Recording the Celtic harp

by Darhon Rees-Rohrbacher
(appeared in FHJ spring 1999 issue)


With the resurgence of interest in the Celtic harp, there has been a virtual explosion of available recordings of this instrument. Attempting to capture the delicate sound of the folk harp presents problems unlike that of any other instrument. I listened to many harp recordings (Celtic, pedal, triple, historical) prior to writing this article, which gave me an exquisite appreciation for the difficulty of recording any harp in order to do justice to the instrument.


In order to write this article, I developed a uniform questionnaire that was sent to approximately 30 reputable harpers who have at least one professionally-produced recording available. Their experiences are being shared in this article so that the FHJ readership pondering making a recording will learn from their experiences and/or avoid costly mistakes. Those of you who are not interested in doing a recording may find the article of general interest; it will certainly give you a greater appreciation of what an artist goes through to produce a solo album. Having just completed my own first solo recording, I also filled out a questionnaire and those responses have been included in this article.


Seventeen aspects of the recording process were addressed by the questionnaire. The headings below summarize the issues addressed and their collective responses.




Everyone wonders when they are “ready” to start recording. For most of the survey respondents, the impetus was constant clamoring from friends and colleagues that they should record their talent so that it could be shared with the world, or at least with lovers of harp music. Others started with a modest demo tape for booking jobs which gradually expanded into a full-length recording. Several respondents said that the people who came to their performances kept asking for a recording which became the impetus for undertaking the project. Two harpers were asked by a promoter to do it; two others said they took it on as a personal challenge. Another was given some “seed money” by a friend which encouraged her to do the recording. One artist had been doing some successful back-up work for a studio, and they later contacted her about doing some solo Celtic harp. Another harper was looking “for a performance outlet for her original pieces” and felt that the music was worth recording.


One is never really “ready” to do a recording; often, it amounts to striking while the iron is hot when you are “motivated” to do it. Otherwise, you’ll stay locked in your practice room for the next fifty years, waiting for your talent to “mature.” Contrary to the belief of some musical snobs, one does not need to be a virtuoso harper to justify making a recording; one only needs to believe that he or she has a talent worth sharing. If only true virtuosos were “allowed” to record, there would be very little recorded music in this world for others to enjoy.




The single most important thing that all of the respondents echoed was having a good rapport with your recording engineer. As one respondent said “it helps if you sleep with your engineer.” While a harper probably does not need to go to that length to insure a good recording, suffice it to say that the performer must develop an atmosphere of trust and comfort with the engineer. Solo recording can be an extremely intimate experience for both performer and engineer. You are going to be “baring your musical soul” with this person for many hours. You had better feel comfortable exposing yourself to this person, figuratively speaking, or the sessions will be filled with angst and you will be disappointed with the results.


Some of the respondents “interviewed” recording engineers or recording studios to find the place they felt most comfortable. A few just booked the least expensive place they could find. Others went by word-of-mouth from fellow harpers whose recordings impressed them, or took the recommendation of another musician. One person used a friend’s studio; another “bartered” for studio time. (One harper said that using friends was a big mistake; she expected a discount and they expected fame and referrals.) Actually, the most important factors to consider are: (1) that your studio and engineer have previous experience recording acoustic instruments and (2) that you feel “comfortable” recording there.


If you decide to record in a particular off-site location for “atmosphere,” you’ll need to find (and pay) an engineer who is willing to transport his equipment to the location. Not all engineers are capable or willing to do this. Because modern recording studios can simulate almost any type of spatial sound as well as introducing special effects into recordings (such as waves breaking on the shore), it is usually not necessary to record off site. The exception would be if you have the privilege of recording in a concert hall or church noted for its exceptional acoustics. An example of this is the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in Upstate New York, where Carol Thompson recorded her Enchanted Isles album; this hall is world famous for its perfect acoustics which, undoubtedly, contributed to the spectacular sound quality of Carol’s recording. Elinor Bennett said that she now always uses a good, live concert hall, as opposed to a “dead box studio” to get the best sound possible. On the other hand, Sunita Staneslow said that she will never record in a hall again unless she feels “100% sure about the acoustics without any bodies in the space.”


