From a Beginner to a Beginner: How to Make Your First Record

As always, when the year comes to an end, we look back to draw from our experiences. On the music front, 2016 has definitely been one of the best years of my life: I played over 40 shows around the UK, I got featured on a number of radio stations, I got to play at the Glastonbury Festival, and most importantly, I released my debut EP called Visitor. I dreamed of making my own record since I was 14 years old, and the fact that I got to record and release one this year feels like a huge accomplishment! You’ve greeted “Visitor” EP with so much enthusiasm and love, and I just want to take this opportunity to thank you one more time for all the amazing support that you’ve shown me!

It feels like the whole year fully revolved around “Visitor”! It was like my little baby that I guided through every stage of production and, subsequently, promotion. It was my first project of such scale and it’s a well-known fact that doing anything for the first time is always incredibly hard! It felt like I had to find my way around in complete darkness and as much as I tried to educate and to prepare myself, I could’ve never been able to predict how much work and effort it would take to release an EP! As an absolute beginner in the world of music releases, I had to learn my lessons the hard way and made quite a few silly mistakes that probably could’ve been avoided with some extra guidance. As a huge advocate for showing you everything that’s going on behind the scenes (check out my behind the scenes video of making “Visitor”) and sharing every step of my musical adventure, I thought I’d write down all the lessons that I’ve learnt during the making of my first EP. Hopefully, this little guide would also be helpful to other young musicians who’re about to embark on a similar journey.

So here are my most significant “Dos and Don’ts” when it comes to making your first record!

Photo by Craig Joiner

Don’t be afraid to invite collaborators 

These days it’s quite possible to complete every stage of the release by yourself: recording, mixing, mastering, creating visuals, designing artwork, and even organising PR. And even though there are some incredibly talented people out there who can deliver the whole project by themselves in an impeccable quality, unfortunately, I’m not one of those people. I recognise that in certain areas I’m absolutely useless and I need professionals by my side who can give me their advice and help me reach the quality of work I’m after. In fact, working on a project alone seems like a very isolated experience to me and that’s why, as a true extrovert, I’m always up for a collaboration of some kind! I think not only you’d learn more by working with others but your project would also benefit from the contribution of other creative minds!

Choose your team carefully

When you’re thinking to invite other collaborators to your project, it’s certainly important to make sure that you click with them creatively but it’s equally important to see if you match in terms of your work ethics and personalities. When I first started looking for a studio to record the EP, I was so fixated on choosing the right one with a grand piano and professional equipment, that I overlooked the importance of choosing the right sound-engineer (or producer if you’re aiming to work with one). I got lucky and my collaboration with Charlie Lintern, the sound-engineer at 13 Sound Studios, worked out really well, despite us not knowing each other before the first day of recording. However, even though I accidentally hit the jackpot, I wouldn’t recommend testing your luck and would strongly advise on doing your research and asking around for more details about the person you’re thinking to invite to work together. I’d also add that sometimes word of mouth isn’t very helpful when it comes to making a decision because every artist has their own needs, and what might have not worked for one person, could perfectly work for you!

Define your roles early on

Another thing to consider while choosing your new team members is what exact role you’d like them to perform in every aspect of your project. Is it a sound-engineer that you’re looking for or you need someone who’s willing to add creative value to your songs? Do you already know how you want your cover to look like or you need someone who’ll be designing it with you?

I guess in the big bad world of record labels these things might not matter as much but in the world of independent artists and freelancers, deciding on the exact scope work for each of you is crucial and will probably avoid a lot of bitterness at the end of the project! If you want someone to press the buttons for you while you’re making all the creative decisions, you need to be clear about it straight away. If you want their advice but would still rather stay in charge, like it was in my case, you need to make sure that the person is creatively interested in your project and understands your expectations. If you trust someone enough to pass creative control to them fully or partially, be even more careful and talk about the terms straight away!

Talk about money before you start working together 

Money related conversations are awkward, and I appreciate that all of us would rather avoid them at all costs. Talking about money when you don’t have much of a budget is ever worse but, unfortunately, this conversation is unavoidable. In fact, I’d say it’s absolutely mandatory!

First of all, you don’t want to end up in debt because the other party wasn’t clear enough on their costs at the start of the project and when it was finished, you ended up with a considerably bigger invoice than what you’d calculated. Even if you end up solving the issue and avoiding getting yourself in huge debt, the initial miscommunication would probably leave some bitter feelings between you and your teammates and would completely undermine all the work you’ve put in. So don’t listen to anyone who tries to tell you that you’d talk about the financials after you complete the project and hold the conversation at the very start! You should also discuss whether your rights might be affected in any way and whether any future profit might have to be split between the parties. Remember that I’m not a qualified lawyer to give legal advice, but ideally, if you can, you should always get a contract in place to back up what’s been agreed! There are quite a few music organisations out there who help their members free of charge with simple drafting and legal advice.

Listen carefully to others’ opinions but make a decision based on your gut feeling

This is probably the most important advice: it’s your music and it’s your choice! It’s important to listen to other people’s advice but you should never ignore what your gut is telling you. The team you’ve hired is there to help you but at the end of the day, it’s your project and you should take ownership of it!

