INDIE RELEASE DO'S AND DON'TS
By, Dan McAvinchey
I've decided in this column to give you a few of my personal opinions about things I feel are important regarding your independently released records. They are intended to help you in some areas that concern most musicians, but are intended as guidelines, or food for thought, and not rules. If you want to follow rules, join the U.S. Army. But for some straightforward tips in the areas of promotion, publicity and your career, please read on.
DON'T make your primary life's goal to obtain a record deal with a major label. If you're focused on business (obtaining money) instead of music (perfecting your craft, writing, recording, playing live) you will be setting yourself up for some major disappointments. A record deal should never equate to success in your mind; it's only one step in a process that primarily helps large recording organizations to weed out the deadwood in the music business. They are willing to spend several million dollars on fifteen or twenty new artists, in the hopes that one of them will become popular with the public. They don't really care which band makes it big, only that one or two eventually do. If your band is not the one, then not only will you not be able to record for that label again, but you will be branded as 'tainted goods' by the record industry, and you will find it impossible to get a second chance--with any label.
In addition, making the record deal your primary goal means you've probably discounted or eliminated other means of making money making music. You may be forgoing other modest opportunities that come your way, simply because they don't match your dream of a $200,000-an-album, five album deal. Be flexible. It's critical to stay busy writing and recording and it's just common sense to consider self-releasing tapes, EPs, or full-length albums so that you continue to grow as a recording artist--which is what you'd like be anyway.
DO release your music on your own CD on your own label. It's a great way to gain experience in the studio, experiment with ideas, or learn about production and engineering in your own home studio. You might even be able to make some money at it and expand your fan base. More importantly, it establishes you as someone who is serious about their music, and shows a determination that you are willing to do whatever it takes to get your music out there.
Selling your own, self-financed CD can actually get you a better record deal if your independent release is moderately successful. One of the hardest things a band seeking a record deal has to do is convince the record company that their fan base (actual and/or potential) is large enough for the albums to sell enough copies, and make money for the label. If you've proven that you have an audience who has bought your self-made albums in the past, it takes away a huge amount of the risk the record company normally has to bear, and gives you some leverage in bargaining for the best possible deal. It will also make it easier for the record company to market your music, since you'll have a good idea of the types of people that buy your records. The record labels may even come looking for you, especially if you bar-coded your CD and managed to get it into enough record stores to where the sales appeared on SoundScan retail sales reports.
DON'T settle for the cheapest CD or cassette package you can find. Sure, shop around, check out and compare prices, but the lowest price may just get you the lowest quality. If you don't know anyone who has had any experience with CD duplicators, you're sure to be able to find hundreds of independent musicians on the Internet who have had CDs manufactured. E-mail them and see if they can recommend the duplicator they used. Find out where they had their album graphics designed. Ask them if they had to do it again, would they do it the same way or would they try another method. Most musicians would be happy to steer you in the right direction (especially if you buy their CD!)
I've read interviews with musicians who claimed it didn't matter if money was saved on the graphics, perhaps by going with a black and white cover and a single page CD insert. I disagree with this approach, because the appearance of the disc and the graphics will make an impression on your buyers, and they will be comparing your release against major label jobs. If it looks cheap, it might damage a possible word-of-mouth sale, although if the music is good enough, it probably won't matter to a music fan. However, many DJs, distributors, or magazine reviewers may pass on a cheap looking disc, simply because they get so many discs every week that they have to pick and choose which ones get listened to at all. In that case, a high-quality album presentation may be the difference between a review or the trash can.
DO put the proper information on the CD booklet and tray card. For starters, make sure you get a barcode number from the UCC (Uniform Code Council, Inc.) and include the barcode on your CD tray card. Then, any stores that carry your release and report to SoundScan will be publicizing the fact that your music is selling--to whoever wants to know (record companies, etc.). There have been cases where bands have been sought out by record companies who noticed an unknown band selling CDs in large quantities in certain parts of the country. The bands were offered major label distribution, and even recording contracts.