In this author’s situation, my number one criteria was finding an engineer who could read sheet music, since I was going to be playing from a printed score. (I was amazed to find that some engineers could not read music….they were “tecchies” only.) It was also important to me to find an engineer who had very good ears. Thus, I brought along three harp CDs to my studio interviews and made the engineers listen to excerpts to make sure they could “hear” the Celtic harp and understand the sound I wanted. In addition, I had a prepared questionnaire that I brought along to several studios to “grill” the engineer who would be working with me; it was very important to me that I had confidence in my engineer’s abilities.


“Know exactly what you want before you do your first session, be very organized, and make your expectations clear to the engineer” was echoed by several respondents! This was a lesson that some learned only through trial and error. If the harper has a very clear picture in his/her mind of what the finished product should be, it makes the engineer’s job much easier. You are paying for a service and have the right to expect a “product” to be delivered. The engineer cannot read your mind; you must communicate your needs in detail. This may cause dissension and disagreement, but remember that it’s your recording, not theirs! As Sue Richards said “learn to ask for what you want, even if it seems outrageous.”




“Don’t be afraid to change studios if necessary,” said some respondents. Some even changed studios mid-stream, or changed studios on their subsequent recordings. For a few, there were factors beyond their control that forced them to change studios, such as the studio closing, an engineer moving, etc. For others, they just did not “click” with the engineer, or were disappointed with the work that was done. One wanted a different studio where she felt she had more “control” over the outcome of the product. Some complained about the lack of professionalism of the studio management…one even had an engineer make unwanted advances at her.


A big-name studio is not necessarily better than a smaller, unknown one. They may have fancier equipment, but if the engineer is not skilled in how to use it, their technology is wasted. The harper may be just as satisfied at a studio with only basic amenities, but that has an attentive, caring and musically knowledgeable engineer who has had considerable experience recording acoustic instruments, especially the harp.


Since recording time is expensive, some artists “bartered” for studio time by trading other services. In general, this did not work very well. The psychology of bartering tends to make an engineer less attentive to detail than if he is being paid (or not paid) in cold, hard cash. You also have less control over the outcome and the engineer may appear to be satisfied with a very low standard of performance just to reduce the number of “barter hours” needed. If you do decide to barter, be sure to put the barter criteria in writing on an hour-by-hour basis to clarify your expectations; don’t assume anything.




The respondents used both methods. Two had earlier analog recordings remastered to digital later. Two others recorded via analog, but had the material then transferred to digital for the final editing and mastering. The others all used digital for their recent recordings, mainly because it is faster and easier to edit, mix, master, resequence, etc, with this format. (I personally prefer the warmth of the analog sound…I love old LPs.) But technology being what it is, digital is the current way to go.




The most difficult part about recording the harp is correct microphone placement. Most of the harps were recorded with two high-quality microphones placed fairly close to the instrument, the distance varying from as close as 6 inches to as far as 10 feet away, although a few said only one mic was used. (Several people said they had to be very careful not to bump the mics accidentally while they played.) In general, the smaller the harp, the closer the microphones needed to be. The two mics were always separated….one lower on the instrument nearer the bass strings or column, and one higher up nearer the treble range. Harps have tremendous overring and weird sympathetic overtones generated from notes not even played, which caused miking problems for some harpers. A few respondents said that in addition to the two mics placed near the harp, another mic was hung above (or placed inside) the instrument, and the engineer switched back and forth between the mics, depending on what frequencies he was hearing. Two harpers used a pickup that was hardwired into both harp and studio equipment in addition to the mics. One harper said that the mics were moved around by the engineer, depending on what range of the harp the piece was played in. Another said that the mics were fixed on poles, but that the harps were moved around as needed to get the best sound!




