Holding back: knowing when and when not to upload your music
by Dan Coe
For musicians, a great benefit of the autonomous nature of the internet and, more specifically, streaming sites like Soundcloud and self-publishing platforms such as Bandcamp, is that you’re cutting out many of the stages that historically came between the creation of a piece of music and it’s reaching the ears of music fans.
You don’t need to be discovered by an A&R person, get signed to a record label, book time in a commercial studio to record, then go somewhere else for the mastering (and perhaps mixing prior to this), for vinyl, wait to hear a test pressing, or wait to receive the promo CDs; then wait some more for a release date. If you want to, you can basically make some music in the morning, pick or create some accompanying digital artwork and upload it the same day.
But as well as being a benefit, on the flipside (also known as ‘side B’), it can also pose a problem, and be a potential barrier to your success in the music business. Most people will take a bit more time to make sure everything’s bang on before actually commercially releasing new music, than for, say, uploading a demo to Soundcloud, but we would like to put the case for not being too hasty with either.
We’ve put together 7 things you should consider before clicking upload that might mean the difference between making a memorable splash or being a forgettable flop.
Quality control: is it good enough?
Being prolific is great. It can help you hone your art, improve your playing and sharpen your production skills, and gives you a larger body of work from which to select the best material for unleashing on the public. However, some people forget this last bit – a very important bit. These excited folk chuck literally everything they create out there, with little thought given to quality control.
In the same way that top chefs don’t put all of their culinary experiments onto the menu in their flagship restaurant, unless you’re an absolute creative genius who literally oozes musical gold from every pore, you probably shouldn’t put all of your music out there.
If a busy label boss or A&R is checking out your Soundcloud page, they’re most likely checking out many others also. You want to make life easy for them. Don’t make them have to sift through a load of meh before chancing across the good stuff.
Like with most things, for (public-facing) music, quality trumps quantity every time. If you have three absolute belters on your page, that’s going to look much better than 30 tracks, 27 of which are either underdeveloped, unoriginal, or just aren’t that great. You only get one chance to make a first impression.
Similarly, if you’re self-releasing, don’t put out an album of 25 tracks when only 12 of them are good. Be honest with yourself. You can always hold them back, work on them some more and then release them at a later date. Or, just treat them as part of your process, and not something that your fans absolutely must hear.
Samples and likeness
For three decades now, sampling has played a huge part in music making. There have been cases of huge lawsuits being brought for unauthorised use of samples, and there have also been whole genres based around breakbeats for whom the original musicians have never seen a penny in royalties.
Whilst not condoning theft of other people’s intellectual property, there are ways to sample copyrighted music and disguise it enough for it not to be recognised, especially if it’s only a very short sample. But if you’re hoping to have a track become a hit, unless you want to go down the legal route and get a sample cleared (and surrender some or even all of your royalties), you may want to just use sampling as means to get a track going, build around it, then look to remove it, replay it, or sufficiently mangle it beyond recognition (some platforms like Soundcloud actually scan uploads and can identify copyrighted material). Obviously if you’re using one of the billions of royalty-free sample packs out there, you’ve no need to worry about removing or replaying samples. All you need to concern yourself with is whether or not your tracks sound the same as everyone else who has used the same samples…
Arranging is essentially the process of transforming a collection of musical ideas into a complete track. It can involve everything from writing harmonies, rearranging parts, adding parts, removing parts, adding them again, planning the structure and length of a track and adding effects and automation. Make no mistake: whether it’s underground dance music or pop, an arrangement can make or break a track. It’s the stage where you have to start making firm decisions, and ‘kill your darlings’ i.e. remove that part you really liked; the part that was with you from the very start – hell, it was the seed from which the rest of the track bloomed! But now it’s the elephant in the room; superfluous to requirements. But that’s okay. It has served its purpose. The track has become bigger than that one part. You could even remove it and use it as the basis of another track. But, just as with characters in novels, if they’re no longer helping move the story forward (the story in this analogy is the track – duh) then be bold and get rid.
Unfortunately, arranging is generally much less fun and more difficult than making sounds and jamming away. But it’s crucial and has to be done if you’re ever going to finish a track that’s worthy of uploading or releasing. If you’re not quite sure about how to configure your final arrangement, you may benefit from putting the track to one side for a few days, or even a few weeks. When you come back to it, anything problematic should jump out. You should know if the track is needlessly long, too short, too busy, too simplistic, whether parts clash or are out of tune and, most importantly, whether it’s actually a load of old tosh.