Next, make sure you have contact information printed in as many places as possible on the CD booklet and tray card. If you have a web site or e-mail address that you don't expect to change, include that as well. Avoid using your home address as a record label address or contact. If you move, your CDs will have an incorrect address printed on them. Instead, get a P.O. box or rent a space from one of those mail box stores like Mail Boxes, Inc. I recommend getting your own Internet Domain (like www.satriani.com, or www.virginrecords.com), because your e-mail accounts will never change, no matter how many times you move, anywhere in the world. Then you can use your web site and e-mail address as your contact information on your releases. Or get a HotMail account (www.hotmail.com), which offers free e-mail accounts that you can use no matter where you live in the world. You can be in an Internet cafe in Morocco, and still pick up and send e-mail.
Make sure you proofread all the information that will be printed on your release at least five times. If you do include an e-mail address or web site, check that you have the correct address. I get lots of e-mail from people who ask me for information, but have the incorrect return mail address. Then they wonder why no one ever replies. I was looking through Musician Magazine's Guide to Touring and Promotion, and they have a section for bands to publicize themselves and their music. After paying cash to be included in the guide, fully twenty percent of e-mail addresses were invalid only a few months after publication.
Assign a release number to your CD. A release number is usually a few letters followed by 4 to 5 numbers. The release number identifies your CD as a product that can be easily identified by wholesalers, distributors and retail merchants. At Guitar Nine Records, we use GNR, followed by 4 digits followed by a '1' for cassette, or a '2' for CD. An example might be: GNR19602. The release number should appear on the spine of the CD, on the back of the CD, and on the CD itself.
If you've got a logo for your band or record label, include it in as many places as possible. Check out compact discs on the Alligator blues label or Shrapnel heavy metal label for examples on how a logo can be displayed for maximum brand recognition (tray card, inside of CD booklet, CD).
If you are affiliated with a performance rights organization like BMI or ASCAP, include that information on your printed material. Also, ensure proper copyright notification appears on the tray card, and ideally, on the CD disc itself. A P in a circle stands for 'protected' and covers the sound recording itself. A C in a circle means 'copyright' and covers the album visuals, such as the album art. An example would be: (c) & (p) Guitar Nine Records. If you haven't set up a formal business for your record label, just use your full legal name instead.
DON'T blindly send out CDs to record labels and distributors in the hopes of getting signed. You'll hear this advice from every person at every label in the world, yet most will tell you that they get mailing buckets full of CDs and tapes every week. Musicians simply refuse to believe their package will be trashed. Reality is: more than ninety-nine percent will go unopened and end up in the dumpster.
Someone has to open the door for you at the label in order for your music to be heard. You can even get the door opened yourself if you know someone, or know someone who knows someone at the label. Somehow, contact must be made and approval received in advance for the record label to accept your submission. I can't tell you how to do this. I can only warn you that if you don't have approval in advance to submit your work to a label, you are simply throwing money out the window. You would be better off standing in the subway, giving away your CDs to perfect strangers.
DO target and pre-qualify press publications and radio stations for promotional copies of your release. If you are not able to afford pressing a reasonable number of quality CDs, how can you possibly justify sending your record out to hundreds of radio stations and publications, without knowing if you stand a chance of getting airplay or a review? There are a lot of resources available now that make it easier for independent musicians to get information about publications, their audience, their review criteria, etc. For example, Musician Magazine's Guide to Touring and Promotion is published yearly around November, and has a large number of radio and press addresses, contacts and even e-mail addresses. The beauty of e-mail addresses is that you can quickly send an e-mail to the station or the reviewer, telling them briefly about yourself and your music, and requesting permission to send them a copy. If they don't respond, at least you didn't have to find out by sending them a copy. If they do respond, your release can be mailed to a real person, in response to their request. This means your CD has a better chance of being noticed and actually heard, since an initial contact has already been made. Sending your record is simply a follow-up to the initial contact.
I've heard of bands sending mass-mailings of post cards (lowest possible postage costs) to radio and press, requesting that the card be returned (or to call a toll-free number) to request a promo copy. This way, a huge number of stations and publications can be contacted, and the interested and motivated in the group will respond and probably be more favorable to your release when it does arrive.
