Big George Webley looks at how you can add to the worldwide success of the British music industry.
Releasing your own record without the emotionally crippling intervention of a chemically confused and condescending record company A&R executive has never been easier. Simply turn to the classified ads in this magazine, look under the 'Duplication' section, ring one of the companies up, and within a week you can have as many copies of your record as you can afford. After you've sold one to your auntie, one to your best mate and less than a dozen at gigs, you can store the rest under your bed where they will be safe from the dangers of heat, light and public awareness.
Are you prepared to approach releasing your own record with some thought and understanding of what you're getting into? What format best suits your music: CD, 12‑inch vinyl, 7‑inch vinyl, cassette, interactive CD‑ROM, 8‑track stereo cartridge? How do you propose to get the potentially massive global market to buy it? Are you going to sell it through a distribution company to major record retail outlets, or will you be taking it personally to independent record shops specialising in your type of music? Maybe you feel that placing mail order adverts in magazines and fanzines and plastering it across the Internet would be your best option? But if you thought that setting up a stall at local gigs and forcing family and friends to buy it was all you needed to do, think again.
What about promotion? Is it worth paying a record‑plugger hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds to send every copy you get pressed to radio and club DJs? There's an old saying in the record business, which is sadly very true: "If you want to get your record into the shops just send it to radio DJs; it will be on sale in a secondhand record shop by the afternoon".
Now ask yourself: in a world full of consumer choice, will your record really be worth the bother? Obviously the answer is yes, but being objective about your own music is a tough job — that's why record companies never allow new acts that privilege. Unfortunately, most record companies, both small and major, employ frustrated wannabe artists to guide the careers of new bands. These people do occasionally get it right, but mostly they will end up destroying the very heart and soul of a band. And of the bands that do have a hit, most never get another and within a year will find themselves without a deal. Whereas if a band have a measure of success with their own independently released record before signing with a major label, the interference from some (but not all) departments is reduced considerably, and the deal is usually far more secure.
The reason records are released (apart from spreading art across the planet in a type of global music love thang) is to make money: as much of it as possible. In the case of record company releases, not only are all aspects covered by them, but they often also own the source of where the money comes from.
A basic breakdown shows that the two main sources of income generated by a record are: money from the sale of the record and money for the use of what is on the record. Of course there'll be plenty of money coming in from radio plays, videos, Top Of The Pops appearances, and suchlike; but from a record the two places you look to for money are the distributor and an organisation called the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society (MCPS). The distributor takes an amount of your records, gets them into shops across the country, and pays you approximately 70% of the price they fetch from the dealer, after they're sold. If the record starts selling in healthy numbers they will ask for more product. They might even suggest that they take over the production of new stock to save you the bother. If they do want to take over the reins, that's a very good sign, but do make sure you know what you're getting into and with whom. Most distributors are established, honest and still in business — the dishonest ones go out of business. But, as in many industries, when bad businesses go bust they often start up again under another name using the money they owe. Don't let that be your money.
The MCPS are more than established, they are The Establishment. They are the people who deal with what is actually on a record: the music and lyrics, and who wrote them. They do not base their figures on records sold, but on records manufactured, and regularly audit all pressing plants to find out what they've pressed, who for and how many. This may seem like Big Brother watching over your art, but it's ultimately for your protection. In China alone, it's estimated that over 200 million CDs are pressed every year that are not accounted for — in other words, pirated. That means £2 billion that isn't going to record companies, artists, songwriters and producers. Although this isn't a problem that affects you — yet — it is nonetheless a major problem for the record industry. Sadly, it seems that the money that the industry at large loses through this doesn't affect the wages and personal expense accounts of the non‑productive executives, but it does stop them developing new artists and investing in young talent.
It's a similar situation to what happens when the Rolling Stones' latest album under‑achieves the projected sales expectation. The record company still have to pay royalties on vast amounts of unsold stock, while the lifestyles of Messrs Jagger and Richard continue on in enviable decadence. Strangely, when these situations arise, companies don't sign as many new acts and a few of those who already have a deal get dropped. Funny, that...
