would run 10-12 hours on some days. He was rarely clear-eyed.

Working long days doesn't always mean you're a hard worker. It might mean you're a bad planner or manager.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I know who I would rather work with. Working long days doesn't mean you're a hard worker. It often means you're a bad planner or manager. If you've budgeted the right amount of time and resources for your work, late nights should be the exception, not the rule. Working long hours when needed is admirable. Working overtime every day burns you out, and burns out those you're working with.

Be consistent, plan ahead, communicate clearly and consistently, and you should be able to keep a reasonable schedule. Obviously, things go wrong, stuff breaks, people and plans fall through. But most of that can be handled if you do the work in advance.


For a number of reasons, substance use (and abuse) has become an integral part of the creative process for many people. I'm sort of surprised just how often someone will be wasted at a show, or pull out a bag of ___ during a session and no one blinks an eye. It's just accepted as part of the culture. No judgment here, I'm neither for nor against these things. I can only give you my experience, which is that substances have rarely, if ever, led to creative breakthroughs. More often than not, getting stoned or drunk (or both) have led to stilted work and performances.

Compare the work you've done while sober to the work you've done while "impaired." Is there any improvement?

If it works for you, great, enjoy yourself. But if your band rolls their eyes every time you're taking a "break," you should maybe consider whether it's actually helping, or if it's become a crutch that could actually be hindering your work. This is a discussion I've had to have with myself, so I'm not preaching... I'm just relating my experience. Talk to your friends and bandmates and see how they feel about your work habits. Compare your "influenced" work to your sober work. Is there any improvement?


I've come across more than one study that shows that workers who take regular breaks are more effective than those who just plow through. To be clear, when I bitched about that lazy staffer earlier, I wasn't complaining about the breaks per se, but more about the fact that he would take them without letting anyone know. Was he running to the bathroom or grabbing a drink for 5 minutes, or disappearing for an hour to talk to his buddy? No one knew whether to stay in the studio and wait, take a walk, rehearse a part, grab lunch, or if we were ending the day early.

Take breaks at regular intervals, and let everyone know they can do the same.

I am fully in support of breaks. If you're going to take one, consider declaring your intentions so that everyone knows what the plan is. Good leaders lay out the plans for everyone so that they can take their own actions.

Breaks can benefit your mind if you're stuck on a difficult performance or can't figure out what to write, they can give your ears a much needed rest when mixing so that you can make clearer decisions, and they can diffuse tensions after long argument-riddled sessions. Don't be afraid to let everyone step away for 5 minutes to clear their heads. It's hard to calculate and appreciate the benefits of doing nothing, but I can tell you that it's made a big difference in my life and work.

The only downside of breaks is this: they cost you time, and therefore money. That's why there has to be a balance... just enough to give people fresh ears and renewed energy, but not so many that everyone just wants to hang out instead of working, all on your dime.


That's everything I have for this series on recording. There's a lot of hard work to do when it comes to making a record, but at the end of the "day," you'll have something that you and your band made with nothing but your drive, skills, and creativity. That little mp3 or silver disc or any other medium of your choice will serve as a time capsule that catalogs where you were at a certain point in time, musically, professionally, and creatively. What could possibly be more rewarding?

I hope you've found some use from these articles. If you have any questions or stories about your recording experiences, don't hesitate to drop me an email. I wish you the best in your studio work.