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Alternative Ways Of Marketing Your Music, Part 2

Feature | Tips & Tricks By Robin Morley
Published July 2000

Robin Morley in his new incarnation as Language Lab.Robin Morley in his new incarnation as Language Lab.

Last month Robin Morley told of how, armed with a new understanding of the music business, he set out to secure himself another record deal 10 years after signing his first one. In the second half of his feature, he explains how a willingness to think about marketing and promotion bore fruit for him — and how it can work for you.

Marketing and art are two concepts which belong worlds apart, if you ask most aspiring musicians. In this age of spin and counter‑spin, the idea of letting unpleasant things like PR and mission statements near our artistic output seems disgusting. It's beneath us. Let the music do the talking.

And, as I argued last month, this is a noble, noble sentiment — except for the fact that once we've signed to a record company (if this is what we're aiming for, of course) someone somewhere is going to be developing a marketing strategy for us. Thinking about how to package us. Pitching us to unimpressed, been‑there‑done‑that music journalists.

In short, music untouched by marketing is a wonderful, but very rare commodity — even the street‑corner busker needs a bit of flamboyance to pull the punters in. Once we've accepted this, we have two options: either let someone else decide how to mould, model and sell us, or have a damn good go at doing it ourselves. And to be truly independent, autonomous artists, we have to choose the second route. Don't we?

Last month's account of my own, humble journey through the big bad record biz saw me survive the major‑label mill, having learned one vital lesson: take an active interest in everything that's going on, or else get left behind. I'd also put together a demo package for my new musical incarnation, Language Lab, and despatched it, with fingers crossed, to a small but carefully selected list of PRs and pluggers... plus Radio 1's Mary‑Ann Hobbs.

...What Happened Next?

If you can make your demo tape stand out from the rest, you've achieved more than many...If you can make your demo tape stand out from the rest, you've achieved more than many...

Now, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it's all too easy for me to sound gung‑ho when I recount this story. The fact is, of course, that I didn't have the foggiest at this point whether my demo would appeal to anyone at all. I was working on pure guesswork — albeit with a fair amount of head‑scratching to back it up. So when the phone started ringing, I was... well, gobsmacked.

First to call was the office of Alan James PR, suppliers of radio and/or press promotion to the likes of Divine Comedy, Super Furry Animals and Elastica. They'd enjoyed the tape, and felt it stood out from their large weekly postbag of unsolicited C60s and CD‑Rs: could I send some more material?

As if this wasn't exciting enough, my second call, just a couple of days later, came from Mary‑Ann Hobbs herself. She'd listened to my cassette — which astounded me in itself, cynic that I am — loved it, and was going to play the DAT copy of the main track 'Theme From Language Lab' on her Radio 1 show the following evening. Needless to say, I was thrilled, and not a little shocked. Things like this didn't really happen, did they? An unreleased track put together on my knackered old Tascam 688 cassette multitracker, an Atari ST and Akai S1000 alone, mastered on a little Aiwa DAT machine I'd borrowed for the day from the local university — played on Radio 1 just a few days after I'd finished it? Well, apparently so.

There was no time to waste. Smelling a perfect opportunity to 'vibe up' everyone else who'd received a copy of my package, I got hold of their fax numbers and sent each one a brief teaser message, letting them know about Mary‑Ann's act of faith: that I'd be receiving my radio premiere on The Nation's Favourite the following evening. Fingers firmly crossed, I hoped this fax would encourage anyone who'd heard the tape to give it another listen, and anyone who hadn't yet checked it out to retrieve it from their tape mountain and do so.

There were only two responses, but they were important ones. Firstly Alan James' people got back to me — Alan had coincidentally been talking to a colleague of Mary‑Ann's, who'd been raving about my material and wanted to know more about me. (Mental note: the London‑based music industry may be tricky to crack, but once inside it's a small, small, inter‑dependent world...) A date was arranged to meet Alan's people at his office the following week.

The second call came from John Best, another top PR character who'd been sent my tape. By accident, the demo had been passed on to an associate of his in the artist management field — he hadn't seen or heard it at all. And now the prospect of Radio 1 airplay (flagged up by my chase‑up fax) had piqued his interest. Could I send another copy? Well, naturally I was delighted to.

