The traditional ways of attracting the attention of record companies are becoming ever more difficult to pursue, and if you don't have a well‑connected manager, you might think that you don't stand a chance. As Robin Morley found, however, a little ingenuity and industry knowledge can do a lot for you... This is the first article in a two‑part series.
Put a gang of musos in their natural habitat (the pub), set the topic of conversation to the state of the music business, and what are you likely to hear? Tales of joy about the prospects available to up‑and‑coming bands? Words of cheer about how great the current Top 40 is? I don't think so. More likely, the whole biz will get a thorough slagging, and there'll be general indignation at how 'that load of crap' ever reached the shops, let alone sold millions.
You're also likely to hear one word cropping up time and time again: a simple, four‑letter word which we all like to rely on to explain away others' success. That word? 'Hype'.
We all know what hype is, don't we? Hype is poster campaigns, radio saturation, pictures all over the teen press. Hype is what got That Boy Band straight in at number two on this week's chart. Hype is the reason That Track off That Advert sold millions worldwide. Hype is why That Group who are only half as good as us are touring Japan, while we're sat in the Red Lion, slagging 'em off.
Which is all very well — but once we've written off the rest of the world's music success in this way, what have we established? That 'people' (not us, mind you, but other 'people') will buy anything provided the magic ingredient is involved. And does this get us any closer to achieving the same sort of success with our work? Does it heck.
What I'm going to try to do over the next two months is reinvent our understanding of music business 'hype' — in fact, to remove the word from our thinking altogether. Because as long as we regard any 'marketing' of music (my preferred term!) as somehow dirty and beneath us, we're selling ourselves short. OK, so perhaps in an ideal world we'd all be able to 'let the music do the talking', but this is a complex, multimedia age. If you don't know how to stand out, you'll get lost in the crowd.
That's the bad news. The good news, though, is that marketing doesn't have to be something that's done to you. With a bit of thought, you can take it into your own hands. And knowing how and why to market yourself and your music can make the difference between winning that record deal and staying unsigned. What's more, if you do get signed, being marketing‑savvy can help ensure that you end up presented to the public in the right way: your way.
If I'm sounding a little preachy already, let me apologise. The reason I'm so keen to spread the word about this area of the music biz is that I've made more than my fair share of mistakes there myself. Whatever nuggets of wisdom I've gathered have been hard‑won, over the course of the last 10 years. Perhaps if I tell my story, you'll see what I mean...
Dim And Distant
Exactly a decade ago this month, at the age of 19, I signed my first record deal. 1990 seems almost like a different world now: dance music was just beginning its term as a singles chart staple; the UK music industry was in a mini‑boom period before the advent of grunge; and that famous electronic giant's software wing, Sony Music, was still good old CBS.
It was in CBS's conference room that my then musical partner Donald and I put pen to contract — on an eight‑album deal (or, more precisely, a one‑album deal with seven make‑or‑break options to follow). Unlikely as it seems to me now, CBS had won our signatures only after a bidding war of sorts with two other majors, Warners and Virgin. A publishing deal with MCA Music also followed: big things were clearly expected of our little duo, Subsonic Two.
But why? What was so special about us? For a start, our musical output — melodic, intelligent rap, with quirky, unusual lyrical concerns — was very much of its time. This was, after all, shortly after De La Soul's seminal debut album; the Dream Warriors, too, were enjoying high‑profile hits in a similar vein (remember 'Wash Your Face In My Sink'?). Our image, also, was remarkable for the simplest of reasons — a multi‑racial hip‑hop duo where the black partner cooks up the music, while the white half raps, was immediately unusual. People liked it, labels especially.
So far, so good. Except that Donald and I were only vaguely aware that these were the principal reasons why we'd been picked up by a major. We'd fallen together by accident, as musical partnerships tend to, and we'd employed a manager to get us a deal — which he did, very successfully. But having been absent from most of the meetings that led up to it, Donald and I really weren't aware of what would be expected from us — the 'marketable' aspects of our act which Sony would want us to play up.
