Charting a music career is a complicated endeavor to say the least. It’s doubly so given that you’ll have to make not only musical decisions but also critical business decisions along the way. I heard an expression a few years ago that really stuck with me as it outlines the reality of the choices we have to make time and time again. That expression is simply, “good, fast, cheap – pick any two.”

Charting a Music CareerEssentially, what’s being said here is that if you’re willing to invest the money, you can move more quickly towards the end goal of musical success – good and fast but not cheap – but what it also says that I find more encouraging is that if you don’t have the money, you can still achieve “good” by slowing down and being resourceful – good and cheap but not fast. That leaves the one combination that we need to guard against – fast and cheap but not good.

In this post, we’ll look at all three of these scenarios and see how they play out daily in the music industry.

Good & Fast (Not Cheap)

Good, fast and not cheap is best illustrated in the approach taken by the big record labels and publishing companies. When making albums for their artists, labels use the best studios, the most talented session musicians and employ whole marketing and promotion departments to spread the word about their artists. This has the effect of bringing these artists to the eyes and ears of the public in relatively short order but it comes at a huge price. A price that the artists, themselves, often spend years paying back before they see any real financial success of their own.

When it comes to the major publishers, they invest significant capital in high-quality demos for their writers and hire song pluggers whose sole purpose is to get the songs in their catalog recorded. The end result is that these companies get their songs recorded much more often than the independent writers out there trying to go it alone. But, again, songwriters who are signed to these companies – like the artists above – have to wait until many of these expenses are recouped before they see any income from their songwriting successes.

Good & Cheap (Not Fast)

Fortunately, for the majority of us, there is a more accessible option. While “good, cheap but not fast” requires patience – an asset in very short supply for most of us eager to have musical success, – the dividends can be rewarding on both a spiritual and financial level. Independent artists who finance their projects themselves, call in favors, wait for off-hours in studios or even take the significant time necessary to learn to the art of recording often end up with beautiful sounding projects at a fraction of the cost of their major label counterparts. The trade off is the time (lots of it) it takes to put a project like this together and the additional hours of work (more than you can imagine) required to get the news out about their release. The rewards are great, however. Ownership of the master recording and creative freedom are just two of the many rewards waiting for those who are willing to make the effort. Go to to hear what some friends and I were able to do on a shoestring budget over a period of about five years.

Charting a Music CareerAs songwriters, we face a similar struggle. Without the budgets for full-band recordings of every song we write, we’re forced to be creative in order to put together a catalog of high-quality demos of our songs that we can then pitch ourselves. Whether we have to barter for studio time and session musicians, learn to become experienced engineers/producers/session musicians in our own right or simply create great-sounding guitar/vocals or piano/vocals instead of going the full-band route, the goal is the same. That goal – quality recordings for less money – can lead to a catalog of songs where significant upside awaits. For example, by acting as your own publisher and owning your own master recordings, you’ll be free to pitch your songs for placement in film and TV and receive double the income when you eventually do have success. And, speaking of pitching your songs, there are countless resources to help get our songs out there for those of us willing to look. One that comes to mind right away is The thing to remember, however, is that all of this takes time and that’s the tradeoff that most of us have to make.

Fast & Cheap (Not Good)

Fast, cheap and not good is where things can get ugly. As long as there have been established methods of how to get ahead in the music business, there have been people willing to cut corners in an attempt to get ahead more quickly. Buying a bunch of recording equipment before you know how to use it in an attempt to save money on your album project generally results in a sub-par recording that will do much more harm than good to your sound and reputation as an artist or songwriter.

Similarly, choosing the lowest bidder who advertises full-band demos for songwriters often leaves you with a demo that is not only low quality but also instantly brands you as an amateur in the eyes of the industry professionals you play it for…an impression, by the way, that is very difficult to reverse once it’s been made. Also, spending less money on a demo that is unusable is the same thing as throwing that money away. All this to say, when in doubt, take your time and do things correctly even if it means more time, money or both. As I’ve said before, as long as you’re not planning on having a career in music for this week only, it pays to take your time. Fast and cheap is, without a doubt, the combination that has the most potential for disappointment or worse. And, often, doing things this way actually leads to more money being spent which leads me to another one of my favorite expressions, “Cheap can be expensive.”


I understand that it’s a constant struggle to do what’s best for your music while trying to manage your patience and your budget. That being said, simply paying attention to what you’re doing and keeping your eye on the big picture will serve you well as you continue to figure it all out.

Good Luck!

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4 responses to “Charting A Music Career: Good, Fast, Cheap – Pick Any Two”

  1. Pamela Bilodeau says:

    Cliff, the songquarters page gives an odd message when loading–something about account suspended. I read somewhere that it is no longer a legitimate site, but am not sure that’s accurate. It’s hard to tell, since the home page doesn’t come up. Anyway, this is a great article that puts things into wonderful perspective. Thanks again for explaining things so clearly. I look forward to your emails and read all of them!

  2. Thanks so much. All your tips I read are helpful.

  3. Rick Erhart says:

    Cliff, you provide a mountain of insight! Thank you for that. From your recent article on being a producer I ended up saying to myself, “Self, being a producer is a big job and it means wearing another hat, so don’t get caught wearing two hats at the same time or you won’t be doing either job justice”. I’m presently in the category of cheap but good so my hats are composer, writer, arranger, producer, engineer, collaborator and soon I have to look at being the promoter. Combining the two articles I’ve realized wearing more than one had at a time reduces productivity. Something like, a man can’t serve two masters. Thank you for the articles. In a few years I would love to be in the position where I’m handing a composition over to you for a gem recording. I’m at a hundred and five projects started 12 mediocre demos and I’m having little successes at a faster and faster rate. I attribute part of my advancement to giving thoughtful reading to your articles. Bravo!

  4. Cliff says:

    Wonderful on all counts, Rick! Thanks for the kind words!

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