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Releasing music

How to plan an album release — on a post it note

Post it notes - image accompanying an article about planning an album release

If we’re honest about it, band members and artists aren’t always the most organised people around. This is a problem, because (1) today’s music industry places a huge emphasis on musicians organising about 90% of all their admin themselves; and (2) releasing music in a way that will ensure anybody listens to it is a surprisingly complex task, with loads of pre-planning and multiple stakeholders involved.

So a bit of organisation goes a long way, and in this post I thought I’d share a low-tech but very effective way to plan an album release — and one which, incidentally, involves a lot of post-it notes.

For this exercise you will need:

  • Several packs of post-it notes

  • 1 roll of brown paper

  • 1 marker pen

  • 1 laptop

  • Everybody involved in your album release

Step 1: Get everyone together

Easier said than done, but try to get the band, your designers, manager, live agent, distributors, PR people, radio pluggers, CD manufacturer and the guy who’s making the tea all in the same room at the same time. (If you can’t achieve this monumental feat of diarisation then get as many of your team as possible in there). These are your project ‘stakeholders’, and you need their help to create a strong project plan.

Step 2: Create a timeline

Unfurl your roll of brown paper and pin it up on the wall. Then, mark out the first Monday of every week for about 4 months on the roll of brown paper, so that you have a timeline which stretches out for about 16-20 weeks in front of all your collaborators. If you are really organised, you might want to prepare this in advance of your meeting.

Your timeline should look something like this (but containing more weeks and columns):

bp1-example.jpg

Step 3: Identify tasks

Write ‘ALBUM RELEASE’ in big letters on a post-it note and place it on the timeline on the date that you think the album should come out.

Then, give a bunch of post-it notes to all the stakeholders in the room. Ask them to work backwards from this date and write all the tasks relevant to their work on individual post-it notes.

For example, a PR task would be to mail copies of your CD to long lead magazines; a designer’s task would be to produce the album cover and so on. Make sure each post-it note lists not only the task but the person responsible for completing it.

Step 4: Add tasks to the timeline

When everybody has identified their tasks, ask each stakeholder to approach the timeline with their post-it notes and place them on the timeline at an appropriate point in time before the release. Ask contributors to be realistic and logical about their deadlines.

At this point, you should have a roll of brown paper that looks somewhat like the below example (but containing a LOT more tasks):

bp-example2.jpg

Step 5: Jiggle the timeline

As more and more tasks get added, you’ll find that some of the deadlines on your roll of brown paper are quite frankly ridiculous: you’ll probably find that the radio plugger has said he’s going to send the album to radio after the record has come out, or that the artwork won’t be ready until after the CD is printed.

At this point, it is time to move all the post-its around so that all the task deadlines make sense. You may even find that your release date was far too early / ambitious, and needs to be pushed back to accommodate everybody’s lead times.

Ideally, your manager or somebody very organised should arbitrate this process so that it’s not a complete free-for-all.

Step 6: capture the timeline into a spreadsheet

Once all the task timings have been agreed upon, it’s time to capture the timeline onto your laptop.

Each task should be assigned an ‘owner’ (i.e., radio plugger, press officer, live agent etc.) on a spreadsheet. This spreadsheet should contain the following columns:

  • Task

  • Owner

  • Deadline

  • Completed? (Yes/No)

It’s a good idea to use a cloud-based spreadsheet if possible for this — i.e., using G Suite or Office 365, because that way, all your stakeholders can access a ‘live’ version of the document which, as your album release project progresses, shows in real time what’s been done and who needs to be chased to do something.

Step 7: implement the plan

Now you have your plan all laid out neatly in a spreadsheet, it’s time to implement it.

Again, it’s helpful if you have a manager (or project planning enthusiast) to do this, but regardless of who ends up ‘owning’ the spreadsheet, you need to ensure that the spreadsheet is constantly referred to and updated in the run up to the release and that everybody involved in the project is regularly reminded to ensure they meet their deadlines.

What if people can’t make the meeting?

If there are stakeholders who can’t make the brown paper meeting, then just try to capture as many tasks as possible with the people who can attend, and liaise with other stakeholders immediately after the meeting to get their tasks entered onto the timeline too.

I know, it isn’t rock and roll…

All this seems like a very dry, not-at-all-rock-and-roll process. But at the end of it you should have a much clearer idea of the work that putting out an album really entails, and you will have given your record the best chance of being successfully released (and heard).

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A guide to fan funding a music project

When you don't want to use one of these, you could always try a bit of fan funding...

When you don't want to use one of these, you could always try a bit of fan funding...

In a music industry where it's a huge struggle to recoup the cost of making a record via streaming royalties, fan funding is taking on an ever-greater importance. In this post, I'm going to look at how to go about it effectively.

But first: what is ‘fan funding’?

Well, it basically boils down to using sites like Pledgemusic and Kickstarter to encourage fans to pledge an amount towards the cost of making your album (or anything else really).

