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The reason I don't think you should send us a demo

Written by Tommi on 03.07.2008 23:17:09

Blog image for entry The reason I don't think you should send us a demo When we finally got our own office a few years ago, we decided we need a P.O.Box. Not to handle our correspondance or to make access to our mail more convenient (quite on the contrary, as it's really tedious to visit the post office to get our mail). The only reason for the P.O.Box was the overwhelming amount of demos and promos sent by bands from all over the world to us and neither of us wanted the hassle of coming home every day to a mountain of demos.

Seriously, you read right. We're just a small-to-miniscule indie label with some 40 releases under our belts and who's biggest success has sold approx. 1500 copies. Our releases barely scrape the bottom of the Finnish national charts and our artists are seldom featured in any mainstream music media and when they are, they're usually in the smallest sections somewhere in the back of the magazine or in the off-hours of radio time. We're small-time in every sense of the word.

Still, a ridiculous amount of bands seems to have the notion that we'd be able to do something magical and miraculous to their career if we were to bless them with that one fabled piece of paper that's supposed to open all doors - a record contract.

I don't have a problem with people wanting to work with us. Actually I'm quite thrilled and feel very honored that so many people, out of whom a great amount are obviously very talented and driven people, feel we're worthy of the trust that an artist needs to have to give the representation of their work into the hands of another person. My biggest grievance is the total lack of judgement a lot of them seem to have when sending out demos. We get so many demos that just scream out the message "we didn't even have the courtesy of checking out what your label is about and we're just sending out random demos", which is the biggest turn-off imaginable for my ever-expanding label-head ego. Whenever I open an envelope just to find some horribly bland Suomirock-act staring at me from the tasteless promo-pic, I just can't help thinking "what were you dudes thinking". Ok, we haven't been the most profilic in our releases or too easy to pin down stylistically as a label (anyone care to tell me what Siniaalto and Rytmihäiriö actually have in common?!), so I can accept that people might be a bit confused on what we look for in a band, but I'd like to think that after reading even the main texts off our website and listening at least 15 seconds each to 2-3 of our key-artists, It'd be rather obvious that we're really not going to work with a band who lists RHCP, 3 Doors Down and The Foo Fighters as their key influences.

I'm actually a bit bummed, since I was looking forward to beefing up this post by linking this really cool piece of writing the guys at Combat Rock Industry had on their website previously, but it seems that they've gotten rid of it when they had their site made over a while ago. Anyway, they had this amazingly to-the-point "read this before submitting your demo to us" text on their contact-page, since obviously they had noticed the same problem as I'm trying to illustrate here. I can't remember the exact details of the text, but the main point was to drive home some very basic points of how the grassroots level music-"business" domain we operate in works.

See, the problem is that most people's vision of music industry as a whole is derived almost entirely from biographies, documentaries and interviews of established major artists. Especially if they haven't been exposed too much to indie culture in general. They think that record labels are these big industrial star-factories that just descend from heaven to the artist that has the patience to rehearse in their basement and send a vast amount of demos periodically to every label imaginable and that small labels are just... well, small versions of big labels. However, in reality, us small labels are a whole different industry altogether.

So, here's my own checklist on what you should know about us specifically (applies more or less to a lot of other small labels as well) before submitting your demo to us. The list rips off blatantly from what I remember about the CRI-list, so kudos to them on that:

  1. Know your music, what you represent and what you wish to achieve. Especially on the artistic integrity - commercial success -scale. I know most musicians would like to have universal appeal, but artists that achieve the kind of crossover status that bridges gaps between indie and mainstream, across various genres and generations are few and far between. Choose your side and your frame of reference and let crossover come naturally if it will.

  2. Know the people you're approaching. Sending a Suomirock-demo to If Society is like sending a classical cello piece to a hiphop-oriented radio show. It's a waste of time, natural resources and money. The euro or two you spend on the stamp and the envelope is far better used on an ice cream cone or something.

  3. Indie labels are usually tiny operations that seldom even pay any salary to their "employees". They're usually just loose collectives built around the passion of a small number of people and they operate as business units simply to make taxation, economic and credibility -issues easier to manage. Indie labels rarely even have employees and are run by people that do the work for free on their own time.

