So you’ve previously released an album, an EP, or even just a single, and you’re ready to embark on your next project. With so many places to start when it comes to songwriting approaches, recording strategies, and marketing endeavors, it’s important that you ask yourself a few key questions – and that you're satisfied with your answers. We’ve compiled a starter list of six things to ponder before tackling your next record.
1. What did I learn from my last album?
Yes, your new album should feel fresh and unhindered by whatever work you’ve previously released. This doesn’t mean that you can’t take a significant amount of useful information away from it such as what marketing strategies failed or succeeded, what your fan response was like, and how you changed. It’s only natural to adapt your musical story to fit your current state of mind. This means that you have to dig deep and figure out how you grew as a person, as a writer, and even as a performer since your last project. Utilize these changes to help give your new album a new voice and a fresh perspective.
2. What do I want to say?
Is this going to be a concept album to explore your newfound musical tastes, a storytelling sequence with a theme threaded throughout each title, or an experimental album to broaden your audiences (at risk of losing your established fanbase)? These are important questions to ask yourself to determine your approach to songwriting, especially when it comes to formulating compelling lyrics.
Is this album going to capture an individual set of experiences you had, call for social change, or address larger topics than your previous album? Art imitates art, and there’s no shame in researching great lyricists throughout history to get a sense of how to develop your artistic point of view and frame a story through a poignant song that can translate across barriers. True art is about transformation — taking from what your eyes see and your heart feels and creating a lens through which others can experience the same visions and vibrations.
3. Will I collaborate with different musicians, writers, or producers?
This will be important in adapting your sound so you deliver something unique, but also true to your artistic image and stylistic direction. Collaborating with other performers and finding session musicians who come from varying backgrounds will expand your musical ideas. You just have to be open and honest about what style you’re looking to create or mirror. You want your album to have an "x" factor, and infusing your music with a broadened palate of sounds (e.g., bringing in a sitar in your bridge, adding a hocchiku flute to the ambience surrounding the second verse, etc.) will do just that. Bringing in outside co-writers or producers will also help your ideas flourish, and give you support and direction when writer’s block sets in.
4. Do I plan on touring?
This question is crucial to answer in determining the type of material you want to create. Do you want more upbeat, crowd-ready anthems, soulful dance grooves, or more transparent, acoustically minded ballads born from conviction and vulnerability?
Intimate storytelling music without proper adaptation doesn’t always translate well to live audiences. In an exclusive interview with Fuse network, Coldplay’s Chris Martin talks of how writing tour-ready singles complicates the recording phase of an album because they’re expected to sound a certain way, and it’s not always cohesive with the rest of the album. His resolution? Follow your gut. If a song feels right, even in it’s not meant for a live audience, include it because it adds authenticity to your work.
5. Do I have the necessary funds to create the sounds I envision?
This seems like an obvious question to have answered, but unfortunately it’s easy to overlook at first, feeling like the money will come as you go. This is less important for signed artists, as most record companies still give some type of advance to help cover the costs of session players and recording facilities.
If you’re on your own, though, leaving money out of the equation is a big mistake. Before you ever get started, you or someone on your team should prepare an extensive budget that includes all the money it will realistically take to release a finished product. This includes knowing who will play on each song; whether or not you’ll hire a producer; the writing, rehearsing, and recording spaces you’ll need; and the marketing strategy you’ll use.
The talent you surround yourself with can drastically enhance the overall result, so you’ll want to be prepared to account for any financial considerations to hire the right people for the job. Campaign sites like Indiegogo, GoFundMe, and Kickstarter are great places to start if you need additional money to help get you started.
6. What’s my timeline?
Having a deadline forces you to stay on track and make decisions. Without a release date in mind, it’s nearly impossible to determine what the necessary next step is. You’ll want to track your progress, know if you’re on schedule, and have the accountability of knowing your fans have something to expect delivered. If you’ve decided to tour, this obviously becomes even more crucial in planning out a timeline of when writing needs to be completed by, how long you’ll need for auditioning and contracting outside talent, and the restraints on your personal life being able to commit to long-term goals.
Ask yourself if you can realistically devote the next six months or year to this project, and what you’ll need to stay motivated throughout. Always give yourself extra time and account for potential setbacks within your working schedule to have flexibility for unknown outcomes. Most importantly, have a trusted ear by your side each step along the way to encourage you and be honest about where you’re at both musically and emotionally.
Caleb Hsu is an independent vocal producer and freelance recording engineer based in Los Angeles. As a classically trained pianist and composer, he enjoys writing music technology features that combine his psychology background with current industry trends.