Trying to estimate the cost, part 2

This is a continuation from part 1.

So, last week I got a little distracted, in my stream of conscious writing style, with listing out a bunch of things that my band, Hidden Number, did for a record release. My intent was to show that there was a lot to do, and how it really helped to know how much time, resources, and money took to do each task. We likely could have done some things differently when it came to the promotional side of things, but I try not to get into that stuff with my blog. And so I want to follow up again with some more ruminations on costing in reference to art.

So here’s an example. If you were considering taking on learning to play a new song, here are some things you might consider:

  1. How complex is the song? How many grooves, how many stops, how complex is the voicing, is there a tag at the end, etc.?
  2. How complex are those parts?
  3. Do I have the technical ability, or will I need to first learn how to technically pull something off?
  4. Can I just sort of wing it in places? How much improv is there?
  5. Are charts provided for me? Or will I need to transcribe charts? How much of it actually requires transcription?
  6. Is there reference audio? Does it actually match the form of the song?
  7. Is there a rehearsal? Regular rehearsals? Sectionals?
  8. How much travel is required to rehearsals and performances?
  9. How much time do I have free?
  10. Will I have to be ready before the first rehearsal? What level of quality is expected from me at various parts of the project?
  11. What level of quality is expected during the performance(s)?
  12. Can I have sheet music at the performance(s), or must it be memorized?
  13. What’s the compensation for all of this? What’s the benefit for doing it?

The more of a beginner you are, the more conscious you need to be about these questions. Conversely, I’ll bet the priorities of these questions change over time, as you gain experience and as your impact changes. I rarely think about this entire specific song-learning process all the way through anymore, so just now I was surprised as I kept thinking of more factors to consider. There are a lot of factors! What did I leave out?

Anyway, sometimes you have to make a quick decision about this kind of thing. You’ll want to trust your intuition on this. But let me warn you: you can only trust your intuition if it’s backed by conscious experience. Otherwise, intuition is just a wild guess. As for myself, I know I forget about some of these 12 questions sometimes, and I’ll bet I even left some off. I trust my intuition on this quite a bit. But I play a lot of live shows. What if someone asked me to compose a soundtrack? Well, back to square one–I’d never trust my intuition for costing that. I’d ask friends about how long it took them to compose a soundtrack, and then I’d double or triple the estimated time so that I can deliver something that I’m proud of. So, I should probably start preparing for this opportunity in advance so that I can intelligently make a good estimate!

Or, imagine you agreed to do a bunch of different things over a period of time. Now the errors in your estimates are compounding. The more you sign up for, the more of a chance that you are biting off more than you can chew, and the more sleepless nights you end up busting your butt. The more varied things you are doing, the more of a chance that you goofed in costing. So, add buffer. In the software industry, I learned to first estimate the cost–and then double the estimate. Make sure you leave room for the unexpected, including unpredictable external factors. And make sure to account for your unrealistic optimism about the difficulty of the project. Because, come on! You want to do it so bad! You want to tell people it will be easy! But it isn’t actually easy, is it? At least be honest with yourself.

Costing impacts what you can sign up to do, but remember this: if you want to have a big impact with your art, then it is almost certain that others are depending on you–and you want to deliver more than you promised, right? Especially when it comes to your fans.

ABC: Always Be Costing.

(Next week, I’ll talk about other benefits of costing, beyond just being trustworthy. And maybe tell some personal horror stories.)

Update: Here’s part 3.

Trying to estimate the cost, part 1

Two years ago, when Hidden Number released our second album, Burn Alive, we wanted to have a bad ass release party. But that meant lining up some good bands, confirming with a good venue, and finishing the record in time. Not so easy, especially considering we were thinking about this before we had finished mixing and mastering. And we didn’t even have artwork. Getting all the moving parts to fit together at the right moment would turn out to be brutal.

We started regular weekly meetings, and we started tracking everything that had to be done to reach the goal. We found an artist, Chris Unruh, who agreed to do an amazing piece of artwork… for free. That meant, he was doing it on his spare time. The best we could do was get a guess from him when the art would be ready, so we doubled that amount of time. Then we worked out how long the album would take to get mixed down. Dean was working tirelessly on the tracks, and so we worked out how long one track took and multiplied that out by the number of songs… and then doubled that number. Both dates aligned. So far so good. Next, we estimated how long it would take to actually raise the funds so we could pay Morphius in time. It seemed doable. Then we worked out when we could schedule mastering, and how long it would take for Morphius to press the records and deliver them. Lastly, we set to work on finding a venue and some bands to play with us.