When a record becomes available for sale in the shops, the MCPS will charge the record company a percentage of the dealer price for every copy of the record pressed, as opposed to every record sold. The rate can vary (between 4.75% and 12.5%) depending on which scheme the release comes under.
On records that contain only original compositions, the artist or company representing the artist can apply for a 'notification of no claims'. Which means that, rather than the MCPS charging to collect money which they in turn will pay back, the artist keeps it and saves paying commission. It doesn't cost anything to be a member of the MCPS — they make their money from charging a small percentage. So if you release your own records containing all original material, you can bypass their system altogether, but you will still, in theory, need a licence to release your record.
The reason records are released is to make money, as much of it as possible.
If you have a record out featuring 19 band compositions and one cover of, let's say for argument's sake, Middle Of The Road's classic Number One hit 'Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep', you will definitely owe money. The figure paid is 8.5% of the dealer price for a record, not the price the general public pay. So for 20 tracks the percentage cost would spread equally across all the tracks. A quick bit of maths shows that 8.5% divided by 20 equals 0.425%. Therefore if the dealer price was £7 you would give the MCPS just under 3p per record, which they in turn would pass on to the company that publishes the writer of the song (not the band or the singer). If the record went silver (60,000 units) the fee paid to the MCPS would be £1,785; the remaining 19 songs would generate £33,915.
This means (in the interest of science) that if one person writes all the songs on a million‑selling album with a dealer price of £8.49, their royalty for song writing alone would be £721,650. Or, to put it in Poptastic terms, not including royalties on actual sales, or radio play, or videos, on songwriting royalties alone, Michael Jackson's Thriller generated over £35 million.
Apart from your music, which speaks for itself, there's the not‑so‑small matter of the record sleeve. Most towns have 'imaging bureaus' (they used to be called typesetters) which provide a design service costing between £50 and £80 per hour. Bands can take their ideas and photographs in, go through the process, and have finished artwork ready for the manufacturers in a single visit. But be warned: a lot of time can be wasted looking at the amazing graphic trickery computers can do these days; you can end up with an over‑complicated piece of cover art that's taken three expensive hours to produce and is definitely not what you'd intended when you walked into the shop.
Another approach is to use a freelance graphic artist. They cost less (they have smaller overheads), are more flexible, and give valid creative input. On the downside, it can take them up to a working week to get the artwork ready for the manufacturers. A rough estimate of their costing: photo scan £25; origination of logo £50; typesetting £20; designer £70 (two hours at £35 per hour); colour proof £30; total £195.
If you're paying for a designer's time, it's important not to waste it. Before you go to them, have examples of graphics and the sort of lettering you want on your sleeve. Look at magazines, flyers, other record covers, even washing‑powder boxes for ideas. If you already have a logo, take a few different versions along; if you don't have a logo, be sure you have a clear idea of how you want your name written on the sleeve. Short‑run CD deals often offer a complete artwork service included in the price. Just remember that, especially in the field of graphic art, you only get what you pay for.
Once the art is completed and you're happy, it has to go to the printer. There are many different formats in which artwork can be presented to a manufacturer, but don't worry about it: the graphic artist will liaise with them, not you — although after everything is pressed and printed you may wish to purchase the source of your artwork, if only to license it to a major record company to use when they pay a fortune for the rights to release your record worldwide.
If you want your product to be available in all leading record retail outlets, it must have a barcode. For this you have to become a member of the Article Number Association (ANA). The yearly subscription is £70.50 for a new company (like all the prices in this article, this includes VAT), but be warned that this annual fee can go up to as much as £300 per year, though to pay this you must have an annual turnover of £250 million. As a member, you're allotted a series of numbers, one of which will be exclusively for your record. To actually get the unattractive bold black lines of the barcode printed on your record sleeve, you'll need to contact a specialist company — there are hundreds around the country. You tell them the number and in return they send you, or your graphic artist, the barcode artwork on disk ready for inclusion on your record sleeve. This service costs around £15.