When some of the harpers heard their first raw studio “take” played back, they were horrified. The harp sounded tinny, thin, wimpy and stringy…not at all what they expected, and not what they heard while the harp was next to their own ear. One performer, on the other hand, was actually delighted….she didn’t realize that she sounded so good to everyone and finally understood why people were clamoring for her to do a recording. Another said she was quite “pleased”….she was afraid it would sound absolutely horrible, but it didn’t. A European harper said that she “hates” hearing herself on a recording. A Minnesota   harper described the “honeymoon period” when you first love your own recording; then you hear every conceivable flaw and can’t bear to listen to it for a year. As for me….well, I was so depressed that I was ready to switch to tuba!




Being recorded was an eye-opener for everyone. The microphone picks up small imperfections that are never noticed in a live performance, such as clothing rustling, breath sounds, throat clearing, string buzzes, damping, muffly notes, uneven articulations, thunky harmonics, lever changes, and bodily movements. (In general, the closer the microphone placement, the more exposed the playing.) Some of these flaws can be edited out or at least minimized in the mixing, mastering and EQ-ing, but most are there to stay. Recording, especially as a soloist, will be the most exacting playing you ever do in your life; it will certainly force you to narrow your own concept of what is “acceptable” harp playing!


Every respondent said they had to play more carefully and do more damping than they would in a live performance to try to get as crisp and clean a sound as possible. Some said they had to play more “delicately” with less volume overall in order to have more room for musical expression and to keep the tone pure. Jennifer Sayre said that her engineer actually discouraged her from making extremes of dynamics because “they would not come through clearly in car stereos.” Martha Clancy said that upper notes had to be played softer to avoid overtone saturation. Nearly every respondent complained about string buzzing that was “painfully enhanced” by the recording process.


Sue Richards said that her “best Salzedo technique” just did not work in the studio. In order to get a good tone, Sue said that you “have to almost dance on the strings, lightly and very accurately, dampening some notes as you go.” Several mentioned being forced to “clean up” their own playing after hearing extraneous noises that they never knew they were making! Harper Tasche said that learning to hold absolutely still without breathing while the last note fades out was a new skill! Elinor Bennett stressed the ideas of clean execution, careful damping, expressive phrasing, and making your music “three dimensional” on the recording. Sunita Staneslow said that one huge crescendo or big accent can skew the overall recording; she has now become more interested in the expressive beauty of “fewer notes.” Sunita also mentioned that in a live performance, people want to hear lots of flashy notes and “see you sweat”, but that in a recording they want to hear effortless, smoothly phrased harp playing. Nearly everyone said that the recording process greatly improved their own playing because of (1) the intense focus required to play with extreme accuracy and (2) the need to listen very critically.


On the subject of  “fewer notes” mentioned by Sunita, I discovered that the most effective pieces on my recording were the ones that were minimally voiced and simply arranged.  On the delicate Celtic harp, thick, pianistic-like arrangements do not seem to come across as well in the recorded format. I’ve since listened critically to many other harpers’ recordings and discovered the same to be true. In other words, “less is more” when recording on the Celtic harp. Busy arrangements often sound “cluttered” on a recording rather than impressive. Also, the general public is just as happy to have a beautiful melody harmonized by a simple accompaniment so that the pristine sound of the harp is enhanced; they could care less that you slaved away for six months learning some horribly difficult, showy, solo harp piece with a finger-busting cadenza in the middle!


Two respondents mentioned that they like to record while wearing headphones so that they can “hear” themselves better and receive instantaneous feedback of the recorded sound. Two others used click tracks to keep a steady beat throughout certain selections; they said this was essential if you are going to be adding other instruments to the mix later on. Sunita Staneslow said that she “has yet to get a good feel with a click track.” I tried wearing headphones but was absolutely incapable of playing this way; I was unable to judge the volume of my string touch, or hear any nuances with my ears “muffled” by the headphones; it was like playing with cotton stuffed into my ears! If headphones work for you, fine; they just didn’t work for me.


