How to succeed in a band without a record deal
Before we folded (again) last year, my old band Hospital of Death were doing relatively well in terms of local unsigned bands. We’d reached this amazing point where good things had started to happen:
- We had 2 great albums out, entirely owned and controlled by us
- We were getting offered MONEY! to play gigs
- We were getting gigs with good bands (and FESTIVALS!)
- We were building a decent and enthusiastic online following
- We were making connections in the world of professionals (bands and ‘others’)
All in all it was going great, and we’d done it all without the paid help of a record company, a manager, an agent – or anyone! So the question is: How did we do it?
1. Don’t be shit
This seems like a no-brainer, but it is all important if you hope to succeed without outside help/interference. ‘Shit’ can mean a lot of things in this context – poorly written songs, poor musicianship, not being genuine, crappy attitude and so on. We were never the world’s greatest musicians, but had practiced enough to get to an acceptable level.
2. Make sure one of the band knows about sound recording
The main reason record companies give an advance is so the band can pay to record their album. So – if you can record the album yourself (without it sounding too shoddy), then this removes a large up front cost, and the need for record company investment. Luckily for us three of us had spent years studying recording and had accumulated a fair amount of gear so this was very easy for us. We borrowed a live room from an ex-band member who had a studio (lucky!) for the drums second time round (drums were programmed on the first album), but you don’t have to be as extravagant – we’ve since recorded great sounding drums in the drummer’s living room.
There is a great deal of work involved in recording an album yourself – definitely not for the faint hearted!
3. Pay a pro to master your album
It may seem daft to come so far with no help then suddenly turn to a pro, but mastering is an exact science and needs the careful hands of a professional to avoid being bodged. The difference is incredible between a properly and an improperly mastered album. it doesn’t have to be expensive either – on fiverr.com there are pro mastering engineers offering work at $5 per track, so get involved.
4. Actively participate in your (musical) community
This is very easy these days given social media and the internet in general. It is incredibly important to get involved and become friendly with the other people/bands in your musical ecosystem for a variety of reasons, such as:
- Gig opportunities
For us the main hub of activity was the ukthrash forum. When we were but a wee brand new band with a 4 track EP to peddle, our bassist joined this place and encouraged us all to join too, which we did. I think becoming involved in this forum and community was the main factor in getting us where we ended up as we met tons of great people who helped us, promoted us, gave us gigs and exposed us to new audiences. I can’t stress enough how important this step is.
5. Loss leaders = downstream sales
Early on in our career, we decided that our music would always be free to whomever wanted it as to us it was just fun and we had no commercial plans. This began with simply uploading a zip file to the internet and promoting it on Myspace (remember that?!) and culminated in a deal with Mininova, one of the world’s biggest torrent sites which led to hundreds of thousands of downloads of our albums.
Even in this day and age, some people in small bands are still uptight about the idea of free music downloads. What they fail to realise is that this is basically very effective free advertising. As a band, growing your brand should be your primary concern if you are playing the long game (which you should be) rather than worrying about a few pence here and there from lost sales. Remember when local bands would try to SELL you a demo at a gig? Remember how enthusiastic you were about paying for one? Exactly. You have to put yourself out there and be confident that when people actually listen to your music, they will be impressed enough to come and see you play live, and maybe buy some merchandise.
The footnote to this piece of advice is that after pushing the first album hard via free channels, we were able to recoup the entire recording and CD production costs of our second album in 2 weeks.
6. Do not pay to go on a CD/go in a Magazine/play infront of ‘industry experts’
I hate these scams, the problem is if YOU the band have to pay money to do any of these things, then the person asking you for the money has NO CONFIDENCE that your presence on said cd/magazine/gig will make them any money. It’s like ticket deals at gigs, which I am 100% opposed to. If your band is good enough to be promoted to a wider audience, things will happen.
