Harmonizing Music and Marketing
There are many stages to making and releasing an album, from creating and recording the music, to constructing the budget and marketing plan, to assembling a business team that supports the finished product.
The Baila: Shall We Dance? album project has involved a creative process that was very different from others I have encountered in my experiences as a producer. Sam Turcotte, entertainment marketing manager at Sun Microsystems, came to me with an album concept in mind. He was familiar with my work as a musician and my ability to shift between various styles of music. When he asked if I'd be interested in making a dance album--something out of the norm for me--I jumped at the chance. We had a mutual interest in making an album that was uplifting and positive.
This project was unique in that the marketing and business perspective was crucial to shaping the actual sound of the album. This was the first time in my experience that the marketing strategy was in place prior to the creation of the music. Typically, the music is completed first, and then the marketing plan is devised around it. For this album, the music evolved from that plan.
Working this way gave me the opportunity to be more involved with the business decisions of making and releasing a record. I was intrigued to see how my musical sense and Sam's marketing sense would complement each other. Coming from different worlds, Sam and I educated each other during the process. I learned various business and marketing lessons from him. He learned about composing music and the producing process from me. Both of us have a background in music technology. I showed him how I use the software to its fullest potential, and he taught me more about the best hardware available for running this kind of software.
After extensive marketing research was conducted, we decided that the basic concept for our album would be nineties dance music (e.g., techno, electronica). That style is very popular, but mostly aggressive and dark in nature. Our research also showed that there was a desire for upbeat, positive musical messages. The premise of Baila, therefore, was to create a positive techno/electronic dance album.
This was a new challenge for me. I had to approach writing the music for Baila in a different way than I am used to working. I immersed myself in the style to better understand how this music is created. One of the most unusual aspects of this project was Sam's philosophy about equipment and the final product. He started by saying, "This is what we want it to sound like. What equipment do we need to get the best possible results?" We picked out equipment and computer programs and updated my studio to realize our goal.
Once the gear was in place, I began writing. Sam guided the concept by sending me various CDs, pointing out particular songs and sounds that he liked, and I started to learn the style. This kind of writing process was new to me since I usually reach first for my guitar when making music. I had a stylistic learning curve ahead of me. I would need to get deeper into digital-audio recording, get comfortable with all the new gear and techno music. Once I had started wearing polyester clothes and had a strobe light installed in my studio, I felt ready to begin writing.
I finished the first set of demos and played the tracks for Sam. He was surprised that I had produced music that sounded authentically techno--relentless and edgy. However, he thought it was too techno. We discussed the concept again, and I agreed to rework the tracks. We eventually scrapped most of my demos and started over. In fact, the only track on the finished album that came from the first sessions was a song called "Fascination." It was the softest track on the original demo. Ironically, it became the edgiest track on the finished album. It was difficult for me to give up those first demos, but when you are a partner on a project, you have to understand about compromise and not let your ego get in the way.
We went back to the drawing board and began discussing various trends in music. Boogie Nights had recently been released, and we were excited about the resurgence of seventies-style dance/funk/pop music. It was interesting from a marketing standpoint because when we first began the project, electronica was riding such a huge wave, and now things had shifted back to a pop/dance sound. The music of the seventies was feel-good music--one of the characteristics we wanted for Baila. This was much more in line with my philosophy of capturing the energy you get from hearing live musicians. We talked about the songs and artists from this period and realized that the common denominators were a strong beat, rhythmically solid tracks, and use of a horn section. We also noted that groups, not solo artists, usually recorded the songs we liked best.
With this in mind, we began planning to combine these influences from the 1970s with the synthesizer and computer influences of the 1990s. Sam brought lyrical ideas and broad song concepts to the table, while I began working on the basic tracks using drum loops, synthesizers, and guitar. With his input, I worked with a few cowriters developing melodic ideas and crafting the various fragments into songs.
At the same time, I also began to assemble my wish list of players whom I felt would give the music that magical energy that is created by a group collaboration. As important as each player's musical style was the knowledge that all would get along on a personal level too. Experience has taught me that the relationships of the players involved in a project can be just as important as the musical work itself.
The final lineup included some of the top singers and players in Los Angeles who have toured and recorded with such stars as Elton John, Natalie Cole, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, Chaka Khan, Phil Collins, and many others. The Baila band includes vocalists Amy Keys, and Ellis Hall, drummer Jonathan "Sugarfoot" Moffet, keyboardist Marc Hugenberger, bassist Vail Johnson, and me on guitar. We hired the Vine Street Horns featuring trumpeters Harry Kim and Dan Fornero, trombonist Arturo Valesco, and saxophonist Don Markese. Percussionist Luis Conte, steel drummer Kurt Rasmussen, and vocalists Catte Adams, and Donna McAfee also appear on the tracks.
As a producer, I knew that with great musicians involved, I would want to stay open to their input. If the leader of the horn section said, "I like the part here, but I'd like to do this over there," I would try it. There is a lot to learn by remaining open to different perspectives. You may find that something you thought wouldn't fit musically is not only possible, but is just the thing that makes the song work. Collaborating in this way makes the music interesting because, ultimately, music is about sharing your experiences, energy, and emotions.
From the very beginning, Sam and I were very involved in the business aspects of making Baila Just as we created the music to fit into our marketing plan, we had to put together a business plan to realize our marketing goal and represent the music properly. We decided to seek out a major label distributor. We also needed to hire our own team to back the album's release to ensure that we would have the support on the business side. We didn't want to risk becoming lost among the hundreds of other releases on a major label.
At the outset, we developed a working budget. We started by putting down all the expenses we could think of, including costs for equipment, mixing and engineering, payments to musicians and songwriting collaborators, fees for independent radio promotion, and publicity. We also had to budget for photo shoots, artwork, and mailings. As we moved through each step of releasing the album, we reassessed the plan, analyzing what had been successful, where we could use more help, and what additional costs needed to be figured into our original budget.
Once the music was finished, we secured a distribution deal--this step would provide enough material for a whole other article. Next, we brought an independent radio promoter and a publicist on board. We discussed which radio format to service with the radio promoter and chose the tracks that would be singles. With the publicist, we created press kits, set up photo shoots, and discussed the various media that we wanted to pitch the project to.
As I am writing this, we have just serviced the first single to radio and are excited by the response we've received so far. The next step is to build on this momentum to move the project closer to our marketing goals. While the music is the essential creative element of a project, it would not exist in a commercial world without a clear marketing strategy. The bottom line is, a solid distribution plan is as important as a great solo. Remember, music is created to be listened to, and the business side makes it possible for your art to reach the audience.