Ellen Tepper suggested practicing your repertoire though an amp before going to the first recording session, because it really accentuates little imperfections that you would never hear while sitting next to your harp. Dave Shaul suggested recording yourself at home just to get used to recording, playback, and learning to adjust your “touch” for the recording process. I tried both of these techniques prior to my studio sessions and found them to be helpful.




The main difference between recording the two was microphone placement. The mics had to be placed further away and higher up for the large concert pedal harp than they did for a small folk harp. Christina Tourin mentioned that it is not possible to place a mic inside the pedal harp because it picks up pedal change noise. The respondents who used both instruments said they had to play more quietly with a less “vigorous” touch on the lever harp, since it’s a more sensitive instrument. Elinor Bennett said it was very “clean” to record on the Celtic harp, as opposed to the pedal harp, because there is less bass resonance to worry about.



Nobody plays perfectly 100% of the time, and you will have some note errors, no matter how well-rehearsed you are. Because of the sustaining nature of the harp, it is not really possible to “punch” in individual wrong notes like you can with a clarinet. The respondents described two editing methods used that generated the best results: (1) do several “takes” of the same song, if necessary, and piece the best sections of each together to get a unified whole or (2) do one take from start to finish and then re-record only certain problem sections on an edit track and “splice” them in. The fancy fixes used will depend on the type of equipment the studio has. In a fully-computerized studio, even single notes can be edited in, although the result may be less than satisfactory. Sectional editing allows a better overlap of overtones and produces a more natural-sounding result.


Edits are often audible to the trained ear, no matter how smoothly done. Harper Tasche said he is “rabid” about noticeable edits; he’d rather hear a wrong note than an edit. Thom Dutton mentioned that if you overedit, you edit the “life” out of the composition and it becomes sterile and devoid of feeling. The decision as to “how much” editing depends on what you are willing to let go, as well as your studio budget. It’s difficult to decide when a “take” is finally good enough; one can end up obsessing over little things that few will even notice in the finished product. A harper can do 100 takes of the same song in the quest for musical perfection and still not be satisfied. Mary Radspinner said that she learned not to try to be absolutely perfect, because it will never happen anyway.


If you edit out every string buzz, every note not evenly articulated, every rest not executed exactly in rhythm, every nuance not played to your liking, every breath noise, you will be editing for the rest of your life and the recording will cost you $500,000 to produce! The recording will also sound unnatural, stilted and lifeless. I personally prefer to listen to a slightly “flawed” recording that inspires, moves, soothes or delights me over a meticulously edited but emotionally barren one. However, having said that, there is absolutely no excuse for allowing truly sloppy playing and poor overall musicianship to be evident in the finished product, given all of the computer editing tools available to the performer.




Nearly everyone had a problem with nerves from time to time during the sessions. There is nothing like a microphone just a few inches away from your hands to induce an anxiety attack! As Reuben Correa said “it’s amazing how many mistakes one can make within three seconds of recorded music!” Unfortunately, that anxiety can come through in your playing and be permanently set in stone in your finished product.


While there is no “cure” for studio stage fright, the best strategy for taming your studio nerves is absolute meticulous preparation of the planned repertoire. Every string pluck must be carefully executed, every lever change well rehearsed, every damping motion built into the piece, every expressive nuance well conceived and every rhythm impeccably accurate. If the muscle memory is as much a part of the piece as the music, it will usually take precedence over your nerves. You should not be paying an engineer to listen to you learn your notes!


Carol Thompson said she’s always a little nervous at first, but she settles down after a few “takes.”  One harper said that during one session he was totally unable to get through a particular song due to nerves, so he just had to scrap it that day. Rolliana Scheckler said that she actually found it easier to perform “on a big stage for tons of audience members” than to play before one engineer in the recording studio. Donna Adams-Profeta mentioned the need to clear one’s mind, stay aware of the tendency to speed up under duress, and most important of all, to breathe. (People tend to hold their breath when anxious, which compounds the nerve problem.) Thom Dutton said his anger at making needless mistakes was channeled into constructive performance energy because it made him really “attack” the piece; the resulting aggressive approach to his own playing helped him produce a better recording.