DO get your band and your music on the Internet as quickly as possible. While many bands out there will tell you that they are selling way more albums the traditional way (at gigs, through retail, via mail-order) than they sell directly though a web site, it's simply a matter of time before consumers come to grips with this relatively new technology. Internet commerce is still in its infancy, but that's good (in a way), because it gives you time to get out there, find out how to do it, and figure out the best way to present your band and your music. Once all consumers figure out how easy it is to do business on the Internet, and have assurances that their transactions are safe and secure, there will be an explosion of sales activity. Don't wait around for the explosion to happen and then try to catch up to the thousands of bands and labels already out there. Jump in with both feet right now, make a few mistakes, because all the while you'll be positioning yourself much better for the future.
DON'T create a one-dimensional, promo-only web site. The most successful web sites out there do one of three things. They either provide a service (search engines, directories, web space, e-mail accounts, free classifieds), encourage participation (chat, bulletin boards, Q&A) or provide unique content and current information (magazines, CNN, enthusiast sites). Since you're probably not interested in the service angle, try to make your web site one that encourages participation by visitors who do show up, and make it a site that provides unique information that gives people a reason to return.
On the Guitar Nine site, participation is encouraged by our Home Studio Registry, for example. Home studio owners list themselves, their equipment and their goals with the idea of meeting and exchanging information with other musicians doing the same thing. Participation is also encouraged through the use of simple surveys, free classified ads, guest columnists and the CD Exchange. A lot of people will want to know how they can participate or help with your new web site, so your challenge is to find a way to let them.
The Guitar Nine site also offers unique information that cannot be found anywhere else on the Internet, through the use of regular columns in the areas of studio recording, guitar technique, and motivation. Databases of music contacts, such as radio and press addresses are also provided. Chances are good that you, or the members of your band, have knowledge that can be shared with the millions of Internet users. Perhaps you play guitar using an unorthodox technique that can be explained; maybe you have insights into getting gigs that you might share; you could critique the clubs in the area you live in to give other touring musicians an idea of the local music scene. In short, share what you know to give your site uniqueness and value.
DON'T make the mistake of thinking you know it all. Nobody, I mean nobody, can give you a step-by-step guide for success, either as an independent musician, or as a major label artist. What works well for some will not work for others. There are so many unique situations that must be dealt with and overcome, that it would be a serious mistake to assume there is one way (the right way) to do anything. You'll get advice from some 'authorities' that sounds so righteous and so convincing, you'll be tempted to think there is no other way. Think about the number of people who succeed and accomplish what they desire compared to the number who are actually trying at any point in time. There is a very high, so-called 'failure' rate for people who attempt to do anything extraordinary, so you must always be thinking of new methods and ideas that you can try to help to achieve your goals. Accept no one's advice as absolute truth (especially mine), but simply as another good idea in the realm of all possible ideas.
DO find ways to continually learn more about music, promotion, marketing, and publicity. I've gotten letters from musicians who are looking for label support, "...so I can concentrate one-hundred percent on music, and don't have the burdens of promotion and marketing taking time away from my music." These frequently are people who are just plain lazy, and haven't even tried to think of how best to promote their music or expand their audience. There are some excellent conferences every year that are attended by more and more musicians who do care, and want to learn more about the music business. Check into the Philadelphia Music Conference (www.gopmc.com) or Austin's South By Southwest Music Conference (www.sxsw.com), two excellent annual events to help you learn a great deal about the music business in a very entertaining setting. If nothing else, understanding how it all works will ensure that someone won't take advantage of your ignorance.
Also, read one or two of the excellent books out there about how to promote your music, start a record label, release your own record, start a publishing company, or learn about the legal aspects that concern musicians. Guitar Nine Records has a Label Resources page where many books on these topics are reviewed and/or recommended at www.guitar9.com/labelres.html. Most of these books don't have to be read front-to-back; you can learn about the topics you're currently most interested in, then gradually add to your knowledge, bit by bit.
Talk with or e-mail anyone and everyone who you think may be able to give you some ideas or advice on how to best take your music to the public. Don't just blindly follow anyone's ideas either. Think about it, and talk with others about any new approaches you may have been considering, to get their opinion. Ultimately, you will be making the decision anyway, just try to get as much input as possible. Definitely try any idea at least once that doesn't cost much and can't damage your image or reputation. You'll make mistakes, but succeeding as an independent is going to take a lot of creative thinking and ideas which may seem silly at first. Give 'em a shot!