Typically, you set a fundraising target and ask everybody to help you meet it by pledging to give a few bob (or lots of bobs) in exchange for ‘rewards’.

The greater the amount contributed, the greater the reward gained. So, for example, your humble fan pledges £5 and gets a digital download of the album; your Lord Ashcroft-type fan pledges £500 and gets a copy made of gold, a credit on the liner notes as executive producer of the album and the opportunity to sleep with the band and dictate musical direction.

The whole thing is sort of like buying things in reverse: you pay now, get later. This is technically quite a bum deal, but I suppose that fans are not only getting a record (eventually) but a feelgood factor too; that warm glow which only arrives when you support a starving artist.

There’s usually a catch though: if you don’t meet your fundraising target by an appointed deadline, you don’t get any money; this being the case it’s a good idea to either have a rich uncle on standby to make up the shortfall, or have a few quid set aside yourself that you can donate anonymously and save face when not enough of your mates cough up.

In order to avoid the latter scenario, here are a few pointers on fan-funding to help you make a success of it:

1. Set your fundraising target very carefully

If you set your fundraising target too high, you might not get enough contributors to meet it - and this generally means zilch for you. 

So before you start trying to finance a record using the generosity of your fans/mates, work out the number of REAL pledges you’re likely to get, and the average amount of each pledge - and base your fundraising target on that. Be conservative. 

2. Be prepared to plug a cash gap

If you ignore the above tip, you may fall several hundred or even thousands of pounds short of your target. In which case, you’ll need to take a financial hit if you want to receive any dosh.

So, when setting your target, work out what you can really afford to contribute yourself, and be ready to spend it. 

3. Know your market

When offering ‘rewards’ in exchange for pledges, remember the market you are operating in: a music industry where content from big names – i.e., not you, sorry! – is now dirt cheap, or free.

So don’t charge £15 for an ‘exclusive digital download’ when Madonna’s latest album can be bought on iTunes for a fiver or streamed on Spotify for free.

4. Offer decent rewards

Make sure that the rewards you are offering are not all just opportunities for you to be self-indulgent.

Although your signature on a CD might appeal to a genuine fan, it’s not going to impress your friends and family much; and no, they aren’t going to be that bothered by you offering to sing them a cover of their choice in their house for £600 either.

So consider offering rewards that might seriously appeal to your ‘friend-base’ as well as your fanbase.

Think outside the musical box: for example, consider bundling cool items of clothing with your CD that make use subtle use of your artwork (without being too promotional).

In essence, don’t make all the rewards too much about you; accompany your CD with items that are genuinely appealing in their own right (you might like to read our suggestions on physical items that your music fans might enjoy for some ideas).

5. Get the intervals between reward prices right

A very obvious point this, but people have different levels of disposable income.

However, I’ve seen musicians overlook this when setting their rewards pricing structure, for example by offering rewards that jump straight from £5 for a digital download to £35 for a signed CD copy of the album.

Since the fan-funding model in reality often relies heavily on people you know giving you cash, an approach like this means you are effectively forcing many friends and family members to choose between appearing a tad mean (by plumping for the £5 option), or generous but at a price they can’t afford (£35 – a lot of money for an independently released album, even if it comes with your name scrawled all over it).

The more sensible – and fair – thing to do is to also offer a sliding scale of rewards that are priced at sensible / even intervals: for example, a digital download for £5, a CD for £10, a signed CD for £15, a vinyl copy for £20, a signed CD and vinyl copy for £25 and so on.

6. Remember that you are NOT a charity

When using the fan-funding model, it’s easy to view yourself as a very worthy cause...and forget that you’re not actually raising money for charity. You’re raising money for yourself.

People do all manner of wonderful things in exchange for cash – climb mountains, trek across India, run marathons, eat vast quantities of mackerel and so on – but the key difference is these things are generally quite challenging and all the money raised is donated to improve people’s lives.

So when asking people to contribute, tone down the rhetoric and don’t come across like you are the musical equivalent of Mother Teresa and that those who are giving you dosh are somehow helping to save the planet.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in your own creative projects, but it’s extremely important to show that you understand, when asking people for money towards your project (or indeed when flogging them CDs in a more conventional way) that this is actually quite a big ask.

7. Consider whether you really want to ask your friends for donations at all

If you are in the lucky position whereby you have a genuine fanbase – a mailing list, for example, comprising several hundred loyal fans who love you and want to buy your music – think long and hard about whether you want to bother your friends for pledges at all.

It may be that you have more than enough genuine fans to fund your project, and although your friends may be a source of additional cash, there may ultimately be more disadvantages to badgering them for money than not.

Firstly, you may irritate people you care about and, from a more selfish perspective, there are musical contexts when you might REALLY need to enlist your mates' help (for example, they may be more useful as bums on seats at an important showcase gig or album launch).

A balanced approach is to ask your fans to contribute first, and, if it transpires that you're not meeting your target, to ask friends to step in and help at that point.

8. Limit your communications

Don’t post demands for money on Facebook every five minutes (tempting and easy as it is to do so), or email people once a day asking for cash so you can record your album at Abbey Road. Contact people when it counts.