Problem two was there was little rapport between us — the artists — and the record company. This was partly as a result of naïveté, partly thanks to youth (big labels can be scary entities when you're a teenager), but also because we'd gone about things in such a traditional, divisive way. If your manager speaks for you, and your label speaks almost entirely to your manager, it's no surprise that tensions can evolve as the different camps begin thinking at cross purposes.
You can probably guess the rest of the story. What should've been a fun, cool and artistically satisfying experience (making a debut album for one of the world's biggest record labels, money practically no object) was dogged by crappy quarrels. And most of these — over producers, mixes, press releases, you name it — were sadly down to what Americans call 'the talent'. Me and Donald. Why should we have to make house mixes of our hip‑hop tracks? Why did we have to listen to Sony about the album sleeve? And so on, and so on...
Sadly, by the time we twigged that our confrontational attitudes and lack of marketing savvy were doing us no favours, it was all too late. Our album had sold reasonably well, but not well enough, and we were dropped in 1992.
If my journey through the major‑label wringer taught me a few hard lessons, it still wasn't as formative as my next move: with Subsonic Two disbanded, I went to work for Virgin as a buyer for a large Megastore. Now, I reckon every music exec should be forced to spend two weeks behind a record shop counter before taking up their role — to say that most are ignorant of what happens at 'the sharp end' would be putting it mildly.
What I learned from retail was threefold. Firstly, anything can be successful if there's enough grassroots support for it. For instance, one great performance by an unknown act in a support slot will send crowds of punters into stores the day after the gig, looking for anything they've released. Word of mouth is a powerful tool, and has nothing to do with budgets or 'marketing spend'.
Secondly, you can't fool all of the people all of the time. Although many of us love to believe that certain acts only hit the charts because they've effectively 'bought' their way in, the public aren't stupid. If the Top 40 is full of boy bands, or faceless trance acts, or Bavarian oompah, it's because those particular artists and records have struck a chord with music buyers. Sure, we're all at liberty to sneer at teenage girls, or pilled‑up clubbers, or blokes in lederhosen — it's a free country, after all — but to suggest that they've been brainwashed by some higher being into making their CD purchases is condescending and daft. Apart from anything else, pop history is cluttered with acts who 'had everything going for them' — fashion, label support, floppy blond hair — but who died a thousand deaths at the till. The customer, whether we like it or not, is always right.
And thirdly, genre is all. Whether as recording artists we 'resist categorisation' or not, the harsh reality is that some poor sod from our distributors will have to phone, or visit, retail outlets before our music is released, and attempt to garner some pre‑sales (or advance orders). Is the conversation likely to go like this? "Yeah, this is something totally original, out there on its own, like nothing you've ever heard before... don't box 'em in with your categories..."? Or like this? "This is like X meets Y, they look like Z, they're getting great reviews from ABC magazine and they're most likely to appeal to fans of W..." Again, where time is short and options are many, those who understand their position in the pop pantheon have an inbuilt advantage.
Naturally, by this stage (having also developed a diverting sideline as a music journalist — now that really is another story) I was aching to collate my bits of 'insider knowledge' and apply them to some more of my own material. So that's exactly what I did. And the entity I applied them to was my next project, Language Lab.
What goes around comes around, or so the cliché tells us, and this would certainly seem to be the case in pop. Even when your chosen musical genre seems to have left the cultural loop entirely (as was the case with hip‑hop in the early '90s) you can be sure that before too long, it'll return in some new, mutated form. I always imagined my next musical output after Subsonic Two would represent an extension of the 'intelligent hip‑hop' genre... but the question was, how exactly?
