Richard Rothman doesn't own a studio, can't play an instrument and keeps as far away from computers as he can. Nevertheless, he has been involved in the production and promotion of some very successful independent record releases. How is it done?
Trying to make your way through the music business minefield must be every artist's nightmare, but I decided to live out the reality and take the plunge by setting up my own record label. I took the independent route in an endeavour to achieve success and maintain creative control without being lost in a sea of (usually fruitless) 'major' promises, and this article relates my own experiences in the context of the current state of the music business — though this is changing all the time. The only thing that doesn't change and isn't likely to, is the true meaning behind the words Pop music.
Pop music simply means popular music — which implies mass appeal. The Oxford dictionary definition of popular is: "widely favoured or admired." Though there are many performers who have made it outside the mainstream of pop music, there's no doubt that trying to get a hit with a pop song is more likely to work out than trying with a form of music that only has minority appeal. You can have the greatest indie sound in the world, but it may take years to develop a market and a reasonable income.
The initial starting point must be the right material; the current music scene has become so specialised that the record‑buying public have become confused in the underworld of style and sound. Pop does seem to be eating itself. After many years of research I found that the majority of the buying public wants to be sold happiness — happiness sells. So I defined my market and zero'd in on it. And there has never been a better time than now, in the context of all the gloom and doom that dominates the news.
I can't play an instrument to save my life, but I do know exactly what I want to hear and I trust my own judgement — which is why I chose to assemble a team of professionals to handle programming/arranging, vocals, recording and mixing. Such a creative team needs to be professional in approach and they must be experienced because you rely on them to create your vision through their hands. Even if you are an expert in one area of the production process, the chances are that you don't excel in all of them, so teamwork is vitally important. It also pays to keep in mind that it is through the team that success is ultimately achieved, so it would be folly to desert them at the first sign of a commercial return.
On my last CD project, I relied on the help of Mick Dolan, Mike Turner, Keith Allan, Paul Joyner and Steve Jay. Paul White (yes, that one!) also provided some engineering and editing input and was kind enough to furnish the studio at a rate that wouldn't even hire you a decent plumber! Without their blind faith and support I would still be washing up at a well known burger joint.
An important decision is whether to work with original material or do a cover of an old hit. Creating an original and having a hit with it is great when it comes to income, but it's an uphill struggle and requires a great deal of luck to succeed.
A cover, on the other hand, can mean a greater chance of success — but you lose out on revenue due to the fact that you're not the copyright owner. As studio time is expensive, you have to be sure about the production, and that your own version is better than the original, otherwise there's no point in covering it.
Unless you have your own studio, you won't have time to mess around and experiment with alternative approaches, though a great deal or pre‑production work and experimentation can be done using a modest home MIDI studio — which gives the typical SOS reader a big advantage straight away.
A very important point is that your song not only has to win over the record buying public, it has first to convince the people who determine radio play. If nobody hears your single, nobody will buy it, and if it doesn't get onto the playlist, the only place it might gain a little exposure is in the clubs. Nearly all of the radio hierarchy is made up of die‑hards from days gone by, so if you decide to do a cover, then choose carefully.
Setting up your own record label is straightforward but very time consuming. Think of a name and then live with it for a while before committing yourself — if your choice still sounds right after a couple of weeks, it's probably safe to go with it. Next go and open a bank account, say hello to the manager, and then leave the account alone with about £5 in it!
If you're serious, you're going to need a solicitor and an accountant — and make sure they are music‑business savvy, otherwise they can lose you more than you can make. If you plan to press your own CDs, talk to your accountant about VAT registration. Next, contact the MCPS, who will provide you with an info sheet on all the organisations that your label will have to belong to. Membership of these organisations is vital. They all exist to help you. Use them and follow to their advice. A simple slip over something as simple as the timing on a CD or a cassette can disqualify you from chart eligibility and put you right out of the running, with dire financial consequences. For example, did you know that a CD or cassette single should be 20 minutes or less and contain no more than four tracks unless it comprises multiple mixes of the same song, in which case the limit is 40 minutes? A radio mix should be between 3:30 and 3:45 long to have the best chance of being played.
OK, so the label is registered with every Tom Dick and Harry. Now it's time to release. There are initially three key points on the sales pyramid:
- The sales force.
- The club promoters.
- The radio pluggers.
All these 'cogs' make up the engine of success; they all need each other and they all run in sequence. The first to kick off will be the club promoter; of the 1000 or so CDs that have been pressed, approximately 500 will go out via the club promoters to those DJs who relate to that style of track. These people are vital in giving your record its initial 'kick' and you'll be able to start gauging audience reaction, which the sales people and the plugger will need to do their jobs.
