Not so long ago, if you owned a guitar and wrote your own songs your chances of ending up in a studio, recording your very own album, were about as likely as being struck by lightning while cashing a winning lottery ticket on the way to pick up your Nobel prize.
But good news, guitar players! Your odds have dramatically improved. All you need now is your guitar, your songs and some spare time.
Oh, and be sure to bring your checkbook.
For in the same tradition as would-be Great American Novelists who dip into the rent money to pay a vanity publisher to print their tome, guitar-toting dreamers by the stage-full are no longer waiting to be discovered: They're laying out big bucks -- upward of $10,000 in some cases -- to record their own albums.
"There are an incredible number of musically inclined people out there who want to pursue this," says Micah Solomon, president of Oasis Recording Inc., a College Park studio specializing in acoustic musicians. About 40 per cent of his business is producing "vanity albums," offering the recording, graphic design, and finished CDs and tape cassettes.
"It sure seems like a lot of people are just going ahead and doing it," adds Seymour Gunther, a vice president at Chicago's Flying Fish, a respected, non-vanity label publishing a wide variety of acoustic music and often seen by the unpublished as the first leg up the ladder to the big time. Thus Mr. Gunther gets some 2,000 unsolicited self-produced tapes a year from musicians hopeful of hooking on with a legitimate publisher, but he seldom buys more than one.
"Ten years ago I'd be lucky to get five self-produced tapes in the mail a month," says Dick Cerri, host of "Music Americana," an all-acoustic show heard Sundays over WLTT-FM in Rockville. "Now I am deluged with 40 or 50 a month, from all over the country. There's no way I can listen to 'em all."
Affordable marketing tool
One explanation for the explosion of self-published music is that it's relatively inexpensive to do it. Musicians frequently record in the living room -- the equipment is now fairly affordable -- and pay only for the duplication.
Another factor, says Sue Trainor, is that musicians use these tapes as a marketing tool. She's a 41-year-old Columbia folkie who spent about $7,000 at Oasis to produce and duplicate "From a Closeup," her album of parodies and other original folk tunes.
A longtime promoter of folk music, Ms. Trainor is one of those guitar players who traces her musical roots to the back seat of the family car, where, on long trips, she would sing "The Bear Went Over the Mountain" a hundred million times. In addition to her popular solo act, she plays in the folk group "Cornucopia" -- which paid about $4,500 to produce its most recent tape and CD.
"This isn't done as a profit-making venture," she says. "It's a promotional venture to keep your name out there so you can continue to get bookings. Also, people, by and large, don't go to a concert if they haven't heard something by the performer. So most people who self-produce see it as a tool to a larger end."
They are people like Tom Vincent, a 40-year-old Catonsville househusband, who recently spent about $8,000 at Oasis to produce and duplicate an album of original tunes called "Dreaming Again." Contrary to the title, Mr. Vincent -- a former draftsman and woodworker who grew up turning pages for his organ-playing father at a Connecticut church -- says his project is very much grounded in reality.
"I can't pretend I didn't agonize before I decided to do it, because it's a great deal of money," he says. "But I wanted people to hear my songs. And I had been playing in the same small places over and over again and getting five to 10 people in the audience. One night I was invited to play at a larger coffeehouse, and all of the other performers had these tapes. I found it to be an axiom of the music business: If you don't have product, you're nobody."
Mr. Vincent started recording a few hours a week last December. Because he is a very clean guitar player, he didn't need time-consuming overdubs and retakes. His $4,300 bill for studio recording time is therefore considered low. In addition to spending several hundred dollars to hire some local musicians to accompany him on his 12 songs, Mr. Vincent spent about $3,000 for a typical production studio's package of 500 CDs and 200 tape cassettes, plus the graphics design of the J-card -- music lingo for the album jacket.
Prices in the duplication end of things vary widely, depending on the quality desired. There are small vendors who will duplicate for as little as $2 a cassette.
Interestingly, for another $400 Mr. Vincent could have bought 1,000 CDs and 300 cassettes, "but I made the minimum because I thought I'd get real depressed if I saw these things just sitting in my house."
"People would probably be ill-advised to do this if they live paycheck-to-paycheck," says Mr. Solomon, whose recording studio is one of about 50 in the Baltimore-Washington area. "On the other hand, it could work out well. We charge $2,500 for 1,000 CDS. The musician can sell them for $12 to $15 each, so if you keep your costs down by recording at home, which is
becoming a trend, you could do OK."
Since taking delivery in April, Mr. Vincent has sold about 200 copies. And even though he expects it will take him two years to break even financially, he already regards the project as a success.
"I think I've met my goals," he says. "I made a decent tape. I don't think many folk musicians make tapes expecting to hit the big time. If they do they're really stupid."
That's how Linda Baer sees it. "If one of my songs touches somebody and gives them something they didn't have before, that to me is success," says the 38-year-old insurance litigation specialist for the Social Security Administration. Even though she is a familiar figure in Baltimore's folk world, "people did not take me seriously as a musician," says Ms. Baer, until the recent release of her vanity album of original songs, "Stones of Auguste." It cost her just under $10,000 and was recorded at 1137 Recording studio in Baltimore and Roar Productions in Columbia.
"A painter makes a bunch of pictures and gets an exhibit in a gallery," she says, "but for a musician there's almost no way to encapsulate what they do unless they make some sort of physical product. It used to be if you were self-produced you were a loser because an established record company wouldn't pick you up. That has done a complete about-face."
Actually, producers and disc jockeys say the majority of vanity releases they hear aren't bad.
"Some people do a great job," says Mr. Solomon. But not all. He remembers the singer who sang a few songs for him, and asked if any sounded particularly out of tune. "I could honestly say none sounded particularly out of tune," says Mr. Solomon, "because they were all out of tune."
"Sometimes it's not a question of bad, but of being really mediocre," says Tony Sica, the host of "Detours," an acoustic music show heard Sunday afternoons on Towson State's WTMD. "You get it and you just don't play it." Or sometimes you get it and you lose it, like Dick Cerri, who says he cleans off his desk every couple of months and invariably unearths several vanity cassettes he'd forgotten all about.
"It's the person who follows up who gets ahead," advises Mr. Cerri.
To many, though, getting ahead still means getting a record contract. At Flying Fish, Seymour Gunther says that takes more than a good voice and a good song.
"We like to see that you have a following," he says. "Someone who can sell their own tape demonstrates to us that they have a following. But it really takes years to build a following, and I don't know if people appreciate that. I think there is a perception that if you get an album you will have it made, and everything will start happening for you."
But even for all of those --ed hopes, says Mr. Sica, "I still think it's wonderful when somebody takes the time and sweat to write songs, to have the guts to send them out and let other people into their world. Every once in a while, you get a gem."