  4. I've been involved in the music industry for quite some time now. During all these years, I've never heard of a band getting "signed" out-of-the-blue based on a demo sent in the mail. This may happen with (big) labels that seek unpolished talent fit for artist development (ie. making bland 3rd generation copies of whatever is trendy at the moment), but in the indie scene 99% of the time, the bands find their way to the labels from within the scene, so if you want to get signed, get involved. All the bands we've released over the years have been our friend or acquaintances for a long time first, except for Radiopuhelimet, but the thing about them is that they're Radiopuhelimet and you are not.

  5. This one if feel really bad about, but it's true: there's a very high probability that your demo won't even make it out of the jewel case. I don't know how other labels handle this thing and I feel terribly guilty that we're unable to do more on this, but as we get so many demos and as we rarely have the chance to sign anybody, we're simply unable to spend the time needed to regularly screen demos. I'd love to be able to give everyone a fair shot and judgement, but as we're doing this outside of our dayjobs and we're trying to play in bands, run a record shop and have some sort of personal relationships at the same time, that just ain't happening.

  6. Figure out for yourself what you actually want to accomplish by getting signed. Most people don't realise the role of labels on the independent side. The first thing you need to realise is that once you get signed, the hard part of your work is just about to begin. Far too many people have this weird image about the life of a signed artist being a nice and cozy combination of playing sweet sold-out shows and having somebody pay for your bills + wipe your ass. WRONG! In this line-of-business, even if you've got someone handling your promotion and record distribution, your own activity is more or less the thing that makes or breaks your chances. Be prepared to put in work. A lot of work.

  7. Do a financial reality-check. In Finland selling 3000 copies of an independent album can be conceived as a GIGANTIC success. 3000 units sold gross about 30k euros. That might sound like a lot, but once you start drawing up a budget and figuring out costs of replication, studio time, mastering, even basic level advertising, you'll soon realise that if money is high on your list of priorities, this is the last industry in the world you want to be involved in.

  8. Bear in mind that even if we for example have been doing this for almost a full decade now, we're still just two dudes on a mission from the gods of ROCK and ROLL driven by our love and passion for the music we enjoy (and obviously for totally egoistic reasons as well). All we can really offer is to put in our time, money and enthusiasm (ok, and our distribution deals) to help you advance your music. When it comes down to the bottom line, there's nothing we can do that you couldn't do for yourself, so if you still feel like indie is the way to go, why not go all the way and Do It Yourself? That's why we're here: we've done it ourself and stuck with it. It's really not that hard and as opposed to many lines of business, in the indie business there's no such thing as "company confidential". On the contrary most labels are more than happy to give their peers all the support and tips they can, so yes, this is an open invitation to send me email if you want some advice on putting your own record out, booking your own shows or anything else involved in getting your music out there.

  9. If after this you feel like indie culture is a narrow-minded sandbox for pompous people who think they're better than the rest and are unable to understand the value of mass appeal or commercial success, instead trying to hide their elitism and ego-centricity behind bullshit like "artistic integrity", you're probably absolutely right and I can only wish you all the best in your future endeavours. However I do wish that in this case you wouldn't waste the valuable time of either of us and keep filling the mailboxes of major labels in the future.

There we go. Phew, I feel like I got a load off my chest just by writing that stuff out. Anyway, luckily these days the main motivator for making demos should be to get your music out there and try to generate a buzz. After all, in todays climate word-of-mouth is the #1 tool for labels - big or small - to break bands but in addition to that, it's the #1 tool for bands to get noticed. Even if I really do think that crappy demo bands killed MySpace (with a little help from web app UI- / architecture design that resembled donkey vomit more than a functioning application), it's vital to bands to find ways of getting people - real people, not record label monkeys - talking about your music. Hopefully on the virtue that it's just so god-damned good.

Also, if you send us your demo as email attachments, I'll be sure to do my best that Santa Claus brings you a bag of reindeer shit this Christmas. Go learn some netiquette, boy-o.

Finally, I just want to emphasize that I'm not trying to put anyone down! Every band has it's place and I don't want to communicate the impression that I'd raise myself above any style, look or genre of music. I'm just trying to advocate some sense into choosing who you send demos to.

Long post, but this stuff has been on my mind for a while now. Peace.


UPDATE 14.7.2008:
Eetu H. spotted the Combat Rock Industry text I referred to online: http://www.fireinsidemusic.com/info_julkaisuperuste.htm
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