This author has more trouble with her nerves than anybody else in the survey. My hands tremble and sweat, my heart and mind race, my fingers and wrist stiffen up and I feel like I’m going to barf. It was so bad in the studio that the only thing that I found that helped was to drink red wine. Yep…..I brought a bottle of wine with me at each session and took a few swigs between songs when I just couldn’t calm down enough to play any right notes! No matter how well-prepared I was musically and how perfectly I could play the songs at home, once that microphone started running, I became complete bumblefingers!


Laurie Riley, on the other hand, said that she feels “totally relaxed in the studio and loves doing studio work.” Christina Tourin said that “nothing really begins to flow for her until the microphone is turned on.”  I certainly hope they will share their secret with the rest of us who are “emotionally challenged!”


Debbie Brewin-Wilson offered the most novel solution to the nerve problem: she said, “I tried deep breathing, conscious relaxation exercises, dirty jokes, but found nothing that really worked, except Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.”




Nearly everyone agreed that the best use of studio time was to schedule a number of sessions in blocks of no more than about four hours each; each session should be separated by a day or two or even a week. A few artists were able to go as long as six hours, but most found that fatigue set in after about four hours. It’s also important to eat well before going to the session and bring snacks, if necessary, to keep your energy level up.


What also worked for some harpers was to schedule a few sessions two or three days in a row, then have several days off, and then do another few days in a row and so forth. David Helfand advised booking as many days of recording in a row as possible to get into the ‘flow” of the process. Three respondents recorded their entire album within two weeks, with about 10 sessions packed into that space of time. One harper recorded her entire album in one morning. (Most harpers scheduled their sessions over a period of at least several weeks.) Olympian harper Laurie Riley records for three full days, consecutively, to lay down all of her tracks; wow, she must have the stamina of Xena Warrior Princess! Elinor Bennett said that she recorded her John Thomas Complete Collection album in four whole days; must be that wonderful Welsh climate and hearty food that gives her such endurance!


It is almost impossible to keep 15 or 20 tunes fresh in your fingers every day. Most of the respondents found it was more productive to have only a few tunes ready per session and concentrate on recording those as mistake-free as possible. When those tunes were rock-solid, they were able to concentrate on the next few tunes and so on, until all tunes were adequately recorded.


During the mixing, and EQ-ing process, your ears can only “hear” correctly for so long. After too many hours of trying to listen attentively, you will begin to not hear things. Ideally, the editing and mixing sessions should be scheduled in short blocks of time a few days apart. (The respondents’ total edit/mix time ranged from 4 hours to 20 hours.) I did not heed my own advice…I pulled a desperate all-nighter with two engineers and a computer to EQ, mix and master because that was the only time the three of us could get together to do it; needless to say, we were all brain dead at 5 am when we finished! (That was the closest I came to ‘sleeping’ with my engineer.)



In terms of the amount of hours you can expect to need to lay down your tracks, most harpers averaged about one tune per hour. There are days when you might be able to record more tunes than that, but there will be just as many days when your pace and focus will be much slower. Reuben Correa and Sunita Staneslow both said that about one hour of studio time for every minute of recorded music was a realistic estimate of the actual time needed when you figure in the recording, editing, mastering, etc.


A few artists said that it took an entire year or more to produce one album from start to finish: that is, from the first recording session to when the shrink-wrapped final product was delivered to their door. The average timetable for most of the artists was 6-12 months, since many were juggling studio time around day jobs and/or family commitments.


Always expect that the album will take much longer than anticipated; there will usually be some unexpected delay that throws off your production schedule. If you are using a commercial studio, you are not their only client; your studio hours will need to be juggled among many other paying customers who keep the studio in business. A prestigious, big-name studio may allot the majority of their available slots to higher-paying commercial or corporate accounts; they may only be able to squeeze you in during odd hours on an occasional basis. You may even get “bumped” by the studio for a more important client. Be flexible!




