Image credit: Natalie McCool (taken to celebrate being awarded PRS Foundation’s Sustaining Creativity Fund)
What’s this for?
I decided to put this together due to the increasing uncertainty surrounding the return of gigs, particularly those in small venues. It feels like a long way off before we can all get in a sweaty basement again, which let’s be honest, is the main way that most emerging artists play live. Opportunities may arise with social distancing and bigger venues may be able to create safer environments, but opportunities to play live and showcase your music are very likely to be thin on the ground. I think it’s fairly safe to assume that the return of the live sector will be slow and its return will not be like what we’re used to for quite some time.
It feels really weird releasing music when it can’t be experienced live. The emotional connection we form with emerging acts when we see them perform is something we cannot replicate online, but what we can do is share music and build up relationships and build our audiences in different ways, hopefully increasing that appetite for live performances when we’re able to do them safely.
The music industry is built on a maverick attitude, it’s built on risk-takers and those who are kind of accustomed to living life in the unknown. Creating a sustainable revenue from music is a tightrope, a constant balancing act. We talk about live music being a main source of revenue for musicians, but in actual fact for a lot of emerging bands, they don’t really break-even from touring in those early days, it costs a fair bit. It’s clear that the payment model for artists across the different areas of music needs to be looked at and vastly improved, but that’s a discussion for another day.
What I’d like to explore here is the notion of building release strategies with no gigs whatsoever. If we are wanting to release music during this time (which we do) then we need to make sure we look at lots of ways of getting that music out there to a wide audience without thinking “well ideally we’d have a gig here or a little tour there”. There needs to be no looking back at our single releases and thinking, well it didn’t do very well because we couldn’t play live. We need to think differently and pull out all the stops to help our music reach its audience and have an impact. We also need to look at ways of making money to keep things going.
I don’t want this to come across negative, I want live music back so much it hurts, I’d love nothing more than all of you to be able to pepper your release strategies with gigs – but the way things are, it’s just not realistic. If we build our release strategies to be as robust as possible without any gigs in them, and then it ends up that we are able to introduce those gigs into our plans, then that’s a huge, huge bonus and can only help us achieve bigger results.
I’ve also shared some basic information on self-releasing, too. Which will hopefully be helpful to some. This is a pretty meaty topic, so will run across a few articles, this is only part one.
The comments are open, so please add your thoughts, ideas and issues. If someone shares something that they need help with and you feel you can share something helpful, then please do so. With this being a series, please send over questions or topics that we can explore on this. My email is email@example.com if you’d rather do it that way. I will also create a resource list for this entire topic as a summary, which I’ll keep adding to.
I’ve made a collaborative playlist for you to add stuff that you have released whilst you can’t play live (I’ve kicked it off by putting in a few things I’ve worked on during lockdown). Give it a listen and a follow, you might discover your next favourite band on there. You might even find a future collaborator, touring buddy or new best friend on there, too.
Online Performances: Trying to Keep The Value in Live Music
As most of you will know, selling tickets for shows in advance can be a slog and the amount of people asking for guest-list can be a larger number than those who have actually bought a ticket. It’s not cool, is it. In general, the public need to value live music more. Hopefully, now that we’ve lost it for a period, I hope that when we all go back to it, the public will support the live music sector and not just buy tickets for those gigs that they think will sell out right away, they’ll buy a ticket for “introducing” level bands and help build the value back up in live music.
At the start of lockdown it felt that the whole world was going live on Facebook from their houses. There was a pressure to entertain constantly. I think we’ve all got rid of that notion, thank god. No more constant notifications from Instagram and poor sound quality. You genuinely do not have to do this. Just because you are a performer does not mean you need to constantly deliver if you do not want to. People will not forget about you. There is such a thing as content nausea and along with this I’ve seen live streams by some very promising acts that have been done to such a poor quality that not only did I think it was quite detrimental to their career, but also that it was putting me off engaging with live streams full stop. That being said, with no return to gigs for the foreseeable, creating a shared online experience can work out really well if it’s given lots of love, creativity and preparation.
