No Sympathy for the Demo

Presenting SF Weekly's definitive guide to making it in indie rock, without actually having to make it

I remember watching Oliver Stone's outlandish portrayal of the Doors, after having spent numerous hours practicing rock star poses in front of a full-length mirror, and convincing myself of how simple it would be to get a record deal. My band would play a few shows at a local rock venue, I thought, before an A&R guy would approach us to offer a contract on the spot. He would be all cigars and bulging money clips, and a quick snap of his fingers would produce a moonroofed stretch limousine and copies of a Guitar World with our faces on it.

It was a sad day when I eventually realized that not only would that magical A&R guy never appear, but also, should we ever find ourselves in the position to be signing a major-label contract, doing so would most likely mean the death of any sort of profitable career. That's a whole other debate in itself, one addressed by “The Problem With Music,” the infamous article cult-producer Steve Albini wrote a few years back (which you can find reprinted by numerous Web sites and zines). While there has been much debate over Albini's number-crunching, the piece does a great job illustrating why a major-label deal is the worst thing a band can get involved with.

It doesn't take a genius to realize the shift that has been happening within the music industry over the past half-decade. While the whiney majors have been spending their resources crusading against technology and suing the very people who buy their products, independents like Merge, Matador, Barsuk, and Saddle Creek have been growing exponentially into dominating juggernauts. Though the chances of your band getting signed to one of those indies are still slim, it's important to realize that their successful operations all started with a small budget and gallons of gumption, the only two things, I will wholeheartedly insist, necessary for self-releasing your own homemade records with stellar results. Notice, please, that I didn't use the word “demo.” In fact, I give you permission to strike that word from your vocabulary right now. Throw a drink in anyone's face who ever uses that word, too, because we no longer play by the ancient rules of the music industry. We take things into our own hands and are now in the business of making and releasing — not demos — but real, retail-ready records.

What you'll read below are tips for how to do just that.

Every Bedroom a Hit Factory: Writing, Recording, Mastering, and Packaging

So you've got some songs that you want to produce, engineer, arrange, and record yourself. Great. Some of the most amazing albums have been made on cheap-o cassette four-tracks. Alternatively, the availability of cost-effective computer software and hardware means decent fidelity recordings are a few mouse clicks away. But don't assume spending a few hundred dollars on a microphone and a sound card will translate into you making the next OK Computer. Audio engineering takes practice; developing a refined ear takes a lot of experience. A basic rule of thumb is this: If you don't know what compression is (and how to use it), you're probably not ready to make a record yourself.

While every songwriter is convinced that her songs are ready for a Grammy now, spending a few years honing your recording technique will make you a better arranger, too, which in turn will give you more insight into what exactly constitutes a good song. At the end of the day, what will ultimately matter is the songwriting, although yes, a subpar recording or arrangement will certainly detract. Think now of your current repertoire. Do all of the vocals inhabit the same melodic range? Do all of your songs have the same tempo? Does everybody in the band start playing from the first note of the song? Does everybody rock out through the entire song, or is there ample tension and release, lulls preceding the songs' climaxes? These are all things a producer keeps in mind, things you should keep in mind, too, if you're going to engineer and produce your own record.

Once you've got your songs recorded and mixed, you must be pretty ready to get your release out to everybody you know, right? Wrong. You still need to get it professionally mastered. This will cost money, yes. But a good mastering job will make your record sound full and balanced, and you won't be embarrassed when a radio station plays your song next to one produced with a major-label budget. Skipping the mastering process will mean people will have to turn their CD players all the way up when they listen to the record, much like that CD-R your college buddy's band made a while back.

Now, once you've got your record off to the mastering house, you've got a little bit of time to make sure the artwork is all in place. You've spent a lot of time writing songs and making your record, a record nobody will ever listen to if its packaging is unattractive. Here you might want to call in the help of some friends who go to design school, unless you're a whiz at Illustrator yourself. Just please don't print up photocopied inserts bearing your band's logo and the word “demo.”

