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march 2005


my indie rock dream

Longtime readers know that I've been a booster of eMusic for years.

While services like Rhapsody and iTunes draw the bulk of media attention, eMusic has quietly continued to offer (in my opinion) the best legitimate download deal. Their low-option tier of 40 downloads for 10 bucks is $0.40 per track. Their high-option tier of 300 downloads a month for 50 bucks is just under $0.17 a track, which is actually under my personal "fair price" standard for a downloaded track of 25 cents.

Where'd I get 25 cents? I made that number up in the age of the original Napster, when music business analysts were trying to figure out what people might be willing to pay for a download.

Playing a song on a jukebox is clearly often worth a quarter to bar patrons. A download is more transient than a CD or vinyl disc, and I thought a jukebox play was a good yardstick, because it's clear (to me, if not the rest of the world) that a downloaded track should have a significantly lower market value than a song on physical media:

A quarter per track is also the magic point at which I think it's theoretically possible to feed everybody. Please note, these numbers are hypothetical and not based on any specific knowledge of business models or licensing deals; they reflect a way in which $0.25 could be sliced up and (in my opinion) fairly compensate the parties with claims:

(I'm actually a little worried that eMusic's high-option tier may be too cheap to be both sustainable and fair.)

Not only is eMusic's per-track price below my yardstick, eMusic offers more value per track than its more prominent competition, in two important respects.

Like some of the other services, eMusic also offers some exclusive content, predominantly live performances recorded at venues including the Cat's Cradle, the Double Door, Maxwell's, and Schuba's.

The downside to eMusic is that their catalog is more limited than larger services. For the most part, they don't have licensing deals with major labels. That doesn't bother me much, but it severely limits their mainstream appeal.

There's always been plenty in the eMusic catalog that appeals to me personally -- they could stop adding new content completely and it would take me months to get everything I still want from the Prestige and Riverside jazz catalogs.

But on the other hand, I crave novelty. So the other day, in my usual bimonthly ritual, I was flipping through the reviews in the new issue of Punk Planet, making asterisks by things I wanted to hear. Anything on Polyvinyl or Gern Blandstern I could download and check out immediately. I found myself wishing that the Jagjaguwar and Secretly Canadian labels were affiliated with eMusic. Yesterday, I placed an order at the Teenbeat store, inspired by reading about the Teenbeat 20th anniversary party.

This morning I checked the eMusic new arrivals and discovered that they'd added releases not only from Jagjaguwar, Secretly Canadian, and Teenbeat, but also DeSoto, My Pal God, 30 Hertz (particularly noteworthy for lots of Jah Wobble), and Two Sheds. There were even some from Absolutely Kosher and March, two more labels who've signed several artists I like. I should point out that not every album from those labels is available -- some labels license "catalog" items but not current releases. But, if you've been pondering whether to join eMusic, this really should push you over the edge.

I'm particularly happy to see lots of singles in the list -- I've digitized some of my 45's so I can play 'em more easily, but it's enough work that I don't do it much. It's even worth it to me to download a few things I already own.

9 mar 2005


Memo

To:All Bands
From: The Press
Subject: Help Me Help You

Introductory notes:

  • 'Nuff respeck. It takes work to make music. It takes courage to put your art out for the world to take potshots at. Any sincere artist has my respect just for that, no matter what I think of the music.
  • Who do I think I am? No one, really. I'm not a powerful or influential incarnation of The Press, but I think you'll find that most of The Press -- particularly press outlets that are even open to local/unsigned talent -- agrees with me on most of this anyway. This memo is drawn not just from my experiences writing for different zines and web sites, but also from years of discussions with other writers and editors (both amateurs and pros). Several people were specifically generous with their time and comments on drafts.
  • Why am I such a prick? Some folks who reviewed the first draft commented that I sounded hostile toward bands. I toned it down, but I left some of the negativity in. Why?
    • It's what you're going to get. If you can't take a little tough love, you may not be ready to submit your art to the scrutiny of critics. It doesn't matter how brilliant you are -- someone will hate your music and dump all over you. Even Beethoven got panned.
    • I didn't set out to be a prick. Honest. I don't think most people in bands have any idea how much stuff reviewers get, and how much of it is either not very good or just not the reviewers' thing. So if you get the feeling that I'm assuming you suck until you prove otherwise ... sadly, that's kinda how it is. It's statistics, it's not personal.
    • I don't make this stuff up. I started this memo after a reading a bulletin board thread about really good bands [in Boston] that don't get talked about a lot. Those are the acts I most want to hear and possibly give some exposure to -- the ones not everyone knows about already. I copied a few dozen names down and went to the bands' web sites to check them out. Almost all of the bands made at least some of the mistakes that I talk about on their sites -- they made it hard for me to get a sense of what they were about, or even hear their music.
    • Overcoming the negativity is the whole point. What I'm trying to do is give you some tricks and tips to persuade press folks that you're worth a careful listen. After that, it's up to your music. But a lot of people need to be convinced to give you that chance. Pretending otherwise just isn't realistic.
  • Go to the head of the class. Some of this may seem kinda remedial or obvious. Don't get offended if you already know this stuff -- just pat yourself on the back, because you are ahead of the game. All of the mis-steps I describe are made by plenty of artists. If it makes you feel any better, I made a lot of the very same mistakes I describe when I was in various bands.
  • Not for indie rockers only. When I started writing this memo, I wanted to include people who don't necessarily play out, and musicians outside the pop/rock context. I kept slipping and writing "band" instead of "artist" and "song" instead of "composition," and finally I said the hell with it. If you're an ambient electronic composer who doesn't perform live, most of this still applies, and I don't mean any disrespect to your chosen art form.
  • A funny thing happened on the way to the web site. This memo was in a late draft stage when I recieved my copy of Punk Planet #66. In that issue's "D.I.Y. Files" column, Liz Worth's topic is "Get Your Own Press Coverage." She says a lot of things about press kits that are similar to this memo, only she's a lot nicer, which should surprise no one. I'm posting my version anyway -- partly 'cause Punk Planet doesn't make their content available on-line where I can link to it, partly 'cause Liz's column doesn't cover band web sites, and partly 'cause I already put a lot of work into it. Pathetic Caverns [hearts] Punk Planet.

Friends, Romans, and Countrymen: know your audience

If you're at the point where you're seeking reviews of your work, your band has at least two different audiences.

  1. Your fans (and potential fans) -- the people that come see you play (or listen to your music if you're not a live act)
  2. The Press

You may also be trying to reach:

  1. Venues that might book you (or booking/promo/management agencies that might handle you)
  2. Radio stations that might play your music
  3. Labels that might want to sign you (good luck with that)

I'm going to focus on number 2. But one thing that I urge you to think about is that all of your materials -- your CD or your downloads, your one-sheet, your web site -- have different goals for your different audiences. You want fans to hear your music one way or another. You want press folks to hear your music and write about it. You want radio folks to hear your music and add it to playlists.

These goals escalate in scope: you only need to convince each fan that he or she likes your music individually. You not only want to convince me that I like your music, but you want me to think it's a good idea for other people to listen to it, and say so in print. A commercial radio person needs to be convinced that your music will be worth sitting through ads for, and even non-commercial radio people need to believe your music won't make most listeners change stations. Finally, labels need to believe that so many people will want to hear your music that they can make money out of that desire.

My personal opinion is that these goals are so different that a one-size-fits-all approach never works well.

Let's talk about you and what you want . . .

More specifically, what do you want from me, as a member of The Press? Only you know that. But here's my best guess. You want me:

To start listening to your music.

  • That is, you need to convince me to put your CD in a player . . .
  • or (much less likely, I warn you) download and play a song from your Web site.

To keep listening and form an opinion about it.

  • i.e., not turn it off after a few seconds . . .
  • . . . or a few songs.

To recommend that other people listen to your music.

  • If I can't in good conscience recommend your music, you want me to write something about it that might intrigue other people anyway. (i.e., the good "pull quote" in the bad review.)

Now, assuming you agree with me on what you want out of me . . . what's your best shot at getting it?

Enough about you . . . what do I want?

Mostly what I want is a CD and a one or two pieces of paper that prepare me for what's on the CD.

Why, in the 21st century, do I still prefer CDs?

  • I don't want all my listening tied to the computer.
  • I don't even have time to listen to all the CDs I receive. If I followed every web site link I was sent, I'd never get anything done at all.
  • It weeds out the very most amateurish level of performers. Don't get me wrong, I have heard some incredibly half-assed wastes of plastic. But I figure there's a little more time for to sober up and say "wait, what the hell am I doing?" if you have to stamp and address an envelope. It also means you commit more resources to your work.

What I want from your CD:

Good music, as I define good.

  • Big Hint: with just a little bit of homework, you should be able to make a good guess at how any given reviewer is likely to respond to your music, and maximize return for your promo buck.
  • Another Big Hint: with a little more homework, you should be able to tell what magazines/sites actually review bands at your level or in your genre. Q: How many unsigned bands does Rolling Stone review? A: Save your postage.