Barcodes are not just used to scan the price of the record into the cash register; they also relay sales information into the chart‑return system. This supposedly fail‑safe procedure is open to all sorts of skulduggery, but the ability to hype a record into the charts costs so much money that only massive record companies can afford to do it (not that they ever allow themselves to be caught).
You would think that the most straightforward and idiot‑proof thing to do in the entire process is to get a CD cut from your DAT. Be warned, the following story is true... Flushed with pride and confidence after having their first album licensed by an American prog‑rock label, British band Solstice decided to allow them to administer the manufacture of their second album onto CD. The master DAT was sent to the Americans, who in turn sent it to Canada, where CD manufacture is cheaper. Part of the deal the band had with the label was they were given stock which they could sell through mail order across Europe and Asia, thanks to the comprehensive fanzine network geared towards serious rock fans.
The albums arrived in the country and a trip to Heathrow airport customs was hastily arranged to pick up 500 copies of the finished product, with "£250 import duty to pay, sir". (It's worth mentioning that whatever a customs officer wants is what is going to happen; that's a lesson in life best remembered.)
On getting back home the band ripped open one of the perfectly shrink‑wrapped CDs (with typeset information beautifully embossed along the spine of the wrapping for the American market), slammed it into the CD player, and cranked it up. Aaargh!! It was playing slow, and so was every other disc they tried.
After a lot of drinking and shouting obscenities down the transatlantic phone lines it transpired that the CD‑processing lab in cost‑effective Canada hadn't noticed that the DAT was mastered at 48kHz. But so what? Most non‑professional (or to put it another way, affordable) DAT machines only record analogue at 48kHz. But all CDs are processed at 44.1kHz. So due to sloppy workmanship at the plant, the information calibrated was wrong and the music was transferred onto the CD around 9% slower than it should have been.
If you didn't understand the above technical mumbo‑jumbo, it doesn't matter; the fact was that every track on every single shrink‑wrapped CD was playing slow because a basic operation had been overlooked. This highlights the importance of being aware of every aspect of the process. If you're unaware of anything to do with the technical side of record manufacture, get professional help. It's amazing how expert you can become by simply watching someone who knows what they're doing avoid problems.
So, what happened next? The cheap‑processing idiots only took a month and a half to get the CDs re‑manufactured at the correct speed. This time the records were Federal Expressed direct from Canada to the band's door, with no duty to pay (but there was no chance of getting a refund from HM Customs on the batch collected from the airport). On arrival, instead of nicely shrink‑wrapped finished product the package contained just the discs, without cases. So all that remained was for the band to un‑shrinkwrap every single one of the beautifully packaged CDs, remove the disc, and replace it with a correct but identical disc. Solstice have recently released their third CD, Circles, without any help from the American contingent and without a barcode.
One of the most successful and hard‑working bands around is the Hamsters. Formed in the late '80s, they play an average of 240 gigs a year and logged up their 2,000th gig last November. To date they've released five CDs (one of which is a double) and two live videos. Apart from selling their product via gigs and mail order, they are distributed throughout Great Britain by Pinnacle and by a Dutch‑based company, Provogue, in the rest of Europe. The whole operation is managed entirely by the band themselves.
If you want to get your record into the shops just send it to radio DJs; it will be on sale in a secondhand record shop by the afternoon.
Snail Pace Slim, the band's spokesman, guitarist and singer, explains when and why they started putting out records. "The Hamsters had been together for a couple of years, doing shows across Europe and back home, before we put anything out on record. Apart from our own songs, we found that the Jimi Hendrix songs we played on stage always went down a storm with audiences. So on the 25th anniversary of his death we planned a Hendrix tribute tour, and decided to record an album of his songs to sell at gigs. Both the tour and the album were a great success. That was some time ago and, looking back on it, things could have been done a lot better — which they are now. We do a mailshot to 17,000 of our fans and give away almost as many press releases at gigs. When we're on the road we keep a record of what songs we played the last time we were in a town and change the set round for the next time we play there. We've had our own web site since September 1996, which has had 2000 enquiries from across the world so far.
