By Tony Hinds
Musicians accustomed to the DIY experience often feel they can work at their own pace, free to do with their creations whatever they wish. "We just wrote a new song! Let's play it at the gig this weekend."
When you start scaling up in the business, you'll find things do not work like that. Though you may be proud of it, thoughtlessly dumping your music out into the world is a good way to squander your band mate's hard work. An 18-month to two-year plan for an album cycle is a smarter timeline for bands hoping to financially capitalize from their work.
Royal Canoe's Bucky Driedger and KEN mode's Jesse Matthewson sat down for a talk prior to Manitoba Music's recent DIY Series workshop on planning a successful album release. During the chat, they detailed seven fundamental tips to devising the perfect album release.
1. The content
Your record is your product. Make it a good one. Don't rush it. You need to know the scene you're trying to break into. It's all about baby steps. Matthewson admits that KEN mode began planning their most recent album in April of 2014, only to release it over a year later in June of 2015. What might seem like a long time is actually not uncommon when employing this type of release strategy. There is much to put in place before you can share your music with your fans. Artists looking for government funding should research every element of the process. Album funding through organizations like Manitoba Film & Music and FACTOR have firm deadlines, so you must plan well ahead of time.
If you want to work with the hot producer, you may have to wait for them. Impatience kills bands, and the term last minute shouldn't be in your vocabulary. Everything must be ready at least six months before your record comes out to avoid troublesome short notice struggles.
"If you don't grab people's attention, you might as well throw all your ideas in the trash," Matthewson says.
2. You only get one...
First impressions are so important, affecting everything that follows from touring and sales, to YouTube hits and social media attention. The reveal of your shiny new album must be mapped out carefully. Give fans a reason to listen. You need hooky songs, tracks which announce your album's impending arrival. Even existing fans may be put off by a lackluster first single. You have one shot to grab people's attention.
The new Royal Canoe album is already finished, but will not be debuted for a least five months, just to allow for proper release logistics. During that down time, Driedger confides that Royal Canoe has video and photo shoots, new bios, album artwork, and a full website revamp scheduled.
"You've gotta set the table for yourself," Driedger says. "Your first swing has got to be the best one."
...is everything. If you release your video too late after the album, your expensively budgeted video could potentially flop. Be very careful how you spend that money. It would be heartbreaking to have your money wasted on pitiful YouTube view counts. What causes this type of flop?
"It's nothing but bad timing," Matthewson exclaims.
You must give yourself the necessary time for preparation. Don't rush. Start a year, or at least six months early. The sheer amount of time and work can seem daunting, but if your band mates work together as a team, delegating many of these tasks will lighten the load.
Getting a team together can be a tricky prospect. You all must work together, if you have a team. One person must lead, just for the sake of order. You essentially need a wrangler to keep everyone on task. Even bands with labels and agents often end up employing DIY tactics by necessity.
Your ultimate goal is to get fans, old and new, talking about your album. Interviews, articles, and social media shares are exactly what you need, but admittedly easier said than done.
"You need a voice," Driedger says. "Someone to say: 'Hey everyone, check this out!'"
Why should music journalists talk about your music? Nobody wants to read or write a headline like 'Old band makes new record'. The sad truth is the average unsigned group has little to talk about that would engage discerning readers. If you work in media, you likely receive hundreds, if not thousands of publicity requests per month. Up-and-coming bands must be clever to stand out from the ever-growing pack. It can be something as simple as your day job, which proved fruitful for KEN mode, as Matthewson attests.
"I don't know how the hell we managed to make being accountants in heavy music work for us," Matthewson says. "But we did."
Releasing your new video? Good news. A big time media outlet may debut it online for you, if you ask nicely. It never hurts to inquire. Help is often only an email away. Winnipeg is full of journos who write for Exclaim!, and Vice’s Noisey. Find them on social media. You may know someone already. If not, you must network and make relationships. You could be putting out the most beautiful music in the world, but often a hand shake or pleasantry can be more effective.
Even if you don't know anyone in media, get in touch. These are the tastemakers who you want championing your music. If you're looking for coverage in June, start sending email inquiries and press releases in April. Stay vigilant, as there are many bands contacting local journalists all the time, and they unfortunately can't reply to every message.
On their most recent release, KEN mode had the Winnipeg music scene chattering even before they'd recorded a note, due to the involvement of famed producer Steve Albini, former producer for legends such as Pixies and Nirvana. However you decide to inspire that chatter, it's essential to the process. Most albums are dead in the water six months after their release. Radio play can help maintain audience awareness, but can be hard to come by. Often, the best way to create new fans is through positive word of mouth. If you play a great show, people will remember. But you must give them a reason to talk.
5. Brand image
You have to build a framework by which prospective listeners will first encounter the album. Find the strongest way to receive it. A consistency of image is key to spreading awareness. There are simple things you can do to alter your brand image to match with the new material. For instance, update your website to match your album design. Add the new tour dates and post your new video, everything timed to drop at the same moment. A full brand reboot. Even smaller details such as artwork for digital singles should be thematically related to your album's artwork and overall concept. Matthewson recounted some humourous words of wisdom from Albini, who compared the release of an album to a fart.
"Once you release the album into the world, it belongs to the world and there's not much you can do about it," says Matthewson.
Once the album is released, it cannot be controlled in the same way it can during the promotional stage. An 18-month album cycle is a long time. That's where the real work happens. Put as much fuel into that release as possible. To accomplish this, you must plan ahead. Your press release, radio package, band bio, all should be crafted with these notions in mind. Telling a journalist that you worked super-duper hard on the album isn't particularly interesting, regardless of its truth. If it isn't interesting to hear, it will prove even less so in print, and likely won't boost sales. Find your own points of entry for fans, and you'll be on the right track.
Touring may seem like the final step, but your tour should never be an afterthought. Instead, it must be a carefully considered aspect of the release strategy from day one. Touring is essential. How are you going to publicize that show in Calgary in March? If you're trying to figure that out in March, it's too late. Plan far ahead, researching national publicity outlets as a hobby. This is your life now.
It's also smart to capitalize on summer festivals, which often finalize their line up as much as a year early. There are festivals all over Canada, always hungry for talent. If you can get applications in on time, you're already ahead of many of your contemporaries.
Yet, all of this work could be in vain, if your release isn't planned with equal care. Even an established act like KEN mode, who wished to become a full time touring band in 2009, were not able to accomplish this until almost two years later. It wasn't achieved until Matthewson and company gradually built a network of promoters, and connected with the proper label and producers.
Already touring? Ever heard of over-touring? The notion can be a difficult one to understand for some. Bands who have played the same city more than a half dozen times in the last two years will often be shocked by the diminishing returns they find in these regions. Perhaps you should give that city a break, unless you're still raking in cash. This doesn't apply to every group. If you're a younger band, you would be wise to keep hitting those cities until the fanbase grows. If you're selling absolutely no tickets, perhaps you should regroup and consider the next point.
The toughest pill to swallow can be the news that your plan has been unsuccessful. It's crucial to know what you are as a band, and when to regroup if necessary. We've all heard other bands who clearly were not ready for the world of album releases and national tours. Why is it so obvious to some, and so oblivious to others? Don't beat yourself up over late-acquired self-awareness. Use this information to your advantage. Musicians must remain perpetual students, their education in the musical arts never complete. Go beyond your friends and family for feedback. There's always someone who will say you're not good enough. You must find a balance between taking and ignoring criticism.
"If you're going to be the one slogging it out, playing these songs on stage every night, you need to be proud of them," Driedger says. "Or else don't do it."