9. Thank people personally

Finally, when somebody donates to your project, don’t take them for granted by relying on round robins or automated thank-you emails from your chosen funding website.

If at all possible, send those who pledge money an individual email to thank them, or better still, drop them a text or a call saying how much you appreciate it. Not only is this a nice thing to do, but it will make people feel far more inclined to support you in future. 

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The key things you MUST do when releasing an album independently

Guitar (image accompanying an article about the key things you must do when releasing an album independently)

Strange things do happen. Not very often. But sometimes they do – and on those rare occasions, when weird stuff with ley lines is going on and there’s a full moon up and a bunch of hippies are doing some sort of summer solstice dance around Stonehenge, a record that has been released independently can end up capturing a national radio DJ’s ears, and then some of his DJ mates’ ears, and ultimately the ears of the great unwashed...and before you know it, you have a hit of sorts on your hands.

I say ‘hit of sorts’ because at this point, you’ve got good airplay, but in my book a hit still constitutes a piece of music that generates cash as well as awareness.

The trick to turning airplay for an independently-released track into a real hit is to have built a very strong infrastructure that supports this independent release. You may end up surprising yourself by getting a truckload of spins on Radio 2, but if you are unprepared for this eventuality, then you are shooting yourself, your release, and quite probably any hope of a career in music, in the foot.

There are several important things that you simply have to do when releasing an album independently; these tasks ensure that you receive as much money as possible for airplay and sales:

  1. Join PRS for Music and register your tracks with them. The PRS is now an amalgamation of two societies, the PRS (Performing Rights Society) and the MCPS (the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society). For a full explanation of what PRS for Music do, I’d suggest you check out their website in depth, but in a nutshell they sort songwriters and publishers out with royalties any time their music is played or performed (Irish peeps: check out IMRO instead).
     
  2. Join PPL (Phonographic Performance Ltd) and register your songs with them too. It’s a similar sort of organisation to PRS for Music, but it collects and distributes royalties for record companies and performers rather than songwriters and publishers. Now, as you are releasing your album independently, the chances are that you are both a performer on the album and the record company releasing it, so make sure that the PPL know about your music and are giving you due reward for it when Jeff Smith's golden ears finally decide that you are worthy of a spin on Radio 2.
     
  3. Encode ISRC (International Standard Recording Codes) on your CDs. ISRC codes ensure that when your music is played on the radio, PRS for Music and PPL know about it and are able to pay you accordingly. In an era of diminishing music sales, revenue from airplay is more important than ever, and without ISRC codes on your single or promo CD, even if you have a huge radio hit on your hands, you might not get all the airplay money owed to you. One spin on national radio in the UK can be worth around £60 - not to be sniffed at.
     
  4. This sounds incredibly obvious, but ensure that your music is available to stream and buy online on major sites (Spotify, iTunes, Amazon etc.) before approaching anyone at radio. Without your music available to stream or buy, you can't generate much cash from it.
     
  5. Consider some physical distribution options at the outset of the project. Despite the shift to digital, a lot of album sales are actually still CD shaped, so if you end up with a massive radio hit on your hands, physical distribution starts to make a lot of sense. So it's a good idea to have a physical distribution plan in place at the start of the project – talk to distributors early on and ideally have a partner ready to step in should you need to get your CDs into record shops.
     
  6. Make sure you are generally easy to find online. Create a good website and make sure you have strong, up-to-date presences on social media.
     
  7. Ensure that you have a decent data capture system set up on your website. (You can use a tool like Getresponse or Mailchimp to capture email addresses and send e-newsletters.) If you do get a huge amount of airplay for one of your songs – something that might only happen once in your entire career – you may end up with a huge number of people visiting your website...and you can future-proof your career a bit by ensuring that your site is optimised to capture as many of these visitors’ email addresses as possible. This is usually done by incentivising your data capture – offering a free download for an email address. A large database means that you can potentially generate a decent amount of income from selling music and gig tickets direct to fans in future, even if you never get played on the radio ever again.
     
  8. Ensure your song is on Youtube – even if you don't really have a video for it. Regardless of the popularity of Spotify, Apple Music et al.,Youtube is still effectively the world's de facto music database and if you have a radio hit, people will be looking for your song on there.
     
  9. Create a mailing list of influential music industry movers, shakers and shapers that you can get in touch with in the event that your music starts to become popular. This is always a handy thing to have lying about anyway, but if you suddently get a serious amount of airplay on a national radio station, you ideally want to be in a position where you can quickly and easily email a large bunch of A&Rs, managers, publishers and promoters notifying them of your overnight success and telling them why they should work with you.

Hopefully the above suggestions should act as a decent checklist for bands who are embarking on that most precarious of adventures, the independent album release. In fact, even if you don't have a monster hit on your hands, the above tips are worth following, because they'll help you maximise the income you do receive from any independent album release.