As I sat down the following evening to listen to Mary‑Ann Hobbs' Breezeblock show, I pondered Language Lab's future. It'd been years since my music had graced Radio 1's airwaves, but this was more exciting than ever: being played, unsigned, on a dead cool programme I'd loved for ages, by a DJ I respected. And what a turning point this could be, too. Just look at what had happened to White Town's Jyoti Mishra: from obscurity to number one, thanks, in the first instance, to the kind patronage of late‑night Radio 1.

I could almost see that S1000‑shaped swimming pool in my mind's eye...

Meanwhile, Back In The Real World...

Independent press agencies and pluggers are at the forefront of promoting new music and can be invaluable allies in your quest to get ahead.Independent press agencies and pluggers are at the forefront of promoting new music and can be invaluable allies in your quest to get ahead.

Needless to say, of course, things didn't work out quite like that. One day after Language Lab's full‑on UK radio debut, my phone was still firmly affixed to the wall, untroubled by a million and one cheque‑waving A&R sharks. No offers of juicy deals, no world tour proposals. Not much at all, really.

Little by little, however, a few interesting calls began to trickle through. I made a vow at this early stage to keep careful track of each one (see the Getting Yourself Organised box). Boring as this can be — we want to be musicians, not clerks, after all — the truth is that calls and messages are easy to lose track of. And eventually, even the smallest titbit of interest can develop into that Legendary Big Break. At this stage, however, it's impossible to tell which. What's more, any successful act quickly develops a community of specialist people around it (agents, artwork designers, remixers, the list goes on) and any of these leads may throw up people you'll end up working with.

I use that term 'working with' carefully — innocuous as it seems, it was an important part of my plan. Let me explain. In my earlier, major‑label years I was under the (mis)apprehension that my group was 'working for' CBS, that we were employed by them. Not only was this literally untrue — bands are usually self‑employed entities with record labels as their customers — but it created an unbalanced picture. We ended up either in awe of the big guys (when things were going well) or completely at odds with them (the rest of the time). It's an unhealthy attitude, and one which I wanted to avoid this time around.

Equally, though, it's tempting for artists to see things from the other extreme: to behave as if their associates (especially PRs, pluggers and other non‑A&R people) should be grateful for the precious opportunity to 'work for' them. Now, the biz itself is partly to blame for this. After all, it frequently panders to artists' whims, however pathetic, as long as the hits keep rolling in. Us musos, too, often suffer from an inbuilt hostility towards anyone who 'stands between' us and our public, even if (a) they're actually trying to help us out, and (b) our attitude is little more than a pose. (One CBS executive told us that The Clash would often sit in his office and plan, with him, what 'fascist major‑label dictate' the group would protest against next.)

And it's certainly possible to go through the record‑making process treating everyone like dirt, or throwing up problems and friction at every step. But ultimately, why would you want to? Why not, I decided, build a team of individuals around Language Lab whom I liked as people, who were great at what they did, and who could look on me as a colleague? Not 'that idiot who's always rude to journalists'. Not 'that guy who's always got a problem with what we do'. Not someone to work for or against, but someone to work with.

With this in mind, I set off to for London for my first meeting, with Alan James PR. On the train, I took a look through my biog to remind myself of what they'd already know about me. Then I jotted down exactly what I hoped to achieve from the meeting — to elaborate on the interest they'd already expressed, and, with any luck, get some degree of commitment to assisting the project along. Simple as this sounds, it can be only too easy to walk into an encounter like this without a clear idea of what your aims and intentions are. Believe me, I've done it. This is the kind of area where a little professional help never goes amiss (see the Everything's Negotiable box)

Happily the Alan James team turned out to be exactly as I'd hoped — a group of funny, intelligent, clued‑up people, who were as enthusiastic about music as us musos ourselves. (Think everyone in the record biz is mad about music? If only, if only...) As I left the meeting I was convinced that if and when Language Lab's first single was released, I'd be more than happy to have this team promote it to press and radio. But there was one other PR company to visit... and also the small matter of finding a label to actually release my stuff...

From Pr To A&R

Alternative Ways Of Marketing Your Music, Part 2

If I described PRs last month as 'much‑maligned', well, they don't come in for half as much stick as A&R people. Everyone has their own favourite A&R stereotype: they're lazy, they're drug addicts, they're tone deaf... and most irritating of all, they're indecisive. Why else did they earn the nickname Um & Ahh men? Or to put it another way, how many A&R men does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: Hmm... I'm not sure... what do you think?