It should arrive in one piece.

  • that means there should either be some padding (like bubble wrap) or something stiffer than a cardboard sleeve in the envelope.
    D.I.Y. Heloise: You can get plain 9"x5" envelopes and rolls of bubble wrap. Cut 5"-wide strips of bubble wrap and fold them around your disc. That's much cheaper than pre-made padded envelopes, and easier to recycle, too.

Your CD cover is one of the most powerful tools for making a first impression.

  • A good cover vastly increases the chances that your CD will actually get played, so . . .
  • Definitely send full artwork if you have it.
  • If no one in your band is a talented graphic designer, find and work with one.

Print your name and the CD title on the disk.

  • So I still know who you are when I lose your press kit, and what case to put the disc back in.
  • I know, it's not as arty that way. Tough.

There, that was easy.

What I want from your press kit:

You should be able to fit the essentials on one or two sheets of paper.

  • That's why they call them one-sheets.

Personality.

  • I emphasize a "just the facts" approach, but the graphics and design of your press kit should still give me some sense of who you are as a band. I talk more about this in the web site section below. Ideally, all your promo materials will work together as a cohesive package with some unifying theme.
  • Make it clear why you deserve my time and careful attention, instead of all those other bands whose press kits I just opened.

Tell me roughly what genre you think your music is.

  • Don't say that you're unique and indescribable, or that you want me to listen without any expectations. About 1 band in 7 hits upon this idea.
  • My job is basically to describe your music -- nothing is indescribable -- but it's still useful to start with some context.
  • If you can't describe your primary genre in a few words, you should know that you're making life very hard for yourself. There's certainly a place for eclectic and versatile acts, but it's an uphill struggle for reasons that have nothing to do with quality.

Be honest.

  • If you trick me into playing your music by misrepresenting it, you lose.
    I'm looking very specifically here at jam bands that claim they're indie rock (and all similar sins). Yes, you're independent, and you play a kind of rock. That does not mean you're indie rock. You know that as well as I do.

Don't overreach.

  • Influenced-by and sounds-a-bit-like are okay if you feel the need, but keep it realistic. If I'm thinking about great songs by the Beatles, or the Clash, or Fugazi, or Elvis Costello . . . well, let's just say, it may not make you look so good by comparison.

Credits.

  • Include who's who and who played what, where you recorded it, etc..
  • Mention it if someone I might have heard of produced or engineered the record.
    • (This is not instant cred -- good engineers and producers have to pay bills too -- but it sure doesn't hurt.)
  • Mention it if members of your band were in a band I might have heard of.
    • Don't list every band you've been in since high school. I will presume you can play your instrument unless you prove otherwise -- it doesn't matter to me how many dues you paid.

Biographical detail that's relevant to the music.

  • If you wrote all these songs right after your dad died, or after Bush got re-elected, or anything else that actually impacted the creation of the music, let me know about it.

What I DON'T want from your press kit:

90% of pull quotes and clippings.

  • They don't hurt, but they don't help much either. I'm not very impressed, unless they're from major press outlets or reviewers I trust -- the most dreadful acts I've ever heard usually manage to get favorable press from somebody.

Who you've opened for.

  • I hate to tell ya, but this says much more about your politicking ability than your music.
  • Booking folks may find this more useful than press folks -- but you might be surprised. Remember, it's about what you can do for them . . . not what your headliner can do them for them.

Flowery pseudo-poetic descriptions of your music.

  • I'm not going to paraphrase your press kit for the review, so don't craft elaborate little essays about each song for my sake.
  • This is where we in the press usually snicker over how it's a good thing you're not trying to be writers. Save yourself the pain.

Radio adds.

(That is, lists of radio stations supposedly playing your music.)

  • It's important to differentiate your audience. Radio and label people will care about this, but it may actually bias some underground/indie press venues against you.

Biographical boredom.

  • Let me give you an example from one of my own old press kits: I was once in a band for 6 months before the bassist and I realized we worked in the same office building.
    If you're thinking "Big woop," collect one gold star. That's boring. It was only interesting to us because we lived through the surprise of it. It tells you much more about the building we worked in (big, huh?) than about the band. It tells you nothing that might make you want to hear the songs we wrote together. It had no business in a press kit.
  • (Still, it was a little more unusual than if we had met at art school or in the dorm. Draw your own conclusions.)

Lyrics.

  • They probably don't read as well as you think they do when they're separated from the music. You really can't look at your own words without thinking about how they sound when sung, and the delivery can make all the difference.
  • Put them on your web site (or in your CD booklet) if you really think they can stand the scrutiny.

