How to Release Your Own Cassettes
(so that people can actually hear them)
A rundown on what's involved in setting up your own personal cassette label and how to bring your product to the attention of the people who matter.
Chris Heath of Another Spark Tapes explains the hard work that went into the creation and release of their first independent compilation cassette, giving some valuable advice to interested parties on the way.
Between them, HSR readers must produce thousands of hours of recorded music every week, most of which is destined to gather dust on a high shelf, another personal memento. Many of you (sadly rather more than will ever succeed) however, nurture ambitions of foisting your creations on a rather larger audience than at present can be crammed into your bedroom to hear your masterpieces.
The best way to disseminate mass music is still on vinyl record, and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise, and for most people the ideal way of getting on record is to find a record company willing to subsidise the creation, production, and promotion of your wares. As many of you have doubtless discovered this option is denied to all but a select few. Nevertheless, there's no mileage in moping on your bedroom floor complaining of the companies' blatant ignorance and stupidity in the face of your obvious genius. To start with, companies aren't that stupid - though an extravagant haircut and a pretty face are clearly assets - those Beatles/Boston/Elvis Costello/Billy Bragg stories of rejection by all and sundry are the exception not the rule - if you've also acquired a mountain of rejection slips I'd wager that it doesn't qualify you to be a member of that elite but rather means that your music is not very good or of minority interest (no sin in that!). And in any case, there are viable options.
Making your own record yourself is, quite sensibly, the most popular alternative for those with serious intentions of progressing further. However, a growing number of people are now releasing their own cassettes into a market place that is becoming increasingly tolerant of this medium. Nothing new, you might say, thinking of all your endless tape releases - didn't you sell 14 of the last one? That kind of cassette dissemination has been going on ever since the advent of mass-ownership of cassette players (and is extremely valuable): what is new is a growing acceptance of tapes as a viable way of releasing music on a larger scale. Two things have made this possible - firstly the greater readiness of retail outlets to stock material in unorthodox forms, consequent on the broadening of horizons in the late 70s punk movement when the album and single-off-the-album syndrome was finally dented; and secondly, the immense surge in prerecorded tape sales (due partly to the greater use of chrome cassettes, and home taping, but mainly attributed to the ubiquitous Walkman) — two years ago they averaged one quarter of the respective album sales, now they are fast approaching parity.
So what is involved in releasing a cassette? With my partner Steve Xerri I have spent the last 6 months working on the first tape compilation on our Another Spark label. For us it was a process of endless blind searches and slow successes, but hopefully by setting out the main hurdles, how we overcame them, and suggesting alternative strategies for this in different circumstances, you should be left with a good idea of whether an indie tape is a viable option for yourself, and, if so, how you can go about releasing one.
Whatever scale you choose to operate on, some initial financial outlay is going to be necessary. If, as we did, you aim for national distribution then it is impossible to simply produce the cassettes in small batches as you need them, there must be enough to reach all points of sale simultaneously. Bank managers are not likely to be willing to speculate on such ventures, so considerable capital must be raised somehow, (though less than for making a record) and so you must have a lot of faith in the music. At best you must expect to be out of pocket for several months.
Though after a few months work you could be excused for forgetting it, the music is the main point of all this. Our aim was to release a high quality, long, very good value for money (£3 for 90 mins) compilation tape of unreleased tracks by exciting independent bands. Getting the bands involved literally days of phone calls chasing contacts, gently coercing artists, tracking down tapes that had supposedly been 'in the post' 4 times already etc! In the end our roster included names like Billy Bragg, Red Guitars, The Box, The Mekons, The Three Johns, The Go-Betweens, 1000 Mexicans and 20 others, intentionally also including unknowns who we had faith in, including Tinytown, Perfect Vision, Ege Bam Yase, and the Ghost of Electricity. You personally may be more inclined to release a tape by a single artist, probably yourself - unfortunately this will probably involve you in greater distribution problems later.
If you have produced your own master tape it will probably be on a studio-quality stereo reel-to-reel; this is ideal. We, however, weren't so lucky - despite vainly insisting on reel masters of individual tracks we were bombarded with an array of reels and cassettes. Consequently we went into a local studio to make a master tape on a 2 track ¼" 7½ips. reel-to-reel of the whole tape. Most cassette duplicators will also accept cassette masters, if that is more convenient and if you can tolerate the small sound quality loss. Don't forget before posting off your master (wrapped in metal foil, just in case) to ensure that you have a protection or safety copy - accidents do happen!
For a full rundown on cassette duplication see HSR August.
If you are only dealing in very small numbers of cassettes you may prefer making your own copies between two cassette players in the time-honoured fashion. As we had decided on a first pressing of 1300, and didn't have a spare 1950 hours, we opted for professional duplication. To find a good cheap duplicator look in music press ads, the yellow pages, or contact people who've used them. We were lucky enough to be put in touch through a friend, with a larger operation that does a few small scale batches as a passing distraction - we got an unbeatable bargain. As a guide to typical prices, the cost of duplication plus the cassettes should be less than the retail price of similar blank tapes in the shops (so you could always tape over the ones that don't sell!).
If, as we did, you use a loop-bin duplication system, where tape is fed into empty cassette shells in the process, then you can produce tapes of exactly the correct length (be sure to label the longest side clearly when presenting your masters to the duplicators) - with other methods you will be constrained by their selection of tape lengths.
At this stage you can also decide if you want Dolby or noise reduction of any sorts on the final product (you should use it in any case on the earlier transfers if possible). Because we decided that we were aiming for the low-fi and cheap Walkman end of the market we left it off.