You can hardly blame the poor A&R man (and, yes, even in the year 2000 they are still largely men). Theoretically, on their say‑so, a record company can invest heart‑stopping amounts of cash in a group who end up selling fewer CDs than they have living relatives. It's a tremendously responsible role in an irresponsible artform. Of course, in reality, for large‑scale acts to get signed these days, the A&R department practically needs a guarantee of support, signed in blood, from every radio programmer, TV producer and youth brand in the country. But whatever the circumstances, the A&R guy is where the buck stops.

What this means is that dealing with unsigned bands in their formative stages is one of the few areas where the A&R representative can afford to get his or her hands dirty, without risking any company cash at all. And this means, if you do manage to hustle up a meeting with one, and they're genuinely enthusiastic, that you should expect suggestions. Lots of them.

You might be advised to change your lyrics. Your musical style. Your name. Your hair colour, your brand of deodorant... whatever. You'll almost certainly be advised in totally conflicting directions by everyone you ask. And what's the most frustrating thing? Some of these suggestions are probably good ones — yes, honestly. The question is, which ones?

This is where last month's thoughts on marketing yourself should come in handy. When you put together your biography and demo package, your initial aim should've been to find, and explain, what makes your act stand out: what's unique about you, but also where you fit in the musical landscape. With this in mind, the barometer for who to listen to is very simple: who 'gets it'? Who understands what makes your act individual?

In my case, my spate of A&R meetings, which I managed to drum up through a mix of initial interest and dogged determination, coincided with the rise of (whisper it) big beat. OK, so as a genre, big beat is a dead duck now, swept aside by fashion and commercial visibility. And in any case, I never saw myself as a part of it. But several A&R types (both majors and indies) did, ignoring the stranger, lyric‑based aspects of the music in favour of knockabout breakbeat capers. Don't get me wrong — I listened to their advice, weighing it all up carefully. But they didn't, in the final analysis, 'get it'.

Who did 'get it'? Happily, none other than John Best, the PR guru who was second to reply to my original demo package. As press officer for Pulp, you could say John had prior knowledge of lanky, Sheffield‑based, sarcastic songwriters. Most tellingly, he reserved his greatest enthusiasm for the wordiest, least breakbeat‑heavy track on my tape, a tale of artistic jealousy called 'Lowdown Literary Son‑of‑a‑Bitch'. Though others had made interesting observations on Language Lab, and though I didn't always share John's point of view, his take on the music simply seemed 'right'.

And how about this for luck? John had launched, only months before, a cool little record label with premier DJs Dan & Jon Kahuna (then of London's Big Kahuna Burger, more recently Saturday night residents at Turnmills). Would I be interested in joining their roster? Would I ever. I wasted no time — a meeting between the four of us was immediately arranged.

Knowing that the others would be well acquainted with my demo tracks by the time we met, I felt it'd be a good idea to have something fresh to bring to the table. I wanted something unlike what I'd produced before, something to make them sit up and take notice. It was a struggle to finish the new track in time, but on the morning I travelled back to London, I hurriedly committed the demo to cassette. Was it any good or not? I hardly had time to decide. Aw well, I figured. I may as well play it anyway.

And thank God I did: 'Burning Disaster', the new track, went down a treat. So much so, in fact, that it was to wind up as Language Lab's first single on the Kahuna boys' label, Kahuna Cuts.

Why did I sign with Kahuna? Well, they may not have offered me the biggest deal in music history — they're an indie label with indie budgets to match. They may not have been able to offer major‑label luxuries and indulgences. But they have good distribution, through 3MV/Vital, an organisation I'm well acquainted with from my time in retail (see the Getting It Out There box). And my experiences with CBS taught me an important lesson: sometimes it pays to be a big fish in a small pond, not a minor discrepancy somewhere way down a corporation's balance sheet. If your record label's staff number half a dozen, rather than several hundred, you can, and should, get to know each one of them. It's about the personal touch. In other words, sometimes small is beautiful.

So the legal, deal‑refining process began — a long‑winded, but nonetheless unavoidable, part of any new deal, whatever its nature (see The Small Print box). A few weeks later I was signed, almost exactly seven years since I inked my first deal with Sony. Was it good to be back? You bet it was...