As you'll see when it's time for marketing and distributing your release, key elements to incorporate into your packaging are a bar code, shrink-wrap, and a top spine. Most important, though, never assume that your record will achieve cult status on the merits of the music itself. You still need to get past journalists, radio station music directors, and retail buyers. Most of the time, a plain-looking release by a band these industry professionals have never heard of will never be listened to, so make sure your packaging is eye-catching. Contrary to popular belief, a picture of four dudes trying to look cool with leather and cigarettes is automatic grounds for you never making a cent in this business. If you're designing the cover yourself, go browse some record stores and see which releases grab your attention when you scan the aisles. Use those as reference points when you're brainstorming about what your record should look like. Check, double check, and triple check your spelling before you give your artwork files to your CD manufacturer. Do the same when you get the proofs back. [page]

Also, by now you should have filed the appropriate copyright forms and registered your work with a performing rights organization, like BMI or ASCAP, so you'll get paid royalties when your song is featured on The O.C.

Provide and Conquer: Getting Press and Airplay

The cardinal mistake many bands make is assuming that automatic success will come on the day they get their CDs back from the manufacturer. In fact, they book their “Record Release Show” for that very same night (which many embarrassed bands will admit is a bad idea, a fact they realized when a delay in production resulted in their CDs arriving two weeks after the show).

Set a release date five to six months after you finish your final mix. Allow two to three months for the record to be mastered and manufactured (a generous estimate, but better safe than sorry) and at least a three-month lead time prior to your release date for sending your record to journalists and music editors. Magazines like Rolling Stone know exactly what will be in their April issues as early as January, and professional magazines like to review a record before (or just as) it becomes available in stores.

Ideally, you should hire a music publicist to contact the press for you. While it's easy to assume that music journalists are keenly aware of the new, great records that are released every week, most of the time it's their relationship with a publicist that is responsible for a record being reviewed. Keep in mind that the typical music writer receives dozens, if not hundreds, of records in the mail every week and is far more likely to listen to something that comes from a publicist whose roster contains bands he likes and knows and with whom he has spent years building a relationship. While you may not be able to afford the rates many publicity firms charge, it can never hurt to contact someone who represents bands that are stylistically similar to yours; you never know if someone might be impressed enough with the music to cut you a deal.

Much like the music editor of a publication, who decides which bands get reviewed, the music director at a radio station decides which records get shelf space in the station's collection. If a music director decides to pass on your record, which he'll do more often than not, it won't be available for his disc jockeys to play, unless that jockey brings her own copy. Music directors, too, have relationships with promotion companies, whose tastes they trust, based, sometimes, on years of experience with a promoter. If you're making indie rock, you'll be concerned mostly with getting airplay on college radio stations, at the beginning of your career at least.

What's in Store: Distribution and Retail

All of your efforts thus far will have been in vain if people can't find an outlet to buy your record. This is where distribution comes into play. Selling the album via your band's Web site and at shows is crucial, and there are many online venues tailored to selling music by “unsigned artists” (CD Baby and Amazon's Advantage program are good places to start), but most sales are still made at traditional record stores. Unfortunately, it's not as easy as walking into your local Tower and selling the manager a few cartons of your release.

The process of getting those records into stores starts with a one-sheet, which is almost like a résumé for the retail side of the music industry. Many distributors' Web sites will have examples of thorough one-sheets, but the basics will include a bar code (the actual black rectangles, not just the numbers), a picture of the cover of the record, the track listing, the catalog number (you will have decided on this when you were designing the artwork, but it will often be a combination of letters and numbers that increase sequentially with each of your label's releases), a short biography, contact information, the suggested retail price (plan on pocketing half of this figure for each record sold), your label's logo, Soundscan numbers (the Nielsen ratings for record sales) for previous releases, and, most important, your best attempt to convince someone that your record is going to sell. The most common way to do this is by noting what sort of marketing plan will be implemented and the band plans for touring. Your one-sheet, along with a promotional copy of the record, will be how you persuade distributors to work with you. They, in turn, will use that one-sheet to persuade stores to stock your record.