Conventional cassette packaging involves a label, a case, and a card insert. You may find, as we did, that the duplicators can produce the first from your artwork proofs at very little charge. Cases are fairly pricey - phone a few suppliers and get the best quote you can find for the quantity you need. Insert sleeves can be printed professionally (quite expensive for colour ones) or photocopied yourself. The drawback with the photocopies or cheaply-copied inserts is that they so often look cheap, tacky, and unattractive - exactly the image an independent cassette must avoid if people are to take it seriously.
We decided to do away with case and inlays, largely because we were interested in supplying a textual accompaniment. Thus we produced a 28 page black and white A5 booklet (phone printers for quotes) including a manifesto of sorts, information, discographies, and artwork/photos/text/lyrics contributed by the artists involved - enclosing this and the loose cassette in a tight fitting sealable plastic bag. Hopefully this makes Another Spark 1 a more attractive and complete package, but it does have several drawbacks.
Firstly, it is difficult for the purchaser to keep - it doesn't fit with the rest of his/her tapes and slips off shelves! Secondly, the loose tape is vulnerable to dust, and also to winding loose. Thirdly, large numbers are fairly hard to pack together with conventional compact cassette cases. Finally, there is no inlay card for shops to display with their cassettes. If we're lucky then, they display it conspicuously on its own, unfortunately, they're just as likely to hide it out of the way behind the counter and wait for someone with ESP to ask for a copy. Inventive packaging can be a great attention-getter - so use your imagination.
This is where tapes have traditionally fallen down. Even independent distributors, like the Cartel who handle Another Spark, are unwilling to take cassettes by unknown artists - there are just too many duff offerings about in this form for it to be worth the distributors' or shops' while. You might be able to get round this in several ways - by getting a reputation (either through live work, a media blitz, or a parallel record release); by getting a cassette release on a company which has a distribution deal for all its products (not easy); or by getting on a compilation tape like ours and riding on the backs of more famous names. If you can't get such a deal your horizons are severely limited, but with determination you can still get somewhere. Pester appropriate alternative publications and fanzines for reviews, maybe advertise in the music press small ads, or sell tapes at gigs and other events - again, use your imagination.
If you do get a distribution deal you should also be able to sell some tapes on export. Ring round exporters (to get likely names we phoned other tape labels and helpful indie record companies) and get orders.
People have to know about something before they will buy it. The best advertising is the free sort - pester absolutely anyone and everyone for reviews and mentions. Don't just hopefully send off tapes to the music papers - choose a journalist or two who you think will be sympathetic and keep on ringing him/her up till he/she either reviews it or hangs up. Send in release news to the News pages in the press - repeatedly if necessary. Again, be inventive, and try to think of any way, however irrelevant, to get your tape mentioned.
Radio is still unsympathetic to cassettes both artistically and technically. Artistically, there is enough pressure on them already to sift through the 100 or so singles released each week without bothering with typically substandard cassette releases - and they won't unless there is something special to recommend them. Technically, few radio stations can play cassettes, either you must produce a ¼" reel or they must copy your cassette.
Most of you are unlikely to crack Radio 1 airplay, but don't forget the alternatives. Local radio stations often have programmes featuring demos and releases by local artists and pirate radio stations may also be worth tracking down.
At the end of all this, you don't want to end up out of pocket. If you are a one person/band operation then the accounting should be fairly easy, but don't con yourself over how much you've made or not lost until you've taken into account all those extra phone calls, train journeys etc. If, as we are, you are releasing someone else's music things become more complicated.
As income we receive the tape sales. For us this involves three different categories: what the British distributor pays us (you will doubtless be horrified to discover that £1.76 to the distributor translates to £3.99 in the shops - most of the mark-up going to the shop), the slightly higher price we charge exporters, and the greater margin we get from mail order sales at only £3 inc P&P. To keep our accounting easier we have a bank account in Another Spark's name so that we can solicit cheques in that name. The mail order money from sales, of course, comes in immediately - for the other you typically must wait either 30 or 60 days (an anxious period).
Our costs included tape duplications, the booklet make-up and printing, the packaging, a huge phone bill, some travelling expenses, a huge postal bill (initial enquiries, tape movements, advertising/press releases, return of band's masters), opening a post box number, and, last but not least, royalties.
Though on this small scale bands often offer to waive these (we refused to let them on principle), publishing royalties are payable to the publisher (who if they have no deal we will assume to be the band themselves) at a rate of 6¼% of that band's products' retail price - about 1½p per tape each. Artists' royalties are negotiable - we pay an equal amount to the publishing royalty.
Another Spark is established as a nonprofit making enterprise - this suited our aims and motives (and greatly aided our search for material) - but you can easily set out to earn money under the same conditions as any other business. We intend and hope to make a small operating profit - this will in the short term be reinvested, and ultimately be redistributed as extra royalties to the artists.
Done well, independent tapes can be a cheap and effective way of getting your music heard - and hopefully avenues for them will continue to widen. But don't make the mistake of expecting them to provide a magic route to success (there is no magic route); and don't lose a fortune trying. For instance, there's no point indiscriminately copying a huge number of tapes unless you've first found a distributor confident of selling most of them. And don't forget that, while in the short term if you are inventive and clever enough, you can sell garbage, in the long run it's the music you peddle that has to be good enough.
Another Spark Tapes are happy to provide advice (please include an S.A.E.), receive demos for possible inclusion on future compilations, or sell their first tape AS1 (£3 inc P&P). Further details from: Another Spark, (Contact Details).