(At the very least, they should allow the PPL to procure 5p from your local radio station on your behalf and let your mum find your album on iTunes.)

Article by Chris Singleton

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How to choose the best music promotion team for your release

A team of people working on a music promotion project

A team of people working on a music promotion project

As is often remarked upon on these pages, a technological revolution has brought about a massive drop in the cost of access to professional recording equipment whilst at the same time furnishing musicians with an easy way to distribute music globally. This means that the number of bands in a position to make and release albums has never been higher. However, the same technological revolution has brought with it streaming, illegal downloading and the gradual death of the physical album, meaning that the rise in the number of records being released has not been accompanied by a plethora of new labels with the finances to release and promote all of them.

This has led a huge number of bands ‘going it alone’ and self-releasing their records, either with a view to getting enough of a reaction to entice one of the dwindling number of ‘proper’ labels to get involved, or generate enough of a buzz to actually turn their music-making into a viable business. Both goals are extremely difficult to achieve, but they are doable. However, generally speaking, to have any chance of meeting either, bands usually need to work with a music promo team.

What do we mean by promo team, though? Well, as a bare minimum a music promo team tends to consist of a music PR firm, who will handle print, online press and possibly some radio / TV; however, depending on budget, bands may hire a broader range of professionals, for example:

  • A music PR company
  • A national radio plugger
  • A regional radio plugger
  • A TV plugger
  • An online marketing company

Typically, the most common scenario tends to involve bands hiring a music PR firm and a national radio plugger. Regardless of the size or make-up of your team, however, it’s vital to have really good people on board; music promo services cost money and the music industry is intensely competitive – pick the wrong team and you will end up 1) throwing cash down the loo and 2) not getting anywhere. So how do you pick the right people?

1. Identify your niche, and look for people who work in that area

There are a lot of PR companies and radio pluggers out there – but some will be a better or more natural ‘match’ for your project. If you make easy-listening jazz, it stands to reason that hiring somebody who works chiefly in the area of death metal PR is not the smartest move (and vice-versa). Before you hire anyone to do anything with your music, try to define what kind of genre you are operating in and do some research into companies and individuals who specialise in that genre.

2. Be cautious of companies that say ‘yes’ to every project

Delivering a serious PR or radio campaign involves a LOT of work: identifying press angles, writing press releases, selecting the correct targets, pitching, repeated chasing and reporting on progress. There is only so much time in the day, only so many people in the office (or in the case of freelancers, just one person in the office…), so if the company you are approaching seems to be one that says ‘yes’ to every project or has a huge client roster without the team to adequately service it, tread cautiously. Always ask a few probing questions about

  • why the company particularly want to work on your project
  • what else they’ve got on at the moment
  • if they can genuinely fit your project in.

3. Beware of outlandish claims

Musicians are probably the biggest dreamers out there. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as ambition is a pre-requisite to success, but unfortunately there are a bunch of snake oil salesmen about, all too ready to guarantee fame and fortune to these dreaming musicians…for a price, of course. Success in music is attainable but it is very difficult to achieve, and you need to be working with people who understand that alongside talent, graft is the key to this success. It is far better to work with a PR or plugger who gives you a realistic set of targets and outcomes rather than one who promises stardom without giving any hint at how he or she will deliver it. As the old saying goes, if something sounds too good to be true, that’s because it usually is.

4. Shop around

It’s a good idea to approach several companies / individuals with your project and ask them to pitch for your business – by averaging out the quotes you will get a sense of how much you should be expecting to pay, and by examining the quality of the pitches and the kind of media targets each company lists in their proposals, you’ll be able to get a sense of which company or freelancer is likely to do the best job.

5. Check for rapport…

As mentioned above, don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions about how a company would potentially handle your project. This will allow you to get a sense of

  • how professional an outfit is
  • how good their relationships with media contacts are
  • their understanding of how your music could fit into the media landscape.

But crucially it will help you get a sense of the kind of personality / personalities you will be dealing with at the company, because it’s crucial to be working with people that you know you can trust and whom you will have a good rapport with throughout a campaign.

6. …and check for reports

Ensure that anyone you are thinking of working with commits to regular communication and written reports outlining who’s been approached, when, and what the reaction to date is. Nail everybody down to a robust reporting schedule. If somebody seems reluctant to commit to serious reporting, that should ring alarm bells.

7. Work with people who actually like your music

Music promotion is a business; profits need to be made and bills need to be paid. This inevitably leads to people taking on music projects even though they don’t actually like the music in question. If you’re working with a professional outfit whom you are certain will do their utmost on a project regardless of their opinion on it, then that’s okay; but in an ideal world, you want to be working with people who love your project and want to work on it because of that love for it. Passion breeds good results.

Good luck with your quest to find decent people for your project – and of course, don’t forget to put us on your list of music PR companies to check out. We look forward to all the probing questions…

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Rock success – the Ryanair way

Ryanair and rock success - what do the two things have in common?

Ryanair and rock success - what do the two things have in common?