Money wasted on extra stuff.

  • Photos. Put some print-resolution photos in the press section of your web site instead. That's much cheaper than putting photos in the press kit, and no one has to scan or re-photograph them. Half the time they show up too creased to use anyway. Your package gets shoved into bins and bags, and probably has other packages dumped on top of it before it ever reaches me.
  • Folders. You know what a big cardboard folder says to me? It says "I have lots of money to hose around." Tuck a few singles in there instead and spread the wealth!
  • Doo-dads. Keychains, thermometers, buttons, etc. are going straight into a landfill unless you're awesome. But if you're awesome, you don't need them. They can also damage other things in your package when the envelope is bent or weight is put on it.

What I want from your Electronic Press Kit (EPK):

This is a trick category. I don't want an electronic press kit at all.
  • As far as I'm concerned, it combines the worst features of a physical press kit and a web site. Information is harder to extract, but I get less of a sense or your band's personality and unique identity.
  • Don't get me wrong, you can -- and should! -- put features specifically for press folks on your web site.
  • Big Hint: How many of the indie labels and publicists who send me releases I actively look forward to use EPKs? None. Really. Not one.

What I want from your web site:

Think like a business for a minute.

I hate corporate bullshit and business-speak. But your web site needs to accomplish some of the same things that Amazon, Sony, or Google's sites do. You should be aware of that.

  • Indicate the nature of your business. You're a band, you make music. I should be able to tell this immediately.
  • Establish your brand identity. A good web site tells me about the personality and aesthetic of your band before I hear a single note. If you're a heavy metal band, your web site probably shouldn't look like a scientific calculator. If you're a retro synth-pop band, your web site probably shouldn't have dungeons and dragons stuff on it. If you're a metal band and your web designer is really good, I will instantly know you're metal, but your site won't look like every other metal band site, because it will specifically reflect your band and your music. (This is hard, and it's part of why you should work with a professional.)
  • Differentiate you from the competition. Right now I have a bunch of retro synth-pop CDs in my stack for review consideration. What makes you special? How are you different from other acts in your genre? Figure it out. Work it. (Note: this does not mean come up with a gimmick for a gimmick's own sake.)
  • Get a real web site. Not Geocities or Tripod or MySpace. You know why those services are free? Because they track every click you make in order to provide information to advertisers. My filters catch several hundred spam messages a day and I am not interested in making the problem worse. Going to a MySpace site means I lose a couple minutes out of my day rejecting cookies that the site wants to set. I will almost never bother.

Downloadable MP3s of at least one or two of your best songs.

  • Full songs not clips! You know how you can make a good 5 minute trailer for a crappy 2 hour movie? Same principle. A clip hardly tells me anything about your overall songwriting skills -- whether you have a grasp of dynamics, if you know a bridge when you run into one, or whether you can tell when a song should end.
  • Make it easy to download, not just stream your music. Big Hint: I -- and probably every other critic in the world -- am more likely to respond favorably to your music if I'm in a good mood when I listen to it. I may be in a better mood if I'm away from the computer. If I want to listen to your MP3 while I'm grocery shopping ... let me. You can have a streaming player too if you want (I don't think adds much value, but as long as it's not the only option, there's nothing really wrong with it).
  • Put your best foot forward. Post your strongest material, and wait until it's finished -- mixed and mastered. It's fine if you want to share a half-assed drunken cover with your fans/friends, but make sure it's clearly identified as a for-fans-only download. If I hear that basement demo first, I form my impression right there and (almost certainly) you don't get a second chance. You're probably going into my MP3 player alongside the latest thing I downloaded from the SubPop site or whatever -- so plan accordingly.
  • Worried about people stealing your music? Don't. Not unless you're actually making money from it to start with. You don't have to put your whole album up for download (in fact, I recommend you don't) -- just a song or two. Anybody who's even a little tech-savvy can capture your stream anyway.
  • No sign-up form requirement. No way am I going to get on your mailing list before I even know if your music is any good or not.
  • Make sure your website developer sees the next 3 items. Another Big Hint: unless you have professional web designers/developers in your band (which is admittedly common) you should not be your own website developer. Just trust me.
    1. Provide MP3 files, not exclusively Real Audio, WMA, AAC, or anything else. You can have extra formats available; it may please the geeks in your audience. I think OGG sounds better than MP3 at 128K. But you absolutely must have MP3s. They work on any platform, in any player, it's the universal standard. Go with it.
    2. Put correct information in the ID1 and ID2 tags of the MP3 files! That means your band name, the song name, the album it's from, and your web site address. It doesn't hurt to put them in the file name too, but that is not sufficient, because people may rename the file. I can not stress this enough. Many good bands don't do this and it's a shame. Months later I might play "Song1.mp3" or "KatysSong.mp3" and dig it but have no idea who it is.
    3. Please, please, at least 128K bandwidth minimum. 160K or VBR encoding is preferable. At anything less than 128K the cymbals and the bass turn washy and mushy -- you might be tight as hell, but I won't be able to tell. You also lose a lot of spatial information and I can't really tell how well your recording was engineered/mixed.

