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Truth and Free Stuff, Part 2 – An Interview with Andrew Osenga

Recently, I heard a guy on the radio say sausage and laws are two things you don’t really want to watch being made.  I thought about that for a couple seconds, and found his logic to be pretty well water tight.  The process of making music, on the other hand—and making a career at it—is something I am very much interested in seeing.  Recently I wrote a speculative piece here about the responsibility one assumes when they download a “pay what you want” record from an artist they like.  I call it a speculative piece because I know little about the actual process or desired ends of creating a record that will be offered at no initial cost.  But then I went over to Andy Osenga’s blog—as I do on a fairly regular basis—and discovered he found my post to be “interesting.”

Well that’s cagey, isn’t it?  Interesting?

Anyhow, I thought, “You know, Russ, maybe Andy would be willing to be the horse’s mouth and show us how they make the proverbial sausage (awkward and kind of gross mixing of metaphors right there- sorry about that), and what they hope to recover from the process.  We all want to know this kind of stuff, but the rules of propriety and decency keep us from asking such questions at the merchandise table after a show.  You know what would be “interesting?”  It would be interesting if Andy took one for the team of artists offering free downloads and took us through the process, the rational and the objective of giving their music away.  Andy graciously has agreed to weigh in.  Interesting stuff.  Thanks Andy.

RABBIT ROOM: Looking at your professional life, it seems you have your hands in a bunch of different projects—Caedmon’s Call, your studio full length records, your Letters to the Editor projects, your session work as a guitar player.  Do you look at any one of those as your full time job and the others as side gigs?  I guess what I’m asking is this: what would you say you do for a living?

ANDY OSENGA:  I play music for a living.  I have realistically five part-time jobs:  I produce records, I play guitar and sing on other people’s records, I’m a solo artist, I’m in Caedmon’s Call and I write songs for other artists.  I’d love to get to the place where I only do one or two for a living, and do the rest more as a hobby, but we’ll see…

RR: I know some people can get uncomfortable talking about this kind of thing, but would you indulge me and talk a little about financial specifics.  What does it cost to make a high quality record these days?  How about a range for the investment of both dollars and time?

AO:  A good, quality recording can cost any range of money, but the budgets I usually work with, on both sides, are anywhere from 10 to 30 grand.  Back in the day they used to cost more, but recording has actually gotten cheaper, with digital recording,  Most records are made with a few days in a big studio and the rest in a smaller overdub place, stuff that couldn’t be done ten years ago.  But it’s not cheap.  You have to pay players and engineers and studio time.  Even if you do it yourself at home you need gear, a computer, microphones, preamps, cables, stands, monitors…  It’s not cheap, though it’s cheaper than a tape machine and a console.

RR: For an independent artist, where do the funds to make a record come from, typically?

AO:  Often the money comes from family, churches who support the artist.  Some people have jobs and save up, but that seems like another planet to a guy like me.  Artists who already have an audience can preorder/save up, and that’s the best way to do it, I guess. I still owe money from my last record which I hoped to pay off years ago.  It just takes forever, especially with a family.

RR: Word on the street is that you’re working on another solo record?  When will that be headed our way, and will it be “pay what you want,” like the “Letters” projects, or will it be for sale like your other full band records, Photographs and The Morning?  How do you, or other artists in  similar situation, make that decision?

AO:  I am making another project. Not sure now exactly what it is or when it will be released.  It will not be a Letters project, but who knows how people may sell records by the time it’s finished.  It is a full-band recording, thus it’s costing more money (and taking more time to be able to do it).

RR: It seems like you Square Pegs are all friends with each other, which can lead to the speculation that you just play on each other’s records for free because you like each other.  Is this how it works, or are you guys usually compensated if you play on a friend’s record?

AO:  We are all friends and do work together a lot.  We do get paid, though.  Sometimes it feels like we just trade money back and forth, but that’s the right way to do it.  Friendship is wonderful, but it doesn’t pay the mortgage.

RR: How much of a risk is it for an artist to give their music away?  Have you ever had a conversation with another musician about the pros and cons or risks and benefits of the free download?  Are artists reluctant or eager to give away songs?

AO:  It’s a HUGE risk.  We have conversations about it all the time.  People are all over the map on this.  Freelancing at a studio I’m able to do the Letters EPs for “free”, meaning I don’t spend money on them, but I don’t make money when I’m working on them either.  It’s a rock and a hard place at this point.

RR: When an artist decides to offer an entire record online at no initial charge, what are they hoping will come of it in the end—both in the short term and in the long term?

AO:  We’re hoping for a lot of different things: a bigger audience, better show attendance, a “buzz” in general.  In my case, if somebody decides to pay, there’s no middleman.  It goes straight into my bank account, which goes straight to paying bills.  It’s great when people decide to enter into that.  I can’t explain how big of a help that is.  With label albums I would write and record and a year later get a check for 4% of what money came in.  It’s a lot less profit overall, but I probably make about the same.  Still, the long-term goal is that the music would go viral and get people into what I do, and that they would then buy records, come to shows…  Who knows, man.  I don’t.  It feels like a shot in the dark, but one day I hope something catches on.

RR: What about things like insurance, retirement, college for kids?  Are most artists considered self-employed?  In what ways do folks in your line of work plan for the future?  With royalties?  Careful saving?  Or do you all just keep plugging along hoping to score a hit of “Achy Breaky Heart” proportions?

AO:  Pretty much the “Achy Breaky Heart” goal, unfortunately.  I’m at the point now where I’m looking at all the things I do and am trying to figure which ones have potential for a better future financially.  You’ll notice there aren’t a lot of 45 year-old singer songwriters playing colleges and coffeehouses for a living.  I’m looking at songwriting and production more these days.  I have two little kids and would like to travel less, as well.  Just wanting to follow the lead of the Lord and find the right future.  I’ll let you know…

RR:  Thanks Andy.  Interesting stuff, indeed.  And so you all know, the picture at the top of the post is of a plaque hanging on the wall at the Nashville Airport next to a defribulator.  Not kidding.


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