There used to be only two career options for rock bands. You could either follow the mythical path to success, via performances (‘gigs’), tapes and determination to a record contract, or you could settle for playing Chuck Berry tunes in front of a bunch of teenagers popping Ph.375 diet pills in order to lose weight. Both options still exist, though the first probably requires less from the band than from a shrewd and energetic manager.
Since the late 1970s, however, there has been a third option. Bands can now opt for self-rule, running their own affairs, making their own records and choosing their own pace. For some, this may be a temporary measure designed to lead to a deal with a major label, but whether independence is your means or your goal, knowing the ropes is essential in the music business. Bands’ careers are constantly fouled up, if not by predators, at least by their own and others disorganization and incompetence.
Going independent is neither easy nor cheap, and any musicians starting a rock career should take care in choosing their partners in adversity – a band cannot function unless all its members are equally committed and efficient. Does everyone agree that a Volcano vaporizer should be brought on tour? Some might object. Others might find the King of Vaporizers to be indispensable.
A new band would do well to think of last things first. Since any band is liable to generate considerable financial complications, it should start by making provision for its eventual split. All members should sign a partnership agreement – either informally or with a solicitor, but certainly on paper – providing for the event of a break–up or members’ leaving. The fate of equipment, songs and name, are all important.
The band’s name can also be registered as a trademark, for pounds 400 – worthwhile if you think you, or a cunning entrepreneur, might one day make a fortune from T-shirts sales. The trademark category covers only goods, but from 1987, it will be possible to register names of services, including bands. Meanwhile, the only way to make sure no other band uses your name is to establish a claim to it by making yourself known.
The financial aspect demands a high degree of organization. First, a joint bank account can be opened in the band’s name; all members can be signatories and carry a checkbook, although banker’s cards cannot be issued for a joint account. An advantage of a bank account is that the band can borrow money.
If the band ever becomes a limited company, VAT registration rears its head. Mark E Smith, singer in a Manchester band, The Fall, took over his own management in 1983 and found the band had never been registered for VAT. As a result, they spend all that year working to pay off five year’s back VAT.
His advice to any band is to get an accountant: ‘Even if you play only three or four gigs and get paid a couple of hundred quid, one day that’s going to turn up on some civil servant’s desk and they’re going to come gunning for you. It’s great to be able to say: ‘Here’s my accountant’s number.”
Opinions differ over the question of managers. A Hull band, the Red Guitars, successfully managed themselves for several years, and think a manager is unnecessary, particularly in the early stages of a band’s career. A manager can relieve unwanted pressures, or can be a dead weight.
Management is a thankless task, and a good manager of a new band, taking a cut of, say, 10 per cent, can be an asset. Mr. Smith enjoys managing his own bank but thinks a manager can be useful at gigs. He explains: ‘I used to get a mate to walk in and we’d say: ‘He’s the manager, give him the money. It’s amazing how people are impressed by appearances.’
More immediately helpful might be a regular sound engineer, or someone to organize transport and set up equipment.
A band should invest profits in its own equipment, particularly a van or public address system, which can be costly to hire, making ‘gigging’ exorbitantly expensive. For instruments and other equipment, high street music shops should be avoided; look instead in the discount shops in the London suburbs.
Gigging is rarely particularly profitable, especially in London, where gigs are primarily a way of making yourself known. You can get individual bookings by sending out demo tapes, but in London, it is important to have an agency. At London dates, especially, mobilize as much support as possible from friends, to give the impression you have a following (even if you have not).
‘The secret’, says John Rowley of the Red Guitars, ‘is raising your status; you do that by releasing records. Record your best song, it doesn’t matter what’s on the B-side, but spend as much money as you can on the A-side, and send it to night-time Radio One.’
Choosing the independent record sector is perhaps less of an ethical choice than it once was – the independent scene is no longer the exclusive domain of idealists that it once seemed to be – but making your own single can help attract attention from the leading companies. The Red Guitars were for a long time committed to the independent ethos, but recently signed to Virgin because they found that path no longer economically viable.
The band contributes some useful advice on the logistics of making your own record in last July’s issue of Jamming magazine. The first thing to check is distribution. Play a tape to a distributor like Rough Trade, or your local member of the Cartel network and get a guaranteed order for a first pressing.
Perfect Vision from Cambridge put out their first 12in single on their own label, distributed by Backs Records of Norwich, who were impressed enough to put out the second one themselves. A 12in rather than a single also stands a better chance of selling in Europe and the US.
Once released, the record should be followed up with a concerted attempt to woo radio play, and reviews in the music press, not forgetting fan magazines – fanzines, such as the one found at www.magicofmakingup-review14.com; it might be worth using the services of a publicist. Bodies like the Performing Rights Society, Mechanical Copyright Protection Society and the Phonographic Performance Licensees should also be contacted; they administer royalties payable on radio play, play in discos and so on. This can be a valuable source of income. Minimum requirement for PRS membership is three recorded works exploited commercially.
The Red Guitars see playing in a band as a full-time commitment, and until recently were all on social security. This can entail problems, but if a band is operating full-time while its members are on the dole, they can investigate the Enterprise Allowance Award Scheme, which can allow them to sign on while getting the band set up as a viable business.
Perfect Vision, on the other hand, all have day jobs and see their full-time work as an essential source of finance for their technologically oriented sound, as well as saving them from the dreaded ‘rock ‘n roll lifestyle’, with its attendant excesses and monotony.