Cut And Thrust (Part 1)
Cutting a record
Make your own music, make your own record, make your own luck
Is there a formula for a successful dance record? Should you sign your life away to a major or go indie? From mouse-mats to hit tracks, MT presents the first of a definitive two-part guide to cutting and promoting your own record...
The last ten years has, as we now all know, seen a revolution in the way we think about pop music and the way it is made. With the advent of cheap analogue synths and beatboxes towards the end of the seventies and the arrival of even cheaper MIDI keyboards, making music has never been easier. Britain's infamous bedroom-technology fraternity has adopted and used the sampler in ways that even Akai and Ensoniq never fully imagined. The Mirage liberated the backroom talents of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and not long after, Akai machines provided the springboard for Tim Simenon and a generation of DJs-cum producers who caught the music industry with its pants well and truly down.
Technology has turned Urban Hype from window cleaners into pop-pranksters, has converted Altern 8 from faceless deckchair attendants into faceless leaders of the rave culture and has transformed The Shamen from a psychiatric nurse and a milkman into psychedelic global superstars. Having a hit record has never been easier. Or has it?
"Defining a pop record is really quite simple. A pop record is simply a record that's popular with a lot of people," says Frankie Knuckles, probably the world's most famous remixer, club-land DJ-producer and godfather of Chicago house. "...The real trick comes from knowing what subtle blend of ingredients it takes to make a record that appeals to such a large number of people, within such a short time."
And the reality is that these days, it's harder than ever to have a hit from a DAT tape. After perhaps five years of rave revolution, creating a noise for yourself amongst the din of techno tunes, bass-crunchers and progressive house-building is tougher than ever. "Three or four years ago you'd be competing against ten tracks," says studio-junkie and bedroom producer Mark Gamble, who, as one third of Brit-house popsters Krush, first put the rave nation under 'House Arrest' for an untold number of weeks. "...Now you have to compete with 500 or more in any one week."
In reality - and despite the best efforts of Bryan Adams - one third of all chart singles passing over the record shop tills were dance records. But with more small record companies, more bedroom pop-stars and fewer teenagers, hitting the perfect beat can be essential if you want to move your Kurzweil out of the leaky garage.
Essentially, this means that any given record isn't going to sell too many copies. Something like S'Express's 'Theme From S'Express' sold a cool 500,000.
Now, most dance records can get into the top forty selling only ten or twenty thousand a week. Tracks like Snap's 'Rhythm is a Dancer' (which sold over 600,000) are, these days, exceptions. Right Said Fred's 'Deeply Dippy' was at one stage, only selling around 29,000 a week, according to one chart insider. Most number ones normally manage to shift 75,000+ a week.
So what is that winning formula? According to producers Coldcut, there are two key strategies. "You've got to be doing something at a time when everyone else is doing something different; and the time's right for your 'thing' to blossom," says Matt Black, who also DJ's on London dance station, Kiss FM, as well as running his own label Ninja Tune. "Or you've got to do just the opposite. Use the formula of what's happening at the moment, like progressive house - but do it in a fresh way," he says. "That should tell you of course that there are no rules."
Times have certainly changed from the days when Tim Simenon's 'Beat Dis' appeared from nowhere and scored him a top five hit as Bomb The Bass. "It's less obvious what the magic ingredient is" he suggests. Pete Waterman has a simple, if rather unhelpful definition. "A hit record is anything that sells more than 100,000" - he says with a chuckle.
The traditional approach to launching yourself on an unsuspecting world was to send in your demo tape to an A&R man and hope it generated some interest. Forget it. In a crowded market place, getting noticed is the increasingly essential first step. In fact, there are now two generally respected ways of standing up and being counted. The white-label, or club-promo approach, and the direct approach. Let's consider the latter. Acts like Urban Hype with 'Trip To Trumpton', Bomb The Bass with 'Beat Dis' all scored house-points from demo tapes - as have many others. But there's a catch. Such acts needed to first win the attention of a recognised manager.
In recent years, it has become increasingly important to have a manager represent you (and introduce your tape and yourselves) to the mystic gurus in the record company's A & R (Artists and Repertoire) department. These industry overlords are - if only by their personal insistence - very, very busy men who invariably have to be somewhere else at any given time. Whether through a friendly producer, an inside contact or the tea-lady - getting the right introduction is essential.
