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

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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.

Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003). Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.


9 Comments

  1. Matt

    Very candid. The honesty is appreciated, Andy. I think Christian independent music is moving the right direction in aiming for viral success… it’s got Jesus written all over it.

    Currently blowing my mind: Russ Ramsey and Rabbit Room have the same initials. Whoa…

  2. Tom

    Russ and Andy – thank you so much for this post.
    I was very encouraged by what was said here. I’m a full-time musician myself and I love every minute of it. I still love going out on the road for several days, driving for hours in the truck with the band (or if I’m playing solo, with the ipod cranked up), playing for new people, staying in hotels and all that stuff that comes with the territory. But the financial end of it gets kind of depressing sometimes. I’m still paying for my CD, too. I really thought it would have been paid for much sooner than now, but it’s not and it’s time for a re-order ’cause I’m getting low. But, like I said, I still love doing this. And so far the Lord isn’t leading me elsewhere.

    I really appreciate your willingness to be so personal. It always helps to know you’re not the only one, you know?

  3. Joshua Keel

    Hey Andy and Russ. I’m actually considering a career as a full-time musician as well, and your comments were good for me to think about.

    It’s so difficult to find out information about how musicians survive financially. I’d really like to know what I’m getting into. I find myself in a bit of a difficult situation because if I wanted, I could probably have a relatively high-paying, “stable” job. I’ll have a degree in Information Systems Management (God willing) in just a couple of months. But music is what I’m really passionate about, so I’m just trying to find God’s will for me right now.

  4. Tony Heringer

    Russ,

    Thanks for the interview. I’m enjoying “The Morning” and “Photographs” today.

    You forgot to mention “Souvenirs and Postcards” which is also for sale here in The Room: https://store.rabbitroom.com/index.aspx#/details/8850f5ed-8a6b-4709-8a53-22a59d62463e

    As for going viral, for those of you on Facebook, become a fan of Andy here:

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Andrew-Osenga/37887340087?sid=510fd5f933bcc2501c39b2c774265650&refurl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fs.php%3Fk%3D100000004%26id%3D683687252%26gr%3D102%26sid%3D510fd5f933bcc2501c39b2c774265650&ref=s

    My work is done here. 🙂

  5. AW

    Wow, great information from behind the scenes. I want to first say that I love the rabbit room and support many, if not all, of the artists in the Square Peg Alliance, etc. But saying that, I also by no means want to stir up unnecessary controversy with the following thought.
    I don’t doubt an artist’s passion and ministry and heart and goals. However, sometimes, an artist is just not that good. they aren’t accessible or whatever it might be. I’ve downloaded “free” music, be it from noisetrade or from an artist website. Some I have enjoyed and become a fan of and continue to support them (both in listening and in $$). Others I have not enjoyed. I suppose that is the basic argument going in these two threads. That’s the point. However, I think there is a murky ground in all of this too. Far too often, artists take for granted that just because they are independent or new or what have you, that there is just entitlement that comes with the territory. That if ONLY the whole world could hear their music, the choice would be obvious. What about where the artist just does not realize he is talented, but just not good enough. Or that possibly enough people have heard him/her, and they choose no? We should all perform and live for the honor and glory of our God alone, but when one’s livelihood is dependent on talent and the acceptance of others, the water all of the sudden becomes murky. Should I support you or give you $$ simply because your passion and goal is the same as mine, even though what I am paying you for is something I do not enjoy or does not bring me to worship? It’s a tough question to answer.

  6. Aaron Roughton

    I’m not a professional musician, and I am not in any way assuming that I could be one if I wanted to. But money is definitely a reason I’ve avoided pursuing it further. That leaves me in the day job/artist on the side category. The positive side of this is that I made my first cd in 2007 with very little risk associated with it. I’m not depending upon cd sales to pay my bills. The downside is that I’m not depending upon cd sales to pay my bills…so my motivation for selling cds is very low. I think I’ve given away 400 and sold maybe 150. I’ve seriously considered doing the Noistrade thing on my next album…but I really really like holding a cd in my hands…I guess because I’m old. I mean old school. Word.

    So I would ask full time artists, do part time artists who don’t have to earn a reasonable living from what they do make it more difficult for the full timers? Does the fact that you make a living from your art take joy away from it and turn it into a job like anything else? And do you ever find yourself tempted to compromise the integrity of the art to make it more accessible or easy to sell?

  7. Linda Walters

    Thanks for the candid interview Andy and the insights Russ. It defintley will make me think the next time I download a “free” CD by a musician I like.

  8. dave herring

    man, i have always wondered about these things. i’m a very, very small scale independent artist in the charlotte area. thanks for your transparency! by the way, i first got into your music by freely downloading letters back when you first released it, then i got hooked, and bought your other albums. letters 2 is great as well. so, i’m proof your system works. what webb is doing with noisetrade is great too. i’m always impressed by the square pegs!

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