Beware of placing form over content
This particular line of thought has been percolating for a while. In short, it's my answer to the question: "What's the point of fancy gear and of the glossy production and promotion of music?" Yes, I do believe that those subjects are related.
Let's start with production and promotion. If you live in a city that has a large number of active musicians, or even if you only read the trade rags, you're going to notice that there are a lot of folks willing - you might actually say anxious - to sell you goods and services intended to further your musical goals and aspirations. It's a competitive world, and every little bit of help that you can buy may give you the advantage you need to be noticed, to be heard, to "make it to the next level", or to protect your musical property. Right? Well, maybe...
I'm reminded of how the process of finding a new job has changed, on average, since the 1970s. Back then the conventional wisdom was that a job-seeker needed to stand out from the crowd with an impeccably-presented résumé. Expensive paper and typesetting was said to be essential. If you didn't "make the effort" to present those little niceties that everyone else had you were almost certainly going to suffer by comparison. This is the key to marketing non-essential services: fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD). Somehow I managed to land the jobs of my choosing using a few copies of my résumé printed on a dot-matrix printer. I never found a need to have someone print a hundred or more copies on colored high linen content paper on an offset press. I've seen that kind of printing done - in fact I've used it myself for other purposes - and it produces a gorgeous result. But the primary message of a résumé is neither typographical nor tactile: it's the content that matters.
The résumé's analogue in the musical world, of course, is the CD. This CD is one means to deliver your music to your potential audience. And of course you have to have a "professional-appearing" delivery system in order to be taken seriously, right? At the very least you need a manufactured (not burned) CD in a shrink-wrapped box with a UPC code and registration of the title and tracks on an online CD database for the benefit of computer users who'd rather not type in all that information when they rip your CD to their computer's hard drive. Color artwork has become a must-have, as well. And what about a multi-page folding insert? This is all stuff that the music-buying public has come to expect.
Is all this flash and style truly essential? Who benefits? Well, certainly the folks who manufacture CDs are happy to have your business. The more, the better, from their perspective. And who are they to discourage you from taking their minimum order of 500 or 1,000 CDs? They get your money, you get the CDs. It's a fair exchange. But will you actually sell all those CDs or will they, like those unused offset-print résumés, sit on a shelf somewhere as a reminder of that particular point in your career development?
If you'll actually sell all the manufactured CDs you bought, this line of reasoning obviously doesn't apply to you. But for the vast majority of musicians working in their local markets, and particularly for those working in competitive markets where there are lots of musicians and frequent turnover in the personnel of acts, any particular CD has a very short shelf life. If the CD is no longer relevant because your band has changed or dissolved, any leftover stock loses its value.
So let's rethink the underlying assumption that you need a manufactured CD even for a short run. The folks who'll want to hear your music are almost certainly looking for something out of the mainstream, otherwise they'd just be buying a CD released by a mainstream act. Your audience is already used to seeking out music based upon content rather than packaging. Most of their music is probably on their computer and iPod - they don't need (or in most cases, want) the professionally-produced packaging. Packaging is disposable. It's the content that matters. Buy yourself a spindle of CDs and a box of jewel-cases. Use your computer to burn your own CDs and print an insert for the jewel case and do your own "manufacturing". Make a small batch of CDs before each show. If they sell out, make a larger batch for the next show. If you're consistently selling more CDs than you're comfortable making on your own, and if your act is likely to survive for the forseeable future, then consider having a larger batch professionally manufactured.
The "must have" mentality extends beyond manufacturing. Artists routinely seek out "name brand" studios, producers, engineers and mastering houses. The assumption is that their reputation will convey some extra goodness to the current project. But you have to ask, how did they build that reputation in the first place? In most cases the reputation comes from association with particular acts, right? While these support people may have influenced the sonic presentation of the material, it was first and foremost the artist that created the material upon which reputations have been built. A good producer may help a band to hone their material in order to present it effectively in a recording session. But without having great material to start with, no amount of polishing will create a gem.
The "name brand" mentality has another cause when a recording contract is involved. In this case the label wants to bring in "their people" to make your record. The studio, producer and engineer all get top dollar because of their relationship with the label. Dollars that the artist, not the studio, must pay through recoupment from sales. That's assuming that the label doesn't lose interest in the artist's work, and promotes the recording (and the artist, through subsequent recordings) for long enough to give the artist a chance to build a following of the size that's needed to recoup all of those inflated production costs. It's a good thing that "name brand" producers and engineers are not judged by their artists who didn't "make it"...
For a peek into the mindset of the folks who work at the label's behest, I strongly recommend the book "The Mixerman Diaries" in which the author, Mixerman, tells the hillarious tale of his work on the recording sessions of a particularly inept and talentless band. If you're of the opinion that too much of today's music is manufactured by the labels rather than created by the artist, Mixerman's exposé (which is only partly fictional) will strike a resonant chord. If you look beyond the main storyline though, Mixerman turns out to not be the hero he believes. Sure, he performs feats of derring-do (technically, socially and politically) to try to get an acceptable recording from the band. But he perceives his job to be one of satisfying the label. That's perfectly reasonable, until you consider that Mixerman realizes that his task is impossible; he's mainly interested in billable hours rather than results. Keep this in mind if you ever entertain a label deal in which the label has control over the hiring and firing of contractors.
I'm sure that you already know that artists at all levels are seeking other ways to practice their craft without entering into a label deal. The benefits are compelling: creative control, fiscal control, and a much higher return on each CD sold. The only risk is the slim possibility of missing a chance to be the "next big thing" in the popular music world. You may as well plan on winning the lottery...
And what about gear? How much relevance does that have in the creative process? Certainly it's important to have the proper tools with which to practice your craft. An instrument that handles well and meets your stylistic requirement is important, as are the appropriate tone modifying tools. Reliability is important. But how far do you go in your search for the "right" gear. Are you happy to play the heck out of what you have, or do you obsess over the finer points? Do you strive to explore the limits of your rig, discovering all the tones it's capable of producing, or do you worry about whether there may be something "better" than what you already have at hand? Is that high-end cable really going to make a bigger difference in the sound of your instrument than you'd get by changing your note attack and hand position, or by changing a dial on your amp? Is the exact sound of that one riff or sustained note really more important than putting together a good song or improving your technique?
Likewise with studio gear, since so many musicians can now afford to build their own recording rigs. Is it really more important to have the latest, highest-spec gear? Do you need to collect all those plug-ins and upgrade your software again just because there's a new feature that you might like to try out? How much time, effort and expense should you invest in your recording gear? What's the payoff of tweaking the studio as opposed to actually recording something with what you already have?
We live in a world where there will always be something newer, bigger, faster and "better". The internet has given us the ability to communicate freely with people we'd otherwise never have had the opportunity to converse. On the other hand, the internet exposes us to far more opinion and discussion regarding the products which support our craft as musicians and artists. There will always be someone who tells us that a new product has "changed their life" or at least reset all of their expectations for what constitutes acceptable performance for that particular class of product. Fear, uncertainty and doubt lead us to question our own "old" tools. We feel compelled to evaluate the latest and greatest - we don't want to be left behind or overlooked because we're not on the same page with all of the opinion leaders. Right?
Fear, uncertainty and doubt. FUD. It's as prevalent - and invisible - as the air we breathe. The message is always the same: form over content. If you don't have the "proper" form, no one will pay any attention to your content. Isn't it ironic, then, that those who offer great content manage to do so regardless of the "form"? And that the much larger number of us who chase after "form" or "tone" or "transparency" or "warmth" or any other marketing buzzword du jour still have nothing to contribute to the culture except for a pile of obsolete or underappreciated gear?