It’s a noble enterprise, putting out a record. That’s what I keep telling myself anyway. I’ve done it a dozen times now with a friend of mine (we’re still friends, right?). We run a fledgling little label called Dirty Bingo Records and all our releases have been a real labour of love… passionate, unrequited love.
Through Loud And Quiet I’ve been lucky enough to meet and interview an inspiring line-up of label greats, some quoted in this piece, which has fuelled my desire to work with more bands and frankly make a go of it in this increasingly daft industry. So you’d think after all this I’d be well positioned to impart some wisdom on the process, but I’m not. Truth is every release is wildly different; you’ve got to stay on your toes and keep smiling. When all’s said and done you got into this for the music, didn’t you? So wear your heart on your sleeve, trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to fall flat on your face – the music will pick you back up again. Just remember, Simon Cowell went bankrupt at the age of 32 AFTER he’d signed The Power Rangers.
A is for Artwork
In 1983, Tony Wilson got so obsessed with the visual side of releasing records the sleeve of ‘Blue Monday’ practically bankrupted Factory Records, as they lost money on every copy sold. DON’T do that, but no, it’s not all about the music. People can love records as much for the picture on the front as the songs scratched into them. Inserts, inners, spines, holes, labels – the bits specific to physical music releases are why people haven’t just downloaded your music for free. Nine times out of ten, the bassist (and it’s always the bassist) will excel in Photoshop. That’s why they’re in the band.
B is for Budget
Chris Lombardi of Matador Records once told me: “It’s when you have a hit, that’s when you have to really start spending.” Real responsibility, like pay-rolling staff, for instance, is something like a hundred years off. For the time being, learn how to say no because it’s a skill you’re going to need. Bands aren’t savages and they’re not silly either – most artists are just as broke as you are and appreciate what you’re trying to do for them. So you can’t afford that high concept video with a cameo from Emma Watson – Daniel Radcliffe will work for Libertines swaps, and it’s about time you explored the time-lapse function on your phone.
C is for Calendar
Time is your most valuable asset. Releasing singles can take at least 3 months; albums 6 to 8 if you’re lucky. Don’t be a dick and let the artist dictate the timeline – you’re not going to be able to get this done in time for the Glastonbury select committee next Tuesday. Remember they’re the artist and you’re the fierce dictator. When you’re emailing the lead singer at 3am saying you need that bio for the press release, forget about what they think of you, put the kettle on, and then write to the drummer as well. That’s why they’re in the band.
D is for Distribution
If you’re in this for the long haul, then a decent distribution partner is essential. There are a few great indies out there made for people like you, there to alleviate you of stock so you can actually get into your room at night without tripping over 479 unsold records (and counting) by your bed. When you start out though, obviously, do everything yourself. There is no substitute to calling, mailing and walking up to the counter in record stores across the UK. A lot of people who sell records like people who release records, and you’ll be amazed how welcoming and co-operative some stores can be, right up until you go back to collect your money from them.
E is for Expectation
Lower them but don’t lower them. Pressing your music to vinyl isn’t a magic trick that catapults your artist to fame and fortune. Just because your track got posted on a big American blog that starts with the letter P it doesn’t mean you will be writing the next Bond theme. Tell yourself that, but tell the band more.
F is for Focus
I’ll defer to Johnny Brocklehurst at Because Music for the letter F, a wiser man than I, who’s worked many a campaign from start to finish, with Metronomy, Justice and Conan Mockasin. “Don’t get caught up in what I call the bells & whistles of a project,” he says. “Yes, it’s great to have crazy ideas on how you’re going to announce the record, or getting a band to perform in a cave, but you should always come back to serving the art, yourself and focusing on what matters. That’s what lasts. Plus, let’s be honest – Neil Young could have potentially written another amazing album if he didn’t focus on building a weird MP3 player that looked like a Toblerone bar.”
