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A Five Dollar Album?


I put together a Christmas album for a couple of friends, and it didn’t turn out bad. I’d concentrated on songs I knew they hadn’t heard yet (and I last saw them Labor Day weekend). The record’s got:

Crosses by the Roadside

The Strange Saga of Quoth, the Parrot

Vampire Roumanian Babies

I Broke My Girlfriend

Doing Battle with the Lawn

Simple Questions (by O.R. Vindstad)

Alphabet Without U—A Rap (“beat” by Jerry Miller)

Sometimes She Could Scream (by Donna Devine)

For Their Own Ends (Southern Pigfish title cut)

Chipmunks Roasting on an Open Fire (collab. with my daughter Kimberly)

Wide range of styles in those ten songs, from Buddy Holly-style rock ‘n’ roll to rap to “traditional” country to a sort of jazz to that kind of bluegrass music popular in the 1940s. A few serious songs (only one written by me), and some that are anything but. What’s surprising is how well it all fits together. It’s not a bad “here’s what Joe can do” sampler.

Does prompt the question whether I could really produce a saleable album like this. I think the answer is “probably.” Most of the recordings have flaws of one sort or another, but they’re still good, listenable stuff; “Doing Battle with the Lawn” is the only one I’d re-do. There are a couple I might add.

Wherewith, an idea. What about an album of songs produced entirely on the Tascam, with whatever I can squeeze out of four tracks? A lot of my material works well with a sparse arrangement, because I wrote it to be performed solo; where I need a band, I actually may have one. I know somebody who plays bass, and somebody who plays lead electric guitar, and they’re both good, and there are a couple of harmonica players around here who are really good. With four tracks, I can do rhythm guitar, vocal, bass and one lead instrument, and mix it all on the Tascam. It’d do until I have better equipment.

I’ve proposed to other writers the idea that economic hard times may present an opportunity. There was a big demand for entertainment in the Great Depression; it had to be cheap, but there had to be a lot of it. That’s a niche independent musicians and writers can fill way better than the big record companies can (in fact, the big record companies may die off because they can’t comprehend “cheap,” and have been more concerned with preserving a monopoly than actually providing entertainment). So ignore them. What can I offer? And how can I get it to market?

If I produced an album on my own primitive equipment, with just me and maybe a few friends playing all the parts, mixed by a tone-deaf sound engineer (me), I wouldn’t feel comfortable charging market rate for it. How about five bucks instead? If I did all the work myself, manufacturing the copies on my old CD burner, I could keep the manufacturing cost down to about $2 per. The $3 “profit” would be recompense for my time (and the marketing costs). Could even call it “The Five-Dollar Album.”

What about the co-writes? There are three on that list, and I’d like to include them because the lyrics (for two of them) and music (the third) are really very good. The Publishing Company is going to need to be active to do that. The material needs to be copyrighted (two of the authors are foreign, and one’s in Chicago), and the Company needs to have an agreement under which the Company has the publishing rights, but they’re assignable at the direction of the authors. Need to talk to the authors—I don’t know to what extent they’ve thought about this. And there’s that investment of money I’ve been avoiding making.

Alternatively, the album—like the last one—would have to include just my stuff, in which event I wouldn’t have to worry about the paperwork, because I’d only be dealing with me. However, if I wanted any of the stuff on the radio, it’d still have to be published, and I’d still need to make the investment in the Company. I may not be able to avoid it.



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