But there was more. We wanted to sweeten the pot for the pre-orders. So, we decided it was time to release the rules and dice for the Hidden Number board game, which we would include with purchase. More scheduling of how to hand-make the scrolls and dice. And we wanted to include a poster as an insert. Luckily, Calla Donofrio was kind enough to provide a stunning collage. Oh, and we needed to start a mailing list, so that we could have a drawing to give away a free record. Plus, estimate when (and how) to offer up pre-orders with a sample track. Plus, we needed regular updates to the website, on the progress of it all.

Still not enough. How much could we pack into the schedule without going insane? We wanted to give our fans free download codes on purchase of the record. So we called up Morphius yet again, to work out all the custom work to include our inserts and our unique codes. The milestones had to change again. And there were only four of us to manage it all.

Here’s what I’m getting at: All of these costs (of time, money, and resources) were estimated, and there were dependencies. How could we be sure that any of this would work out?

Because we had been practicing. This was our second record release. We already learned the hard lessons of having unknown costs, and so we were paying attention. And when it was something new or unknown, we doubled our estimate. And we checked in weekly on the status of every moving part. Everyone in the band had a job to do.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to pay attention to the time it is taking you to do the important things in your life, to pay attention to the resources that are required, and to the financial hit. For you will be called upon to make predictions. If you are ever in doubt, make sure to build in checkpoints where you can re-assess everything. And don’t create dependencies until you are sure that your margin of error is low. Practice estimating now, so that you will be good at it when it really matters.

Yeah, it turns out that we goofed on some of our estimate for how long it would take to make the record, but we had already built in padding in the schedule and we knew we should wait a little before booking a venue. And then the night arrived, and we had our records just in the nick of time, and we got to play with Smooth Sailing (who did us a major favor there, by the way) at the Comet, and it was an awesome party. We even had cupcakes.

They won’t teach you how to estimate costs in school. So, you need to get started now, before it’s too late. Your job and your art will depend on it.

Update: This is a popular topic, so I’m going to add a part 2 next week. Stay tuned! Thanks for the discussion!

Update 2: Here’s part 2.

Trying to prioritize

One of the metaphors I keep running across is the 80/20 rule. I’m pretty sure it comes from the Pareto Principle. Much like any number combination, I started seeing it everywhere. Actually, I first encountered it in the business world, relating to something only partially related: learning. If you search online you’ll see articles like Pareto Principle, and 80 20 Life, and 80 20 Learning. It’s pretty common. Of course, most simple number combinations are pretty common. Search for 70 30. You’ll find a new list of sites advocating the 70/30 ratio in life. Number pairs are everywhere in nature, and we humans just can’t help but try to seek out patterns in them.

I am more attached to 80/20, simply because it’s got an old dude’s name attached to it–and there is a long tradition of the rule in the software business. You can pick another rule. But here’s the point: it’s useful to devote resources toward more of one thing than another. Or conversely, it’s useful to expect results from more of one source than another. Not always useful, but useful maybe 80% of the time. See what I did there? The rule applies to itself. Meta.

Anyway, here are a few ways that I think it might apply to music.

Writing music by inspiration, not consensus

In the business world, you have 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work on a specific project. Then everyone gives feedback, and that completes the remaining project. Of course, the original 20% choose what feedback is included, and politics can play a role there I guess. Hopefully, the good feedback is mostly taken and, more importantly, the original vision stays in place.

In music, you often have a different hierarchy, but I have found that it’s similar. If just 1 person in the band works on 80% of an arrangement, then the rest of us won’t mess up the source of inspiration.

The reason for this, is that a consensus is only best for finding the common denominator. Consensus is where everyone overlaps. It’s not interesting. It’s not provocative or inspired. It’s safe. It’s watered down. It’s already understood. It lags behind. It’s conservative. Music by consensus isn’t going to create something visionary and exciting. If you are a kind of band where all are creative equals, then consider each of you individually writing your own songs–and then getting feedback to polish each song a little. This is already understood in business.


There’s always something to work on and improve. It never ends. So do you work on everything at once? I would argue that you focus on one thing, knock it out, feel good about it, get that burst of inspiration of accomplishment, and then move to the next. On the other hand, you don’t want to go soft on what you already know. So… 80/20. Search up how to get rid of debt–you’ll see the same advice. Pay off one card at a time, but pay the minimum payment on the rest.

Last minute rehearsal

I was asked at the last minute to sit in at The Them’s final show, at the Funhouse in Seattle. So, I applied the 80/20 rule to make sure I was optimizing the resources I was putting toward the project. I think it went really well. That show rocked! Anyway, rather than memorizing and practicing 100% of all the songs, I put 80% of my resources into 20% of the songs–focusing on how songs start, the key transitions, and the end. I had a short amount of time to prepare, and I knew I could read my notes and look for cues on stage that would help me fake through each song… and it worked out really well! Oh yeah, and I also spent 80% of my time rehearsing alone, so that I didn’t waste the time of my bandmates who already knew the songs.

Cool stuff. Have you used this rule? What other rules are out there?