G is for Gigs
The nicest man in music is Bella Union owner Simon Raymonde. He attends every show he can for his artists and not just for nice points. He makes these gigs because the band like to feel supported, but there’s even more to it than that. Most young bands that have any kind of stage presence whatsoever sell a majority of their records immediately after they’ve played. Get down there with a box of 45s and clap between the band’s songs. An up side to this is that you get to see the band play, too, and you do like the band, right? That’s key.
H is for Hype
There you go, in that smug bubble of hype, counting your Soundcloud plays as Huw Stephens spins the band you’re putting out at 3am. STOP! Here’s a bad analogy: your record is like a vote for Labour at the last election. Plenty of sales are projected through blog frothing, late night radio plays and the fact that you’ve exclusively surrounded yourself with people who think exactly the same as you, but come release day, what’s this? Who the fuck bought Years & Years (voted Conservative)!? What you need is a Corbyn of a record, something leftfield but authentic… sorry this analogy has now eaten itself. [Vote Corbyn].
I is for Innovation
I don’t want to hear about your unique ticketing options or your glow in the dark stickers. And for God’s sake, stop saying “limited edition” – we know you’re pressing a handful because that’s all you can afford, AND THAT IS FINE. Last year, Alan McGee told me not to force the issue. “You will end up like Bono,” he said. “I don’t know what Bono was trying to achieve, but to have 478 million people fucking resenting getting that piece of shite on their phone…” You don’t want to end up like Bono.
J is for Joke (no joke)
Why not try this useful mantra before you go to sleep at night – “this is my one true chance at escape from a normal career.” Or, alternatively, slow down and don’t take things too seriously. I’m mean, have you ever heard of anyone making a living out of this!?
K is for Knowledge
What are you, a taxi driver? Enthusiasm for the music is all you need – that and a healthy dose of realism. Support can be found wherever you look, from the stores that stock your record to the plant that presses it. Great advice is everywhere so don’t be afraid to ask, but don’t underestimate the advantages of naivety either. Doing it yourself is all about making it up as you go along – you’ll only set your sale price at £1.50 the once. Jeanette Lee – co-head of Rough Trade Records – put it best when she said: “We just find music that we totally love and we don’t do any market research to see if people are going to buy into it, what’s the point!”
L is for Launch Party
Let’s get fucked. Orrrr, alternatively, man that merch stall, sort out the door, manage the support bands and make the night a success. Orrrr, let’s get fucked.
M is for MP3s
Huh? We’re releasing records, aren’t we? Needle to vinyl? iTunes is the enemy! Well, yes, but while the digital age has rather complicated matters for people revelling in outdated formats like records, it’s an idea to embrace your opponent. Most people buying what you’re selling will appreciate MP3s of your songs, too – to make their commute less cumbersome – and others might only want to have digital files of this excellent new music. Instead of denying them that, use their iTunes cash to fund your next Daniel Radcliffe video. As PIAS label boss Peter Thompson puts it: “It must have been so boring, the music business in the ’80s, when all you ever did was put records out one after the other, whereas now its just this giant picture. How did they find time to take all those drinks and drugs?” There is actually an answer to that – see C.
N is for Networking
I’m afraid it is inevitable; you will have to talk to strangers. Actual face-to-face chats, too, like they used to do in the ’90s. You might even enjoy it, the wind in your hair, the chatter of the bar, the thrill of the chase (remember, it’s not a date), the buying of the drinks, the buying of the drinks, the buying of the drinks, the spiral into debt, the bank balance check on the night bus home, the growing burden of guilt. Network!
O is for Organise
Spreadsheets are cool. Colour coded ones are EVEN COOLER.
P is for Press Release
It’s time you told the press about your record. They’ll probably dismiss it without a care of how much bloody hard work it’s been, but at least give them the opportunity to lose their shit over it in a whirlwind of journo jabber. As someone who also writes about music and receives unsolicited CDRs, do yourself a favour and keep the accompanying press release you send out short and, most importantly, gimmick-free. Any writer you can bribe with a Sherbet Dib-Dab is not someone you want onside. The same goes for a balloon. And for fuck’s sake, no one likes glitter.
