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No Sympathy for the Demo 

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

Wednesday, Mar 16 2005
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.

About The Author

Abigail Clouseau


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