Getting Yourself Heard
The feasibility of putting your own records out; Richard Dean tells how to beat them at their own game.
Musicians among us will be familiar with, and perhaps frustrated by, the need to get a good hearing by music business people to stand a chance of a deal. The 'deal' may be contracts for recording, songwriting, promotion or just gigs at local clubs and pubs. Chances of progress are influenced broadly by three factors:- 1 Whether you actually are any good or not (of course!); 2 Whether you have the suitable contacts (can be tricky), and 3 Whether you have the wherewithal to expose your sound to all of the contacts (read on).
Well, the musical press spend every week arguing point number 1, mostly about performers who have 'made it' to some extent already, so it is well nigh impossible to stipulate conditions. It's too subjective a topic, even within the industry. So, frankly, I'm ducking out. The only real test is a series of audiences, the more the better. Point number 2 depends on what an act is trying to achieve, but most seek recording contracts. So you need names of A & R people and record company addresses and preferably someone with a confident, charming manner to negotiate on your behalf.
Suffice to say I'm assuming you've got points 1 and 2 pretty well together and the question is more how to physically get your sound around.
It's pretty obvious you can't set up your gear and recreate a gig in an office; and inviting people to a gig gives them the option of not coming, which they usually take! You need a sound medium; one which can be easily duplicated and most important, easily played.
A popular example is the so-called 'demo-disc'. This is a record made from aluminium coated with acetate. The aluminium centre prevents the wrong kind of records being broken, this often occurring with the old 78rpm records which were made of acetate. The great advantage of such discs is that small quantities (from one upwards) can be produced as each disc is 'cut' fresh. The cost per disc, therefore, remains constant irrespective of quantity. Vinyl discs, on the other hand, being stamped out rather than individually cut, require master stampers which are relatively expensive to produce and large pressing plant to make the copies. A more expensive proposition, particularly for small quantities. The cost per disc does diminish, however, as quantity increases since most expense is tied up in preparation. Quality and durability are much better than acetate.
Demo discs, whether vinyl or acetate, are effective on a range of promotion jobs simply because they are convenient and widely playable; but although most A & R people, publishers and promoters possess record decks, they don't, as a rule, use them directly in their work. They tend to use a tape machine of one sort or another in the office and a record player, like the rest of us, at home. So if you do send or give them a record, you are expecting them to take it home and listen to it. Some music business people build up a detachment from their work and are not prepared to judge prospective material at home. For those who do, it could be argued that discs make up a better promotion package. Records can be slipped neatly into promotion folders, are easy to use and resemble a mass market product, which some would maintain lends a certain authority to the artist's image. Whatever you may think of that argument, let's have a look at the tape alternatives.
Here there's a choice between open reel tapes and cassettes. Open reel tapes are more expensive both in materials and duplicating cost (simply because open reel duplicating has declined with the advent of cassettes), but the quality is better assuming a high quality master tape and duplicating system. Unfortunately, the two ¼in tape formats, ¼-track and ½-track, are not perfectly compatible so the initial advantage of quality could be lost if tapes were played on wrong format equipment. The format most commonly used for audition applications is ½-track, although a number of offices opt for ¼-track machines to interface with 'domestic' demo tapes. Preferred speed is 7½in/s.
Cassettes all conform to the one standard format, thus making correct replay more likely. It's a good idea to encode duplicated cassettes with Dolby B to improve replay quality. Most machines in audition use are Dolby equipped, and even if not, replay will sound subjectively 'brighter' and better defined than on non-Dolby recordings.
Cassettes are duplicated by either the 'in-cassette' or 'loop-bin' methods and it's worth examining the advantages and disadvantages of each.
This process employs a bank of slave cassette mechanisms, recording all tracks at once, fed by a ¼-track open reel or cassette master. It's a popular method for small runs, involving a minimum of ancillary gear. Up to a certain quantity, it's cheaper than the loop-bin process because no preparation is necessary and ordinary off-the-shelf cassettes can be used. The quality, however, is inferior, particularly with regard to azimuth (perpendicularity of tape head to tape) stability. Also, long gaps between end of programme and end of cassette side can occur because cassettes are not tailor-made to suit programme length. Cassettes are duplicated at (typically) ten times normal speed.