Language Lab could have come into being around 1994, when dreary, lo‑fi Anglicised hip‑hop — rechristened trip‑hop — was the darling of the UK press. It could have been born in 1995, when everything British was the toast of the world, and the Chemical Brothers and Monkey Mafia were forging what was initially known as Brit‑hop, or Amyl House. In the end it was born in 1997, when this latter scene mutated into Big Beat, rendering my favoured hip‑hop rhythms cool again in a whole new context. Does this make me an opportunist? Hardly. I'm just a firm believer that any idea has its time, and that sometimes holding fire for a while is a constructive skill in itself.
If I'd been a member of a gigging band, at this point I'd probably have begun drawing up a touring itinerary of local pubs, clubs and toilets; as means of building a loyal fanbase go, this is certainly a tried and tested route. Sadly, however, this wasn't an option — there's only one of me, and I don't have a solitary flightcase to my name.
If I'd been seeking a deal three years later, in 2000, I might have considered submitting my material to one of the host of 'unsigned music' web sites which have sprung up recently. Well, even if I had, it's doubtful how much of an advantage this would've given me. As things stand currently, such web sites risk becoming the online equivalent of the A&R exec's teetering mountain of unlistened‑to tapes — and at least you don't have to wait for a battered cassette to download before you listen to it.
Instead, I was left with three options. One: turn up at record label offices with a huge boombox, demand to see the head of A&R, then plonk my stereo on his desk, do a show right there and get Signed On The Spot. I'm not sure this method has ever really worked, however, except as a rather trite story in press releases. Two: find a manager with millions of high‑level contacts, then get him/her to shop my material. The trouble with this approach is that it relies on finding a trustworthy manager who truly understands what you're about — a lengthy process in itself, with no guarantees of success. Or three: stick some tapes in Jiffy bags and send 'em off to people.
Now, ask any hard‑boiled cynic (ie. a musician) about the likely success of this third approach, and they'll tell you that Liam Gallagher's more likely to take up transcendental meditation. Everybody knows that unsolicited demos don't get listened to, that they get thrown away or taped over, that the most use your carefully crafted CD‑R will be put to is as a handy surface for some A&R lackey to chop out his Bolivian marching powder on.
Certainly there's a degree of truth in this — even someone listening for a solid 40 hours a week couldn't wade through every demo a major label gets sent. But on the other hand, I knew (having seen it with me own eyes) that A&R people do listen to tapes, albeit just the first 15 seconds of many of them, and with an increasingly jaded ear as the same musical clichés assault them daily. So my challenge, as I saw it, was to seek out people who received relatively few demos — a minor torrent, say, rather than a flood — and to send 'em something which seemed instantly interesting and relevant. A tall order? Well, what did I have to lose?
Here's where I deployed the first weapon in my armoury: background information. You can gather current info on the music industry from many sources — the mainstream rock press, the Internet and so on — but by far and away the best place to go for impartial updates is Music Week magazine (see the 'Getting The Info' box).
In my case, the information which changed things was a MW feature entitled 'Headline Grabbers'. Part of the magazine's regular PR/plugging round‑up (see 'Good Publicity' box) the feature began as follows: "A good publicist can be the making of a fledgling act. Top players in the field have sharp A&R ears and are prepared to give promising bands those essential breaks... such as helping them get the right deal with the right record company..."
Suddenly the pieces were falling into place. Sending demos to this part of the music industry had never occurred to me before, but it struck me as a potentially cool way back in. No high‑profile manager arranging meetings with A&R staff; no desperate mass mailings to every record label under the sun... just a handful of tapes to a few well‑placed music enthusiasts, who just might be able to give my act a helping hand.
What's more, I reckoned I understood PRs (having regularly been plied with booze by them in my capacity as a music journo) and realised what they appreciated in an act: great music, naturally, but also someone who knew how to sell themselves, through image and attitude; who had something to say; who enjoyed talking to the media and didn't consider it a painful chore which 'jeopardised their artistic muse, maaan'. In short, someone fresh, with an interesting 'angle', who would be enjoyable to work on and promote. With this in mind, and seeing a potential niche, I drew up a mailing list of the top half‑dozen PR companies, and set about creating my demo pack...