In today’s article we’re going to make you approach your music career the way Ryanair approaches its business model. Hopefully this won’t lead to you firing anyone in the band who’s in the Musicians’ Union, charging people an extra £60 for turning up to one of your gigs in a wheelchair, or having fans that absolutely hate you but reluctantly buy your records anyway because they're cheaper than all the other bands' albums; rather, the point of it is to look at:

  • the power of free stuff in opening up other markets and revenue streams
  • the importance to musicians of sticking to budgets.

What most people don’t realise about Ryanair is that they are not really an airline. Sure, they fly a lot of planes, but they are a multi-faceted business that actually make their money out of

  • selling a load of things that aren’t flights
  • keeping their business costs as low as possible.

Let’s start off by examining  the first bit: the ‘non-flights’. Ryanair will indeed sell you a ‘free’ (or extremely cheap) flight. But that’s really just a cunning ploy to make you buy other crap. Because once they’ve tempted you with the flight, they now have an opportunity to do three main things:

  1. Sell you a huge range of other products and services that simply don't resemble an airplane: travel insurance, bus tickets, sandwiches, car hire, hotel accommodation, credit cards, scratchcards, calendars, perfume, tobacco, gift vouchers, ‘approved-size’ travel bags, saucy calendars, airport parking…
  2. Subject you to a raft of terms and conditions that come with punitive fees for those who transgress them (£35 for having the wrong-sized bag at the gate, anyone?)
  3. Make any other essential aspect of taking your flight as expensive as possible via hidden charges (think of the very expensive credit card booking fees, or high charges for those who need to bring a suitcase or sports equipment on holiday).

The truth is that the free flight is really the ‘turnkey’ to get you into the Ryanair selling machine. The free flights generate a new market for the company, which is then bombarded with pleas to buy additional services and products. And clearly, enough people do find ‘The Girls of Ryanair’ calendar, a cardboard sandwich or an extortionately-priced small can of Heineken worth parting with cash for.

The other successful aspect of Ryanair’s business model is to do with keeping costs insanely low, meaning that they really maximise the profit from all the other tat they sell very effectively. They do this via a pretty draconian stance against unions; paying relatively low wages compared to other airlines; reducing the number of staff they employ to a bare minimum; forcing customers to book their own flights and check in online; and using cheaper, more regional airports.

“So what on earth has all this got to do with my rock and roll dream?”, I hear you ponder. Well, just as with cheap airlines, the music industry is a viciously competitive business, and in this digital era, is as much about free stuff and low costs as anything Michael O'Leary could dream up. Odd as it may sound, Ryanair's business model might finally be the thing that that helps you turn that money pit rock career of yours into something that actually makes you a profit.

Ryanair might have a choice about giving away free flights, but musicians increasingly don’t have this choice about giving away their music for free. The relentless march of the internet means that music is arguably already free - and getting freer by the day, thanks to file-sharing and the increasing availability of streaming services like Spotify and Apple’s iCloud. But just as Ryanair make a lot of money out of ‘non-flights’, musicians can also generate cash out of 'non-albums'. Here’s how a Ryanair-style model might work for a band.

First, the band give away an album download in exchange for an email address or Facebook ‘like’. This free album is the equivalent of Ryanair’s free flight, the turnkey which opens the door to new, less obvious, business opportunities. Then, using this email address, they provide fans with the opportunity to buy a range of other stuff related to the band, for example…

  • limited-edition, physical editions of the band's music: signed CDs, special vinyl pressings, designer USB sticks and so on
  • t-shirts
  • tacky merchandise: mugs, mouse mats, hats, calendars and anything else that fans might consider a desirable object (Cafépress allow you to whack your band logo on a thong)
  • signed posters and lyrics
  • gig tickets
  • private performances in fans homes

Additionally, if you are a big enough act, with enough traffic going to your site (or a big mailing list), you could actually contemplate selling advertising to other bands or music-related businesses.

The point is that strictly speaking, none of the above stuff involves the fan buying a recorded song – it’s all ancillary stuff…but your free music provides you with an opportunity to sell it.

As for Ryanair’s approach to keeping costs low, there are lessons to be learnt here too for independent musicians. We hope that you won’t be as heartless as Ryanair when it comes to anybody you employ (surely you’re not that big a bastard), but if you want to turn a profit from an independent release, you do have to be very mindful of cost reduction.

Let’s say that you are a singer-songwriter that typically sells 300 albums at £10 apiece per release. Of these 300 record-buyers, 75 might attend the album launch, paying £10 in at the door. You might generate another £250 from t-shirt sales or other tat. Meaning that before your costs are deducted, your indie album project has the potential to generate £4,000. In these crazy economic times, this is not an amount to be sniffed at. But how do you hold onto as much of this cash as possible? It’s all about the cost reduction. Here’s some ideas on how to do it.