Used exclusively for commercial duplicating, the loop-bin process has the edge on quality and programme tailoring. Large spool-less reels of cassette tape ('pancakes') are fed by a long tape loop of the programme enclosed in a shallow box called a loop-bin. The tape loop is usually 1in wide for durability, containing all cassette tracks, recorded at 7½in/s. Cue tones are recorded at the beginning of loop programme. Recorded reels of cassette tape are wound into cassettes fitted only with the leader tape (C zero), programme length being detected by a cue tone reading head. In this way cassette length is tailored exactly to programme length and because the performance of open reel cassette machines is more consistent than ordinary cassette transports, greater overall quality is achieved. Cassettes are duplicated at 32 times normal speed typically, although there is a system operating at 64 times normal speed.
A lot of bands and musicians don't attempt publicity because they feel they can't afford it. If the campaign doesn't work, they argue, all they'll gain will be a mild ego boost and a bank statement printed in red. After all they're pulling good crowds as it is, regularly. It's just that nobody has spotted them yet. It's amazing the number of musicians who have everything going for them like this, but get stuck in a rut simply because they make no effort to get out of it. The band with plenty of work and a good following is in an enviable position; a position to make their own records or cassettes and be sure of selling most of them. In the folk world private releases are fairly common and mostly successful. Folk musicians have the advantage of close contact with a succession of club audiences, so that over a period of time they can sell well to a fairly large number of people, personally. Another point is that recording folk material is generally simpler than rock and, consequently, cheaper. Rock bands also need somebody selling for them to a larger extent, because they are more remote from their audience. But any record or cassette will sell more if somebody passes through the audience during intervals.
As a rule, record releases are more desirable than cassette for a number of reasons, not least the fact that as a medium they dominate the music scene; cassettes are more useful for very small runs. So I'll talk in terms of record releases from now on.
Apart from making money, private release records provide good publicity. OK, so the people who buy the records will remember you, but a lot of them would have done anyway. The really powerful propaganda comes from the whole enterprise itself: the fact that you've released a record at all. The fact that press can make a story out of how it came about and review the finished, publicly available product. And the fact that you can spend more on recording and packaging than you could on a demo, because you intend to recoup expenditure with profit.
It goes without saying that you must have good regular audiences to sell to and a bit of capital stashed away before you can even consider releasing privately — the former should create the latter. Once you've decided to go ahead (for those that have decided against it — 'bye), the first question is ...
This can be difficult to assess. Estimate gig sales over a year as realistically as possible, allow copies for press review and other complimentaries and try to get stock provisionally accepted by local record stores. If the manager practically weeps with enthusiasm and suggests a largish order, get it in writing. Expect terms of (typically) 25% of (your) recommended retail (rrp), sale or return. Orders above 1000 or so are large enough for manufacture on sophisticated, high quality presses at a good price. Small orders are expensive per record and cannot be handled by a mainline plant, so may be of a lesser quality. Find out what equipment is used, the critical item being the mastering lathe and the condition it's in. If you're not happy with the lathe, but consider the presses to be adequate, get the album mastered elsewhere.
The maximum price you could charge for your album depends on the overall quality (packaging, pressing) and your status as a band. The minimum depends on the quantity you decide to produce, all other costs remaining equal. You need to work backwards from the maximum price you feel you could fairly charge, for various quantities. Table 1 gives a check list of costs involved in releasing a record, in the hope that nothing gets overlooked. All this should add up to your rrp. If it's greater, your profit is too high or your rrp too low. If neither can be reduced or increased respectively without you ending up with 2p per record or the records retailing at £5 each, you're fiddling about with too low a quantity. The 'wholesale' profit in Table 1 is your cut (I use the term 'profit' loosely; really it's hard earned cash), while the 'retail' profit is the commission paid to shops, or helpers, at gigs. 'MCPS royalty' is the levy the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society makes on published music used on albums, which is redistributed to the respective songwriters, less a small management charge. The rate is currently 3.125% of rrp per album side containing any copyright material, irrespective of the number of songs. If all the songs are self-penned you can neglect this item. Private release records containing copyright material must authorise its use by displaying an MCPS sticker on their labels. This is tedious and it is preferable to use a pressing plant with an MCPS arrangement, where a boxed 'MCPS' motif is all that is required. Record companies don't have to bother with this because they are infinitely more accountable to MCPS. But one-off record releasers sometimes try to skirt royalty payments and initially go unnoticed. This dodge carries a heavy fine and is not worth the risk; it's also, of course, unfair on the songwriter.
