Tony Brooke: DIY FYI Guide For Musicians

by Tony Brooke

(Originally published 3/6/02 in SFWeekly's music supplement "Listen Up! 2002". A few bits updated 2004-6.)

So, you've convinced your drinking buddy to record your music and now you think you're ready for the airwaves. Well, guess what? You couldn't get that thing on commercial radio if you glued cash to it.

Or maybe you've got a gig at McSeedy's Dive and you're wondering how your legions of fans could possibly fit inside the place. Then on the night of the show, not even your best friends show up.

Welcome to DIY 101: Meet the New Boss. You're the boss now, but remember that you're the gofer, too. This guide will get you started on the road to supernova stardom with a slew of cheap, effective recording and promo tips.

A few years back, musicians drooled at the prospect of cheap home recording studios and the Internet's "level playing field." DIY (Do It Yourself) became the mantra. But the cheaper it gets to make and distribute music, the more competition there is for the listener's ear and wallet. The number of new releases has exploded in the last decade, greatly outpacing the increase in spending by music fans. Musicians valiantly try to ignore real-world issues like finding practice space, getting gigs, and making a living. Sorry, there is no quick route to the Top 40 unless your music is the flavor of the month (which has an equally quick expiration date).

Fear not, budding maestro! I'll show you the way. Use the contacts below to record a CD, get gigs, publicity, and a fan base. In no time at all you'll be surrounded by nekkid groupies and pony-tailed music-industry lizards. All of these ideas are on the cheap, so save your cash for guitar strings and a real engineer. Above all, keep your cocky stage attitude out of your business dealings, because there are plenty of other musicians out there who are great players and flexible to work with.

First and foremost, write some good, original music. Do not skip this step or you will go nowhere. Period. Then practice, practice, practice. (The Bay Area rehearsal studio shortage is not as bad as it was in 2000-2002.)

Record at an experienced local studio. Competition is fierce, so the charge per hour is less than you might think. If you do it yourself at home (or at one of the many cheaper "project" studios that sprouted in the '90s), don't expect it to sound as good or be finished anytime soon. You get what you pay for. Second opinions and efficient production skills come from experience and are worth a lot. When comparing hourly rates, remember that experienced engineers are much faster than newbies, so divide hourly rates by the "time-saved factor." So don't call all the studios in town asking "what's your rate" without learning more about their experience and compatibility with you.

The recording process has four stages: the initial recording of the instruments to a multitrack tape or hard disk recorder ("basic tracking"); additional recording to add instruments and further editing ("overdubbing and editing"); mixing these multitrack recordings down to the familiar stereo mix ("mixing"); and assembling the stereo mixes in the desired sequence with consistent equalization, dynamics, and volume ("mastering").

To stay within your budget, try specializing: Record the drums and live instruments at a tracking studio, then go home for the time-consuming overdubs and editing. Get the mix 90 percent done (saved in Pro Tools or in an automated mixer if possible), and then bring your multitracks to a studio that specializes in mixing. It's wise to leave a cushion in your budget for the inevitably underestimated mix time (add 15 to 20 percent).

Don't skip mastering -- it makes the difference between Major League and Bush League. Try Mr. Toad's, Mark Willsher, Paul Stubblebine or Gary Hobish.

Get the CD pressed at CommunityMusician, KABA or Mixonic. Or for a really professional look, go to Disc Makers, who offer tons of extras as part of the package including graphic design work, distribution deals and more. For discounts, tell them Silent Way sent you.

For professional photography, hire Dan Dion, who has shot everyone from Spinal Tap to the Dalai Lama. For artwork, check out Winston Smith.

So far, this has been a fairly typical scenario. What comes next will keep your masterpiece out of the bargain bin. This is the tricky part ...

Get the word out. Promoting your art is like bottling a flame for sale on a street corner: It's hard to sell without stifling it. The most important thing musicians should concentrate on is creating their music. Secondary is getting the music to listeners. The art lies in balancing these two conflicting tasks.

First take advantage of community resources in both the physical and virtual worlds. To get gigs, put together a press kit with your CD, photos, and bio. List previous gigs and press, but keep it brief, because nobody cares where your parents were born. Club owners want to know two things: how big a crowd you'd draw, and how much they spend at the bar. Some bookers might even want to know what your music is like, so don't forget the CD. If the first few cuts on your full-length CD are not club-packers, consider burning a handful of CDRs (one-off audio CDs) with your strongest three to five tunes. Get your press kit to all the appropriate local clubs, and read the tips at the Bottom of the Hill's site.

