How to Become a Rock Star for $290

With just an idea and an iPhone, I crowdsourced the entire recording process (and then some) on my quest for musical glory

by Brett Goldstein
Monte Del Monte

I grew up genuinely believing that I would become a rock star. But then somewhere around sophomore year of high school, I became a realist; I looked at the numbers. Being a musician is just really, really expensive. Even genuine rock stars are having a hard time figuring out how to make good money in the industry these days.

When I graduated college, the decision to suit up and join the corporate world was not a hard one to make. I had no problem foregoing my quest for fame in return for financial stability, as long as I could spend my spare time and money writing and recording my music.

As it turned out, after taxes, rent (in San Francisco), transportation and debt repayments, there really wasn’t much cash for me to throw at expensive recording studios and session musicians, let alone a decent keyboard. And “free” time just wasn’t a thing at all.

So, two years after making this bargain with myself, I had nothing to show as a musician but a few songs I wrote and recorded on my iPhone.

Then one day, I realized that was actually all I needed. An iPhone.

Advances in digital audio technology have made it easier, faster and cheaper to produce professional quality music. The laptop has become the studio of choice for many of today’s most famous musicians.

What’s more is that you don’t necessarily even need a laptop. Using an app like Fiverr, its possible to hire real musicians from around the world to record and produce an entire song completely from your phone. Fiverr is a marketplace for services starting at $5, so the whole shebang ends up being cheap as hell too.

With this in mind, I decided to embark on my reinvigorated quest for rockstardom. Over the course of just a few weeks, I used Fiverr to create what might be the cheapest, fastest professional quality song ever produced… completely from a phone… plus an accompanying music video, album art, and marketing.

This is the story of how a guy with no connections, no time, and very little talent—

just an idea, an iPhone, and $290

—can make his childhood dreams come true. Here’s how it went down.

“Throw Me Out To Sea”

Everyone knows the most important asset for a rock star is their hairdo, so naturally that was priority number one for me. Before singing a single note, I got myself a sweet mohawk — just like the cool kids.

Next, I had to record a scratch track—this is a low quality recording of vocals and guitar or piano with a click track that other musicians listen to initially as they record their parts. For me, low quality was an understatement—I forgot lyrics, sang out of tune, and accidentally repeated sections way too many times.

This quest for rockstardom was off to a rocky start…

I chose to record “Throw Me Out To Sea,” an upbeat, sentimental song I wrote about two years ago. I’ve always been a fan of pop music—I think catchy songs are the hardest to write—so a lot of my music ends up sounding fairly mainstream. But despite my occasional hipsterisms, I’m pretty ok with it.

I used the Voice Memos app on my iPhone to record the scratch track. From there, I transferred the recording to a Google Drive folder and shared it with musicians and producers on the Fiverr mobile app. I also included basic directions, a chord chart and a Spotify playlist of songs I wanted my song to sound like.

Sounds complicated, but the idea was simple: send my crappy iPhone recording to a bunch of amazing musicians scattered across the globe and hope they can independently record their respective parts on top of it so that in the end, the song sounds halfway decent.

Drums by Matt (USA): $26.25 (1 day)

I had drums recorded first so that the the other musicians would get a solid sense of the rhythm and tempo of the song — something I couldn’t do with my terrible piano playing. Despite giving my drummer, Matt, my playlist and directions, he ended up interpreting the song completely differently than I did. I imagined a fast, uplifting summer classic; he slowed it down and chilled it out.

Instead of asking him to try again, I let it be.

This journey, I decided, was not about micromanaging a bunch people who are more talented than I am.

This journey was about doing a lot with very little: very little money, very little time, and—in theory—very little musical ability.

For the remaining musicians, I mostly just shut up and let them do their thing.

Piano by Mirko (Italy): $26.25 (6 days)

Aside from the guy you can pay $5 to rub chocolate syrup on himself while singing Happy Birthday in his underwear (he has over 600 buyers by the way), Mirko was one of the more eccentric people I found on Fiverr. Something about his Italian accent in his goofy demo video drew me in… that and his 25 years of experience as a session musician. I asked him to play piano on my song and he delivered a unique interpretation with lots and lots and lots of arpeggios.

Eh… why not?

Guitar by Mirko (Italy): $22.00 (6 days)

Just after he finished the piano part, Mirko told me that he really loved my song and had a great idea for an electric guitar part for it. I’m not sure if he was just being a good salesperson or really meant it; but either way, he delivered. The guitar part was twangy yet epic, and… full of arpeggios in the bridge.

I could dig it.