Most of the respondents said that it was best to approach an artist or friend whose work you admire and commission an original design for your cover. If you lack artist friends, then there are commercial CD duplication services, such as Disc Makers, who have graphic artists on staff who will design a suitable cover for you at the same time your album is manufactured. One brave harper exchanged a harp for her cover artwork. A few harpers designed their own cover artwork, talented folk that they are! Since I cannot draw a picture to save my soul, I commissioned a graphic artist to design my album cover. Star Edwards said that she thought putting together a great cover was the hardest part of the whole recording process.


Some harpers perused the CD racks at music retail stores to get an idea of how other acoustic musicians presented their albums. This is a very good idea; it may help the harper more clearly define the “look” that he or she is trying to achieve by exploring what other artists have done. One might even consider bringing sample CD covers to the artist to give him or her a better idea of the “mood” you wish your cover to convey.




Most of the respondents either did 1000 CDs and 500 cassettes on the first run, or a 500/500 combination package; a few did CDs only. While the per-copy cost will be lower on a large run, it’s better not to be stuck with too much inventory. Also, if you wish to re-record the album a few years down the road, you will not have to “unload” the remaining copies of the first edition. Reuben Correa said that he initially did a “test run” of 200 cassettes to see how the album would sell; once the cassettes seemed to be moving, then he invested the money into having the larger quantity of CDs manufactured. This may be very good advice for an unknown harper doing a first recording in order to test the marketplace.


I did an Internet search under the phrase “CD duplicating services” which indicated over 33 million entries using this phrase. I then called up page after page of commercial establishments that duplicate CDs and cassette recordings. Since there are now so many reputable and competitive duplication services available, I think it’s best to just ask a musician friend who has a good recording where they had it done. Many recording studios have their own arrangements with duplicating services and can assist you in producing the entire “package” for your album. Be aware that sometimes even the major establishments experience glitches; two harpers in this survey said that the wrong disc had been accidentally inserted into their jewel case and shrink wrapped. The listeners certainly got a surprise when they thought it was going to be harp music! (Of course, any reputable company will redo these defective albums at their own expense.)




For most harpers, it currently costs between $5000 and $10,000 to produce the first 1000 copies of one album, with an average cost of $7-8K. (The actual costs offered by the respondents ranged from a low of $2,000 to a high of $20,000.) This cost was for everything…studio time, artwork, editing, mixing, mastering, sequencing, EQ-ing, duplication, shrink wrapping and shipping. Yes, that’s a lot of money, which is why you must be very certain that you want to embark on this soul-baring adventure. There is no guarantee that you will sell even one album after you have invested thousands of dollars and hours.




All of the respondents said they listened to at least a few other recordings, mostly to hear what they did not want in their own. Some found it helpful to listen to classical guitar recordings, rather than harp, because it helped them better define the “folky” sound they were after. David Helfand said that no matter how many recordings you listen to or try to emulate, your own unique sound will always be evident in the finished product. Jo Morrison mentioned that she listened to a large number of recordings, critiquing their choice and/or layout of the tunes and the general sound to help solidify in her mind what she wanted out of her own recording.


I think it is especially important to have a well-defined concept of the tone you are after. Some harpers prefer a warm, mellow timbre with lots of body and lush overtones. Others prefer a thinner, more crystalline sound with extreme clarity. Mary Radspinner said that she likes “an open sound as to opposed to a crisp, dry sound.” Sue Richards said that she prefers the “intimate sound of close miking.” Martha Clancy said that she likes a “liquid sound.” Mitch Landy suggested first striving to capture an acoustic, accurate reproduction of your own harp’s natural tone when laying down the tracks, then using the studio equipment later to add reverb, etc., to suit your taste. Sunita Staneslow said that the better the sound you begin with in the recording stage “the less futzing around” you need to do later.