No Disaster

Language Lab records now appear on Kahuna Cuts, a label co‑run by John Best — one of the people to whom Robin first pitched his demo package.Language Lab records now appear on Kahuna Cuts, a label co‑run by John Best — one of the people to whom Robin first pitched his demo package.

And since then? Since then I've been constantly on the go, writing and recording the debut Language Lab album, currently scheduled for the end of this year. True to my philosophy of 'self‑sufficiency', all pre‑production has taken place on that same semi‑knackered heap of gear in Sheffield which got me onto Radio 1. Then my equipment and disks head down the M1 to a friend's house in Nottingham, where we use slightly more modern tools (Mac‑based Cubase VST, to be precise) to get the finished version onto CD‑R. It's all a very low‑key affair, with the recording budget for the entire album coming to about the same as we spent on cabs during the CBS years. (Sadly, this isn't even a joke.)

'Burning Disaster', the single, was released in 1999 and sold healthily, thanks in part to continued support from one of the Lab's original champions, Mary‑Ann Hobbs. It's also graced a host of dance compilations worldwide, as well as Chris Morris' recent Channel 4 show Jam. And Steve Lamacq liked it enough to call me "probably the best new one‑man band in the country" and invite me in for a session at the BBC's Maida Vale studios. The engineers there seemed pretty surprised when I arrived with just an Atari ST in my holdall, ready to feed their S1000 with a host of diskettes, but thanks to some thorough forward planning, it was one of the quickest and most enjoyable sessions I've ever had.

What else? Well, as you'd expect from a record company who double as a PR firm, John Best and his team did a marvellous job on press coverage — those early musings about 'what makes Language Lab unique?' came in useful again here, when those interviewers' microphones were thrust under my nose. And underlining the importance of maintaining those early contacts, Alan James PR returned to the fold to perform the radio plugging role. It was their sterlingwork which helped to win my second single, 'Re‑caffeinate', some of that ever‑elusive, barrier‑breaking daytime airplay on Radio 1.

Oh... and I've been thinking it all through again lately, as I apply myself to that most modern of promotional tools, the Internet. Because for the aspiring muso, as for everyone else, the web is a revolutionary medium. All legal and copyright traumas aside, the facility is now there to put a huge chunk of our acts' presentation and marketing back into our hands as musicians — with all the potential for benefit and disaster that this implies. (Just bear in mind how Prince fell off the pop music map when he 'took control' of things...)

But that's another story. I'm off to work on my web site: www.languageÐ So far it's all down to me, but a little creative collaboration can't be too far away. Take a look — I'd value your comments and feedback.

Language Lab Discography


'Burning Disaster' (KCUTS010, 1999)

'Re‑caffeinate' (KCUTS013, 1999)

Label compilations, featuring Lab tracks:

Big Kahuna Kicks One (KCUTS009, 1998)

Big Kahuna Kicks Two (KCUTS014, 2000)

All titles Kahuna Cuts (distributed 3MV/Vital)

Getting Yourself Organised

As businesses go, the recording industry is not one of the most professional or straightforward. This can be a joy or a royal pain in the arse, depending on your situation and temperament. If things are going well for you, there's no better business to be in. If, on the other hand, you're trying to get money out of people, hold them to their rash promises (contractual or otherwise), or develop their previously expressed A&R interest, you'll probably feel like you're banging your head against a brick wall much of the time.

This is where a little organisation at your end can help. Any manager worth his or her salt will keep a log of the work they've done for their act on a daily basis — phone calls made and received, meetings held and arranged, emails, faxes... and most importantly what was said and promised. You should do the same. It can be tedious stuff, but also a lifesaver when you're trying to recall how many weeks it's been since you chased up that demo, or what that slippery A&R man claimed the other month.

Plenty of computer packages are available to help you in this area, but I find a simple large‑format diary and wallplanner do the trick, provided you're disciplined enough to fill them in. Also keep copies of all correspondence and backup copies of e‑mails. One day you'll be glad you did...

Everything's Negotiable

'Negotiation' is a scary word, but also a much misunderstood one. When it comes to getting a record deal, it's easy to assume that negotiations start only when the lawyers and label business affairs people step in and begin hammering out a contract. Yet every piece of communication you have with someone who can help you on your way is a form of negotiation — you're both trying to establish how you can benefit each other, whether financially, socially or artistically.