Just before we ended, we had a split opinion about one of these things. Terrorizer Magazine were looking for bands to pay to go in a ‘History of Thrash’ special issue to demonstrate the new wave/future of Thrash Metal. My argument was that anyone who pays to do this will instantly be seen through by any actual fan of thrash metal as to be fair, they probably already know who is up and coming! Despite mine and Shak’s protestations, Kev went ahead and did it anyway.
The result was:
- No increase in album/t-shirt sales
- internet backlash against us
- waste of £hundreds that would have been better spent on target promotion and advertising
Let the record companies waste their money down this avenue.
7. A good merch-stand is mandatory
One thing I noticed when were were going was that if gigs dried up, so did sales. Not just sales at the gig (obviously) but subsequent internet sales too. Before we started getting paid to turn up, selling merch at the gig was our way of making petrol money, and making money to invest into new t-shirt lines and so on. We had plenty to sell – 2 albums and several t-shirt designs – all of which took up space. Whenever we played as support to a bigger, touring band they would ALWAYS hog the merch stand and we’d be relegated off to some shit position in the corner. That’s because they knew about this piece of advice!
You have to have plenty to sell, including cheap stuff. For the second album we had two options – the £2 cardboard sleeve version and the £5 jewel case and full colour booklet version – then all the very fairly priced t-shirts which we hardly made anything on. Like the free music, this was a marketing ploy. Band t-shirts = free marketing!
Another secret is – sell your merch at other gigs! We set up a little shop at the Bloodstock festival on the Sunday, just after the second album came out. We’d played there the year before so had a little history, and managed to tap into that by getting drunk and giving passers by the hard sell – we made hundreds that day!
8. Play gigs, avoid all-dayers – NEVER ‘headline’
If you look closely, you may notice that 90% of people at ‘all-dayers’ (popular in Manchester for some reason) are actually the other bands and friends of the other bands. I have no idea if and how the promoters actually make any money. The other bands don’t give a crap about you just like you don’t give a crap about them. The sound is always awful due to time constraints and you usually end up having your set cut down due to late running. Total waste of time.
On the other hand, gigs can be great! As long as people show up. Which is why it is a good idea to either play with someone popular or someone local. Otherwise, 9 times out of 10 it’ll be ‘HELLO NOBODY!!!!’ Unless your band is actually successful, it is unwise to accept the ‘headline’ slot for a number of reasons:
- If anyone was there to see the local band, they have now just left
- Other bands over-run, your set suffers
- everyone else uses your gear
- If your gear is being used you probably had to drive therefore no beer
- or, you like to get drunk post-gig therefore no beer
9. Treat interactions with record labels with caution
For a little while we were extremely flattered and excited to be talking to Earache records – they came to see us play a couple of times and we ended up having a track on one of their compilation CDs (Heavy Metal Killers) which we didn’t have to pay for! AND – we were promised royalties!! Of which not a penny ever materialised, and also the track in question was claimed by Sony on Youtube so despite appealing we have lost the rights to that song despite never signing anything to that effect. Fantastic!
***UPDATE – Earache got in touch, turns out they owe us £198 in royalties – Win!
Everyone knows how unscrupulous the labels can be, but the flattery of being approached was such that all common sense went out of the window and we got ever so slightly shafted. Never mind, could have been worse!
What you need to remember is, you only need a record deal if you get so big that you just can’t handle it yourself. If you have time to promote yourself, why would you pay someone else to do it? For small bands all the record labels want to do is wring any cash they can from you while you shoulder any risk – if you think you are going to make any money out of the deal, think again!! The 2 weeks it took us to recoup our second album would have turned into years if we’d gone with a label.
10. Be happy to do what you are doing
If you aren’t enjoying it, then why bother? Despite the fact Dave our singer would moan incessantly at gigs, we knew he secretly loved it. But lets face it – if you are reading this you probably aren’t making loads of money so if you aren’t having fun, jack it in like we did!
And that’s it!
We didn’t plan anything we did, we just bumbled through it with a lot of hard work (mainly from Kev) and a lot of cider and learned some valuable lessons along the way. It IS possible to succeed without record labels, indeed the music business of the future will look very different because of this I suspect.