There've been hundreds of articles written over the years about creating the perfect demo tape (or, these days, CD‑R). To be honest, there's little mystery to it — keep your tracks short, put the best one on first, make sure things are well underway by 10 seconds in... naturally, I did my best to follow all these rules with Language Lab's cassette.
Beyond that, however, I tried to choose tracks of mine that demonstrated the attitude and ethos which I wanted the act to represent. My sound was funky (or so I hoped) with plenty of hip‑hop overtones, but my lyrics were offbeat, very English, with a sardonic edge — the work, if you like, of a hip‑hop misfit.
If I had to convey the whole thing in just two words, I decided, Language Lab's essence would be "funky sarcasm". (As an exercise, try describing your music's unique qualities in two words. If you can't, one could argue that it might not be unique enough.) So the funkiest, most sarcastic tracks went straight onto the tape, and a suitable tag line went straight onto the inlay.
Ah yes... the inlay. Most A&R types will tell you they're sick to death of complicated, wacky packaging on demos. It doesn't work, and if anything, it's actively off‑putting. My philosophy is that if everyone else is overpackaging, it's the underpackaged demo which will stand out. It's also potentially much more exciting for your tape's recipients to play a rough‑and‑ready‑looking demo and discover a jewel, rather than picking up something which looks like loads of money's been spent on it already.
With this in mind, I decided to major on the lo‑fi, bedroom nature of Language Lab (the act was, after all, literally me, working alone in a small room with a big pile of age‑old gear!) So I photocopied a trashy, '70s cool' black and white line‑drawing from an art book, and stuck some type over the top: "now that's funky sarcasm... five demo tracks from language lab." Simple as that.
Next, the biography. Well, I already had a pretty good idea of what the biography shouldn't be like, based on my own pet hates as a journalist receiving press releases with review CDs (see Biog No‑Nos above). Besides avoiding these pointers, the possibilities were, it seemed to me, wide open. While biographies of signed artists exist partly to explain the act's historical background to the media, your biog as an unsigned artist can give as much — or as little — info on you as you like. And here again, there's a good argument to suggest that less is more.
With the twin goals of simplicity and uniqueness in mind, mine consisted largely of a few statements defining my misfit attitude. "Language Lab is..." I wrote, "the wonky hip‑hop of Beck, the geeky suss of Donald Fagen, the Anglo irascibility of Tony Hancock..." Now, even if the music failed to deliver 100 percent on this description — and let's face it, what music ever could — you'd at least want to have a listen, wouldn't you? (Better this than "We have a unique indie‑rock sound featuring a drums, guitar, bass and vocals line‑up...") And trite as they may be, miniature categorisations are an invaluable tool for getting outsiders to instantly understand what your act is about. Oversimplification is no crime, especially in the early days — once interest has been piqued, you can always go back and elaborate.
What else made the biog? Well, the text also mentioned my previous musical incarnation, along with a smattering of old reviews, but without mentioning the act's name: nothing like a little deliberate mystery to get the reader pondering. I also briefly quoted lyrics from two of the tape's songs. If your songwords are special in some way, this is a handy way of getting the message across before your demo's even been played.
Finally, I added a photo, which in keeping with the act's home‑made ethos I simply decided to photocopy in the corner of the biog's front page. Clearly, if I 'd been touting myself as the new Robbie Williams, something glossy and well‑reproduced would have been in order. This being a lo‑fi affair, however, I booked an exclusive session at Sainsbury's photo booth, Meadowhall Centre, Sheffield (passport pics a speciality) and arrived decked out in... well, in what?
The other aspect of effective self‑promotion, and perhaps the most reviled, is 'image'. The successful image, it strikes me, is one which is as unusual as possible while (vitally) remaining true to one's own personality. There's little point dressing up in a frogman's outfit if you're a sensitive singer‑songwriter: but equally, if you're something of a visual anomaly within your musical category (in my case, a tall, pale skinny Englishman in the world of rap) this is something you can have fun with. So I decided to play on my weirdnesses — no trainers, baseball cap, or sportswear of any kind; instead a suit and tie.