Q is for Questions, or lack thereof
You’re probably best not over thinking all of this. “I realised at the beginning I was working on gut instinct all the time and that’s what works,” said Mute Records founder Daniel Miller in Loud And Quiet 57 last March. “I didn’t know anything – nothing at all – and I didn’t know how to do things; I just knew what I thought was right and so it’s quite important to keep that naivety or innocence as much as possible.” In other words, repeat K.
R is for Radio Plugging
It turns out people still listen to the radio – who knew? Getting your record played on the wireless is something of a hidden cost, but while it can be expensive, it’s potentially lucrative, too. Radio PR is the last taboo in releasing a DIY record – or at least it was until 6Music started playing singles from micro labels like yours. The undeniable fact is that it’s a real thrill to unexpectedly hear your release played by a stranger to their listening public, and it can be a catalyst for success, too. Remember what happened when ‘wonky pop’s’ new hope Esser didn’t get enough radio airtime back in 2009? Of course you don’t. Or who Esser is. And that’s the point.
S is for Sales
This your first record? Yeah, you’re going to lose some money. It’s a slow burn industry where boring stuff like longevity and market-build reap rewards. Back to Pete Thompson, who says: “Well, you lose money on new artists until you get to the second or third albums. As long as you work with them long enough, you will probably see the dividends further ahead and that’s proving more and more to be the case. There were times when you worked with an artist and they sold 100,000 copies and you wondered how you did it – well, now it feels like it’s a bloody nightmare to get the thing moving. You have to understand the artist and what they are doing and understand their long-term vision and stick with it.” S is also for soup, which is what you’ll be eating for dinner from now on.
T is for Talent
Picking the perfect artist for your label can be laborious, so when you find the magic fit it can be hard to see them bugger off. Don’t panic though. Jonathan Poneman, the guy who signed Nirvana to Sub Pop and saw them leave to make a trillion dollars for David Geffen, says: “Talent comes and talent moves on, and if you love what you do and want to have a career in it you can’t be too married to one artist for reasons of sustaining your business – there are always going to be more artists, y’know.”
U is for Upcoming Release
If you want your label to release more than two records a year (like mine) then you really need to be sorting out the upcoming release halfway through the one you’re doing RIGHT NOW. So time to put on that thick skinned coat again and get fishing for more people to work with. Disclaimer: we’ll have 4 records out next year, I promise.
V is for Volume
There are four people in the band you’re releasing; they’ve got 10 close friends each; 5 can be bothered to buy the music they’ve been boring them with for years. You’re not in a band, so, naturally you only have 6 close friends; 3 close enough to humour you. Let’s say that your parents are still around and are relatively unashamed of what you’ve become. Plus 10, say, for generous nearly friends and your best mate’s new partner still eager to make a good impression. That’s a total of 34 guaranteed copies sold. Suddenly, a run of 250 doesn’t seem too small. In fact, how the hell are you going to shift all these?!
W is for Work
We’re 23 letters in, so you’ve probably worked this out – releasing a record is HARD WORK.
X is for Xerox
They don’t call it DIY for nothing, you know – at some point you’re going to need to get your hands dirty… with glue most likely. Even if you’re averse to getting down with the photocopier there WILL be nights a la Dischord Records’ ‘folding parties’ where you’re on your hands and knees counting or cutting something, and otherwise debating who to thank on the insert sleeve. This is what it’s all about, so when you’re packing up that box with freshly packaged records, breathe in the glue (an added bonus) and relish the moment that you’ve finally done something resembling manual labour.
Y is for YouTube
Now, you don’t have to rustle up a music video, it isn’t the law. For a new band though, it’s a liberating step on the road to releasing their music for the first time. Last month I interviewed London band The Big Moon who told me that their video for debut single ‘Sucker’ “kind of felt legitimate and gave the record a backbone; the release became a reality.” That’s nice, but what’s in it for you? Put simply, all those people listening to the radio – there’s even more of them wasting their lives on YouTube.
Z is for Zeitgeist
Don’t try too hard to be in the moment. Just try.