"Some of the independents pride themselves on a philosophy of listening to everything that's posted to them" - says Boilerhouse DJ Ben Wolf, of labels like CityBeat (home to Sly And Lovechild), XL (home to Prodigy) and Pulse-8 (home to Rozalla). "The trouble with a lot of major record labels is that they'll naturally get sent a lot more stuff. They'll be less 'hungry' for that one killer single," maintains Wolf, who has produced, remixed and written for acts that include The Wonderstuff.
The other approach is white labels. Getting 500 copies out to DJs and radio stations is virtually a guaranteed way to get response for your masterpiece. More club and press interest was generated by the white-label bootlegs of Mass Order's 'Lift Every Voice' in '91, than could later be mustered by the entire promotion department of record giant, Sony Music. White labels have certain advantages. You can get a reaction from DJs for your floor-filler without having to worry about pressing up large quantities of records. And, more importantly (and oft forgotten), record companies will invariably track down the source of a hot white label in their search for an instant hit...
The cost of pressing a record to about 500 copies is currently around £450.00 - including basic mastering, stamping and pressing. If you're hard up, sell half for a reasonable dealer price (usually around £1.50-2.50 depending on the demand for your wonder groove) and mail out the rest. Many shops will consider stocking a record on a sale or return basis. This way you can keep one eye on the demand. The golden rule is, 'If you can't sell 500 copies of your record, you won't sell a million'.
If money is tight, you could go for a reduced number of 'test pressings' rather than a full run. But with production costs of around £250 plus around £100 for a handful of 'test plates' the best advice would be to go for the full 500.
Choosing the right shops is essential. Taking a hip-hop track to house shops like Quaff or Choci's Chewns, is not very sensible (yet still people try!). Likewise, house goes down like a hot-air balloon at the rap and soul shops. Visit the shops, see what they're playing, and then ask the manager to listen to your tune. Very often he'll be in contact with an A&R man who's slipping him £50 a week to look out for records just like yours. Stevie V's home-produced 'Dirty Cash' was discovered on the turntable of a small London record shop. That one sold two million copies worldwide.
For the most part, two thirds of all dance records, chart or otherwise are sold in London. But shops like Manchester's Eastern Bloc, Glasgow's 23rd Precinct and many other regional temples-of-vinyl all have hot wires to the record labels. Oceanic's 'Insanity' was recorded and released by a record shop on the Dead Dead Good label and went on to become the 8th best selling single of '91. Sickening isn't it?
Between the demo-tape and 500+ promo options are two further approaches - acetates and CDRs. Acetates, sometimes known as dub slates, plastic, slates or dubs (a term that originated from the cutting plants that first put out reggae and dub releases on purely one-off runs) are the middle ground. This is because, cutting a dub is quicker than a hard vinyl record.
Whereas the conventional record and white label is created from two metal stampers formed from a metal master-disc, acetates (as the name suggests) are made from very soft plastic that has a record groove cut directly into a single piece of plastic. The advantage of this is price. For one-offs you can get a record that a DJ can play straight away on the turntables. The disadvantage is that because the disc is cut from soft material, it'll start to deteriorate after around 20 plays (depending on the softness). You can often spot an acetate by how easy it is to scratch the surface with a fingernail.
But really, the best advice is to cut records - not corners. Choose the cutting plant and the pressing plants carefully. Ask around for recommendations. Talk to the cutting engineer and find out whose records he has cut. (Often it is the cutting engineer who'll have scratched some comment or trademark onto the master, and thus your record. Porky's cutting plant are famous for their 'Another Porky Prime Cut' messages.) Check to see who's made a reputation for themselves cutting your sort of music. Remember: this is the person who makes the final decision on how the vinyl will sound.
It will be up to him to decide how best to lay out the grooves. Careful mastering means choosing the minimum groove spacing to ensure all the recorded peak volumes are safely contained within the groove. The rules are simple: the louder the pressing, the wider the grooves. But the wider the grooves, the shorter the playing time - and if it's found that the track is too long, more compression will have to be applied to the master. Lower dynamic sweeps mean closer grooves - and bingo, your concept twelve incher fits the plastic.
