Switching to Self-Publishing Was Probably a Mistake

Writers: This post is about music self-publishing, but also I get into the implications for writing self-publishing towards the end of the article.

I recently put together my Discography page, which gave me an opportunity to reflect on my music career to date. I’ve released original music on almost every kind of label, including a major (SONY/BMG), a barely-organized collective (Trip ‘n Spin Recordings), small imprints (SOG, NuRepublic, Kubist, Spundae, Dorigen, POD, Mechanism), my own label (Loöq Records), “big independents” in dance music culture (Global Underground, Armada, Bedrock, Renaissance), and distribution/A&R deals (3 Beat, Silent Records).

My most active period of writing and releasing music was in my late twenties/early thirties. Creating dance music (house, techno, breaks) was my singular, obsessive focus. That period was also the heyday of Qoöl, the weekly event I threw with DJ Spesh at 111 Minna for over a decade (hugely popular, with a packed dance floor and lines around the block), so I also had a deep sense of musical community, and also a great testing audience for new tracks.

At some point, around 2005, we (myself and my primary music collaborators, Spesh and Mark Musselman, the other halves of Jondi & Spesh, and Momu, respectively) stopped sending out demos to other labels, and started releasing music almost exclusively on Loöq Records. This wasn’t a conscious strategic career decision — it was just easier. I was co-running a respected, profitable label, so why not release my music on it? Benefits of self-publishing (or at least “own label” publishing) include:

  • 100% creative control (composition, mastering, art)
  • 100% promotion control (the release would never get “shorted” on promotional efforts unless we got lazy)
  • 100% rights retention (master use and publishing)
  • 100% chance of getting paid if the release made money (including sales, performance royalties, and licensing)

In hindsight, I think releasing music MOSTLY on Loöq Records (with very few exceptions) was a mistake. Why? Because we were not regularly sending out demos and trying to get published on other labels, we missed the following opportunities:

  • Hearing “No” (or “No thank you”). Rejection hurts, but it’s useful feedback. Rejection lets you know that either the A&R people at the label you submitted to weren’t excited by your music, or didn’t think it was a good fit for their audience/fans. By self-publishing, we robbed ourselves of that information. Maybe if we had heard “No” we would have striven to make our music better, more exciting, or more relevant.
  • Hearing “Maybe.” Sometimes A&R people give you feedback that can make a track 10% better, or even 100% better. Having 100% creative control isn’t always a good thing. One time Momu was working on a remix for 19Box Recordings in Japan. They asked us if we could please add an “epic breakdown” (in the typical extremely polite Japanese way). At that time we thought that kind of thing was cheesy. But we did it — we added a long, over-the-top, massive breakdown to our remix. It worked. 19Box knew their audience. The track is still selling today and was recently rereleased.
  • Getting exposed to other/wider audience. We have our own fans, audience, and mailing list at Loöq Records, but we hurt ourselves by not getting our music to other groups. There are synergistic/cross-pollination effects we passed up by staying in our own world.
  • Getting promotional geniuses to push your work. While I think I’m reasonably good at running a record label, I am not a natural salesperson or extremely skilled at promotion. I try to be — I actively work at it — but it’s not something that comes easily. Submitting and releasing our music on other labels would have exposed us not only to wider audiences, but to a wider range of individuals (promotion people, artists, mastering engineers, etc.) who could improve the entire release package, and promote it ways beyond our own DIY capabilities.
  • Working with labels who have better systems in place than our own. At Loöq we have great systems in place for reporting on revenue and paying artists (royalty statements and payments). We have pretty good systems in place for delivering content, working with talented remixers, creating art, communicating with our fan base, using social media and podcasts to promote releases, and generating music licensing opportunities. On the other hand, we don’t have good systems in place for creating music videos, effectively getting press coverage for our releases, and a few other areas. There is always room for improvement. If we had released music on other labels, we might have reaped rewards from labels who had great systems in place in areas where we didn’t. This is similar to the point above, but even more important. A good system usually trumps the efforts of talented individuals, especially in the long-term.

Music labels provide advantages to artists, including A&R, promotion, wide distribution, and status. SoundCloud and BandCamp are great options for self-releasing your music, but there aren’t any big names in the music industry who ONLY release on those platforms, even though they could be keeping 100% of their profits if they did.

If I had it to do over again, I would have tried to stick to the hybrid model that worked pretty well from 1995-2005. Part of the issue was that for the last decade I wasn’t really thinking about my music production career — I was too busy running Loöq Records (label guy hat), and then later being a dad (and earning the additional money that requires, by taking on more freelance work). And of course writing, both this blog and fiction. I was still squeezing in music production here and there, but I didn’t take the time to think about it strategically. Self-publishing was the path of least resistance, and I took it.