Mixing is the process of blending the individual elements of a track together so as to come up with the best possible version. The best possible version. This is key. Even if you’re just uploading a demo to Soundcloud, why would you not want it to sound as good as you possibly can make it?
Getting your tracks sounding as good as they can is simultaneously a dark art and not as difficult as you might think (to understand this seemingly nonsensical statement, read on). There are absolutely hundreds of fantastic free online resources from mixing pros to help you understand basic (and advanced) mixing techniques. These include, fine-tuning each instrument using EQ (equalisation) so they sound great as part of the whole track (not on their own) and don’t clash with other parts, balancing levels, panning to create a stereo image, and adding effects like reverb, delays and compression.
It is a dark art because, once you’ve learnt all the rudimentary rules of mixing, just like a painter who learns all about perspective, light and colour realism, you can then – if you wish – break all the rules and just trust your ears (or eyes, if you’re a painter). But can they be trusted? Only you can answer that. And maybe your peers, who may give you a resounding ‘No.’ and implore you to go back to following the rules. Whether you heed these warnings or not, just be sure to learn the basics before choosing to go your own way, and EQ the kick drum like a cymbal and take all the bass out of the bassline (you MAVERICK).
Is it ‘your sound’?
If you’re starting to drum up some solid sales on Bandcamp or gain lots of enthused followers on Soundcloud￼ or Spotify, you may have noticed (or deliberately employed) a particular set of characteristics or motifs to your music that have given you ‘a sound’. Having ‘a sound’ is extremely common amongst successful artists across the spectrum of music genres, from electronica (think Burial) to dream pop (Cigarettes After Sex), and is to be encouraged. It can be what sets you apart, make your music stand out and, perhaps most crucially, make you marketable.
If you’re starting to develop or have clearly already developed ‘a sound’ (I’ll stop putting it in inverted commas now), then suddenly breaking from it and doing something entirely unexpected (off-brand, if you will) then this will lead to one of two reactions: people will either say “Oh, I really like this! A total break from his/her usual sound!”, or they will say “Not into this at all. A total break from his/her usual sound.”. Of course, if you’re a true artist, you’ll not care a jot what your audience thinks of your output, as you make music for yourself and if anyone else likes it it’s just, like, a bonus, y’know? But if you want a label you’ve released with before to continue signing your material, or you want to further grow your fanbase, you may not want to stray too far from the sound that perked and then sustained your fans interest in the first place.
Most people will play new music to close friends or those whose opinions they value before releasing it into the wild. This is a great thing to do, especially if you have friends who will give you honest, critical feedback. They don’t even need to be professional musicians or producers themselves. In fact, whilst advice from those you hold in high regard for their music credential will always benefit, especially regarding any technical aspects, it’s Joe (and Jane) Public who are the ultimate end users of mass-produced music, so if you want your music to be a hit, whether we’re talking an underground club hit or a global pop smash, at some point it’s going to have to be loved by people who probably wouldn’t know the difference between a Korg synthesiser and a Borg sympathiser, and whose only feedback to you might be: “Yeah, I’d definitely dance to this!” or “Hmm. I can’t imagine singing along to this in the car.” Whilst not the most insightful, these opinions are just as valuable, and receiving them at the right time might stop you releasing or uploading music that you’ll regret having part of your repertoire down the road.
‘To master or to master …not?’
In the same way as we’d advise mixing your tracks properly before uploading them, even as demos, we’d recommend the same when it comes to mastering. But when we say mastering, we don’t mean paying hundreds of pounds to a mastering engineer’s time in their studio. These days there are plenty of relatively cheap mastering plugins such as Native Instruments T-RackS and online services like ￼Landr which make it worth mastering even demos. Obviously for commercial release, we’d always recommend getting your tracks mastered by a professional if budgets allow, as the best mastering is not something that can – as yet – be replicated by a pre-set on a plugin. Thiese days this doesn’t even have to mean leaving your own studio (bedroom or otherwise) with legendary studios such as Abbey Road offering online mastering services (as well as online mixing, a service also offered by GRAMMY award-winning engineers at Capital Studios). Just upload your files and let the pros work their magic. A good mastering engineer will treat each track like the unique animal it is, bringing out their best characteristics and sublimating those elements which may otherwise spoil the overall sound.
In summary, mastering will never make a dud track a hit, but if your track has all the makings of a hit, good mastering will take it over the line and give you a finished product you’ll be proud of.
Lots to ponder over. None of which should discourage you from getting your music out there or turn you into the sort of perfectionist who never plays their music to anyone, nor ever declares a track finished. Just think about the quality over quantity maxim, and with the quality tracks that make the final cut, maximise that quality to the hilt!