State of Independence
Dan Goldstein sifts through the stack of independent vinyl that landed in the E&MM offices following our appeal, and finds each record has a different tale to tell.
Our appeal to readers who'd made their own electronic music record prompted a far greater response than we'd even dared imagine. Dan Goldstein selects six notable submissions and finds that each disc has its own tale to tell. If you're thinking of making your own record in the near future, this is one feature you can't afford to miss.
It goes without saying that almost everyone who reads E&MM is actively involved in writing, performing, and recording their own music. And while there are some musicians for whom nothing but major chart success will suffice, the vast majority harbour ambitions of a rather less grandiose nature, and are more interested in creating music for its own sake as opposed to fame or great financial reward.
However, what also goes without saying is that very, very few artists of any sort are content to let their work remain forever within the confines of their own environment: for most people, sharing their artistic output with as wide an audience as possible is almost as important as generating the artistic material in the first place.
In the field of modern music, the two media most widely used by little-known artists wishing to reach more people than is possible through simply playing music live are the cassette and the vinyl record. Cassettes have the advantage that they are far easier to produce in small quantities, but, on the other hand, it's because of this versatility that almost every musician and his pet dog has made a demo cassette at some stage - E&MM's own richly-populated On Cassette page is testimony to that. And the problem with a medium that's as popular as the cassette is that only a minority of the people who use them actually get noticed, making the whole process a somewhat fruitless exercise for all but the lucky few.
On the other hand, artists wanting to get their music onto vinyl have in the past been forced to lay themselves open to the whim of the major record companies, a prospect few people who've ever got more than one rejection letter from such labels are ever likely to relish.
Fortunately, the changes in musical and commercial values that occurred in the late seventies have altered that state of affairs. It's now possible for anybody with sufficient capital to record, cut, press, and market their own independent record, thereby taking the major step up from demo cassettes without having to go through the tedious (and often entirely futile) process of trying to secure a recording contract.
As with a demo cassette, there's no point producing a record if you don't have a worthwhile recording to put on it. So it makes sense to go about recording in as logical and professional a fashion as possible, whether you're recording at home using your own or hired equipment, or paying out X-pounds-per-hour in a professional recording studio.
Blackpool band Sensible Shoes opted for the latter course of action, recording their debut single 'A Game' at a 16-track facility near their home town, this despite having their own Tascam 38 eight-track recorder on which they'd previously done demos. The Shoes' guitarist, Nigel Bernstein, informs us that the band saved on studio costs by recording percussion and melody parts onto a Korg KPR77 and Roland MC202 respectively, even though they eventually overdubbed a hired Simmons kit in place of the Korg's pre-programmed rhythms. Nigel rounds off the recording side of things by commenting that 'everything went well in the studio and we were very pleased with the way the songs came out'. However, not everybody has the same good fortune when it comes to getting their music down onto a master tape good enough to form the basis of an independent record release.
Nottingham's None So Blind seemed at one stage to be further along the trail to success than many bands even dream of, when they won a competition in the now defunct Musicians' Weekly, the first prize of which was two days' recording with Dave Stewart, one half of the Eurythmics. However, NSB's good fortune turned out to be rather ill-timed, as their first meeting with the man himself coincided with the release of 'Love is a Stranger', the Eurythmics' first major hit. From that moment on, Mr Stewart became more and more elusive, though on the rare occasions when the band succeeded in making contact with him, the noises he made were generally of an encouraging nature.
Eventually, DAS put None So Blind in touch with one Adam Williams, who engineered the Sweet Dreams album and who was at that time (early 1983) in the process of turning the Eurythmics' old studio site into a recording facility of his own. On February 6, NSB recorded their single's A-side - 'My Favourite Eyes' - at Williams' studio, with the help of a Mk1 Movement Drum Computer, an Oberheim OBXa and a Casio MT30 for 'the basic keyboard sound'.
Dave Stewart was presented with None So Blind's mix of the track and described it as 'phenomenal', but he wasn't altogether happy with the sound balance the band had achieved, and consequently, NSB ended up with two separate rough mixes - theirs and Stewart's.
Almost six months passed while the band waited for Dave Stewart to bring them with news of when they'd be able to carry out a master mix of 'My Favourite Eyes', but he never came back to them and, eventually, the band re-booked the studio and remixed the tape, adding some double-tracked vocals in the process. Perhaps not surprisingly, None So Blind recorded the single's B-side (The Virus') on a hired Fostex A8...
Once you've got a master tape you're happy with (and nothing less than this will do - there's nothing worse than spending a lot of time, money, and energy on making your own record and then realising that you're not 100% pleased with what's contained on it), your music then has to be cut onto a master acetate, which is in turn processed into a 'mother' from which each individual disc is pressed. All three of these stages are significant (ie. they all play a major part in determining how close the finished records will sound to your original master tape) but it's the first that's perhaps the most critical.
Steve Hartwell of indie label Peeved Records discovered that the hard way by failing to attend the cutting process and discovering countless EQ and distortion problems on a finished disc by Southampton electropop band The Primary.
Perhaps because of the uncertain nature of some of the problems that can be caused by incompetent disc-cutting, many people opt for package deals, whereby one company handles cutting, processing and pressing for you.