So what are the takeaways? Going forward, I’ll still release some of my own music on Loöq, but I’d also like to start sending out original work to other labels. Why not? If you’re still in the game, it’s never to late to change strategies. In addition to my daily writing practice, I have an almost-daily studio practice (usually about an hour in the evening that would otherwise be absorbed by videogames or television). Music production is no longer a singular obsessive focus (I’m a multi-class character, and I’m OK with it), but I still have more grooves I want to share with the world.

In terms of my fiction writing ambitions, I’m still visualizing a hybrid model for the long-term. I’d like to be traditionally published first (and I will have some good news to share on that front soon), and then eventually expand into self-publishing (and I will be closely reading advice written by Hugh Howey, Chuck Wendig, Kameron Hurley, and others who have written about that path). But I don’t want to repeat the same mistake I made in my music career, which is to shift exclusively to self-publishing, even if it turns out to be easy and profitable.

In terms of writing income, hybrid authors (those who engage in both traditional and self-publishing) do the best. Here’s the chart, borrowed from this post:

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One clarification — I have NO regrets about starting Loöq Records. It’s empowering to have a venue to release your own music. Loöq has introduced us to artists from over twenty different countries. The label is profitable almost every year, and has allowed us to retain the majority of our rights. We’ve generated at least a million dollars of licensing, sales, and event revenue over the years.

My only regret is staying too much in my comfort zone, and not risking rejection more!

Investing a Lump Sum, Part I: The Dangers of Wealthfront

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Ready to stuff under the mattress.

Wealthfront is a new company that manages your investments according to an allocation plan that you decide. Primarily they invest in low-fee ETFs. Generally I like the idea of what Wealthfront offers, but there are some significant risks.

Generally I think asset allocation is a good investment strategy. Pick sectors that don’t usually correlate (bonds, stocks, possibly real estate, gold, commodities), decide on percentages that make sense given your age and risk tolerance (your age in bonds, as a percentage, is a common rule of thumb), and rebalance every year or so. I provide details on exactly how to do that in my post How to Get Rich Slowly Without a High-Paying Job, including Google Sheet examples and projections.

However …

I’m concerned about the following scenario:

  1. Millennials, many of whom are more financially savvy and conservative than they are given credit for, choose services like Wealthfront to automate an asset allocation investment approach.
  2. After answering the questions in the Wealthfront asset allocation questionnaire, they select an allocation plan that is something like 80% stocks. This is because they are all young and all think they have a high tolerance for risk (most of them will find out later that losing money isn’t as fun as they thought it would be).
  3. They invest their hard-earned savings nut, buying into the stock market when the Shiller PE Ratio is well-above 20 (months ago it was up to 26). The Shiller PE Ratio, which includes historical earnings in its calculation, isn’t meant to be used as a market timing indicator, but historically it has predicted long-term returns quite accurately.

Investing 80% of your life savings in the stock market when the Shiller PE Ratio is this high is not wise. So what’s an alternative approach?

Choose an Automated Plan, but Lean Conservative (and Adjust Later)

I like the Wealthfront service. If I were to create my own investment management company, it would operate pretty much in the same way. Though I’m not an early adopter, I might even use it myself down the road (though probably not — I enjoy managing my own investments). But I wouldn’t rule it out. For the ostrich investor, it’s an ideal service.

My only criticism is from what I can tell, it’s too easy to end up with a very high stock allocation, which, under these market conditions, is damn risky. If your initial nut is $1000 and you are investing $1000 a month, the initial allocation doesn’t matter as much. Over time, you’ll be buying low more often than not (the automated allocation algorithm will do that for you–if the stock market plummets then the algorithm will have to buy more stocks to maintain your allocation percentage).

But if you invest $20K and then add $500 a month, the initial allocation makes a big difference. If you are 80% stocks, and the stock market tanks hard over the next few years (look how much it has gone down just in the last few months) then you’ve just taken a big hit, especially if you consider how much that initial investment can compound over 30+ years.

My simple advice for new Wealthfront investors is this: don’t go over 50% allocation in stocks while the Shiller PE Ratio is over 20, no matter what your allocation questionnaire results say, if you are investing a significant initial amount. Start with a more conservative allocation, then take a look in a few years. If the Shiller PE is closer to 15, or even 18, then up your stock allocation percentage (risk tolerance) as high as you want.

Usually asset allocation percentage adjustments go the other way — reduce your stock market exposure as you get older. But for young investors I would recommend the opposite at this point.

Is this strategy the same as trying to “time the market”? The Wealthfront blog offers a good argument as to why you shouldn’t change your risk tolerance score all willy nilly every time the market moves. You’ll end up selling low.