All the information from your paper press kit.

  • You can even make your one-sheet into a PDF. Easy.

Some print-resolution photos.

  • at least 300 DPI (dots per inch)
  • In order to reproduce well for print, it should be a bit more than four times as big than it is on the screen. That is, a 2"x3" magazine picture needs to be roughly 8 1/2"x12 /12" on screen.

Show dates (if relevant).

  • I hope that's a no-brainer.

A way to contact you (or your management/promo/press liason).

  • I hope that's a no-brainer, too.
  • Bonus points if it goes somewhere different from fan mail.

What I DON'T want from your web site:

Over design

  • This is tricky, and again, it's part of why you should really work with a competent professional.
  • Don't get too cute. I'm not saying your site areas necessarily have to be called Music, Dates, and Press, but I don't have to waste any time wondering what those are. Bear in mind that I'm probably doing a lot of other things at the same time I'm pulling up your site. Make it easy for me to find what I'm looking for. Another Big Hint: There's a great book by Steve Krug called Don't Make Me Thinks, and you should pick a web designer who's read it.
  • Ask yourself this question: Do you want people to think that the band is cool, or that the website is cool? I'm not contradicting what I said above about brand identity, but the design of your site must not overwhelm the content.

You may think Flash is cool, but it's almost always bad. Why?

  • It hides information from search engines. I might stumble on your web site by doing a Google search for something unrelated -- maybe I'm looking up capacity for a venue you're playing. If your show dates are in HTML, your site might come up, and I could decide to go check out your band at the show and make my own estimate of the venue size. (This is not a completely hypothetical example.) If your site is all Flash, you lose out on opportunities like this. (Yes, there are ways to code a Flash site so that it's Google friendly . . . but if you're going to that much trouble, you might as well make an HTML version alongside your Flash version.)
  • It takes too long. Yes, I have a fast Internet connection. But I use it for a lot of other things. I typically have about a dozen browser tabs open on a typical work day. And not everybody has as fast a connection, either.
  • Those stupid scrolling boxes where you have to hover over the arrows. I hate those. Let me get to the top or bottom without having to scroll through-line by-line. (This is just as bad if you use JavaScript to do it.) More generally, if there are controls that everybody understands how to work with already -- like scrollbars and buttons --it's a bad idea to make custom controls that people will have to figure out how to use.
  • Harder to copy and paste. If I can cut and paste your name into my review, I probably will. No typos that way. (Yes, you can code to allow it in Flash . . . but almost no one does.)
  • A little bit is okay. If you want to have a little animation on the screen, or a fancy intro (as long as I can click through it), that's fine. My criticisms are primarily of sites where the navigation and text content are all in Flash.

Video

  • I know, it's cool that you can even do it. But it makes you tiny and jerky and at the same bandwidth as MP3, it sounds a whole lot worse.

Don't play audio unless I ask for it.

  • I'm probably playing somebody else's CD or MP3 already. Please don't interrupt. It's rude.
  • Yes, this is another thing I hate about MySpace. Hey, you catch on quick!

Don't tell me what browser I should use, or how to set up my computer.

  • Do you have any idea how arrogant that is? It really cheeses me off. C'mon -- do I tell you what brand of guitar strings you should be using? Make the site work in as many browsers as you can.
  • Don't open the site in a new window. Make it work in the window I opened it in. That was me saying, "this is how much of my desktop I want your site to use." You do not necessarily get to say: "but I need this much!"

All of this goes double for press people.

  • Which means I think it's at least half true for your fans and friends. I still recommend not using Flash for your main navigation, not auto-playing audio, etc. It's easier for everybody in your audience.
  • If you really want to please the press but make life hard on your fans, with an interface that you have to tune like a TV set or something, you can set up a mini site just for press folks. press.yourbandname.com or something like that. I don't think it's a great idea, but at least you'll avoid annoying potential reviewers.

Th-th-th-that's all folks.

Thanks for taking the time to read this.

Best of luck to you and your music.

8 mar 2005

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