  1. Consider not printing any CDs. They’re on the way out but, when design and manufacture costs are considered, can be incredibly expensive to produce.
  2. If you are getting physical (i.e. printing CDs), see if you can barter with graphic designers. Do you have a skill that you can swap in exchange for a CD sleeve design? You can apply this barter technique to other aspects of the release too – your session guitarist might need a website, for example, and you might be just the man to make it for him, so long as he'll do a free gig or two for you.
  3. Cut out as many middle-men as possible. Although it’s always worth getting a digital distribution arrangement of some sort (i.e., via Tunecore, Zimbalam etc.), do set up a Paypal account and get as many of your fans as possible to buy direct from your site. 
  4. Always do a cost-benefit analysis before spending any money on a project. Before placing an advert in an expensive magazine, try to work out how many albums you will sell as a direct result of that ad. Before mastering your album at Abbey Road, consider if it will maximise or reduce profit. Apply this logic to every stage / aspect of the release.
  5. Use negotiation skills to get the best price from any agency, plugger venue or manufacturer you may be hiring. Ensure you are getting the best bang for your buck, and, unless it’s Prescription PR we’re talking about, shop around :-)
  6. If you are a singer-songwriter, ask yourself if you really need to spend £1000 on session guys for a live performance that will only take in £500 at the door.
  7. Create a profit and loss spreadsheet  at the start of your project. And stick to it!

The point of all this is to get you thinking about music like a business. This is not very romantic, admittedly, and may not fit well with your well-crafted starving artist image. And nobody likes to mention Ryanair in the same sentence as rock success. But the point is that the rock and roll dream and bad decision-making typically go hand in hand. You get so sucked in by the dream that you will spend daft amounts of money to create that diamond-encrusted digi-pack, but you’ll neglect to set up a Paypal account that you an use to sell overhead-free digital downloads direct to fans. Or because you are so wrapped up in selling albums, you forget that even a modest fanbase can generate significant income for you if they can be persuaded to buy other stuff too. Maybe enough income, one day, to allow you not to have to resort to buying that ‘free’ Ryanair flight.

Now, where is that 'Girls of Ryanair' calendar I bought on Prescription's last outing to Majorca?

Don't miss great free music promotion advice from Prescription PR

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DIY music promotion: avoiding the pitfalls

Today's recording studio?

Today's recording studio?

Right now, all across the country, bands are recording music in dingy bedsits, crap rehearsal rooms, disgusting garages and sheds.

Whilst these locations may not be particularly pleasant, so long as they are equipped with a computer and an audio interface, they house recording studios that the rock megastars of yesteryear would have drooled over.

Even today’s most basic recording packages generally allow you to multitrack a huge (often unlimited) number of instruments; they also come with a vast range of digital effects, software synthesisers, pitch-correction tools and a library of drummer jokes (compare this to the 4-track tape recorders that the Beatles had to rely on for most of their career – although they probably had quite a few drummer jokes to hand). Whereas in days of rock yore, you really had to be signed or very rich to go anywhere near recording equipment this good, incredible music production tools are now cheap and easily accessible to even the most pauperly of bands.

This has led to a an explosion in DIY music recording, which has led to millions of albums being recorded at home or in the garden shed. Most are not very good and not heard by very many people, but on balance, DIY recording is probably a good thing. Although it means a lot of crap records will get made – obviously, there is a difference between having fab recording equipment and knowing how to use it well – at least bands that would not have had access to good recording gear now get the chance to use and experiment with it; and occasionally, they come up with something terrific that captures the public’s ears and imagination.

DIY recording arguably reached the masses in a serious way about 10 years ago, when consumer-grade computers and hard drives became fast enough to handle professional audio recording duties; but over the past couple of years, we’ve seen bands starting to use DIY in all areas of their music career. With DIY recording, artists got their mits on the means of production, but serious manufacture, distribution and promotion were still largely the preserve of record labels. But that’s been changing; over the past couple of years we’ve seen that a combination of technological developments, new online services, an explosion in broadband access and improved awareness of what’s available to musicians has resulted in a huge number of artists not just recording DIY music, but also doing the following:

  • distributing their music globally (through services such as Zimbalam, Tunecore, and CD Baby)
  • building their own websites (via services such as Wordpress and Squarespace)
  • creating HD videos or hi-res press shots on cheap-but-incredibly-effective digital SLR cameras (or even an iPhone 4)
  • buying their own online advertising (on Facebook, Google etc.)
  • collecting their own royalties (via online tools provided by the PRS / PPL)
  • manufacturing their own merchandise (thanks to services such as Cafepress or Zazzle)
  • promoting their own gigs and selling advance tickets online (via Stubmatic or Paypal)
  • running direct marketing campaigns (using services such as BandCamp, Reverbnation, Mailchimp and Aweber).

In other words, pretty much doing everything labels, publishers and promoters would normally do – but usually on a ‘micro scale’.