So why do some people cut singles at 33⅓ rpm? According to Coldcut it's simply tradition. "It's a groove we've gone with," says Jonathon More. Clearly, the slower speed gives you more playing time and is the American format for damn near everything on vinyl. Indeed, a lot of UK indie record companies "had to release on 33⅓ - even going so far as to shrink wrap disco sleeves used for imports," says Mark Moore of S'Express and Splish Records. "Making people think that the dance record was American was once the only way to get a British house record sold."
Five years on, it still works. Many US 12" dance singles have the so-called six-mix format of six remixes for a single. And getting six thumping tunes onto a 12" piece of plastic ain't going to be easy at 45 rpm! That said, at 45 rpm, the groove can be cut deeper and the dynamic range increased. That's why many engineers prefer the 'crispness' of 45 rpm singles. But whatever the speed, if the test pressing sounds right, then it is.
Although 12" records are still the definitive icons of most electronically-generated dance music, the CD is coming on strong - if a little slowly - in the promo stakes. It is now possible to press around 1000 CDs for around £1500-2000. The various processes of PQ encoding (telling the CD what and where things are recorded) costs around £250-350, mastering & EQ around £200 per hour (top end, admittedly) and so-called 'glass mastering' another £300-400. After printing costs and sleeving, you probably won't have too much change from £2000 and that's for a recording which not all clubs will be able to play...
Duplicated tapes are fine if you happen to know enough DJs with tape decks and journalists with the patience to spend their time rewinding them. Otherwise, forget it. Cassettes are best left to promo albums. Anything else? Well, there is another format which, though expensive in terms of unit cost, should at least impress the bit-pushing audio perfectionists - CDR.
Many people still don't know of the existence of CDRs - or custom CDs - which are individually crafted using WORM (Write Once Read Many) technology and some pretty flashy laser-magneto optics. At £40 a throw, recording one-off CDs to send to your mates might sound like an expensive Christmas present, but as Eric Hine at Triple Six Productions rightly suggests: "There are specific reasons for CD promos. Some labels need to send demo albums around the globe without fear of magnetic or thermal corruption. And then there are quite a few bands that prefer to present their music in the best possible way - a personalised CD."
So you have the killer tune. Out in clubs the DJs are going crazy and one or two journos are expressing smug satisfaction at having discovered you as 'the next Prodigy'. It's time to press the switch and switch to press... "The old adage was that the press don't actually sell records," says Damian Mould, pressman at FBA, promoter of acts such as Rozalla and Rage. "...But that's pretty much gone out of the window now."
He has a point. As small labels have blossomed, a complete industry has grown up to support them - in particular, press. And there's a bewildering selection to choose from: Phuture Trax, Power Promotions, Pop Promotions... Then there are the PR companies like Laister Dickson (The Farm), FBA (Rage, Joe Public) and Regine Moylett (Massive Attack, Neneh Cherry) - more commonly used for the mega-stars. But can you afford it?
Promotion companies charge in the region of £400 to £500 for mailing out around 100 records to journalists, DJs and radio stations - or will charge you monthly anywhere between £800 to £1500 for 'working a track'. PR companies will usually add another half grand to those figures. Expensive. But, depending on the sort of music you play (the more underground it's flavour, the more it will sell on its own merits within the club market), you will almost certainly need this kind of exposure at some time or other.
Though there is often little to say about a hardcore rave instrumental that was conceived, crafted and played in a club, "...press is needed to bring your more 'friendly' tunes to a wider audience than the taste-making clubs," believes Nicky Trax, club columnist and proprietor of Phuture Trax - the promotion team behind acts that include Smart-E, Seperate Reality and other bedroom-sourced chart toppers.
Taking simple club reaction and widening interest to the monthly publications like Mix Mag, DJ Magazine (and Music Technology!) and weeklies like Record Mirror Update, Echoes and Blues And Soul, can help tremendously. Building up press and radio interest on your tune in the month or two prior to release can make the difference between a simply great club tune, and a top-forty smash.
So, with an unstoppable club smash in the bag, the press beginning to pick up the phone, and a few thousand copies of your plastic changing hands, its time to release the single. That's when the real fun begins. Bar codes, copyright clearance, management, finding a distributor, choosing a release date, clearing a sample, chart regulations and chart hyping. It's all in part two!
Feature by Dom Foulsham
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