Q & A with Monica Chew
The following is a question and answer exchange I had with pianist Monica Chew. After releasing her first CD last month, Tender & Strange, I was curious how she found the entire experience of self-producing a classical CD album in the 21st century.
I hope others find it as interesting as I did.
Nato: From soup to nuts, what was the most strenuous task in producing your own CD album — what should first-timers be ready to brace against?
Monica: The hardest thing by far was listening to my takes and deciding on the edits. This was hard enough after the recording sessions were over, but between sessions it was especially difficult to be sufficiently self-critical to decide whether a particular track needed retakes without being judgmental about my own playing and how well the sessions were going.
Nato: What part of the process do you wish there would have been a resource available, but alas, there was none?
Monica: I recorded on a concert grand in a concert hall, not my usual type of venue or instrument. I wish I had been able to do a full sound check with the actual recording equipment well before to the actual sessions, so that I had time to practice changes (mostly having to do with pedal and articulation) rather than doing them on the fly. My engineer’s feedback was invaluable in compensating for this.
Nato: What’s one or two things you’d do differently the next time around?
Monica: I wish I had decided on the program further in advance and made sure I didn’t have heavy engagements immediately prior to the sessions. Early in the year I decided to save June for recording, but I didn’t know for sure which program I would record until April, by which time I had already booked a couple unrelated programs (one of which was our Minsky Duo all-Russian program) within 10 days of the first session. I am a big advocate for keeping oneself fresh by playing lots of different repertoire, but it would have been nice to make practicing other repertoire rather more optional during that time.
The program I recorded is also criminally difficult, which is probably not a great idea for a first recording. I got through it, but it did have physical and mental costs.
Nato: You’re a technologist, so you may have a reaction to something Paul Graham once said:
‘Now, files move around like smells, and it’s just not convenient to charge for them.’ Thoughts?
Monica: I don’t have context for this quote, but I’m guessing it has to do with changes that digital distribution have wreaked on the music industry.
Nato: Yes, that’s exactly the context.
Monica: People can and do pay for convenience. Whether or not the amount they pay is sufficient to justify recording is a different question. For me, that question is academic. I didn’t make the recording with the expectation of making money, or even that it would pay for itself. I made because I felt that as someone who spent most of their working hours making music in the past few years, I wanted have a work product that’s easy to share with other people.
Nato: Educate us: does having a physical CD allow for certain online distribution channels to be made available to you, whereas just having some MP3s wouldn’t do it?
Monica: Having an album, physical or not, as opposed to a random assortment of MP3s definitely opens some doors. A curated program tells you something about a person’s vision, storytelling ability through music, and of course their playing. An album doesn’t have to be physical to be available online, but the biggest barrier for people listening to your music is discovery, not distribution. Certainly having a physical album makes it easier to disseminate for review, because the fact that you bothered to make one clears a low bar. Believe it or not, some classical publications only accept physical media, and some classical radio stations only play physical media.
Nato: After getting your recordings squared away, what resources did you end up going with for the rest of the process?
Monica: I didn’t really have much of a budget, so I did all of the artwork and design myself. I used CDBaby for online distribution and am still working on getting physical CDs listed on Amazon. I used Nielsen Soundscan to track sales. I used Loudr for licensing tracks that aren’t in public domain. I used Trepstar for on-demand CD printing. Kunaki is slightly cheaper but much worse in terms of correctness, ease of use, and customer service. I’m still in the process of figuring out marketing.
Nato: I was fond of tape media, didn’t really like the fact that CDs could get scratched and skip, and now streaming media, lo-fi, though incredibly convenient, gets interrupted with ads. Was there a media sweet-spot for you in the past, or are things just getting better?
Monica: Ads are a Faustian bargain publishers made long, long ago, to everyone’s continued detriment. Ads are awful for privacy, security, and keeping one’s focus where it counts. I am more than happy to pay for streaming services that don’t serve ads. I pay for music, books, newspapers, and video. They enrich my life as much as food and housing. As an earlier question pointed out, the world’s not getting any better for content creators, so unless you only want to read or listen to things that are 100 years old, you’d best not make it worse.
Streaming services are amazing and wonderful for making a huge catalog of music available. What they aren’t so good at is recommendations. There’s nothing like picking things out of your collection to listen to with a friend, and I actually enjoy the tactile process of handling LPs & CDs very much. The liner notes on my LPs feel unattainably luxurious these days. I miss having more audio shows that fill the curation gap and am grateful for the ones that still exist.
Nato: As aside: In a perfect world, how would fanatics of classical music consume our music?
Monica: Every day and in person whenever possible! :) More seriously, any time people listen to classical music is good. Recently I went to a friend’s house who had my album on as part of a playlist in shuffle mode, at background levels over mediocre speakers. I didn’t even recognize my own playing, but my husband did and brought it up to the hosts, who then played the entire album, in the intended order, for the party. It was a strange experience (Bartok etudes as background music is not very soothing) but ultimately it led the people at the party, most of whom are not classical music fans, to listen to my music, so I have to say it was a good outcome!