Another in our series of band info blogs.
Last week a good friend of mine gave me a rather special present. It was an album from 1983 called Directions, on 101 Records. It was a compilation, which featured my band – The False Dots – on side 4. I had a few copies of the album, but over the passage of time had lost or given them all away. I was again reminded of the album today when one of the twitter accounts I follow mentioned that they were playing a track by Camera Obscura, a band also featured on the album.
The album allowed me to fulfill one of my great ambitions in life when it came out. I had always dreamed of visiting the HMV shop in Oxford Street and buying my own record. Back in 1983, the album allowed me to do that. It was a buzz I will never forget and a moment of great satisfaction. I daresay it is something every musician of my generation wanted to do, and in that context it was great.
There is however a darker side to the story and one which we can all learn a few lessons from that are relevant today. Let me tell you the whole story. The process started in 1982. I saw an advert in the Melody Maker, a long defunct music magazine, which was the “musicians” paper. It had a large classified ads section and many bands were formed as a result of its pages. I used to scour it weekly for gigs and opportunities. One week I saw an advert saying “bands required for compilation album” and a contact number. I duly rang up and made an appointment. I was granted an interview with the record company A&R team at an office in Lexington Street. I turned up with a demo and some pictures.
The meeting went well and when the demo was played, they said they liked what they heard. They asked if we had any gigs and I gave them a list. They seemed impressed. We were playing at all manner of good clubs and pubs. I had seen quite a few A&R men and these two were far more enthusiastic than most. They then cut to the chase. “We are a small record company and we make our money by discovering talent. We are putting together a compilation album and we want you to be on it. All of the pressing costs are covered, but we are asking the bands to contribute £200 each towards the cost of promotion. You will easily get this back from sales of the album. We expect to sell between 10-20,000 records.so you will be sure to get something back.” They also went on to explain how they’d helped a band called “The Fixx” get a record deal and also how we were virtually assurred airplay on radio 1.
As we were a five piece, that meant we paid £40 each. I went back to the band and explained the scheme. Everyone was enthusiastic. It wasn’t a huge sum of money and it seemed likely we’d make a profit, get a record deal and become rich and famous. The guys at the label said we had 48 hours to give them an answer as we were “the last band”. We rustled up the money, signed the contract and waited.
After a month, nothing happened. They explained there had been some problems with getting the artwork sorted. So we waited. 1982 passed and 1983 came around. Still no album. Gigs to promote the track and cash in on the airplay at the Ad Lib in Kensington, The Moonlight in West Hampstead, The Harrow Music Festival etc came and went. Still no sign. I’d organised it and the rest of the band started bitching about it, as if it was my fault that nothing had happened. In April 1983, the band had an acrimonious fallout. Two weeks later, I received four copies of the album through the post. What I received was an enormous disappointment. The artwork was shoddy and amatuer and we were track 2 on side four. Half of the songs were awful and it was clear that there had been no quality control at all.
Not only that, but there were 25 bands on the album. Each had paid £200 for the pleasure. They’d got a cool £5,000 out of the bands participating. I’ve no idea what the costs were, but the artwork and packaging was, shall we say, minimalist. On the upside, the album was stocked in HMV and Virgin. I bought a copy from both, just for the hell of it. I suppose it was worth £40 for the buzz, but I cannot help but feel we were royally ripped off. Even on the most conservative estimates the guys must have taken £3,000. I reckon that every band would have probably bought ten copies each from the shops, so they also would have got a fair number of sales off the back of vanity purchases. We never saw a penny of the so called royalties. All of the advertising we were promised failed to materialise and to the best of my knowledge 101 records disappeared off the face of the earth. I was lead to believe that we’d get gigs, radio plays and all manner of other great things off the back of the record. By the time it came out, I didnt’ even have a band.
