There are no shortcuts when you make a CD. And there's a lot more to preparing and recording your album than singing on pitch when the tape is rolling. Too often, a cabaret artist's decision to record is made without proper research and knowledge. Aside from learning songs and working out arrangements, you will need to be savvy about the technicalities of studio production, which include the roles of the producer, engineer, executive producer, and planning a budget.
"Too many performers are lazy. You've got to do your own footwork and absorb everything you can before going into the studio," warns cabaret-jazz artist Mary Foster Conklin, who spent one year doing research before she set foot in the studio to record her first independent album, "Crazy World," released in 1997.
How does it feel to be your own producer as opposed to having a label? Conklin admits, "The one advantage to total obscurity is that they leave you alone." She released her second indie album, "You'd Be Paradise," last year under Mock Turtle Music, and isn't crying over not having a label. "The best advantage [to recording independently] is having 100% creative and financial control," she adds. Since there are no major cabaret labels out there, and the commercial labels don't even have a cabaret division, if you want to immortalize yourself on disc, you must pay for it yourself.
The most prominent label on the scene is After 9 Records, which has produced several respected artists from cabaret and jazz, including Julie Budd, Barbara Carroll, Andrea Marcovicci, Billy Stritch, and Ann Hampton Callaway. Executive producer Lisa Schiff, recently named chairman of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Series, says, "Today, it's a very hard call when you're a record producer. To be frank, the whole industry is looking bleak." A painfully honest Conklin agrees: "Yes, the music business is bleak--you can dream, but look at the market. You have to work much harder to get noticed." She adds, "The more you put your adjectives to what you are, the more you will be used in the business," noting that having a CD helped her get out-of-town gigs. She also recommends two books that will help recording artists producing their own CD for the first time: "How to Make and Sell Your Own Recording" by Diane Sward Rapoport, and Gary Hustwit's "Releasing an Independent CD." If you get off to a good launch, your ship will steer itself as you begin your journey.
The Producer's Role: Guiding Your Project
Remember, a ship doesn't start the engines without the captain at the helm. So, once you've made the decision to record, and you've worked out a budget, the next thing to do is choose a first-rate producer as your partner in the creative and technical end. As your captain, much of the success of your project lies in his hands. An experienced producer will be able to guide you through the technical process, as well as any rough waters, leaving you to do the work of singing. Ideally, he/she will also become your mentor on the creative end.
"Once you hire a producer, be ready to let him make the important decisions in the studio; rely on his expertise, and trust his experience," says Andre Gauthier, a respected producer, mastering engineer, and the president of Pilot Music, who has over 700 albums to his credit. Gauthier, who has worked with stars from the classical and opera worlds, including Van Cliburn, Denise Grayves, and Marilyn Horne, has also produced albums for renowned Broadway, jazz, and cabaret artists, including Lee Musiker, Donna Murphy, and Karen Mason.
"Learn what to expect from your producer," he advises. "If you had a football team, the producer would be both the coach and the quarterback."
What credentials should you look for in a producer? Aside from the obvious--experience in the studio--your producer should also be familiar with many musical styles, from cabaret to rap. "He may not know them all equally well, but he should be able to work on any album with veracity and a clear knowledge of what is needed," says Gauthier (who put in seven years with RCA). "And," he cautions, "he should be honest about what he's not familiar with."