Let's assume that the track is climbing the Dance/DJ charts. What next ? The public and the DJs will then need to hear the track on the radio, to encourage further sales. After that, it's all systems go. If the song is good and has that certain magic, once it's had a little exposure, it'll nearly always get there, regardless of publicity. Everyone wants to make money, especially those people who we traditionally blame for trying to stop us from being successful, but the song must be good to be in with a chance.
In the 'old' days, sorting out the distribution was vital before all else. This is still the case, but whereas distributors used to take risks with outlay on promo, record pressing and so on, nowadays they can no longer afford this luxury, so it's up to you to make the initial batch of CDs. Unless you're entering Rave Land, reggae or indie, don't touch vinyl — it's a waste of money. The commercial DJs all use CD now, and making their job easier is likely to result in better exposure. In pop circles, you should also steer clear of cassettes, at least in the first instance, though there are certain musical styles that are well accepted in that format. Remember that your label has a professional image to maintain and cassettes don't create the right image. The cassette medium will only come into play when the track starts to sell on CD, after which cassette may account for the bulk of your sales.
My advice is to refrain from chasing distribution until the track starts to make waves. Distributors are very busy people, and refusal (which is usually inevitable at this stage), will only dent your resolve. So go ahead and manufacture your own CDs — between 500 and 1000 will be enough to start the promotional ball rolling and to allow you to judge whether or not the track is likely to succeed. Signs of success will come from the club‑going public and the DJs asking for the track though the record shops. (You'll have a few of the CD's in the shops, which the sales force will have kindly donated on your behalf to aid promotion). Only when your record is attracting some interest should you actively seek out a distributor. The theory is that they will see the potential based on your promotion work and talk business. All they have to do now is to take over your CD account and supply the demand. They will also consider repaying your initial production costs.
An alternative approach to distribution is to get the Music Week Directory and try to get licensing for the track abroad. Initially, contact is made by mail‑outs, and again you must use CD to create the right image. It may surprise you to learn that a considerable amount of chart material comprises home‑grown tracks that our very own industry initially declined. Due to the lack of support from our own industry, there's the ludicrous situation whereby talented artists who make the records over here are first having to export them and then import them back in again once they've taken off overseas.
This article is very brief and is based on my own experiences in trying to produce and promote music. If you contact the MCPS, you'll find that the information they provide is invaluable — don't think you can do without it, as you may end up with a wonderful song that isn't eligible for the charts, or worse, you might find yourself in breach of copyright, which can be an expensive mistake.
I commented at the outset that my observations were based on the way the music business works now, and that things are always changing. The industry is currently in a state of upheaval, not only musically but in a business sense too. The old are not giving way to the new and this is both suffocating the artist and depriving the customer. Why? It's largely down to the wave of back‑catalogue material re‑launched on the back of the CD revolution. It was inevitable and had to happen, but in time the dust will settle and then we can all have fun again. Despite the competition from video games and the like, Pop music remains a way of life and it's here to stay — it just has to change and adapt in order to survive.
CD MANUFACTURING: 1000 CDs cost approximately £2000 including artwork, transfer from DAT, PQ'ing, glass mastering and duplication. VAT is payable on top of this. [See the feature on making your own record, which includes costings for CD, vinyl and cassette manufacture and a useful contact listing, in the November 1993 issue of SOS.
CLUB/DJ PROMOTION: costs betwen £500 and £600. For this, you get the accurate reactions of the punters who matter. If the track is popular, a Dance Chart placing should follow; this is vital for further promotional movement. Promotional agents I can recommend include:
- The Kick Organisation 0831 524 713
- Push Release 081 675 4916
- Impulse 081 459 886
- Power Promotions 071 624 9622
RADIO PROMOTION: Radio 1 costs around £3000 (initial) plus bonuses, while ILR may cost around £1000 (initial) plus bonuses. Radio pluggers I can recommend include:
- Richard Tandy (Push and Plug) 0742 670351
- The Brothers Organisation 081 675 5584
INDUSTRY ORGANISATIONS & REFERENCE
- MCPS (Mechanical Copyright Protection Society) 081 769 4400
- PRS (Performing Right Society) 071 580 5544
- Music Week Directory 081 646 1031
- Kemps International Music Book available from SOS Mail Order
Richard's record label, COC International, was established in October 1992. Its main act, the COC Band, has seen dance chart success in Europe; their track 'Y' has been licensed to labels in Italy, France and Germany. Other COC releases have been licensed as far away as Hong Kong.