Bass by Jair-Rohm (Sweden): $5.50 (1 day)

Choosing Jair-Rohm to play bass wasn’t scientific at all. His demo video had him showing off his bass collection like a rapper shows off his cars — I had to have him. He turned out to be, by far, the best bang for my buck. He is a professional bassist with 30 years of experience recording and touring with big acts. For $5, he sent me two studio-recorded bass lines overnight. No wonder 316 people gave him near-perfect reviews—not quite as good as the chocolate syrup guy though.

Orchestra by Paul (Ireland): $31.50 (7 days)

My song really didn’t need an orchestra part—unless you’re Josh Groban, orchestra should never be an option. But when professional musicians come this cheap, it’s hard to resist. For what I paid, I was expecting just some chords played on the orchestra setting on a midi keyboard. Instead, Paul sent me 13 tracks including oboe, clarinet, bassoon, flute, tuba, french horn, viola, and even timpani. This final touch transformed the song and truly raised it up.

Vocals by Yours Truly (USA): Priceless (10 minutes)

The best idea I had to produce a decent vocal recording on an iPhone was to squeeze into my closet and record with Voice Memos there. Claustrophobia tested my patience and I left the closet having only recorded two takes. It definitely showed, but I decided to rest my fate on the power of audio engineering.

Mixing/Mastering by Kevin (USA) — $31.50 (7 days)

Once I had all the parts together in the Drive folder, I sent them to Kevin, a sound engineer on Fiverr I had worked with on a previous song. Aside from the basic mixing and mastering, he added in some bells and whistles to make the song shine and make my vocals not sound like complete shit.

Throughout this entire process, I never actually felt like I was getting any closer to becoming a rock star. Fiddling around on my phone for a few minutes here and there while sitting around in my underwear was not as epic as crowd-surfing in an inflatable raft across a sea of fans while wearing ridiculously tight pants.

And then I got the notification from Kevin. It was done.

In the end, I also hired a graphic designer to make some album art, a video editor to make the lyric video, and an army of marketing people to distribute my content (including this post) to radio stations, music blogs, and the masses on social media. Even so, the grand total of the entire project was just $290.35.

If I hadn’t done (unnecessary) two-day delivery with a few of the musicians, requested the video and separate drum tracks from Matt, cut the song down by 1 min, and only had the musicians play a few bars (that a producer could sample from) rather than the whole song, the total cost would have been closer to $170— the song itself would have only cost $85!

Yes, a professionally recorded song, a music video, album art, and marketing can be yours for just $170.

While that itself is pretty astounding given studio prices, the kicker is that the whole thing was done in a few weeks and only required about 4 total man-hours on my part.

Just looking at the numbers alone, its easy to wonder why more musicians don’t go this route. For a singer/songwriter with a full-time job and just wants a basic EP to demo around, this should be a no-brainer.

But of course, there’s one thing missing: authenticity.

Art is about self-expression. It would be hard for me to call “Throw Me Out To Sea” an authentic act of self-expression because… well… it was outsourced to other people! It’s inherently not completely self-expressed It’s Mirko-expressed, its Matt-expressed.

Let’s take this notion one step further and imagine that I actually had no musical abilities at all. What if I hired a songwriter and a vocalist on Fiverr before I went through the whole process, merely acting as a facilitator along the way? Would you think of me as an artist then when the song is completely outsourced, when there was no self-expression at all?

As it turns out, many great musicians as well as artists, writers, and entrepreneurs usually start out doing everything themselves, micromanaging every last detail to achieve their vision. But as their brands develop, they need to delegate and outsource to scale.

Andy Warhol employed an army of artists to produce his famous prints at The Factory, Tom Clancy died years ago but ghost writers continue to publish new books under his name, Larry Page doesn’t write code for Google Search anymore (though I heard Mark Zuckerburg still codes occasionally at Facebook), and DJ superstar Tiesto is thought to be one of many DJs utilizing ghost producers in the industry.

No, not even The Bey writes her own music.

Over time, artists become more like marketing vehicles and project managers of bodies of work created by others—kind of like I was in creating “Throw Me Out To Sea.” In fact, the process I went through is actually not much different than how a lot of professional music is created today.

Considering this, it seems as though the fundamental difference between good artists and great artists is the ability to resist the dilution of authenticity and express oneself through collaborators throughout this process.

But of course, the greatest artists can do it all from their iPhone.

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I am, in fact, a real musician and decided to produce this song myself a year after this post was published:

Listen to the official version of Throw Me Out To Sea

I would love to keep in touch if you enjoyed this post. You can listen to my music on Soundcloud or you can pick your poison from these as well: YouTube, Twitter, and, of course, Medium.