Some harpers like the natural acoustic finger pluck-pluck of the harp strings that can nearly emulate a classical guitar. Others want more room noise, less finger noise, and more of a “wash of sound” that comes from the natural overring of the harp strings. There is no “right or wrong” tone for a recording…it depends on the effect one is trying to achieve and the “mood” of the album. A “new age” recording artist will certainly want a different tone than a harper who only records Irish jigs and reels. A pedal harpist will often prefer a different tone than a Celtic harper.


I gave my engineer a stack of harp recordings by world-famous artists and stuck little post-it notes on each one, saying what I liked and didn’t like about the tone of each recording, so that he would have a constant frame of reference to work by during the recording process. He said he found this extremely helpful in understanding the sound I was after. Jo Morrison said that she also loaned her engineer several copies of harp recordings, telling her what she did and did not like, so they could work to achieve the sound she wanted.




Several respondents said it was very important to act as your own producer of your album, even if you are paying others to do all of the grunt work. After all, it’s your recording and your time and money. (Two harpers said they are strongly considering hiring a producer should they do another recording.) Everyone stressed how there needs to be a cohesive “package” for the album, from the artwork to the liner notes to the actual recorded sound. Several advised paying as much as you can afford for high-quality artwork because the cover is what potential customers notice first. It is the harper’s responsibility to see that the product is produced as professionally as possible, according to their own budget and personal artistic standards. As Harper Tasche’s engineer said “it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be wonderful.”


Make sure that if you are paying for your own recording that you will actually own the master recording when you are done; that is, you will control the rights to the album and have complete control over sales and distribution. (If you are hired by a studio to do a recording, you will not have this privilege; they will own the recording rights, since they have foot the bill for producing the album.) I also advise all harpers to join either ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) or BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) and have their association prominently displayed on their album cover booklet.  This may be to your advantage in the event that your CD is fortunate enough to be given major airplay or used as background music at a large musical venue; you may be able to collect some royalties as a result, although not necessarily. (If you are primarily a composer/arranger, join ASCAP; if you are primarily a performer/recording artist, join BMI.) Each of these organizations represents about 49% of the copyrighted tunes in this country; if one doesn’t own the rights, the other one will. There is a third organization, SESAC (Society of European Authors and Stage Composers), that owns about 2% of the American market; therefore, joining ASCAP and/or BMI will take care of most of a harper’s needs. The annual dues are very reasonable. These affiliations are directly related to the discussion in the next section, so read on.




While I do not wish to get into a detailed discussion of copyright law in this survey, I should mention the issue of licensing, because it directly affects the recording process. Some people may be unaware that if a harper records a piece (or arrangement of the piece) that is copyrighted by someone else, he must pay a fee for that privilege. It is against the copyright law to make money off someone else’s musical property unless you have their permission to do so. You are also expected to financially compensate them for it, unless they should agree to waive the fee. Therefore, something called a compulsory mechanical license must be obtained prior to selling the album, and the statutory rate must be paid to the copyright holder. Currently, the statutory rate is about 7.2 cents per 5-minute song. In other words, if you produce 1,000 copies of a recording and use one song by someone else, you will owe approximately $72 for this privilege. (The statutory rate is increased on a regular basis.)


The Harry Fox Agency, representing over 13,000 music publishers, controls and administers mechanical licensing for phonorecords, cassettes and CDs. They collect royalties on your behalf and distribute them quarterly to the appropriate publishers. For more information, contact: The Harry Fox Agency, 711 Third Ave., New York, NY 10017, phone 212-370-5330. You can locate the publishers of most recent works by contacting the index departments of either ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC; their song lists are now available on-line. (The HFA does not cover every single publisher, especially smaller ones, so you may have to track down the publisher on your own anyway.) While a mechanical license cannot be denied if the tune has previously been commercially recorded, the headaches and paperwork of licensing can be a real nuisance; in order to avoid this hassle, some harpers perform only original tunes on their albums, or only use melodies long in the public domain. (Generally, if the original source melody is over 100 years old, it is now in public domain; copyright particulars are the subject for a separate article, and I don’t want to delve into them here.)