Most artists make poor negotiators; it's one reason why actors and authors have agents, and musicians have managers. Often this is because we're unable to take a step back from our work and allow others to criticise it: this is a skill that's well worth developing, although those who simply can't are best off seeking representation! Just as often, though, it's because we don't really know how negotiation works, or can't see a reason for learning.

Well, fear not. As you'd expect in this day and age, there are many self‑help books available to assist. My recommendation is Negotiating For Dummies by Michael and Mimi Donaldson (IDG Books, £18.99). Get past the iffy title, and you'll find a straightforward, enjoyable, plain English guide to the fine art of getting what you want, without going all Michael‑Douglas‑in‑Wall‑Street. When it comes to the tricky, contractual stuff, of course, you'll need to leave it to the professionals — but you'll be surprised how much a little study and self‑examination can help you out... in your private life too!

Manufacturing & Distribution: Getting It Out There

Understandably, most artists' thoughts when choosing a record deal revolve around the Big Issues — advances, length of term, royalty levels and so on. (Oh, and let's not forget that old favourite 'packaging deductions' — the amount of your money that can be creamed off when the label issues your album in a mink‑lined Digipak.) But two of the most important factors often get overlooked, mainly because most people (including managers and many record label staff) don't understand their significance in the success or failure of a project. These two factors are manufacturing and distribution.

Put simply, unless you're producing and selling your music by non‑physical means (such as MP3) your career is totally at the mercy of your distributors. If they can't get enough reps into record shops to top‑up dwindling stocks; if they can't keep up with demand and re‑manufacture before your music sells out at the warehouse; if their delivery systems are slow and unreliable... you're sunk. And in this day and age, the type of deals and terms they're offering retailers should be your concern too. Are they competitive, or do shops resent dealing with them?

This end of the supply chain changes so frequently, with labels switching distribution and distributors merging, that I'd be a fool to make personal recommendations here. Instead, I'd suggest that, if you find yourself in the lucky position of choosing between record labels, you go and visit your local independent music store. Chat to those behind the counter, and try to speak to the person who deals one‑on‑one with the distributors. What do they think of the individual labels? Who has great distribution, and who could do better if the retailer only had someone more responsive to deal with? You might be surprised by some of the answers.

The Small Print

When it comes to being creative, there's plenty to be said for keeping things small, and doing business on a shoestring whenever possible. But while you can feasibly cope without a manager as you strive to make it, and maybe do without a publisher, or a PR... there's one person you cannot do without. Your laywer.

There's no point in fibbing: hiring a good music business lawyer can be extremely expensive. Not hiring one, however, can be far, far worse. If you've any doubts about this, try to get hold of Simon Garfield's book Expensive Habits: The Dark Side of the Music Industry — a riveting account of how artists like Elton John, George Michael and Sting were only too eager to sign on the dotted line in their early years. (The Wham! star's original contract, for instance, entitled him and Andrew Ridgeley to a tiny £500 recoupable advance each, an initial royalty of just eight percent on UK albums and singles, plus no royalties whatsoever on 12‑inch singles!)

Desperation and naïveté are the two usual factors behind artists signing the wrong deal too soon, usually hastened by claims that if the deal isn't signed soon, it will 'fall through'. It's common sense, however, that an artist who seems self‑aware and savvy in these early stages will earn the other party's respect in the process (whether grudgingly or not). To put it more bluntly, if you let 'em take you for a fool up front, they'll be back for more later.

Many lawyers will help you out 'on account' in the early stages of negotiating a deal, with payment due when the money actually starts flowing. To find a specialist music lawyer, try the Music Week or Showcase directories; or consider joining PRS, who hold lists of solicitors willing and able to take on new music clients. It's worth mentioning that PRS also produce an excellent wallchart showing how the UK music business fits together illustrating the different business areas, trade bodies, how royalties flow from record sales and performances, and so on.

Members of the Musicians Union can also take advantage of the MU's Contracts Advisory Scheme, which allows one free hour's consultation with a specialist music lawyer on every eligible contract which a member receives, whether this be for recording, publishing, management, merchandising, or any other area. After this hour is used up, special reduced rates are available — and don't forget that in the case of especially complicated deals, it's often possible to get the other party to pay legal fees as part of the finalised agreement.