When I showed up in the studio, I felt like a newbie: everything was unfamiliar and I needed guidance. I wanted to make the best product possible and I reconsigned that the professionals I’ve chosen have more knowledge and experience in the recording process than me. I wanted their advice and their opinion because I trusted them and knew that they wanted to help! However, the thing about opinions is that they tend to differ and when you’re faced with a difficult decision whose advice to follow, you need to make sure that you listen to what your gut is telling you.

When I was in the process of editing the EP version of “Dance With Me” into a radio version that later became my debut single, everyone advised me that I should remove the melancholic bridge out of the song so it sounded more consistent. The continuous happy vibe made the single more radio-friendly and the single was played on numerous radio stations. However, looking back I think I’ve stripped the song from a very special moment that changed the meaning behind some of the lyrics and if I could go back and do it again, I’d listen to what my gut was telling me and I’d keep the bridge.

Perfectionism isn’t your friend

This lesson was hard to learn! As a real perfectionist, I wanted the EP to be flawless! I listened to every little breath to check if it was in the right place and replayed every single note, no matter how quiet, to ensure that all of them were perfectly in tune! I wanted to keep improving every song for as long as it needed until the whole EP sounded perfect. The problem was that I’d always find something different that I suddenly felt the need to change and that if I didn’t learn how to let go of my own work, I would’ve been forever stuck in a never-ending race trying to outmatch myself. It turned out that there’s a big difference between being happy and content with your finished product and deliberately picking holes in your work. To be honest, I’d probably never release a thing if I didn’t learn how to stop, so setting some deadlines and sticking to them was a good way of taming my artistic perfectionism.

Timescales should be realistic

This brings us to another important rule: the deadlines you set need to be manageable. Be honest with yourself and calculate how long every stage of the release will take you and don’t let anyone pressure you into rushing things. Don’t forget that it’s not just about recording the EP but also about designing artwork, preparing promotional materials and printing physical copies. Also, don’t forget that whatever possibly can go wrong, will go wrong, and you, therefore, need to factor in extra time to save yourself from a mental breakdown hours before the EP launch party because your CDs haven’t arrived from the manufacturer (true story!).

Don’t forget about mastering

I’ll be honest with you, before starting the project, I had no idea what mastering was. I heard the word “mastering” many times before and even looked it up online but Google’s explanation didn’t really help me understand mastering any better. I had no clue how mastering would affect my songs but it turned out that mastered versions sounded much more polished and smoother on all devices, almost like you’d hear it on the radio.

As a general rule, it’s advised to master your tracks in a different studio from where you’ve recorded them. Most professionals agree that mastering requires absolute impartiality and if the sound engineer has already spent a month working on your music, it’s going to be harder to keep your distance when editing the sound. Involving another professional would also allow you to get an independent opinion on your music which can be helpful in case you have any remaining doubts.

Ahead of the session, the mastering engineer would usually ask for some references of the sound that you’re after to help them understand your expectations! Be careful and don’t put yourself in a box! When I went to the session, I was asked to bring a CD with me, the sound of which I liked and considered to be similar to mine. At the time, I was obsessed with George Ezra’s “Wanted On Voyage” and even though I couldn’t say our sound was the same, I felt there were some similarities in the vibe and hoped that this reference would work nicely. Unfortunately, as much as I still like George Ezra, it didn’t and my tracks lost some of the extra volume in the sound layers that I created during the recording. It wasn’t the end of the world and the EP still ended up sounding great but now I know better than confining my sound to any particular type.

Photo by Jamie McNamee

Promotion should start long before the release date

I think this advice shouldn’t even be on the list because it’s obvious that your product should be properly advertised prior to the release date so you can generate interest around it. However, you’ll be surprised how many artists focus on the actual release and forget that PR work starts long before you get to show your creation to the world.

As embarrassing as it is to admit, I was one of those artists who had zero PR before the EP came out. I was inexperienced and didn’t know much about the process. I was pressured to release the EP as soon as possible after completing the recording stage, and so I solely focused on putting it out into the world hoping that if people like it, the release will be picked up by radio stations and reputable music blogs.

As you might’ve guessed, this wasn’t the right approach. Surely, I posted about the release on social media and talked about it to every person who’d listen. I had a launch party, which quite a few of you kindly attended, and the songs were played on the radio every now and then. However, did you see any reviews or blog posts about the release of my EP? Did someone creditable include me in any charts of rising talents? Did you hear my single on the radio months before the EP came out? No, unfortunately, you didn’t and it’s because none of it was arranged ahead of the time and as soon as the songs were out, they became old news way too quickly with newer releases getting all the attention that I could’ve got if only I planned ahead and didn’t listen to what others were saying. If you’re a starting out artist, I hope you’ll learn from my bad experience, but if you’re someone like Frank Ocean, I’m sure you can drop your album unannounced without any problem.

That brings us to the end of my guide to your first record! I really hope that if you’re a music appreciator, you’ve enjoyed peeking into the making process of my first EP! And if you’re an artist like myself, I hope this guide will help you avoid some of the pitfalls I’ve fallen into and you’ll manage to save a bit of time and money. Be creative, listen to your gut, plan in advance and you will produce amazing tracks that you’ll be always proud of!

If you haven’t had a chance to check out ‘Visitor’ E.P., you can do it on any of these platforms: iTunes; Apple Music; Spotify; Amazon; Google Play.

If you’d like a physical copy, you can easily get it in my store.