While the question of sales was not specifically addressed by the questionnaire, some respondents did give a few hints about how to “move” a recording. They suggested that the best way to push your own recordings is to do live performances and sell them during intermission or after the concert; the “impulse buying” factor works very well there. Even at a very small concert, you can often sell ten CDs, which is $150 gross, assuming a retail price of $15. Having a professional recording available may make it more feasible to take a gig that can only afford to pay you a small fee; you may be able to make up the difference in album sales.


Of course, you’ll want to place your recordings at all of your local music shops. You might consider scheduling an autograph day at a store, where you arrange to push your recording on a consignment basis. If your album has a particular “theme”, such as Christmas, this is the perfect opportunity to offer to provide free holiday background music at a busy store in exchange for being allowed to sell your recordings.


A couple of harpers mentioned that they have done well by selling their recordings at (1) flea markets and (2) bridal fairs. They offer to provide live music for several hours in exchange for being allowed to sell their recordings and keep all of the money.  This may be a great idea if you don’t mind investing considerable up-front money in some eye-catching displays and obtaining the appropriate state permits for doing trade shows.


You’ll eventually want your recordings to be carried by some catalogs and larger music retail shops. The best way to get your album moving in selected retail venues is to send a promo package with a free sample of the recording and a release flyer. (Mark the outside of the package “complimentary promotional materials;” otherwise, the package might be refused and returned to you at your own expense if they don’t recognize the sender by name.) Sometimes the clerks will just put your freebie recording in the store racks, since they have nothing to lose by doing so; when a customer buys one, the store may re-order another copy to replenish the stock. Please note that you will be expected to discount your usual retail price substantially if you will be wholesaling your recordings to any major retailers; 40% is the expected standard industry discount.


As to whether you should invest your money in producing CDs or cassettes, it depends on your target market. Tourists at a summer resort who wander into a music shop are more likely to pick up a cassette that they can listen to in their car. National retailers, catalogs and radio stations are more likely to request CDs. (Sue Richards stressed the importance of listing the timing of each tune on the back cover of your CD; otherwise, radio stations will not be inclined to give your tunes airplay.) Albums sold at your own concerts will reflect more of a split between the two. Cassettes are nice to have on hand because they can also be used as “demo tapes” for potential clients; they also make wonderful, inexpensive thank-you gifts after playing a wedding.


It goes without saying that in order for your recording to be taken seriously and have a chance of selling, it must be professionally presented and packaged. This is far more important than the level of your talent when it comes to marketing your product. An intermediate-level artist’s recording that is spectacularly produced and packaged will sell reasonably well; a virtuoso with an unappealing, uninteresting package may find himself with a carton full of unsold inventory. Elinor Bennett and Sunita Staneslow both stressed the importance of planning a “coherent program” or “theme” on the album, rather than a hodgepodge of unrelated tunes, because it helps distributors and shops “catalog” your music more readily, which may increase sales.

As recording technology has become more sophisticated, the general public has become more spoiled. Computer editing has raised the recorded standard to formerly unreachable heights with the ability to “punch in” errant notes. Even a singer’s natural breaths can now be edited out of a recording, creating the superhuman illusion of a flawless, breathless performance that cannot possibly be matched in any live concert. For good or for ill, this is the standard to which all harpers will be held by the purchasing public. The closer they can come to this ideal, the more their recordings are likely to be circulated.


Sue Richards wisely advised: “remember, you will sell your first 100 albums to your good friends, but the rest of the sales are by people who don’t know you or the harp; therefore, you must direct everything to marketing to them.” Unfortunately, people do notice packaging first; their opinion of the artist will already be formed by how the album is presented. There is no substitute for excellent playing, but most of the general public do not care if you are a virtuoso. They want to hear the beautiful, inspiring sound of a well-recorded harp; the music can be quite simplistic, but if it’s lovely, your customers will be thrilled and think you are absolutely wonderful.




I want to thank the many individuals who responded to the survey and contributed valuable information to this article. I greatly appreciate their extreme openness, frankness, and willingness to take the time to fill out the very detailed questionnaire. I could not have written this article without their input.