Put up a website with all the press kit info and your beautiful sounds. You could hire one of the billions of laid-off web geeks or build it on your own. First, register your domain name. Then you need a hosting company (basically, you rent space on a server computer where your actual website files are ready for visitors 24-7). DreamHost is an excellent, affordable, remote-server host with advanced features. For ready-made features like a concert calendar, blog etc, try the musician-centric HostBaby.

Don't put all your eggs in one basket at a flavor-of-the-minute social networking site: Friendster,, MySpace etc. They are a great idea and worth doing, but they WILL each be replaced by the next popular destination.

For an audio webstream, try Live365. They are cheap for a basic setup and offer more advanced features for more $. To conserve your budget, combine these methods -- host your own site with a cheap hosting company that doesn't offer media streaming or large storage, and link to a bare-bones "downloads" page provided by another company.

You'll need to encode your music files before uploading to your site, most likely in MP3 format. Decide which cuts are the most representative of your sound and make MP3s with one of the dozens of encoding programs available. Rip MP3 files at 128k or 160k, and make sure that you use proper ID3v2 tags. NEVER let your music out into the world without proper credits! Include Artist, Track Name and Album, and put your contact info in the Comments field. Here's a very detailed guide I wrote on filenames and ID3 tagging.

If you're that worried about losing a few CD sales by giving songs away, create minute-long snippets with an audio editing program, or post unsavable streams. Live365 offers a simple way to set up a looped streaming radio station, which you can fill out with live cuts, side projects, and b-sides. Any stream should give visitors two options, low-bandwidth (24k for dial-up modems) and broadband (56-128k), but if you can only do one, keep it low-bandwidth. Hit the Web for more on digital delivery. These "no freebie" options are more involved and might not be worth the trouble if your whole album is as good as the first few songs. Remember, the whole point is to get your name out there; those new MP3-generated fans can't buy your CD until they know you exist.

Arrange a deal with an online third party that can handle the fulfillment of CD orders on the web, such as CDBaby or GEMM. Look for more in the very educational Indiecentre's List. Go talk to local stores in person -- In San Francisco, go to Aquarius, Amoeba and dozens more. Check out this list for hundreds of stores across the country. On your site, list all the stores and websites that carry your CD.

A new development in the mid-00's is the emergence of "aggregators," who get your music into the online music outlets (like iTunes and Rhapsody) and take care of the logistics. This new role is equivalent to what distributors do in the physical world, getting CDs into retail stores. Read more in my guide to net music companies, and check out examples like IODA, The Orchard, the Digital Rights Agency and the multi-faceted CDBaby.

To get the kids to know your name, you need to get your CD to local radio for exposure. Sure, it's worth a shot to pitch it to the "Modern Rock Station" or the "Kick-Ass Station," and maybe even the "Middle-of-the-Road Station," but don't bank on getting airplay. You'll get a lot more attention from college and noncommercial radio DJs, who are more receptive and more likely to add your opus to their rotation. These smaller stations also feature in-studio appearances, ticket giveaways and locals-only shows. For a long list of Bay Area radio shows that play local artists and for detailed submission info, see Silent Way's Guide to Local Music on the Radio (Bay Area).

Once you get gigs, make sure people know about them. Don't bother plastering posters all over town. Stick to targeted marketing. Get your gig listed in live-music calendars for free publicity. Place the word where people who want to see music look: print papers (weekly and daily), radio "music calendars," and online entertainment guides. Start with the SF Weekly and Bay Guardian. Then proceed down the food chain to the daily newspapers, radio, and the rest. For a comprehensive list of all the Bay Area music calendars, complete with submission details, go to Silent Way's Live Music Calendars Guide (Bay Area and Beyond). An hour of work will get your name printed, spoken, and loaded thousands of times. Submission is good!

Now that you're gathering steam, keep it hummin' by starting an e-mail list of fans. Here's how to do it right.

Since you plan to swim with the sharks, learn more about the business from articles at StarPolish, Indiecentre and of course CDBaby. It's a different landscape since the DIY revolution, but it's still not easy. These steps will build a foundation for a fan base. The rest depends on your originality and perseverance.

Oh, and one more thing -- is your music any good?

Tony Brooke is a music technology jack-of-all-trades who has trouble thinking inside the box. For more tips and the scoop on Silent Way's recording equipment rental, live recording, and Mac consulting services check out, and tune in to

Back To Silent Way's Musician Resources

Also check out Silent Way's Tasty Music Stuff, with lots of info and MP3s for regular-non-musician-type-human-people.

Back to articles by Tony Brooke