And hey presto — the demo package was complete. As I duplicated the tapes, photocopied the biogs and prepared the Jiffy bags, I naturally had no idea whether the enterprise would be successful or not. But I was happy that I'd demonstrated to potential 'colleagues' (as I called them on my info sheet) my sense of where I saw myself in the world of pop — and that I'd done it for myself, without having a manager calling the shots, or doing anything that could be regarded as 'selling myself out'.
Off the packages went, to my six chosen PR firms and, on a whim, a particular Radio 1 DJ whose musical tastes seemed to align with mine. I had reasonable hopes for the first half‑dozen tapes; no hopes whatsoever for the seventh. Next month, I'll tell you whether my initial assumptions were proved right...
PRs (also known as press officers) and radio pluggers are much‑maligned people, both inside and outside the music industry — sometimes with good cause, sometimes not. Frequently written off as purveyors of hype and spin, these are in reality people who, like retailers, are at the sharpest of sharp ends when a musical project comes to fruition.
Pluggers work with radio producers, attempting to get your new release on the air — ideally playlisted, but at the very least spun by appropriate specialist shows. As UK stations become ever more formatted and tightly controlled in their musical output, this is becoming an increasingly difficult and unenviable job!
PRs, meanwhile, work with the press (and, increasingly, online media too), attempting to garner and control appropriate coverage for your act. A good PR will know every press contact who might be of potential use to you, as well as having a clear idea of what that contact's personal taste in music is — there's little point in the 'blanket approach' to promotion if 50 percent of your CD's recipients just won't be interested.
Most labels have their own press and radio departments, but many acts prefer to opt out from the in‑house approach, feeling that independent companies will provide them with a more personal service. If you're on a major label, especially, an indie PR or plugger can potentially add credibility and remove the taint of being a 'big‑cash major label signing'.
Who are the most influential PRs and pluggers around today? Well, every three months Music Week publishes a PR & Plugging round‑up, with accompanying chart of recent PR successes (based on the rough yardstick, for press, of 'front covers gained'). Contacting these people with your demo is relatively simple — find their contact details in the Showcase Directory (available through SOS Mail Order) or Music Week Directory; then, if you want to be doubly sure, phone to check they're interested in receiving demos, and to whom your package should be addressed.
Remember that even if they can't be, or don't want to be personally involved with your act, promotions people have friends and colleagues in every part of the music industry: labels, publishers, management, press... all it takes is for one significant person to hear your stuff and like it, and the ball can start rolling.
Getting The Info
Music Week is the music industry's weekly trade publication. It's read by everyone in the music biz, and is a great source for nuggets of handy, up‑to‑date information (who's launching a new label, what kind of artists they're looking for, and so on).
Although it's invaluable when seeking a deal, it has two drawbacks: it can be difficult to find on the news‑stands, especially if you don't live in a large city, and it's expensive (£3.60). Taking out a subscription may seem no less pocket‑draining at £140 per year, but at least this entitles you to a free annual Music Week Directory — in itself a highly useful tool.
The only way around all this expense is to find somewhere you can get access to the titles for free. Many large public libraries have subscriptions to a huge range of trade publications, sometimes including Music Week; they may also have the Directory tucked away in the reference section.
Try other libraries too. While seeking my deal I was completing a degree course at a university whose Cultural Studies department subscribed to a wide range of useful publications. Many university libraries offer External Borrower membership, if you fulfil certain criteria — or you may just be able to walk in, provided you look studenty enough!
Your biography will be a much more successful piece of promotion if it doesn't contain any of the following:
- Spelling mistakes (especially if there's a chance that journalists might read it!).
- Grammatical errors, such as commas where full stops should be — get someone else to read it through, checking for clarity.
- More than two sides of A4.
- Obvious fibs (such as "currently the hottest name on A&R men's tongues" if the biog's recipients will know immediately that this is cobblers!).