The access we have to so many platforms that enable us to link up directly with our audience is pretty incredible and something that should be explored. You can go live on multiple platforms at the same time through sites like Streamyard, which is very useful as our audience doesn’t all engage with music in the same way or in the same place. You have an opportunity to create a special online event, to inject your own personality into it and to offer a special insight into your currently hidden world. Think about how you can personalise a live online performance. Put as much care into the quality of this as you can. Explore the different technology that is needed to put this together, what do you already have at your disposal, what can you borrow, what else do you need? There are pots of money that you can apply for to help purchase equipment, such as PRS Foundation’s Sustaining Creativity Fund, but more on funding in the next section. If the funding route isn’t for you, then prioritise the purchase of this equipment before everything else, as ultimately it will help you create more revenue if you go about this properly. By taking advantage of Bandcamp‘s fee-waiver days (first Friday of every month for the rest of 2020) you can actively push your audience towards purchasing digital downloads and merch by putting a clear call to action on it – you are raising funds to enable you to create a special online gig. The music community is currently very activated with regards to this brilliant initiative by Bandcamp, more on this later. You could even put together a little crowdfunder with people pledging money to access the gig in advance to raise those funds to enable you to do it, even if it’s a very small amount.
Once you’ve had a play around with the formatting of your online gig and you’ve settled on something that you are extremely happy with, from a promotion perspective, I would recommend treating this as a normal self-promoted gig. Decide on a ticket price and give yourself a lead in time to promote it. This can become a really key part of your campaign and provide an extra talking point on social media, particularly if you feel that there’s not much to talk about right now. The reason why I would recommend putting a ticket price on it rather than a donation is to encourage and in-still that value around live music and also to add an appreciation for how much effort goes into the planning and execution of things like this. A super easy way to manage the ticketing side of things is through Eventbrite‘s recently adapted online event function. If you are concerned about paying fees, then you could provide your paypal details and request people send money directly and then manually follow up individually with them to provide the viewing link, but Eventbrite does that all for you, so sometimes it’s worth that little fee just to take care of the admin and make your life easier. Have a look and see what the other ticketing platforms are doing, there’s likely choice of options.
Ticket prices are important, a ticket price suggests quality and professionalism. It also values the work you have put into it. There is an argument that if it’s free that more people will see it, but if you put a ticket price on it then it makes it more into an event than something you might stumble across and just drop in on. It also pushes you to create something special. This is the reason I wanted to lead with this part of the topic, it feels like preparation for getting back into the live music scene. Retaining the value of live music and building up that appetite.
Look at different ways you can promote this. Share the details with promoters you were booked with that you may have had to cancel or postpone, festivals that you were booked on, those that have supported you, bigger voices in your community. Get the word out as you would a special gig.
If you can’t play live like this in your original form, can you create a one-off never to be seen again version? A piano session, for example?
It should go without saying by now, but make sure any performance you put together follows the correct social distancing guidelines and that equipment is cleaned regularly, particularly when it’s being handled by multiple people. Singing and shouting are in a high risk category, so ensure no one is directly in front of you and that anyone you have helping you with the filming or techy stuff is protected. It’s always handy to keep an eye on the ‘Performing Arts’ guidelines for extra assistance. Treat the environment you are filming in as a work-place and look after those around you with the level of care that you’d expect in a professional environment, this should stop you dipping into a casual mentality with regards to your social distancing.
The other thing on this that’s worth mentioning are other people that want you to do a livestream for them, like a radio station or a website or something similar. You need to weigh up what you can get from this before agreeing. Have a look at viewing figures of their past streams, if you’d like to be associated with the previous acts that have taken part and also the quality and set up of the other participants. Quality, again, is important – particularly if this is putting you in front of a new audience. Only say yes if you think the amount of effort and quite possibly expense and rehearsal that is needed to pull this off is worth it. Proceed with caution.
The best attitude to go into this with is not “this isn’t the same as being in a venue” but more, how were we restricted by being in a venue? What can we do to make this different and not try to replicate a gig but offer something else. It’s an opportunity to create a little world around your music and let the audience in on something they might not normally see.