I’m simply suggesting that you don’t buy high, with all your money. If you want to make money long-term in the stock market you need to get in somehow, but there’s no reason you can’t limp in. It’s just safer that way.

Of course I could be wrong. The biggest stock market rally of all time could be about to begin, defying all historical trends. What do I know? I’ve made every investment mistake in the book.

Kleidosty – Strange Skin (and choosing the creative life)

LQ-1189_800I was up at the Echo Lake Berkeley Family Camp with my family and Jason Kleidosty’s family. Jason had brought his laptop and headphones and worked on his ambient music in the evenings, drinking a beer and watching the post-sunset glow from a cliff-top bench. I left my computer at home but did my fiction scribblings each morning in my notebook, drinking high-octane coffee from the bottomless cafeteria urns. Early mornings and late evenings were the quiet times of the day — family waking hours were filled with the sounds of screaming children (some joyful, some tantrums). Children love to scream.

Nobody was making us work. The rewards? Who knows. Is anyone besides Boards of Canada making a living from ambient music? Some science fiction writers I idolize, and who have tens of thousands of fans (or at least Twitter followers) toil away at day jobs. Creative efforts, even from the most talented and hardworking, don’t always make ends meet. I make most of my money solving database problems. Sometimes I fantasize about alternatives. I suppose I could write and sell a hair-regrowth eBook, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I’d rather write a long treatise on medieval polearms and sell it on dmsguild.com. I’ll bet I could make dozens of dollars. But I need an illustrator.

The reason we create, and keep creating, is because the reward is immediate. The process is the payoff. If it isn’t, find something else to do. If you succeed at the activity, the reward is doing more of that activity. Are you okay with that? Spend time doing things you enjoy, period.

Why would someone write a sixteen minute instrumental track with no hummable melody? Well, I’m glad he did. I get lost in the track. I can’t stop listening to And/Or. Just pop off the top of my skull and wire up my brain with the intergalactic quantum orchestral strings.

Which is to say, Strange Skin, the new album from Kleidosty, is out today. Please rate if you purchase, and leave a review if you like.

Paleo-Vegan Meal

Paleo-vegan lunch.

Paleo-vegan lunch.

Lately I’ve been eating a bit lighter to compensate for some overindulgence over the holidays. January is typically no-sugar month around here (fresh fruit allowed) but the meal pictured above goes a bit further: no animal products, no grains, no legumes. I wouldn’t recommend paleo-vegan as a diet (not enough protein, hard to get enough calcium, B12, and calories) but if you want a filling, inexpensive, nutrient-dense meal with a light environmental footprint, you could do worse. The salad above includes the following:

  • organic greens
  • olive-oil roasted yam cubes
  • cherry tomatoes
  • mini-bell peppers
  • raw sauerkraut
  • avocado
  • tangerine
  • roasted sunflower seeds
  • roasted almonds
  • seasoned with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and paprika

It’s easy to get too much protein on a paleo diet (eggs for breakfast, chicken lunch, steak for dinner, etc.). Too much protein is acidifying and can potentially leach calcium from bones. Animal protein is generally expensive too. There’s no reason to eat more than you need.

The ingredients to make the salad above cost less than $2.00. With the exception of the roasted yam cubes that were leftovers from another meal, assembly (including “clean as you go”) took less than 10 minutes.

The salad lunch is a good way to go even if you throw some blue cheese or sardines in there. Fast, cheap, nutritious, delicious, and no post-meal sleepiness.

Please be respectful of other people’s dietary requirements and choices in the comments. This post may be worth a re-read.

Good health to you!

The System is the Result

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Goals are useful. A goal points you in the direction you want to go, gives you a metric by which to measure progress, and ideally provides the motivation to get there.

But goals don’t produce results. A behavioral system (including automated behaviors) produce the actual results. Your system of diet and exercise will produce physical and health results. Your system of saving and investing will produce wealth results. Your system of communicating and being kind and generous to people will produce relationship results.

They may not always be great results. That depends on the quality of your system, your compatibility with the system you’ve chosen, and how effectively you implement it.

I’ve managed to overcome health problems by tweaking my diet and supplements, and those system continue to work well for me. I feel pretty good about my saving and investing system too. My chess system, on the other hand, needs a lot of work. I only know a few openings, I fall into simple traps, and I too often impulsively make the first decent move I see without considering other options. But I’m working on it.

Writing, chess, and racquetball are three skills I’m actively developing. Some of the work is just doing the thing a lot. Learning new techniques and practicing those techniques — actively pushing the boundaries of your skill and paying the learning tax — is a big part of getting better. So where does the system part come in? What does that even mean?

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