"We usually start by pressing up between three and five thousand CDs, depending on what the distributor wants. We became members of the ANA in 1993 in order to get the record stocked in all major record retailers. The downside of having a barcode on your record is it means there's an ugly corner on the back of the sleeve.
"If you put out your own records, you make a lot more money per album than if it goes out through a record company. Record companies take ages to account for royalties and then you've got to hope that they're telling you the truth about how many copies they've sold and how much it cost for them to put it together. When you put your own record out, you know exactly how many it has sold and how much it has cost you to put it out."
On the other side of the musical fence, I spoke to Steve Melville and top techno DJ Clarkee about their operation Dance Paradox Limited. They put their first tune out in 1991 and are now fast approaching their 50th 12‑inch vinyl release. "The first mistake we made was that rather than get the labels stuck on at the factory we decided to save money and do it ourselves. Which was not a good idea. What you don't realise when you stick labels on yourself is you need to wet the label and stick it on exactly in the middle, on both sides. It took us four days and saved us about £10."
Apart from their secretary Carole, it's a two‑man operation: Clarkee takes care of the creative side of things and deals with the other artists on the label, while Steve deals with all the logistics. "We have four labels: Dance Paradox Records, which puts out the more commercial happy hardcore tunes; Area 51 Recordings, which deals with hard techno; S4 Records, for the more experimental techno; and 37 Gods, which is for the acid trance type of thing. We know pretty much what we're doing now and who we need to deal with."
I asked them how a band or producer goes about getting a 12‑inch single cut and played in the clubs. "Once you're happy with the track and you've got the money to put it out, you get it 'cut'. What happens is you take the DAT, or whatever audio medium you've mastered onto, to the cutting room. They will listen through to all the tracks from start to finish, getting levels, adjusting EQs and making notes before actually cutting it onto a 'lacquer'. For a 12‑inch, the lacquer will be a 14‑inch completely smooth disc. The music is then fed through a lathe, which literally digs the grooves into the lacquer. The cost has just gone up to about £300. At the same time as getting the lacquer cut, you can get a Dub Plate cut — this is a one‑off record which will be good for between 20 and 40 plays. The reason you get the cut is to check what's actually going onto the disc: EQs, levels and order of the tracks. If it's not the same when it comes back on the test pressing, you have to get the process done again, but that's down to the plant. You can also write a spiral scratch message on the run‑out of the vinyl, if you want."
The lacquer goes to be processed at the manufacturing plant, where a metal copy of the lacquer is made in (you hope) dust‑free conditions, from which the actual records will be pressed. After the lacquer has been processed you can get the whole batch of your records pressed up, if you want to. You're better off getting a few test pressings made. "Test pressings take a week or so to come back; you listen to make sure there's no glitches or other nasty things that can occur between the cut and the pressing plant. Technically, you should only have a couple of test pressings done: one for the label, one for the artist and maybe one for the distributor. There's no difference between the test pressing and a white label; they're identical to look at, blank discs with white inner labels. In practice, both test pressings and white labels are used as promotional stock and are not declared to the MCPS. Before a track is actually released, white labels are mailed out to all the major live event DJs who will, you hope, play it, and it will end up on a multi‑cassette mix tape.
"Different plants have different methods, but the average price for setting the machine up is £30 and then 50p per copy for the vinyl. So 20 test pressings will cost around £40, and these will be sent or given to all the relevant DJs working around the country."