Keep an eye out for promoters and venues who are developing ways of streaming with full production. Some of the funding pots for organisations can be used to pay for this so venues and promoters doing so don’t lose money. If you have good relationships already with promoters and venues, it’s always worth checking in to see if they’re planning anything.
If you are nailing a more casual set up and getting results, then lovely stuff – but do ask yourself where that is heading. What are you getting from it? Are people expecting you to deliver this regularly? Are you making any money from it or are you just doing it to keep your audience happy and yourself busy? Are those people who are watching supporting you in any other way? Are you building up your audience or just delivering to the same fans each time? Basically, what I’m saying is question everything you do for free, across the board. If you’ve got good reasons for doing it, then sure – but often, you won’t.
Worth mentioning that you don’t have to perform it live if you don’t feel comfortable. Lots of you won’t have rehearsed properly in months, so it’s probably better if you do pre-record. You can film it, do a bit of editing if you’re capable and set it live at a certain time. Just make sure you’re not tweeting and posting at the same time that you are supposed to be performing. Some people don’t like pre-recording as it doesn’t feel live or spontaneous, but it’s kind of up to you based on what you think will create the best experience.
Talent-sharing is always useful. Particularly if you’re struggling with equipment, tech-skills, extra-hands to film it and make sure the sound is great. If others you know are nailing this, have a chat with them and see if they’ll share their findings, see if you can join forces – likewise if you get good at this, who can you help? – this is something that I’ll always keep coming back to. If you don’t know people that can help you or that you can help, then you need to put more work into building a community around yourself. Creativity is so much better when it’s collaborative and having people around you who are going through similar things is always super helpful. Share your knowledge, experience and learning and it’ll encourage others to do the same.
If you are hosting a full performance as a gig, consider pulling out a track (single release?) and posting this as a live video afterwards for everyone to see and for you to push as part of a single campaign. I’ll go into detail about building campaigns further down the line, but everything suggested here has the end goal of leading to a larger audience. The most you can get out of all this effort, the better.
RESEARCH: Have a look at what other bands and artists are doing that seem to be in a similar situation to you. Also explore some of the top-end, premium streams that big artists are doing as you can steal a few ideas and make them work for you on a budget. I’ve picked a few that have stood out to me for different reasons. I know it seems a stretch to go from quite casually playing a song to your phone to looking at something with more production value, but it’s certainly worth pushing yourself to see what you can create, perhaps with a little help from your pals. A bit of inspiration always helps…
We will look at different ways of bringing in some $$$$ throughout this, but often it takes a bit of external funding to not only provide you with a vital cash injection, but also to motivate you to push forward. Familiarise yourself with the different funding that is available and keep your eyes open for new options (national and sometimes local, too). If you require finances dues to COVID-19 there are some hardship funds available.
Here in the Liverpool City Region we have LIMF Academy, which is a year long artist development programme which also comes with funding to support them helping you with your overall strategy. Deadline for applications is this Friday 14th August. More details here. If there are opportunities specific to your area, please do post them in the comments.
PRS Foundation – different funds for different career points and purposes
Help Musicians – Hardship Fund, Do It Differently fund currently not open
Musicians Union – Hardship Fund
Arts Council England – different funds for creators and organisations
If you are unsure about what kind of funding you would suit, I’d always have a go at the Help Musicians funding wizard, which helps you work out if there are current funding opportunities that you meet the criteria for.
To find out more about new funding, make sure you’re following the above organisations on social media and sign up to their mailing lists. Always useful to follow local authorities, too – in case local funding opens up in your region.
For help and advice on the application process, generally the funders host webinars during application time, there’s also resources on their websites. You will need detailed plans, well-thought out budgets and to demonstrate exactly how the funding will support you alongside measurable goals. Your music examples that you provide when applying for funding must represent how you sound at present, rather than that song on your Spotify that got a shit tonne of streams three years ago – that’s always a useful thing to know. You can talk about accolades in a separate section, so you’ll still get to shout about past successes, but current music is always easier to assess you on. Another element that helps is if you can show an awareness of where else you might have money coming in. So that you’re not solely reliant on the funding, but still need it in order to complete your proposed activity. This can demonstrate that you are more likely to make a success of your project post-funding.