However, as Jonathan Moss discovered, such packages are not always the bargains they appear to be. After scanning the ads in the music papers, he decided on an all-in-one deal from May King Records in London to handle the manufacturing of his 'Laboratory Breed' single. To start off with, ambiguous advertisement wording resulted in Jonathan having to find extra finance for the cutting stage he originally thought was part of the May King deal, but things didn't stop there.
MK charged him an additional 10% on top of their advertised pressing rates 'in case we press 10% too many': as things turned out, they did nothing of the kind, though Jonathan received not a penny back in compensation. Then, on taking delivery of the finished 'Laboratory Breed' singles (Moss had actually arranged to pick them up himself, but May King delivered them to his door and charged him for it) he found his master lacquers were conspicuous by their absence. On enquiring as to their whereabouts, someone at MK let slip that they'd actually had the record pressed in France and that his master lacquers were probably still over there - it was going to cost Jonathan an additional £40 to get them back.
Meanwhile, None So Blind - as if they hadn't had enough problems already - were also faced with pressing plant obstinacy, though in their case it was because the company in question - SRT in Cambridge - was on the verge of going bust. The company gave NSB a new deadline every time they managed to get through, but each deadline came and went with monotonous regularity, until last October when copies of 'My Favourite Eyes' (100 short in number and nearly six months late, it must be stressed) were finally delivered to the band. On this latter point, Rob Williams of None So Blind comments that if you can't get your independent record out by early to mid-autumn, you might as well wait until spring, since few people in the music media seem to have much time for indie releases when the Christmas spirit is in the air...
If it's taken a long while for your musical creation to get from master tape to finished disc, there's a temptation to sit back and relax with the records in your hands, thinking all the difficult work is over.
Quite apart from the fact that a record that fails to reach any potential customers is unlikely to allow you to even dream of breaking even financially, it should be pretty obvious that a record that isn't distributed properly simply isn't going to get your message across to sufficient numbers of people. In other words, you might just as well have stuck with cassettes.
Yorkshire synth band 1-Syntax-1 were lucky enough to secure distribution deals with two of the UK's biggest outfits, Red Rhino and The Cartel, though for some obscure reason, Rough Trade still a leading-light in this field - refused to take their single. Unfortunately, deals of this nature are becoming harder and harder to come by as distributors become more and more reluctant to commit themselves to a record unless they feel that, musically, it has real hit potential. Still, as Jonathan Moss points out, it's worth sending your master tape round to distributors before you begin the process of committing it to vinyl, for two reasons. First, because if none of the distributors take much of a liking to what you've produced, it gives you the opportunity to reconsider your position before you waste a lot of money on making a record nobody wants to sell; and second, because if you can get one of the major distributors interested, (and get that interest in writing) you can print the fact that they're dealing with the record on the sleeve - it makes a useful reference point for consumers and retailers alike.
But no matter how hard a struggle it might seem to be to get British distributors to give your record a fair hearing, spare a thought for musicians like Howard Ingram of Belfast. The lack of record labels in Northern Ireland forced him to set up his own company, Blue Rhythm, in 1982, and after several cassette-only releases, Howard branched out into the world of vinyl, despite the problems of shipping his finished records over from England (there is only one - expensive - pressing plant in the whole of Ireland).
Once he had the records in his hands, Howard was faced with the unforeseen problem of almost total apathy on the part of local distributors. No company in Ulster (and only one - Spartan - in the Republic) showed the slightest interest in Blue Rhythm's activities, and this despite BR offering them records on a sale or return basis...
Assuming that you press somewhere between 500 and 1000 records (that's just about the minimum quantity most pressing plants will handle, and that goes for albums as well as singles), it makes sense to assign at least 100 of them to promotion. This may seem like a lot at a time when you've just spent almost all your worldly savings yet haven't seen a penny back on record sales, but it's a fact - brought home very forcibly by our contributors - that media coverage sells records. None So Blind, for example, sent well over 100 singles just to radio stations (21 of those being to Radio 1 alone), but as a result, they received enquiries from all ends of the country.
Send as many records as you can to music papers and magazines as well, and don't confine yourself to the UK - there's a thriving independent label scene in most countries of Western Europe (particularly Belgium, Holland, West Germany) not to mention the US, which is really where it all started.
Assuming that you also play music live from time to time, you'll probably find gigs as good a place as any to sell off any surplus records you might have after you've exhausted all the distribution and promotion possibilities. On the other hand, if your record has sold extremely well (and if it has, you might be hovering around the break-even point financially) bear in mind that many pressing plants offer credit facilities on repressing. This means that you can have another batch of records pressed (usually fairly swiftly) before you've got all - or any - of your money back on the first lot.
If, after reading this feature, you feel that making your own record sounds as if it's not too far removed from an assault course, you're right - it is. However, of all the musicians who replied to our appeal, not one said that they regretted their first venture onto vinyl, and almost all of them felt that making a record had been of considerable promotional value, and that's something that can't always be said of the humble cassette.
As a (very) rough guide, the prices below - supplied by Sensible Shoes - should give you some sort of idea as to how much making an independent single can come to: albums cost rather more, both in cutting and pressing costs and, of course, in studio time.
|Recording time (2 days)||£220|
|Pressing 1000 singles||£420|
|Picture sleeve (1 colour)||£130|
Feature by Dan Goldstein
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