Unsigned and in a Bind

July 16, 2008

Dear Dude,

My band just finished recording a full-length record and since it’s our first and we are unsigned, we have printed 300 copies of it independently. We have booked a big CD release show with bigger signed bands in a large local venue. We have enough CDs printed to last us a while, but we’re stuck with the hassle of having to get everything pressed and packaged at our expense. We’re attracted to the additional organization, promotion and “backbone” that a label can offer us, but the few deals we’ve been offered don’t seem proportionate to the amount of work/money we put into this record. What do you think the best approach to formally releasing a record in this day in age? Do you think it’s worth singing with an indie label that’ll “loan” us the CD printing, but take a lot of our profit and get us slightly better tour packages? Or do you think it’s better to keep it DIY until we find the “perfect” deal, without the hype factor and resources that a label has to offer?

Thanks!

Unsigned and in a Bind

Dear Unsigned and in a Bind,

This is a very interesting and complex question. In an effort to answer this in some kind of reasonably short fashion let me just preface what I am about to write by saying there is no one correct way to release a record (regardless of the era or state of the music industry). Different bands choose different paths and, just for the record, this Dude does not judge. That being said to DIY or not to DIY has always been a burning question. In 2008 a lot of the rules have changed and doing a record on your own can be both profitable and easily obtainable. So lets dig in!

I’m afraid there are really two questions: one – what do I think the best approach to formally releasing a record in this day in age is, and two – what do I think you should do in your current situation. Since the latter is more important, I’ll just get the first question out of the way. I believe that in the 2008 music industry climate current artists can have success releasing their own material or playing the music industry game. It’s almost an open market, I have seen bands have success both ways and both have their advantages. With the exception of Fugazi, I have yet to see a band self release material and sell more then their contemporaries who are signed to labels (sure bands like Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead are self releasing records but these bands have already reaped the benefits of the label game). At the same time I can tell you for a fact that I would have made more money in the long run if I had not signed to a record label and rather self released all the material. So, in a sense you have to pay to play the game. Both have their distinct advantages but this brings me to my answer and more importantly my advice for you. My suggestion isn’t to pick a side but rather play both games. I think that the best way to grow a band in 2008 is to follow both routs and in turn use the strengths of both systems.

Look, you already have your record recorded, laid out, and pressed. You even already have a CD release show set up. At this point a record label can’t do much for you except promote the release. Honestly you could hire an outside promotions company to do the same thing and probably make more money. The real thing you don’t have that a record label can offer is distribution. You are not going to be able to get those CD’s in “real” stores and honestly it really shouldn’t matter that much at this point. To me the CD is a dead medium. You got to start thinking MP3’s if you want to move into the future and get your record up on the internet! Release it on iTunes, Music Exchange, or shit, even build a way to buy it right of your myspace page! You have to make that record available to as many people as possible, and with no record label involved you have to cover all the basses yourself. As a DIY artist the MP3 digital version of your record is way more cost effective. Think about it, no more pressing CDs, its all virtual and that means a bigger profit margin for your band.

I think your best bet is to continue playing shows and selling your self produced record while also pimping the music out over the web . The worst thing you could do right now is sign to a record label out of desperation. This has been the downfall of many a band. I say take your time, keep playing shows, sell your own product, and most importantly create that buzz! Because it’s that buzz that is going to attract a record label who will offer you a deal to do it right.

Don’t be afraid to do things for yourself in the beginning, you may just find the skills you learn are going to help make your band bigger but also keep you from getting taken advantage of later. There are many advantages to being a signed band and working within that world. You mentioned touring that is probably the one place that being signed is the most helpful. Not to mention the built in promotion that comes with record labels advertising your band along side of other established bands. But it’s by building your band, its fan base, and its integrity that you will be able to survive and take advantage of the things you will be exposed to and offered when you start playing the “signed band” game. The DIY skeleton you build is going to work as a base for everything forward and your going to need it to survive life under the iron fist of a record label.

The Dude

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Demo Shop’n

May 9, 2008

Dear Dude,

My band is currently circulating a four-song demo, but I haven’t sent it out to any record labels yet because it sounds like what it is: a demo recorded for a few hundred bucks. We want to show labels that we have our shit together as a group, and I think having awesome gear and a really nice-sounding demo would help prove that. We’re saving up money to buy better gear and make a crisper recording, but how much does production quality matter when shipping out demos? What do we need to show labels in order to prove that we do, in fact, have our shit together and are ready to make this band our careers?