It’s hard to do anything creative when you are suffering with your mental health. It’s also particularly hard to shout about and promote yourself, which is why I wanted to to cover it. How can you go into a campaign of promoting yourself if you’re not feeling too great. I think most people I know have suffered one way or another since we went into lockdown. It’s perfectly normal to not want to do things during this time. Do not compare yourself to others. This is super important. Often things are not as they seem.
We all have different coping methods and some of us talk about them more than others. I feel like I’m pretty much an open book, if a pal asks me how I’ve been I tend to tell the truth – they might not have wanted the truth, but if I’ve been feeling rubbish I tend to share it, particularly if I’m starting to feel better, generally because I’ll be pretty proud of myself for coming through it. Often I don’t realise that I’ve been feeling so shit until I start to feel better and then I feel a bit silly about how irrational it all was. I know I’m lucky because it comes and goes, often without medical intervention. Over the years I’ve found the best way to make sense of and deal with how irrational my anxiety is, is to talk about it like it’s something that kind of visits, makes me behave in a way I dislike and then goes and visits someone else and lets me get on with things. I’m not sure if personifying it works for everyone but to me I think of it as an absolute brat and that kind of helps. For every ‘talker’ like me there’s probably about ten people that keep everything to themselves. We are all very different.
Does anyone else feel controlled by the weather??? Genuinely if it’s a grey sky I feel quite down and often apathetic (which is awful if I’m already in a slump) and if it’s a blue sky and I can feel warm air on my skin I feel like I can achieve anything. I try to make the most of those blue sky days and get lots done, often to make up for the grey days. I must be quite a simple creature and also born in the wrong country. If I’m feeling particularly shitty and I’ve been up to my ears in music-related things (sometimes music isn’t always an escape), I always watch the film ‘Roman Holiday‘. I’ve done this for years. I’m not sure why this particular film gives me full on escapism, but I’ve watched it 4 times since April. Some people go on a long bike ride, I watch this specific film. I dunno, Rome looks pretty cool in black and white.
Back to the topic, the following support is available. Again, please do share further resources in the comments and I’ll add them in:
The Open Door Centre based out of The Bloom Building in Birkenhead. Basically, if you don’t know about these lot, get to know them! They work on a membership format. If you are aged 15-30, you can become a member and then access as many of their services as you like, including Creative Therapeutic Support if you are feeling down, low, stressed or anxious, numerous different activities within music and the arts, unique training and volunteering opportunities and much more.
My Black Dog is an online chat service, perfect for those that maybe struggle to talk on the phone about their mental health. This isn’t for those at crisis point, but is an opportunity to get some support from volunteers who have experienced mental health issues themselves. There’s a nod towards music with these lot who recently announced noisy Crystal Palace buggers JOHN as ambassadors, which’ll mean the service is promoted at their shows.
C.A.L.M – A phoneline and webchat that operates each evening from 5pm until midnight. This charity was formed to combat the large suicide rate, particularly in men. They offer brilliant support for those who are struggling. Also, from personal experience, if you are really concerned about someone in your life and need advice on how to deal with the situation, how to talk to them when you’re scared you might make it worse, I thoroughly recommend having a chat with C.A.L.M.
Samaritans are here 24 hours a day for all those suffering, particularly for anyone feeling suicidal.
If you’re scared to talk to your pals for whatever reason, then have a chat with someone totally objective and knowledgeable first. It’ll give you a fresh perspective on things. Being able to talk freely about your mental health with the people around you maybe feels daunting at first, but you’ll be surprised by how many people, particularly fellow musicians, can relate to what you are going through.
For specific support for those in the Music Industry, take a look at the Musician’s Union website for a list of charities and organisations, including Help Musicians’ free 24hr helpline. These lot are great, particularly if you’re concerned about the financial aspect of being self-employed, which is a big cause of anxiety for a lot of musicians.
It’s important to go into projects with knowledge and know-how. Even if you don’t have the experience, you will build confidence and feel empowered by learning from those who have. I said this in the last article I wrote, but I feel like it’s an important point to make, if someone holds their cards super close to their chest, they’ve got fuck all worth sharing. People who have decent experience and have some of the answers will share them.
