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Old 28th January 2018
Here for the gear
Raellic's Avatar
There are some posts on here asking about digital distribution, and other posts about the state of the industry. It seems really grim. I have released one full-length album for both physical and digital as an executive producer/label, and I thought I would share my experience in my introductory post before I get old and jaded (lol).

Short version: I am delighted with the outstanding final product and all the participants who helped in creating it, but I am disappointed in the financial side of it (of course). The album has not been a financial success despite getting great reviews and being selected for a “best of” article in Guitar Player. At the same time, I have greatly enjoyed this experience and I am working on other adventures involving the same people that are just as cool. I have made new friends and business colleagues as a result of all this, so it was well worth the substantial expense. I tell the full story to give people a sense of how hard and expensive this was and how it turned out. Skip to the conclusion if you like, but I think it’s worth a read.

It started in January 2013, exactly five years ago. I found a band called LoNero on Twitter when they randomly tweeted me a link to one of their songs. I listened to the first thirty seconds of it and I was absolutely blown away. I thought “these guys are GENIUSES and I have never heard music like this.” I bought their existing CDs, listened to them, and was just as blown away. Then I got really busy with work and forgot about it for a couple of years.

Fast forward to June 2015. LoNero was on tour with Tony MacAlpine. I decided to go because I remembered their awesome music and it was close to where I live. So I went to their show and had a great time. After the show, Bill Lonero (frontman of LoNero) did a meet and greet. Everyone wanted to talk to him, so I had to wait a while. I introduced myself to Bill and, because I wasn’t sure how long I would be able to talk to him, I proposed a crazy idea that I had been thinking about out of the blue: I would be interested in exec producing an album of cover songs arranged and performed by LoNero as instrumentals. By exec produce, I mean I would hire the band to arrange and perform an album that I would release in their catalog on my own record label. Bill initially looked at me like I was crazy, then after a few moments of thinking about it, I think he saw what it could be and said we should talk further about it. We discussed the project over the next couple months and ultimately made an agreement that worked for everyone. I recommended songs for LoNero to arrange and cover as instrumentals, and subject to their approval, they agreed to do it. The album would be a double album called Guitarcore.

Throughout 2015 and 2016, work continued on Guitarcore. I was blown away by the first song they sent me, Hold the Line. Wow, it was amazing and we all agreed on that. Based on how great it was, we continued with the project through the end of 2016. In summer 2016, LoNero released its initial version of the album The Defiant Machine. The album had been in the works for several years. It was recorded fine, but when I listened to it, it seemed like all the sounds were blended together. In other words there was no panning of any instruments and it was one big blob of sound, and it sounded mono. The engineer who mixed the album had claimed to know what he was doing, but we later learned it was his first real effort at mixing an album. Also, at the end of 2016, I discovered we had a problem with Guitarcore: the engineer had a personal issue that was impacting his work, and he had to withdraw from the project due to that issue. When I listened to the sessions from Guitarcore, I discovered that the recording quality and mixing were completely inconsistent across all the tracks. Essentially, they were useless to me. What the hell was I paying this engineer for?

Fast forward to January 2017. Bill and I were at his studio trying to salvage the Guitarcore project and something occurred to us (I can’t remember which portion was whose idea, lol). The concept we came up with was to re-mix The Defiant Machine with a pro-level engineer at a real studio and turn out a far better product than the initial release. If we were to go with my choice at Prairie Sun, who I knew from a prior, smaller project, we would get Mastered for iTunes to boot! The point in this part of the story is, this was the critical moment in the process: nothing to do with the music, but rather the decision whether to invest the thousands and thousands of dollars it ended up taking to make it sound awesome. This outlay would be made instead of finishing Guitarcore.

I ended up meeting up with Tim at NAMM and we talked about the project. Everything sounded very reasonable, including the price for his portion and the studio time. He was very agreeable and straightforward with me about what it would take to do this. I enjoyed the initial version of the album despite the poor mixing, so I saw the potential in what Tim could do and we got along well. It just made sense.

To that end, Bill and I went to Prairie Sun in March 2017. That place is awesome-- a residential recording facility in Northern California with multiple guest houses and a lot of great hardware in its three studios. It took us five full days in the studio to mix the album. I will never forget that experience! There’s video we took showing just one small portion of the studio time, and that was a great part of the project:

LoNero - Day 1 of 5 remixing our new CD "The Defiant...

Here is a nice pic of the SSL console at Prairie Sun:

Here is a great pic of drummer Will, engineer Tim, and guitarist/frontman Bill:

We mastered the album and I released it in May 2017 on my label through CD Baby, both digitally and physically. We also ordered CD’s for LoNero to sell at shows and for me to send around to major labels and people I wanted to get the music in front of.

Here are some pictures of LoNero signing people's pre-orders:

Anyway, soon after we released the album, the reviews started coming in from various websites, and Bill did podcast interviews to talk about the project and his thoughts on the industry, stuff like that. The reviews were great, and said things like “THE instrumental album of the year so far!” Then something amazing happened: The Defiant Machine was selected as a noteworthy album of the last fifty years by Guitar Player! You won’t get the full effect by just reading this excerpt, because the first eight or nine pages of the list show all the big guitar albums from 1967 to 2017. But here is our section:

Also, “Burning of Ideals (A Date Which Will Live in Infamy)” from the album was selected for inclusion in a Guitar Player compilation of the best guitar tracks of 2017, which is apparently in progress.

To date, I have made very little on my investment of thousands and thousands of dollars. This was just my costs for re-mixing the album and making it professional, and does not include the years of hard work or the costs the band had to pay to actually record it, shoot the photos, and put everything together! But I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. LoNero has a great album and they can sell it at their shows, and I almost shot the moon with the very first release on my label. I couldn’t ask for more.

The Defiant Machine was unlike anything else I have done in my life. To see the inner workings of a truly professional, historic studio like Prairie Sun; to see Tim working on about a 90-channel SSL console and to hear the album blasting out of those TSM-1 studio monitors; to see everyone’s excitement in the process; to work with true artists; to turn out a top quality product that exceeded everyone’s expectations; to have that product positively reviewed and ultimately selected by a magazine; to have made new friends and business colleagues from this project; and to have my family and friends realize that this passion project produced actually great music, which is why I did it in the first place, was basically the happiest and most self-actualized I have been in my life! This is why I did it! It was worth it!

Lessons learned:
1. Don’t count on making literally any money.
2. Have a budget well in advance and avoid unexpected increases.
3. Hire very experienced people who bring value to the project.
4. Focus on value, not overall price.
5. Record and mix with the best people and equipment possible on the budget.
6. Even great music that is peer-reviewed well is not guaranteed to get listened to.

I guess I just wanted to share my experience. Honestly, it’s somewhat cathartic to do so. We are working on other, very exciting stuff as I write this, and I look forward to continuing these types of projects. Hopefully something ends up making money, but I can live with an awesome catalog even though it will have cost me tens of thousands of dollars. So if someone were to ask me about the state of the industry, I would say it’s bad but still satisfying.