If the major record companies won't give you the deal you know you deserve, you could do worse than to do it yourself. David Bradwell investigates the pros and cons of pressing your own single.
The record industry is deaf to your talents and you've decided to ensure your success by pressing your own single - where do you start and what will it cost?
ITS A FUNNY old game, life. On the one hand, yer average record company seems intent on extracting as much cash out of the record-buying public as possible. On the other, when you tell them you possess an advance cassette copy of this year's best selling single, they appear, at best, totally disinterested.
At this stage of the proceedings there are two courses of action open to you. The first of these it illegal; the second is to release your pop masterpiece as an independent record, and in so doing rake in all the cash for yourself. Infinitely preferable, I'm sure you will agree. But how is the deed accomplished? Read on, dear public, this feature could make of you a megastar...
The first consideration is to find the right studio - to decide whether you want four, eight, 16, 24, 32 or even 48 tracks to record on - decide how much you can afford to spend and what formats you want to release your finished production on. Hugh Griffiths of Remaximum studios in South London (01-627 3507), where Judy Boucher recorded her No. 2 single, 'Can't Be With You Tonight' for £150, stresses the importance of feeling at home in the studio of your choice and of talking to the engineers to see if your musical interests coincide. The classified sections of the weekly music press contain a wide selection of studios on a regular basis, but taking Remaximum as an example, you have the choice of 16- or 24-track suites available at various rates depending on how long you hire them for. As a general rule, studios become cheaper after the first ten hours, so reckon on about £15-20 per hour for 24 tracks, whereas a good eight-track package can be as little as £30 per day.
In case it all sounds too easy remember to rehearse your material thoroughly before entering the studio, and agree to leave all final decisions to one band member. Most importantly, do not rush, and before you leave, make sure you have tested your finished master tape on different sound systems, to see how it will be transformed by a mono medium-wave Radio 1 broadcast (Why talk small-time?).
If you feel a record producer would be of assistance at this stage of your career, you need a copy of the Music Week directory (accessible through your local library). Unless you're absolutely convinced you're in line for certain success try to avoid paying a producer a set fee. Opt instead for a percentage of the royalties - that way, everybody has the most to gain from the success of the venture. Hugh Griffiths, himself a record producer, warns: "People who are famous don't necessarily help or guarantee success, whereas a new up and coming producer who is hungry to be noticed will work to the limit".
"ITS A JUNGLE out there" has become just one of those sayings, but not many people know that it was first spoken in relation to record pressing. As this is the most potentially frightening and expensive area of the whole business, it merits special attention. The options available are staggering: 7-, 10- or 12-inch singles are all possibilities, but now CDs and even DAT are becoming increasingly prominent. And it's more than just vinyl as the sleeves and labels all have to be printed too, so you have to decide how many colours (if any) you want to see on the label and sleeve, commission an artist and deliver camera-ready artwork. Then the whole thing has to be coordinated - from the cutting of the acetate from your master tape, to the final printing and pressing. It's no good having a thousand records coming off the press with no bags to put them in.
May King records of Battersea (01-924 1661) offer a package which encompasses all the available formats, and will look after every stage of production once you hand over your finished master tape. One of their former clients was a band called M/A/R/R/S and we all know what happened to them. (They split up). As a rough guide on price, 1000 7-inch, white-label singles will set you back about £350; using two colours on the labels and sleeves increases the damage to £850.
According to May King Sales Associate Mike Turner, a top-quality master tape is of prime concern - either on 1/4" tape or PCMF1 Beta or PCM1610 U-matic digital. Your label should include details of copyright, publishing, dates and a catalogue number for chart registration. To acquire this you have to ring Gallup and they will sort it out for you. If you plan to produce a CD, you need a master tape on either PCM1610 or 1630 tape which needs to be P and Q encoded (which is the pulse after each track which tells the machine where it is). If sound quality is your top priority and you can't afford CD, look for a pressing company which offers the thickest, flattest, virgin vinyl.