It’s up to you what your community looks like. Those people you spend your time with, who you collaborate with, who you bounce ideas off. A bit of friendly competition is always fine but do you think those around you will share their own experiences and what they have learnt, or do you think they would more likely want to always be a couple of steps ahead of you? I think there’s an assumption that the industry is quite cut-throat and that it’s built on quite nasty attitudes and low morals, but in actual fact, the music industry is built on people working with others that share the same values as them. You can choose what your values are and you can exist in a community that shares those values – preferably that lifts one another and shares their experiences and knowledge with one another.
If you’re thinking about what distributor to work with, rather than go with the one that’s paid for advertising at the top of Google, or the one that came in and spoke to you at uni – ask your pals, see who everyone uses and what they’ve experienced. Go online, do a google and a twitter search, see if the chatter adds up. Research is my most important thing. It’s the thing that takes up the most time across all the different projects I work on and is the thing that makes me feel prepared in scary situations. Plus, I actually just really enjoy it. Luckily, over the years I have also built up a really solid support network, so I’m constantly sharing info and building up a solid picture of situations with a mixture of things that I’ve learned and personal experiences of others.
If someone you’ve never heard of approaches you and wants to work with you and you’ve no idea who they are. Ask your pals. Keep sharing your info and you’ll strengthen your local community. If someone behaves in a shitty way and you’re trying to work out if it’s a one-off or that’s kind of what they’re like, ask about.
Over the last few months, many industry organisations, companies and charities have hosted webinars that you can attend, mostly for free, which are designed to help you and strengthen your knowledge. Make sure you’re taking advantage of these. Twitter is a really great place for discovering stuff like this. If you’re following the different industry bodies (UK Music, Musician’s Union, PRS For Music, Music Producer’s Guild, PPL, etc.), you’ll find they share a lot of them.
Have a look at what’s happening locally, too. I know that Sound City have been doing a lot of online stuff. FUTURE YARD (the music venue opening in Birkenhead that I’m involved with) have announced a series of fortnightly free webinars called Direct Input, which basically involves me interviewing either artists, bands or people that work very closely to them about how they got successful. The first one is on Monday 17th August with Alan Duggan from Girl Band talking about self-managing. Get involved!
Lots of the showcase/industry festivals that have been postponed or cancelled have done or are doing elements of their conference programme online, so there are definitely some great learning opportunities to help equip you for getting through this weird time.
It’s also important to stay up to date with the issues we’re facing and how the industry is coming together to battle it. If you get involved in the campaigns (particularly those around lobbying Government for support) it often makes things feel a bit less hopeless, particularly when those campaigns then yield positive results. Again, following trade bodies like UK Music, Music Venue Trust, etc. will help you keep on top of what’s going on.
Self Releasing a Single: The Basics
Right, so I’ve chatted on about the kind of ideological stuff for quite a while. Let’s get to the nitty gritty of actually planning to release something. Some of this is going to be obvious to a lot of you, some of you will be trying to work out how best to go about a release in its entirety. Hopefully the next load of warblings will act as validation for those that already know their shit and some good little pointers for those yet to know this particular bit.
General rule of thumb for how much lead in time you need between when you deliver a track to your distributor and your release date is that you want to give yourself a load of prep and research time and also to be able to submit to playlisting at Spotify 3 weeks up front through Spotify for Artists, so giving yourself a wee bit of time for the distributor to upload and for the track to register with the Digital Streaming Platforms (DSPs) – I’d recommend uploading no less than 4 weeks up front of the release date. This will also give you a bit of time in case there are any issues with the upload. Some distributors will boast that they can deliver super quick, which brings me to a phrase I basically live my career by – “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”. This goes back to the importance of preparation and research.
If it’s your first release, I’d possibly look at giving yourself 5-6 weeks so you’ve got time to set up your Spotify for Artists account in plenty of time. It can take a few days to validate.