The question for musicians about DIY is this however: just because you can do all these things, should you? We often come across artists who have spent years perfecting their sound in their own home studios, and who excel at DIY recording...who then ruin a fantastic home-recorded album by designing a crappy cover in Photoshop and shooting their own video (making it much harder for us to get journalists or bloggers to take them seriously). It’s easy to see why bands do this: it’s infinitely cheaper and often quicker than hiring a professional. And in some cases, it’s absolutely fine to take the DIY route  – for example, there might be a guy in the band with a day job in online advertising, who can set up an excellent, cost-effective campaign. Or there may be a photographer in the group who can sort out some fantastic press shots. The problem is that there often isn’t, and with a plethora of cheap gadgets and online services available, it’s very tempting for musicians – who are so used to taking a DIY approach to their music – to assume that a) this is a good way of filling the gap and b) that a DIY approach to everything will always yield positive results.

Obviously, you might not always have a choice around DIY promotion: there may be no budget at all to play with. But even if you are releasing an album on a shoestring, here are some key pointers to bear in mind when you are considering all the other DIY stuff you can do...

  • Before deciding to shoot your own video or take your own photos, see if you can rope in a mate who is better at that sort of thing than you (who could be convinced to help you out in exchange for a pint of larger and a bag of crisps). Or if you do have a budget, just pay somebody!
  • If you are creating any online assets yourself – websites, e-newsletters, etc. – do some research. Take a look at some megastars’ efforts and see what works well. Take a leaf out of their book (read: nick their ideas).
  • Keep things simple: if you’re not an expert graphic designer, your best chance of making something that looks professional, whether that’s an album sleeve or a t-shirt, is usually by taking a minimalistic approach to design.
  • Before spending any money on online adverts, do a dry run – allocate £20 to £50 to a test campaign to see if it generates any sales, Facebook ‘likes’ etc. Try out a few different targeting options and advert creative, and ensure you are getting some sort of a return on your investment before you spend hundreds of pounds on ineffective ads!
  • If you are approaching the media yourself, make sure you are targeting the right kind of critics for your music and that you don’t email them too many times.
  • Run everything you create past somebody impartial to get a sense of whether or not the video / website / poster in question comes across as professional. By impartial, we do not mean your mum.

Above all, take a look at where your strengths lie. If you are a musician who happens to be a good web designer, then by all means, design your own website. But if you know the video you’re going to make to accompany a brilliant track that you sweated for days over in the garden shed is going to look rubbish, it’s time to look elsewhere for help.

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Leather pants, rock gods, groupies and er, project planning?

Project planning - essential for a music release

OK, so you’ve spent 4 years recording your opus. And you’re getting ready to whack it up on iTunes and Spotify, thereby putting it within reach of a global audience of music lovers, who will, if there is any justice in this world, buy it in their droves and propel your act into the league of leather-panted rock gods.

The problem is that you are in the same boat as Lord-knows-how-many thousands of musicians all across the world, who, just like you, all aspire to wear the leather rock pants (or lycra hot pants; take your pick). The digital revolution has made it ridiculously easy to distribute your music to a global audience, but the flipside of this is that quite frankly, everybody else is doing it. You are competing with an enormous pool of ruthless, fame-hungry musicians who would sell their granny’s false teeth, or even the granny in question herself, if it meant a whiff of success.

So how can you put yourself ahead of this pack of mean, granny-selling musos? One option, of course, is to find yourself a nice sugar daddy or mommy with a shedload of cash that they are willing to plough into your career; but even then, you will probably not be home and dry. 

Although it helps enormously, cash on its own will not buy you success. It’s quite likely that your talent won’t help much either; record companies get sent fantastic music all the time – which could chart easily if given the right push – that remains completely unheard by the masses (often because the lead singer has a bad haircut, but that's another blog post).

In a nutshell – and you probably know this already – rock and roll success is one of the most difficult things to achieve, and if cash or talent alone can’t secure it, then what will? Well, it’s our view that one of the most single important things that can help give artists an edge in the quest for success, but gets repeatedly overlooked, is this: a plan.

Here’s a classic example of what we mean: a band spends thousands of pounds on an album; hires a designer to create a beautiful album cover; manufactures digipacks made of gold; hires dwarves to serve cocaine at gigs…and then sets a release date for the record that completely ignores the fact that the music press generally demand to receive an album three months in advance of its release (the ‘long lead time’). Cue no press hype, no interest from radio as a result of great reviews and finally, no sales and no leather pants and screaming teenage groupies.

There are a multitude of other examples of this kind of thing – for example, bands manufacturing CDs without ISRC codes (making it significantly harder to generate royalty income from airplay); press releases being issued without release dates; the radio plugger not being made aware of a four star Q review before talking to the head of Radio 1; barcodes not being added to CDs; artist websites not being updated with new material in time for the release and so on. All of these basic mistakes make that elusive rock success even more elusive, and generally they all stem from poor planning. Although “project management” may seem like a boring term when you put it in the same sentence as “rock stardom”, the two go hand in hand; and regardless of your budget or the quality of your material, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

So, here are 4 key tips which we think can help independent or unsigned artists plan for an effective promotional campaign.