Direct Metal Mastering is, in the words of Mike Turner, "vinyl's answer to CD". It offers better quality than more conventional lacquer, and is cheaper for large quantities. As such it's worth bearing in mind, but you must remember that the most significant factor in the process is the quality of the vinyl itself.
"Record companies don't seem to take people very seriously unless they've already had a record pressed", observes Turner. He also recommends starting off with 1000 copies and then attacking the press. If you can afford it, you can now shrink-wrap records with almost any gimmick you can think of.
ANY ROYALTIES FROM airplay or from nightclubs, juke boxes and so on, come through the Performing Right Society (PRS) and such royalties should be paid to you every time your music is reproduced in public. The drawback is that to become a member of the PRS you need to have had at least three songs either commercially recorded or performed in public or broadcast at least 12 times in the last two years.
An alternative is to land yourself a publishing contract. Companies like Chappell Music, who include Band Aid, Level 42 and Five Star on their roster, will offer a publishing contract for one single. As long as they think it will be profitable...
Publishers may charge as little as 15% commission if they don't invest any of their own money - a small price to pay if you start earning airplay royalties, typically £50 for Radio 1.
Other revenue collecting companies include the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society (MCPS) and Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL). Both work zealously to protect the owner of the copyright.
YOUR SONG MAY be worthy of attention in its own right, but a small bit of tasteful publicity can get your name noticed and keep it in the minds of potential customers and the press.
"We can play a record directly on the radio, whereas, if I like a tape we have to ask the band in to record a session, and there's a limited number of those we can offer. " - John Peel
The simplest forms of promotion are the most obvious - posters, pens and stickers, although sticking posters everywhere has been known to land people in a spot of legal "bother". Companies like Stage Three Promotions of Banbury (0608 737831) can save you the bail money by offering a service encompassing almost any promotional item you can think of: sweatshirts, Filofaxes and DJ slip-mats. The price of everything depends upon quantity, colours and size, with each client given individual attention with regard to the most effective use of available resources. William Shaw of Smash Hits says "If somebody comes to us with a good idea for a competition, we normally agree, as long as it's aimed at the right market". Such competitions guarantee publicity, but you have to be imaginative for best results. (Alternatively, forking out enough cash for a holiday for two in the Bahamas will ensure a favourable review in one Music Technology magazine. Contact D Bradwell, ext 163.)
To further develop an industry "buzz", you need to get your song heard and written about, so send copies to absolutely everybody - and that includes the music press. British Rate And Data (BRAD), published by Airtrade, lists every newspaper in the country, along with their circulation, cover price and editorial address. Send copies to every DJ and radio producer and follow them up with requests. Invent things, be creative, listen to the radio and analyse what the DJs are saying (or reading).
Send additional copies to all of the nightclubs which play your sort of music and offer to follow them up with personal appearances. Don't forget in-store radio stations, juke box companies - everybody who could earn you some airplay. Alternatively, you could hire a record plugger to take your record to the radio stations on your behalf. Michael Peyton (01-731 1422) took The Firm's 'Star Trekkin' to Radio 1, and subsequently the top of the charts, and has since repeated this success with T'Pau. Pluggers can be expensive and don't guarantee success, but if you find a good one it can make all the difference. If you do manage to get any press exposure, hold on to the cuttings, as they will be invaluable if you decide to approach a major label at some future stage.
SO FAR YOU'VE got a master tape, which has been turned into a record, and you've got around 1000 of those, some of which have amassed you considerable publicity. The big gap is in actually putting the rest of them up for sale, either on your own or through a record shop. If your band have a large live following, there should be little problem in selling a reasonable quantity of singles at gigs. If you are being more ambitious, and that after all, is the whole point of gaining media exposure, you're going to need a distribution company to act on your behalf.
The Cartel is the largest group of independent distributors in Britain and are quite capable of taking records to every shop in the land and selling enough to reach No. 1.
Backs Distribution (0603 624290) are one of the Cartel companies, and Derek Graham from Backs sees a distinct advantage for musicians whose records are distributed by The Cartel.
