This Is My Rifle: The Myth of the Low Budget Album Success Story

Can you really make a great album for $300? No, you probably can't.

After my last article went live a few weeks ago, I never anticipated the amount of discussion it would generate in the following days. The sudden outpouring of love from fellow artists and debate with music fans on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook was amazing. I had no idea how many people that article would reach and strike a chord with. While it was extremely hard for me to be so brutally honest about myself and my situation, the ensuing flood of ideas and opinions from people across the world made it all worth it.

One person who left a comment on the article itself was especially critical, remarking that I was going through a midlife crisis and that what I had written was a sob story designed to use DJBooth as a forum to air out my personal problems. But amidst the personal attacks, the anonymous commenter made a statement that was particularly frustrating:

“…You talk about album expenses in the thousands when I know damn well there's talented artists getting buzz off of making music with a $300 setup. You wanna make money off your music, invest in a publicist to get people to write about your music on blogs like this…”

I can’t begin to explain how terrible this outlook is and how much it’s contributing to the constant increase in fast food music flooding the Internet daily.

Can you make an album on a $300 budget? Absolutely. Time and time again it’s been proven that it is totally possible to make great music with nothing more than a laptop and a dream. Every one of us can think of a story we’ve heard at one time or another of an artist who produced, recorded and released a great piece of music made on next to nothing. But what is often misleading about these stories is that they are built to make us think that the music these artists created was effortless. As if they just opened their laptops, pressed a few keys and presto - your new favorite EP was born.

There is always a key element missing from the overnight, low budget success story; the years of trial and error that most, if not all of these artists had to go through. In most cases, these artists were people that could not afford to pay for studio time and had to learn how to navigate the digital landscape on their own. They spent countless hours in their bedroom or basement learning how to bend and stretch Fruity Loops or Garageband to their furthest extent. They created and developed techniques to mask the fact that they were recording into a twenty-dollar microphone. They read thousands of posts in audiophile forums searching for tricks and shortcuts that would give their zero dollar project a million dollar gloss. But of course these aspects of the story do not fit within the romantic overnight success narrative so they are often ignored.

Time is always the unnoticed and unspoken factor. The story of the broke artist who made something out of literally nothing loses its appeal when we realize that they spent more time manipulating digital plug-ins than they did actually writing the music. We like to believe it’s that easy- that with the right idea and a bit of talent anybody can create a solid album out of the basic tools we all have access to. But more often than not, these artists were victims of circumstance who were determined to find a way rather than average people suddenly enlightened by a stroke of creative genius.



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I’m not trying to say that it can’t be done. To the aspiring artists reading this, if you don’t have the money to record in a professional studio but you have the time to invest in learning the ins and outs of making music completely on your own, then more power to you. But if you have a few dollars to spare, do not fall for the myth of the low budget success story and put your money into creating the best product you possibly can. Anybody suggesting that you should cut corners creatively and spend top dollar on a publicist is incredibly naïve. While publicists can definitely help get you through doors that otherwise wouldn’t be open to you, the music will be the platform that you stand on top of. In saying that, it should always be the number one most important part of the equation.

I have never hired a publicist. Although at times I probably should have, I instead chose to focus every dollar I had on the music. However, in place of a publicist I have a great engineer and he is more than worth the investment. I cannot stress how crucial a good engineer is to the creative process - and by a good engineer I don’t mean somebody who has worked with a handful of big names, I mean an engineer who’s right for you. 

My engineer comes from a soundtrack and orchestral background. His experience with hip-hop music is nil, but he understands layers and textures and he knows how my voice should sound. Prior to working with him my voice always sounded like it was hovering over the music. Because my voice sits in the mid-high frequency range (the same as artists like Jay Z and Eminem), it was incredibly hard to get control of. All of my songs sounded slightly uncomfortable to listen to purely because my voice wasn’t being mixed into the music properly. Then, when we began working together on the “Marvelous World of Color” album, he found the right pocket for my voice and he mixed me into the music perfectly. Without his expertise and knowledge my voice would still feel like nails on a chalkboard, “Marvelous World of Color” would’ve been unlistenable, my music would have never made it to the pages of DJBooth and you would not be reading this article right now.

At one time or another, we’ve all listened back to our voice in a recording and thought, “Holy shit. That’s what I sound like?” This is because the way our voice sounds in our head is not the way it sounds in reality. The engineer’s job is to be the second set of ears in the room and listen to your voice the way it truly sounds- not the way you think it should sound in your head. Every voice is different and a good engineer will spend the time to find where your vocal fingerprint belongs in the music. Although many artists get by recording themselves, having an objective and professional ear in the studio with you is worth its weight in gold.

If you are in a situation where studio time is outside of your financial abilities and you would rather invest in a home set up, there are tons of affordable options to choose from. Myself personally, I run on a combination of an Apex tube mic, Golden Age Project MK II tube preamp, Mbox 2 digital interface and Logic Pro X on a Mac laptop. Any audiophile will tell you that my set up is the bare minimum for an average quality recording. Ideally, I would like to be running on a Neumann microphone into a UA or Avalon tube preamp and Apogee digital interface but a set up that sophisticated would run me upwards of $20,000. As it stands now, my middle of the road home studio is worth about $10,000 - far beyond the mythical $300 marker stated at the beginning of this article. Furthermore, it’s my engineer who makes the music sound like a higher quality recording and he comes at a rate of thirty dollars an hour.

My point is that you can make an album for next to nothing, but if you have the option you should absolutely invest in the quality of the music. Can you afford to have somebody come in and play the guitar live instead of playing it through a synthesizer or midi control? If so, then do it. You can pump out tons of low quality music, but at the end of the day the more you can put into it the better the results will be. For every low budget recording success story there are millions of zero dollar mixtapes and albums sitting on Soundcloud going completely unnoticed, and sometimes it’s a matter of a mix or missing element that turns a great song into a forgotten mish mash of sonic farts. Hiring a publicist or PR agent is a great idea, but only if you have a project worth promoting.

Just ask Z and Nathan how many $300 albums hit their trash bin every day. I’m sure you’d be surprised how useless a publicist can be.

Editor's Note from Nathan: I'd agree. Publicists can help push your music to the next level, and they can also be a huge waste of money. Either way unless the music (and musical quality) is there, there isn't a publicist alive that can move me to do anything. 

[Jason James is an artist, freelance columnist and writer for DJBooth.net. You can read/download his free eBook, "This Is My Rifle" and listen/download his most recent album, "Pyramids in Stereo." You can also contact him here and here.]



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