If you have an instrument and an original idea, you can write a great song. Producing a great song is another thing. Songwriters can connect with a network of collaborators to boost the professionalism of their recordings — here are tips when hiring musicians online.
Often, the biggest challenges you face when writing a song are internal. It’s not about a lack of resources — if you have an instrument and an original idea, you can write a great song. Producing a great song is another thing altogether. Not only does a great-sounding production require time, money, and resources, it requires a completely different skill set.
Until recently, producing a professional-sounding album on a budget was out of reach for a lot of musicians. It was even more challenging for those not located in a music hub. Many barriers still exist, but access to world-class talent is no longer one of them. Music producers, songwriters, and bands can now connect with a growing online network of collaborators to boost the professionalism of their recordings, and some are even producing entire albums online.
When we launched AirGigs in 2012, the world of online music production was still very new. People were doing some collaboration online, but it was mostly just a handful of brave and forward-thinking souls. Since those days, we have watched the online music production landscape blossom and have had the privilege of overseeing thousands of successful online sessions. Leaning on our expertise, we’ve compiled a list of five tips to help you have the best possible experience when hiring musicians online.
1. Assess the state of your production
Before you take the dive and begin seeking or hiring musicians online, you have to be clear about the state of your current production. Depending on where you are with your project, it could be just an idea in your head, or you could have most of the tracks recorded and ready to be mixed. If you’re still in the idea phase, your first steps will be:
- Establishing a definitive song structure (intro, verses, choruses, bridge, etc.), melody, tempo and key
- Creating charts/lyric sheets for the musicians and vocalists
- Creating a guide track synced to a metronome for the musicians to work against. It should have a 1-2 measure count-in so they know when to begin playing
If you don’t know how to do any of the items listed above, you can hire a pro to prepare those things for you at the outset. A good place to begin is by getting a production consultation from a professional producer.
2. Provide good reference material
Having an idea of how you want your track to ultimately sound is an important starting place. You don’t have to be technical to know what you like. I recommend you create a playlist of songs that capture a sound and feeling close to what you hope to capture. That playlist is going to reveal some really important things, the first of which is the instrumentation. Nothing is going to shape the sound of your production as dramatically as the choice of instrumentation. For instance, if you’re going for a rootsy Americana vibe, acoustic instruments with an intimate feel are likely going to be a big part of the sound. If you’re aiming for a funk/R&B thing, you might want horns, synths, and backing vocalists. Of course, the range of styles and possibilities is vast. If you have a production playlist of 8-10 songs, you’re going to find a common thread with respect to instrumentation.
Another important reason to have a production playlist is that you can refer back to it when you provide direction to the musicians you hire. For instance, if you’re planning on hiring a vocalist, and you like the vocal sound from a track on your production playlist, then you can share that with the vocalist and discuss ways to come close to that sound. The same thing applies to the instruments as well. For example, a Hammond organ is going to sound right on certain songs and totally out of place on others.
3. Establish clear communication and terms
Nothing ensures a good remote session like establishing clear, straightforward communication and terms. Gauging how responsive a person is to your questions and requests before you start working is a good indicator of how responsive they will be when work begins. This sounds obvious, but people often ignore warning signs in the pre-booking phase. Make sure the person you are considering has the time and interest to address questions and concerns before you hire them.
Establishing clear terms is important as well. Before booking you need to clarify:
- Total cost for the service
- Delivery date
- Contracts (work for hire, co-writing, etc.)
- How many revisions/takes are included
- What is the refund policy (if there is one)
- Whether or not the artist will be credited
4. Allow room for creativity
It’s great to have a concrete idea in mind, but great producers always leave some room for each musician to bring their own “thing” to the table. Sometimes it’s all about picking the right players for a song. There’s an intangible quality to capturing great recordings, and if you want to capture it you have to leave room for the unexpected. When you’re working on a tight budget and there’s a lot on the line, it’s easy to give too much direction and overproduce. Striking the right balance between providing concrete direction and leaving room for the unexpected takes faith, skill, and experience, but it’s key when working with session musicians — online or in person.
5. Share responsibility for results
With any creative endeavor, from time to time you are going to get results you don’t expect — and might not like. When you’re caught up in the heat of the production, it’s easy to lose sight of the time and energy another artist has devoted to your project. On a traditional in-person session date, musicians and engineers are paid for their time, and it really should be no different when working with musicians online. Great producers don’t blame session musicians for an unwanted result. They know it’s about them taking the time to find the right players, having the language to articulate the vision, and creating an atmosphere that brings out the creativity of those players.
Sometimes you have to be willing to accept an unwanted result and use it as a learning experience. If you can do that, over time you can build a great online production team you can call on at a moment’s notice.
David Blacker is a musician, multimedia producer and co-founder of AirGigs. His credits for original composition and production include projects for Dewars, Virgin Media, Fuse Network, Rounder Records, Starbucks, Truefire, QVC, and more. He is passionate about American Roots music, music production, and creating new opportunities for artists and musicians.
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