1. Assign roles and responsibilities clearly: most serious album release projects will require a music PR company, a radio plugger, a website designer, a print designer, a distributor (and perhaps a publisher or TV plugger too). Ensure everybody is clear who is doing what, even if you are taking a DIY approach and doing a lot of the legwork yourself.

2. If at all possible, try to get one competent, organised individual to oversee the release – to act as the project manager. This person should liaise constantly with all the above stakeholders and ensure that each key project task is completed on time.

3. Get all your stakeholders in the same room and draw up a release timeline that works for everybody. Discuss press lead times, manufacturing turnaround, distribution deadlines, barcodes, ISRC codes and so on. Come out of that meeting with a project plan that contains key tasks and realistic milestones for the project.

4. Don’t ignore that project plan that you spent hours creating! Your project manager should now use it as his/her reference point throughout the entire release and tick off each task as they are completed.

Obviously, these four tips won’t guarantee rock stardom; a few little things like a serious marketing spend, a lot of good luck and that good haircut come in handy too, but hopefully having a clear, simple plan will take you a step closer to the land of the rock pants, or at least give you the best chance possible of getting there, regardless of your budget or musical prowess.

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The end of the download is nigh

MP3 Player

If internet rumours are to be believed, June 6 2011 may possibly be the music industry’s equivalent of “The Rapture” (for those of you who haven’t been on Facebook recently, or have been living in a hole in the New Forest, The Rapture was the end of the world, and was supposed to happen on May 21. It didn’t, unless you are reading this on a cloud with Jesus or you are feeling rather hot and can’t concentrate on this article because a devilish imp is poking your bottom with a pitchfork). Of course “The Rapture” turned out to be a damp squib, but June 6 is more likely to live up to its reputation as being a day on which the music industry will change forever.

So what’s happening on June 6? Well, according to a multitude of newspaper articles and blog posts, it’s the date that Apple may unveil their ‘cloud service’ – a system that lets listeners stream music from the web. Now, as the cloud service in question hasn’t been unveiled yet, it’s not clear what form this is initially going to take. It could be that Apple are simply going to offer something similar to Amazon and Google’s new cloud systems, which allow you to upload and stream your music collection on the web, wherever you are.

But frankly, that’s a pretty boring approach, and unlikely to be what Apple’s “cloud offer” will be. If rumours are to believed, Apple have been working hard to secure licensing agreements with the “big four” record companies – Warner Music Group, Sony Music Group, EMI Group and Universal Music Group – which means all this is heading in one direction: a streaming service similar to Spotify’s, where listeners will eventually be able to stream whatever music they like (for a fee, of course).

If Apple does go down this route, it means that an en-mass switch from paid-for downloads to on-demand music streaming is now just around the corner – the rise of 3G web connections, increasing use of smartphones and Apple’s 75%-85% share of the download market would more or less guarantee that streaming becomes the de facto way that music is consumed. If Apple release a software update for iTunes containing streaming functionality, millions of iPod, iPhone and computer users in general all around the world would suddenly be able to stream music instead of paying to download files. The choice of tracks would be vast – significantly bigger than Spotify’s library, due to full music industry buy-in – and the reach of the service would be enormous too, thanks to Apple’s strong global position in both the download and mobile device markets. All this would arguably result in death of the download, and pretty quickly too.

What would be the impact of this on musicians? Well, for bands who are signed to a label and getting a significant marketing push, it would be fairly good news – it makes their music even easier to access. For musicians without a budget however, it would represent more of a headache. This is because streaming removes the attractiveness of a key tool used by musicians to entice people to sign up to email updates: the free download. For several years now, indie musicians with any clue whatsoever have been giving away downloads in exchange for the ability to communicate with fans online – with individual tracks, EPs or even albums being swapped for email addresses or Facebook ‘likes’. However, there is not much of an incentive for a potential fan to grab a free download from a band if a) they don’t really download music anymore and b) the track can be streamed anyway on iTunes.  

The free-download-for-email-address scenario that we’ve seen over the past few years has led to a situation where clued-up independent musicians have to a certain extent been able to bypass traditional gatekeepers – labels, journalists, distributors, promoters and radio stations – and still make (often quite decent) amounts of money from music via direct-to-fan sales. Perhaps it’s a negative way of looking at things, but with downloads diminished as an incentive for joining a mailing list, indie musicians will be able to communicate directly with fewer and fewer listeners online, and power will go back to being concentrated in the hands of the traditional music industry tastemakers: a label will decide what music to promote, and spend money encouraging people to stream it (rather than buy it). In effect, a technological advancement may lead us back full circle to a situation whereby only those with budgets can create demand.

But if you are an indie musician who has built a business model on free downloads, and all this does sound like the end of the world, don’t despair yet. Pretty much every technological development in the music industry has shut one door only to open another; and with all these developments, the trick is to stay ahead of the curve. The musicians who twigged that free downloads helped build databases first built the biggest databases (and sold the most music and merchandise); and it will be the musicians who twig how best to use streaming cleverly who will monetise the new landscape. The trick is to think fast. The end of the download is nigh – get ready.

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