Fast forward 30 years to 2013. Things have changed just a little bit. record shops are dying on their feet. Vinyl is a thing of the past. Compilation albums are of the ilk of “Now 73” or whatever. Things have changed. Sadly there are still the sharks swimming around, looking for young people with dreams to exploit and part from their cash. Last year I was approached by one such “organisation”. As we run a music studio and we have video facilities, I was given a proposal that would “make me a pile of cash”. This promotional company, for a fee, would use our studios to record and make videos of bands. They would build the bands a website, promote their videos and give them an instant twitter and facebook profile, which would guarantee the artist a record deal. What about the quality? Nah, didn’t matter I was informed, so long as they had the cash.
So the deal was that we would give all our bands the hard sell, to spend a load of cash on a web presence with videos etc that the company would promote. I then asked who would they promote the bands to? Who were there A&R contacts? They didn’t actually have any. When pushed to name names, it became clear that things such as Pop Idol and X factor were mentioned as juicy bait, but names of actual contacts were far harder to come by.
To summarise, the package simply involved paying someone about four times the cost of what you’d pay yourself to set up a website. A whole army of twitter followers and facebook followers would arrive (none of whom have any interest in the artist and possibly don’t exist). The artist would get the warm glow of being able to impress their mates at the pub, but when the cold light of day shone on the deal, what would they really have got?
The company offered us £500 per customer we introduced to them. On top of that we’d make the usual fees on the recordings, the videos and the photo shoot. The company would make the same fees for “arrangements” and would then sell them the followers etc. In all the band would probably pay £1,500-2,000 more for the services than if they’d done it themselves. The pr blurb says that “you will get a professionally designed website, with a high google ranking, a professional video and an album worth of material”. You will get your music on iTunes and you will be able to earn all of the cash yourself from the plays and downloads”.
I looked at the website they had put together for someone else. It was something knocked up from a template, which would take a competent website designer about four hours. As to the promotion, it was totally unclear to me what this consisted of. It promised to “get the music to our contacts in radio and on TV”. I’ve been in the music industry for long enough to know that if you have decent A&R contacts and you play them stuff that is sub standard, they soon lose interest. If they are getting stuff sent by promotion companies which they know are simply getting paid, then the chances of getting anything are miniscule.
I worked for a while managing bands. The pluggers etc I worked with who got results, only worked on bands who fitted their profile. They had to believe the music had something to say before they’d pick it up.
As I said the music industry is rammed full of shady individuals only too keen to separate you from your cash. Here are a few rules to follow to avoid them.
1. Never pay money to anyone without hearing other artists they’ve worked with and being assured that their is quality control.
2. Never pay money to anyone who claims to have contacts unless they can demonstrate an artist who they have actually had success with. If they have a close association with the artist, then it should be verifyable. If possible check out whether the artist is happy to be associated with the company.
3. If anyone offers to arrange recordings, videos etc, make some enquiries and see how much it would cost to arrange it yourself. It is not unreasonable for someone to cover their own costs in arranging sessions etc for you, but their fees should be proportionate to the time spent. I would not say £200 for a phonecall to book a studio is proportionate. If they are going to spend a few hours with you at the studio to give production advice, then it may be reasonable. Clarify exactly what they will do.
4. Remember that record labels are not stupid. They will judge you on whether your music is good, not on whether you have a nice website. They will also be able to tell if Facebook and Twitter followers are genuinely interested in the band.
5. If you sign agreements with a company, make sure that you have a verifiable address for them. You can check the company out on the companies house website. Get a copy of their accounts. This will cost a few quid, but if you are signing a deal that costs you thousands, it is money well spent.
6. Only ever pay for services which you can verify as to being delivered. Do not pay a one off fee unless you are 100% sure about the company and they have a proper track record. Pay on results. Here are a few things you should ask for.
– Feedback reports from pluggers
– Lists of radio plays
– Full web statistics of hits etc
– weekly reports from the company as to progress
– Make any payments conditional on promises being met
7. Have delivery milestones for when the company will do things. If you pay them to promote your track and they do nothing for six months, then that is no use to you.