Thanks,

Demo Shop’n

Dear Demo Shop’n,

Getting a band signed has always been, well, interesting to say the least. I have seen bands get signed over anything from someone leaving a demo in a bathroom to someone at a label thinking a band was a totally different band at first. The jist is that sometimes it just seems like dumb luck, and of course it always feels like other bands have more money to invest then you do, better connections, better hair cuts, etc. You get the idea; in band life the grass is always greener. So how much does production quality matter? What do record labels look for? To answer those questions I went straight to the top to get some feedback.

First, I turned to the person I’ve known the longest who works at a record label. Wouldn’t you know it just happened to be the founder and owner of Victory records, Tony Brummel? Tony took some time out of his day to give me some feedback to pass on to you.

I asked Tony how much demo production matters to him when he’s thinking about signing a band. Tony replied, “It depends on the band but, if someone has the gift they can hear magic from a boom box recording. More importantly seeing the band is the best “DEMO.” Seeing is believing. Trust me you can even ask the dude.” Tony is of course referring to the signing of my metal band, Darkest Hour. It wasn’t a demo or even a CD that really got us signed. It was our live show for Tony and the Victory staff that sold us.

On whether production value is more important than songwriting Tony answers, “Songwriting, its all about the band. I always try to make the decision after seeing a band. With Protools and today’s current recording technology I have heard a lot of great demos and then ended up seeing a very mediocre band.” No doubt that Tony is right on that point. Computers have given artists many tools and at the same time given those same artists many crutches.

I also reached out to another friend of mine, Josh Grabelle, founder and owner of Trustkill Records. Josh was kind enough to write us some thoughts on what he looks for when signing bands:

“The bottom line is this is all about the music, it has never been about how GOOD it sounds recorded, after all, a band should be reaching more people with their live show than they reach with their recorded music. When I got into punk and hardcore in the late 80s, the records I loved back then sounded like TOTAL SHIT. I didn’t care at all though, I loved it. Again, it’s about the music and the feeling you get, not the production or how many hours you spend on pro-tools with auto tune. In the early days of Trustkill I would sign bands that didn’t even HAVE demos, let alone shitty sounding demos… it was about the music. Now, 10 years later, any band can record a demo, the shit is so easy my Grandma could do it with Garageband.”

Keep in mind you still need to be competitive… Now a days you can’t just send in that boom box recording, it has to at least sound like the band does live. Josh expanded on this point by saying;

“To say that the QUALITY doesn’t matter isn’t entirely true. If I open up 50 demos in one day and one of them sonicaly kicks the shit out of everything else, what does that tell me? Either these are a bunch of rich kids, OR, more likely, these kids take their ART and their BAND very seriously. THIS is what we are looking for, a band made up of kids who are willing to throw it ALL away for their band, give up their life, their jobs, their girlfriends, to get quality gear and truly get a grasp on what it takes to record music in the proper way. So, do you NEED to have a PERFECT sounding demo to send to a label? No. But if you want to compete against the other 10 bands in your high school, or the other 10,000 bands in the country, you should put in the extra work.”

There it is that ugly word right at the end: work. It’s almost as ugly as ‘practice’ but the fact that it shows up a lot in this column, has to mean something right? Anyway, it’s clear that record labels are looking for a band that can play a good live show, that spends it’s time working on songs and music, rather then buying amps and looking on eBay for guitars. They are looking for dedicated, hardworking, musicians who are willing to risk everything. Why? Because a dedicated musician should be driven enough to go for it, no matter what the odds. My advice is read this letter and listen to that demo again. Do you feel like it’s a good representation of your band? Are the songs good? Are you confident your band can hold its own against other bands out there. If so, start shopping that bad boy and playing some shows. If you read this letter and change your mind about that demo then make sure your band is ready to slug it out. Practice and jam as much as possible till you find the sound that says you. Practice (MORE!) until you can play those songs with your eyes closed (this is so you don’t waste anytime when it comes to laying down those tracks). Then find a studio (but preferably someone who has recorded local bands, or bands for cheap. You don’t need to spend a million bucks just make it sound like a good representation of your band live). Take that demo and those songs on the road and share them with the world. Whether or not you sign that million dollar deal you have to always remember the reason your writing all theses songs and going through all the bullshit is to be able to share music with people. If your intentions are true and the music does speak to people, well then don’t worry, there will be plenty of record labels that will want to sign your band.

The Dude