Some distributors now allow you to add the credits for your single, which shows up on Spotify, now. So that’s ace – meaning everyone that contributed to your track can now get a shout out. The upload process is generally easy, but do get recommendations from friends who have distributed their music. I use AWAL for all my releases and it’s very rare that the release comes back with any faults. I’ve had it happen once where I stuck the label info in wrong and they emailed me about 4 hours after I’d submitted to check! Really great stuff.
Contrary to popular belief, there are no particular rules with regards to picking release dates for singles, you can release any day of the week. A lot of people favour Fridays and the only thing I can think of here is because of Spotify New Music Fridays, which is such a lonnnnggggg shot. Spotify also have new artist playlists they update on Wednesdays and Thursdays, too – so I don’t really get the sway towards Fridays. It’s a very ‘major label’ thing to release on Fridays. If anyone has any further thoughts on this one, do share.
I find that contacting bloggers and radio people is generally a lot easier mid-week. Mondays are often spent having a look at what happened over the weekend or anything big that was missed on the Friday. Tuesdays-Thursdays feel a lot better.
It’s good to make sure you’re not clashing with anything obvious. I very nearly released Eyesore & The Jinx’s EP on the same day the Mercury Prize shortlist was announced, which would’ve been so shit. Have a scout about and see if there’s anything big planned around the time period you are looking, and swerve if there is.
If you’ve got anything taking place in your diary already that could provide you with a decent promotional boost, then this can give you a guideline for when to release. Look to see if there’s a natural place to put your single release and then think about how you can build around it, more on that later. Also, once you’ve picked a release day, keep it clear in your diary – probably not the best day to go to Chester Zoo, let’s put it that way.
Once you can see that the track has been delivered to the DSPs, you can request the links to the track from your distributor to make a pre-save link. There are a number of platforms that do this, SmartURL and Feature FM being two of the main ones. Have a play around with these, see which one suits. Feature FM does require a fee to unlock certain features. It’s also a good idea to check if your distributor can supply one for you, some do. I always use a personalised SmartURL from release day onwards, though. You can skin them so they fit in with your artwork – Exhibit A.
PREPARATION PART 1: CONTACT LISTS
Make yourself a spreadsheet with two pages, one for press/radio/playlists etc., the other for industry contacts. Dump everyone in that you already know.
Make sure you’re following everyone on twitter that’s in this list, easiest way of finding out about what they’re up to, who they’re writing about or listening to. Basically the easiest and most legal way of stalking people that can help you. It’s also important to note that due to the current situation, there are redundancies and closures. Do make sure that you keep this list up to date. Often checking on twitter is the easiest way to see what’s going on. Lots of music websites and publications are running on skeleton staff due to lack of revenue, but we’ll talk about pulling together targets specifically in this current climate in the next part.
PREPARATION PART 2: MATCHING SOCIALS
When you start promoting yourself you want to have all your profile pictures and banners matching across everything and have it related to the content that you are using for your single. The DSPs also count as social profiles, too. If you get everything matching, then your fans can easily recognise what you’re currently promoting and are also easily alerted when the attention has moved to something else. It’s an easy way of creating a little bubble around each release and also an easy way of building up familiarity with new listeners.
Consider this when you’re thinking about the artwork for your release. How does it look replicated and also as a really small image. Does it stand out and does it feel like it represents your project well. It’s good to switch these over at a very specific time, to launch this new focus. We’ll go in to more detail on this when we talk about time-lining and making the most out of content when their doesn’t feel like there is a great deal of activity. So your preparation in this department is to gather all the correct image sizes for the different platforms. I use Adobe Spark to do this, which is a small monthly subscription and has all the templates ready for you to just drop the image into.
It’s worth mentioning that I always have a couple of different sized biographies for different uses. I always have a main biog that has all the info in it, then I pull out a 100 word biog out of that, which is generally the limit on a fair few different platforms and also when you’re applying for things like funding and festivals and the likes.
Keep a record of nice quotes from coverage that you can add to your biog info if needs be. Always replace low-level quotes with those from more reputable sources, when you get them.
I also have a template that I use to structure press releases, if this is useful, please let me know and I’ll try and stick that in somewhere.
END OF PART ONE, PART TWO WILL FOLLOW ASAP…
Questions, comments, suggestions, chatter in the comments please.
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