DIY: self-producing an album

Swedish-American soprano Erika Sunnegårdh on the challenge of self-producing her album and why she’s prepared to give it away for free

The world really doesn’t need yet another aria album. Adding my personal rendition of a variety of pieces to an already saturated market has never been on my bucket list of things to do before I die. I have more work that I can say yes to, in places I enjoy working, with people I feel privileged to call my colleagues. I would gladly pay hard-earned money to play many of their voices through my headphones. But none of them have ‘record deals’ – and neither do I.

The commercially available recordings that flood the market every year seem to have one of two purposes: either to support the latest repertoire developments of our top five stars, or to promote the fresh young face of someone who has sung a production or two and might be the flavour of next year. Rarely are they the testament of 10 or 15 years spent treading the boards night after night with the usual sweat and tears involved in actually doing the job.

Yet it is there on the boards where singing personalities are born: in the house, to an audience. Producing, financing and releasing my first self-titled solo album – accompanied by the Malmö Symphony Orchestra but of my own accord – has been the hardest thing I have ever done. The steep learning curve of producing and coming up with solutions to problems previously unknown has at times taken its toll on me, both mentally and emotionally.

But my motivational kick-off was two-fold. For over a decade, I have had to sheepishly answer in the negative every time someone asked me if I had an album they could buy – which has felt bad, especially considering some of the things available on the market. And then an astonishing opportunity arose; I was ‘gifted’ the opportunity to work with Malmö Symphony Orchestra – on the condition that I partner with the orchestra to produce a recording.

Maybe I could have approached a label at that point, maybe someone would have considered putting time and money into creating a product with me – though maybe that wasn’t the point. For me, being integral in the decision-making that goes into producing an album expresses everything about my life – and not just my life as a singer. It has excited me to put my voice and heart into the repertoire: tracks include the final scene and Four Last Songs from Salome by Strauss and arias from Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser.

Watch the trailer for Erika Sunnegårdh’s debut album.

I have enjoyed presenting a symphony orchestra with some of the heaviest operatic literature around and it’s been worthwhile to see how they remoulded their sensibilities to match mine. Also performing on the album are Albert Dohmen (bass-baritone), Thomas Sunnegårdh (tenor), and Ellika Ström Meijling (mezzo-soprano). With MSO I introduced a conductor of extraordinary gifts and skill, Will Humburg, to a stage full of seasoned sceptics and saw them melt in front of my very eyes. Along the way I also found myself challenged by my own lack of confidence, only to be lifted up by colleagues and Humburg – an experience that allowed me to work with more authenticity.

Every part of this project reflects the talents and hearts of people I know, down to the CD booklet. I’ve worked with people whose life in music, design, words and sound engineering add up to the things I call beautiful. Since the album began with the gift of an orchestra’s time, it’s my sincerest wish that the album make it into the hands of anyone who wants it, even if that means we give away digital downloads free of charge.

To that end, I am running a crowdfunding project on Kickstarter, where individuals, groups and companies can make tax-deductible pledges to support covering the cost of the production, in return for market value rewards. By mid-December we had raised USD18,786 (€13,600) of our USD18,000 goal. This means that we are less dependent on commercial sales, and can offer our music for free as a digital download.

This recording has never been a for-profit game. Not for me. Is it strange to solicit financial support for a product? Yes. But is it strange to solicit pledges in return for rewards for the purpose of putting musicians to work, creating top-notch performances, and spreading that music to the general public, including those who cannot pay? No, I certainly don’t think so.

Erika Sunnegårdh’s self-titled album is available via digital and physical outlets.  Image © Krister Atle