"Shops are often reluctant to take records off individuals but if they're coming from a recognised distributor it instills greater confidence," he says.
Ideally, you should approach the distribution company of your choice long before getting the records pressed. Some companies offer manufacturing and distribution deals, and in any case, there are certain distribution details which should be on your record sleeve - for example, where to obtain more copies. If you wish to export records to America, you need the words "Made In England" on the sleeve, label and any inserts - a detail, but one which could prove extremely costly if overlooked. The earlier you approach the distributor, the better, because it enables better planning of production schedules and press/radio coordination. To approach the company you need a professional attitude, and need to remember that the way you sell yourself to them will be reflected in the way that they then sell you to the shops. Each record is treated on its own merits and the stock level depends to a large extent on pre-sales. As such, a new band will be at a disadvantage because a shop is less likely to want records by a band it has never heard of, but by the time you have built up a reputation, their enthusiasm will have increased dramatically. As a rough guide, the distributor will charge around 30% of the dealer price, which is currently £1.99 for a 12-inch single, and £1.15 for a seven-inch. Records are taken from you on a sale or return basis, so don't spend the cash too quickly. Finally, as a rough guide, reckon on sales of about 3000 12-inch singles as a break-even point. Any more than that and mine's a Perrier. And don't ever approach an independent distributor with the attitude that your self-financed single is a stepping stone to a major contract - they will be less than amused. A good distributor can make you, a bad one can break you. It's worth remembering that.
If all of this has disheartened you, you may like to remember that you're not necessarily fighting a losing battle. In 1979, The Flying Lizards reached No. 5 with their single 'Money'. It cost a reputed £12 to record, and stayed in the charts for 10 whole weeks. More recently, Nu Shooz had international success with 'I just can't wait', which started out as a private pressing, financed by the band, and played on their local radio station in America. In the last 12 months you'll have come across the aforementioned M/A/R/R/S, Bomb The Bass, S-Express, Star Turn on 45 Pints, Cold Cut, even The Timelords - all of which are successful new bands from the independent sector.
Radio 1's champion of the independent scene, John Peel, says he would rather receive a single than demo tapes. "... after all, we can play a record directly on the radio, whereas, if I like a tape we have to ask the band in to record a session. And there's only a limited number of those we can offer. Airplay is fairly crucial for mainstream chart success, but there are more and more records crossing over from the clubs."
EVEN IF YOU'VE arranged a distributor and all the publicity you could ever want, you may still find yourself hit-free. Don't despair - only five or so singles break through out of the 120 released each week, and you're competing with the likes of EMI, CBS and Virgin. Be sure you haven't lost out though, because you now have experience of the workings of the industry and an impressive portfolio of cuttings, airplay dates and the like to show talent-hungry A&R department heads. Virgin's John Wooler wouldn't lay too much emphasis on packaging, preferring only to hear a good song. As such, he doesn't place too much emphasis on self produced singles. Steve Proctor, formerly of Polydor's A&R department disagrees: "If a band appear to be approaching their music professionally, we are more likely to regard them as a serious proposition", he explains. "Sending out a record as opposed to a cassette increases the likelihood of being heard quickly by the right people. On top of that, the sound quality is likely to be better, and bands find it an advantage to know the mechanics of the business."
If you're feeling lucky, you should send similar packages to publishers, producers and managers, who should recognise your enterprise. Never sign anything without legal advice, however tempting.
The conclusion to draw from all of this is that you must know your audience and get your record to them. You must know your objectives; your goals must be realistic, yet ambitious. As Hugh Griffiths said, "There isn't a single way of doing it in the music business, it's a very open thing. There are no set rules as such, because everybody is breaking them.".
The success of the song is decided in the studio, but the success of the single as a commercial venture has more to do with exposure and marketing than anything else.
Don't believe in automatic stardom, and beware of complacency as there are few second chances. As Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys once sang, "There are lots of opportunities, if you know how to take them..."
Feature by David Bradwell
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