Distribute and be Damned
(October 2001)

Normally I write the By Jimminy! pieces. Hence the name. But when Joe Banks sent me an email so corrupted by rage that I could barely stand to read it, I had no qualms about asking him to straighten the thing out for a Jimminy! It took months, so obviously it wasn't easy. Or he's a very slow typist. Either way, here's the very first special guest Jimmy. (Jim)

What do you do when you suddenly have a lot more copies of your promo CD than you were planning on? Well, how about trying to release the excess as a proper single - surely it can't be that hard to find somebody who'll distribute a few hundred CDs for you?

I think you can guess the answer to that one already, but first some background...

Laughtrack is basically me and my machines (stringed and otherwise). At the start of this year, I decided it was time to begin 'getting the name out there'. Being a one man band, I didn't have the option of playing live (not that I particularly felt like going back to opening slots at the Bull & Gate), so it made sense to instead produce some promo CDs that I could send out to press, fanzine and radio people. There wasn't any master plan beyond seeing what feedback I got.

As such, I was only looking to press up 500 copies. However, the nice people at the studio where I got the CD mastered said 'why don't we manufacture it for you, won't be any trouble, top class service guv etc'. Being a relative novice at this game, and thus easily persuadable, I said 'OK' - the only snag being that their minimum quantity was 1000 copies, albeit at only a few quid more than what other people were quoting for 500. I was sure that the extra copies would come in handy for something...

Having taken delivery of ten rather daunting looking cardboard boxes all full of my CD, I started mailing them out. Having decided that I was going to try to get distribution for whatever I didn't use, I reasoned that if the people I sent the CD out to said good things, this would make it easier to secure a deal...

OK, so I didn't get the NME to review it and I wasn't fielding a string of calls from Lamacq & Peel. But, I did get a good write-up in one newsstand mag (RockSound), plays on some of the more discerning (!) radio stations (2XS, Northsound One, and SBN - thank you Mr Possession!), and lots of nice things said in the fanzines. All in all, not too bad I thought, especially as my promotional/schmoozing resources amount to just about zero.

So, reasonably confident that what I was trying to foist on the public wasn't complete bobbins, I started ringing around the distribution companies to spread the good news...

And this was the painful lesson I soon learned: effectively, nobody distributes one-off singles. Now, let me quickly qualify that statement before somebody does it for me - by 'one-off single', I mean a self-released CD that doesn't have the backing of an existing/recognised label. Clearly there's always going to be exceptions to this rule, for instance if it's been playlisted by the Evening Session and just got Single of the Week in the NME. But as I'm sure you'd agree, this isn't something that happens very often.

I spoke to all of the main 'indie' distributors (Cargo, Shellshock, Pinnacle, Prime, PlasticHead etc) and they all said pretty much the same thing ie. it's not worth their while getting involved in these kind of single deals. When I pushed them further with the evidence of my endorsements, I was told 'well, that's nice, but it's not the NME or Radio 1'. So, sorry to those people who've supported me so far, but apparently you don't count!

I don't want to appear hopelessly naive here, as I'm under no illusions about the grim state of the UK music media, but I was still surprised to have the status quo rammed home so bluntly. Similarly, I can understand the position of the distributors (who after all aren't operating as charities), but to have the criteria on which something is judged worthy of a deal defined so narrowly is pretty depressing.

This surely can't be healthy for the UK indie/alternative scene in general, but how did we can into this state? On the face of it, there's never been a time when indie music was so 'visible' in the mass media (Radiohead, Godspeed You Black Emperor and Boards of Canada have all featured as incidental music on Newsnight recently!) or consumed by so many people. But support for the grass roots seems to be weaker than ever - either that, or the competition for attention is now so fierce that unless you've got your team of pluggers in place, the odds are really stacked against you even being noticed.

It's also not just a case of there only now being one weekly music paper when there used to be three, it's also the fact that there's been a drastic reduction in the places where singles get reviewed. For many bands, the single still remains the first point of entry to the public's consciousness, yet where previously you had three magazines all desperate to unearth the next big thing, you've now got just the NME, which, to put it mildly, has certainly seen better days...

But enough ranting. The problem remains: without signing to a label, how does an unknown band get distribution? I'm sure some of you will have been reading this, slapping your heads and moaning 'the Internet, stupid!' Well, OK, maybe. Despite (or perhaps because of) working in a 'hi-tech' industry for a living, I'm still a little dubious as to how effective a medium it is in reaching anything like a 'mass audience' (in for instance the same way as a few plays on the Evening Session does). I'm also hoping that the future will still involve the joy of walking into your local record shop and finding that CD you've heard or heard about... but now I'm sounding like a Luddite (though just to prove I'm not, you can listen to what started all this by going to www.peoplesound.com/artist/laughtrack).

So what about those 500 spare CDs still sitting in my bedroom? I decided on the most radical form of distribution I could think of: directly targetting my demographic audience on the ground. In other words, giving them away at the gigs of bands making a similar noise to me. So if you're going to be at the upcoming London shows of people like Mogwai, Six By Seven and Muse, don't be surprised if somebody thrusts a CD (with a lovely picture of a rollercoaster on the front) into your hand - it's free, I thought you might like it, and let's face it, it's got to be better than another flyer for the Camden Palace.

If you've got any thoughts after reading this, I'd really like to hear from you. Am I talking out my arse or does this mirror the experiences of other people? How do new labels/bands convince distributors to give them a deal – is it really just down to the NME/Radio1? Is there anyway I can continue trying to do things on my own or do I need to hit the A&R trail for the next single? Answers to all or any of these questions to contrarypublic@yahoo.co.uk

Thanks for listening. (Joe Banks)

 


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