Ultimately the most important part of the process, the master tape will be a compromise because you'll have to keep its cost down in proportion with other expenses. Large record companies can afford to spend a fortune on getting everything perfect, while you cannot. Having found a studio that you consider comfortable and proficient, you must rehearse to perfection before booking in, or precious studio time will be wasted through indecision and/or inability. It's a good idea to appoint a friend or fellow musician as producer; somebody who can judge the sound from a detached viewpoint, and keep things moving.
Finally, the mixing is best approached fresh on a good night's sleep. When you've mixed the master, get a copy made. Musicians in cities with underground railways should take heed of the stories of messengers despatching recorded material via the tube to arrive at the other end with a partially or wholly erased tape.
Wrapping in kitchen foil eradicates this risk.
Sleeve, label and insert (if any) artwork should be coordinated, and typesetting, photography and layout artistically designed. It's worth paying somebody for this, as it significantly affects sales. If you're stuck for somebody to do this work, approach the graphics department of a local art college with your plans, specifying the number of colours available. They love this sort of job, so don't hesitate. All this should be tackled at an early stage; in fact as soon as you know the running order of the album and other details. The artwork generally needs to be despatched earlier than the master tape to allow for plate-making and proofing (facsimile photostats sent to you for checking). Also, you can't press a record without labels - get it? Shortly after sending, or taking, the master tape away to be disc mastered, you should receive a test pressing. This must be checked thoroughly against your tape copy, all faults noted and returned to the plant. Although they have their own quality control department, you may spot something they've missed; if serious they will have to recut. When everything's OK you are ready to give the go-ahead to mass production. Meanwhile, back at the printers, who incidentally must be specialists in printing for the record industry, you will have checked proofs, given the thumbs up and told them where the record is being pressed. They will arrange for the sleeves to be sent to the plant for record insertion. The plant normally include this operation in their charges, but if you are late with sleeves they frequently charge extra. Inserts (eg lyric sheets) are inserted at moderate charge, but again it's important that these be ready in time for insertion with the record.
Completed albums will be sent to (or collected by) you in boxes of 25. It's a good idea to check a few from each box. If you discover any duff ones send them back and get credit.
Up to and including the time of release, you'll need to keep press informed on typed, duplicated sheets, giving aspects of the enterprise which they can make into a story. For this you need somebody who's a bit of a word-smith and (ideally) headed notepaper carrying an album logo. As soon as the album is ready, send out review copies, as allowed for in your budget. These should be supplemented with a good black and white photograph, preferably a shot used on the album sleeve, and potted news about the album and band/solo artist.
Posters are an efficient publicity medium for use at gigs, in record shops and on notice boards. Once again, the marketing side is best done by somebody external to the group.
Like virtually everything else, gains made on private release albums are taxable. It's up to you to declare the sum on your tax return, but you can claim relief if you spend the money on more equipment or other items directly connected with your work. An accountant will minimise your tax liability by telling you every expense that can be offset against tax, so if you are unsure, it would pay to hire one. So that's it. How to cut through the music establishment and reap all the benefit while, of course, taking on all the risk. But it's exciting. And it can be very rewarding. To give an example, John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett sold 3000 of their own albums before being snapped up by Polydor for a five figure sum. It could happen to you!
Alternatives to 'Product'
Feature by Richard Dean
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