Distribution can be a very discouraging process. In the independent realm, all retail transactions work on consignment, meaning that having your record in stores doesn't necessarily translate into you getting paid. When a store pays your distributor for a shipment of records, that distributor will normally pay you several months later, but will often withhold a large percentage for up to a year, in case the store returns unsold product. While some distributors have reputations for their honest business practices, many are notorious for charging labels undeserved fees and withholding payment for longer than they should. Do as much research as you can stand on potential distributors. Also, keep in mind that many of them will work with you nonexclusively. Since different companies service different types of stores, it is never a bad thing to have as many sources distributing your record as possible.

Much like print and radio, there are various companies that specialize in retail marketing, which essentially consists of the process of contacting record store buyers to let them know that your record exists and which distributors they can get the record from, as well as when the band will be touring through the area. As much of a cliché as the old “spend money to make money” idea is, it is very much the truth when it comes to selling records. Advertisements in music magazines and record stores all contribute to better sales, and yes, every square inch of a record store is usually available for a price. Listening stations, wall adornments, and the opportunity for your record to be featured in the “What's Hot and New” section (the one you'll often see gleaming brightly at consumers at the end of the aisle) are all up for grabs. [page]

On the Road Again and Again: Booking and Touring

By this point, after having spent months making, marketing, and trying to distribute your record, you, like every other indie artist, are broke, discouraged, and exhausted. That's OK, because now it's time to quit your day job and embark, for the better part of two years, on extensive tours in vans that will surely break down. You'll sleep on dirty floors and in stained motel rooms. You'll spend 12 hours driving to a venue where you'll play for the bartender and sound man and maybe some guy who will buy a $1 button from you because he feels you got the wrong first impression of his small Midwestern town. This will, of course, be after he spends an hour telling you that no one can relate to your lyrics and that you should maybe try to sound a little bit more like Godsmack. Or Linkin Bizkit.

But the willingness to suck it up and bring your music to the people is what separates those balding guys who tell their daughters' boyfriends they were in a band once from, well, Conor Oberst or Ben Gibbard. Touring will make all the difference when all those people are trying to decide whether or not to review, play, or sell your record. The goal should be to acquire a good booking agent, who will secure you an opening slot with a bigger band, but the reality of the situation is that even many great bands on decent record labels aren't guaranteed a good agent. And those that do get agents are often neglected because they aren't the priority (read: moneymakers) on that agent's roster. Still, keep in mind that every band loses money on its first few tours, and that playing well in front of the four people who do show up to see you will mean they'll each bring two friends the next time you come through town, an exponential effect that will eventually turn into a profitable career. If you stick with it.

If you're booking your own tour, ignore everything you've read and don't send to the local papers a large 8 1/2 by 11 folder containing multiple press photos and a list of every Battle of the Bands competition you've been a runner-up in. When you do make it to the club, be nice to the staff, don't drink the headliner's backstage beer, and don't overstay your welcome when someone offers you a place to sleep.

Money Money Money

As you've probably gathered by now, releasing your own record is hardly a simple or inexpensive process. There are, however, a million ways to get creative when you don't have a lot of money. Everything mentioned here reflects the process a typical independent label would go through, but there is hardly any shame in getting on the phone and doing your own publicity and marketing. Realize, too, that it takes time and often several records before a label or band starts making money, so it's probably not a great idea to amass enormous credit card debt before you see how many copies of a release you can actually sell.

Yes, a shrewd business sense is certainly helpful, but never forget that all the time and money in the world ultimately won't compensate for poorly written songs or an unrehearsed live show. Try to remember that, until you're U2, you have nothing to be cocky about. Humility, honesty, and kindness will get you further than hounding people about helping you out. That said, congratulations, young sloppy-haired indie kid, you now know exactly what you have to do to conjure up those droves of screaming fans.

In 2002, Abigail Clouseau started the label Euphobia to release records as Say Hi to Your Mom. And she doesn't even live in a low-rent town like Athens, Ga.

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