What about getting them into shops for people to buy? "The distributor will order from us the amount of units that they think they'll sell. Then we have to second‑guess that order to decide what they really will sell. It's a certainty that if the distributor orders 1,000 copies of your track they will probably only sell around 700 units. A distributor must have stock on hand to make their money because if they receive an order and they don't have stock then that's a lost sale, whereas if they order 1000 and only sell 700, they only pay for 700 and you get 300 back. So distributors will always order more than they need. When we first started we made the mistake of pressing up more units than the distributor asked for, thinking we'd have a couple of hundred copies for when they sold out to tide them over while more were being pressed up. Nowadays we always give less than they ask for and if they want more, we'll make more.
"As for barcoding underground dance records, there's no point. Barcodes are only for chart‑return shops so they can scan records into the system. There are a couple of distributors dealing with small labels who are members of the ANA, and they will get stickers made of the numbered sequence which they dedicate to your product. But generally record outlets that insist on barcoded products don't want to sell hardcore dance vinyl. We don't sell through the major high‑street record shops; our type of records sells through independents and mail order.
"Self‑distribution isn't really financially viable, as you have to go to all the shops, who'll take, let's say, four units on a sale or return basis. Then you'll have to chase up every shop to get your money. If they've only sold two copies you've got to get the other two back, as well as the £4 you've grossed on the sale of two units. It's just not worth it — although that's not to say people don't do it."
The cost of finished product can vary considerably, from 48p per unit for a piece of vinyl, 65p with a label, in a disco bag as much as 80p, to around £1.20, if it's in a custom‑printed bag. These prices are subject to the amount of units pressed, how many colours are used, what the finish is and how many you have pressed up. If you have an initial pressing of a million copies, the unit cost will be drastically reduced, and good luck selling them!
The best way to get a distributor for your record is to send them a tape. The easiest way of sorting out the right distributor is to go into a specialist record shop and find a record in a similar style to your music. Then just ask the people in the shop, nicely, who distributed it, and what their phone number is.
Having a publisher isn't essential, but it can give you a lot of clout. Your first record could be the one that takes off, and if you don't have it protected you could lose a lot of money. Publishers also capitalise on the growing use of music in TV adverts, TV sport features such as 'goal of the month', computer games, and even fruit machines; in the dance music field they will also help you get money from the vast amount of multi‑pack mix tapes on sale.
These days, record companies have little idea about the development of exciting new musical talent (as if they ever did!), so putting out your own product can be the only way of getting your material to the public at large. You never know, one of them might just work in a massive media conglomerate and sign you up to be the next worldwide smash. It wouldn't be the first time! Now turn to the classified section, ring up a duplication company, and order the manufacture of your forthcoming earth‑shattering release.
If you want to be placed on the Hamster mailing list and receive quarterly newsletters with information about records, merchandise and forthcoming gigs write to:
If you are about to embark on putting out a record of your own, here's a handy check‑list, in order:
- Write, record and mix tracks.
- Master onto DAT or similar industry‑standard medium.
- Design artwork, including credits (if any).
- Apply for an MCPS licence.
- Register songs with PRS (if member).
- Send a copy of the recording to yourself in a registered envelope and keep it unopened and safe.
- Book any advertising.
- Cut lacquer (if vinyl) and await test pressings.
- Send artwork and cut to the manufacturers.
- Mail out white labels to DJs (if vinyl).
- Receive finished product.
- Mail it out to radio stations and press.
- Finished product is sent to distributors.
- Record is released.
Information on publishing companies is listed in various directories, and these are available in libraries and on sale in the Mail Order section of this magazine. Or you can contact Steve Melville at Dance Paradox Limited, on 01908 370078, who is actively building a roster of writers this year.
Solstice product is available at £11 including p&p from The Glasshouse, 7 Augustus Road, Stony Stratford, Milton Keynes MK11 1HJ.
The ANA run regular seminars (£117.50 to members, £141 to non‑members, which includes VAT, lunch and refreshments) where the complexities of the barcoding system are explained in full. Barcoding has been around for over 20 years and looks like being the stock control medium for the foreseeable future. They have a comprehensive information pack available.
Before releasing a record, you need to apply to the MCPS for a licence.