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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
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Page 2 of 3

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.

About The Author

Abigail Clouseau

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