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An indie musician’s survival guide

So, you’ve got a band, or maybe just some songs you play all by your
lonesome. We’ll assume you’re not doing this just for kicks. Most
creative endeavours begin as private explorations, but eventually you realize
that to breathe life into a project, it has to be acknowledged by the outside
world. You have to rip that heart out of your ribcage and thrust it, bloody
and beating, into the culture, with hopes of it connecting somehow,
somewhere, with someone. It may even be that making music is what you love
most, and want to do for the rest of your life.

Another assumption: you’re not headed for major labels and stadium
rock stardom, but the indie circuit—which, in the age of Feist, the
New Pornographers and Chad vanGaalen doesn’t necessarily mean small
potatoes.
 

One last assumption: quality songwriting and music-making comes
first. 

“There’s never enough money and tons of competition, and
that’s a lot of pressure,” cautions Mark Feduk. Over a dozen
years, the songwriter/multi-instrumentalist has been in several projects,
including dearly departed country-roots stompers the Uncas. Feduk was the
Uncas’ de facto manager and now oversees Edmontone Studio and the
career of Doug Organ (the Whitsundays, Wet Secrets and more), while
nurturing his own band, Red Ram (also with Organ). 
 

“A band is four or five people with different goals and
lives—obviously, you want to have fun, but if you decide it’s a
career, at least for a time, lay out the plan and make sure
everyone’s committed for that time,” Feduk advises.
“Watch those relationships; take care of them. It’s easy to
have hurt feelings for something you care about and worked hard on break
up.”
 

He also recommends hitching responsibilities to bandmates. “Figure
out each person’s strengths,” he says. “Not
everyone’s the manager type. You need someone willing to work the
crowd when you play. Figure out who the techie or mechanic is. Who can keep
travel arrangements straight? One Uncas was a great cook—on tour,
he’d make sandwiches in the back of the van and a healthy meal from a
rice cooker in our rooms at night. That saved us time and money. Look
beyond the obvious.”
 

Ok, you have songs, relationships and roles. Now what?
 

“While you’re playing shows, you’re recording demos or an
EP, writing grants, building your mailing list, doing research, talking to
media—everything has to be happening at the same time,” Feduk
emphasizes.
 

We picked Feduk’s brain, along with those of independent producer
Terry Tran (Shout Out Out Out Out, Theresa Sokyrka, Social Code) and
publicist/manager Ken Beattie (his Vancouver-based company, Killbeat, works
with several Canadian labels and artists), for advice on how to approach a
career through three broad categories: gigging, recording and promoting.
(Vue also threw in, where applicable.) 

 

Gigging

 

Vue Weekly: How can we get our first shows?

Mark Feduk: When you’re starting out and have no recording yet,
remember it’s a community. Go to shows, meet other bands, especially
in your genre. Support them, talk to them, learn as much as you can from
them. A band that’s more established can sometimes ask bookers or
venues if you can open for them.

 

Vue adds: do the same for a young band when you get the opportunity.

 

VW: How much material do we need?

MF: Ask the booker/venue how long your set is, but regular sets are about
45 minutes, or maybe only half an hour if you’re opening. Have about
that much ready. You also want versatility, some ability to shift with the
mood of the crowd.

 

VW: How do we build a set?

MF: It’s one of those things you should never stop working on. A lot
of bands start with their great stuff, but save your best songs for last,
especially if you’re newer. I know it’s tough to start with
stuff you aren’t so excited about, but the last songs are what stick
with the audience.

 

VW: Performance tips? 

MF: Watch for the catatonic gaze. You want to look at the crowd, engage
with people, but don’t hold eye contact so long you freak them out.
And don’t watch people walk out—you can’t take it
personally. At this point, it’s about getting in front of people.
Don’t be hard on yourself after the first couple shows. Don’t
have high expectations—it’s a long, rough, tough process. Just
keep working on your show.

 

VW: Questions to ask a promoter/venue when we’re booked?

MF: What the terms are, when your load-in, soundcheck and set times are, if
and when they need logos or images, if you need to poster. Your guest list
is usually one or two people per member. Your rider depends—a couple
drinks in a bar, sometimes a meal. Try for what you can get. There’s
no harm in asking politely. If they have a kitchen: “Is it possible
to have a meal?” If you’re touring: “Can we get
accommodations?” A lot of clubs have deals with hotels. It all should
be talked about before the show, though—if you wait until that night,
nothing will happen. An email usually stands in for a contract. Print it
out and bring it to the show with you.

 

Vue adds: also ask who you’re playing with, how much cover is, if
there are advance tickets, if they’re printing handbills or posters
you can distribute. Sometimes bands can’t give Vue details on their
own shows, which makes it dificult to run a story previewing a gig. If you
don’t know the venue well or if it’s a DIY-ish show, check if
you’re expected to do door duty, so you can plan in advance. 

 

VW: What’ll we get paid?

MF: Unfortunately, you kind of have to take what you get at first. Terms
you should be familiar with: a guarantee—a set amount no matter what;
guarantee versus the door—a good situation, you get whatever’s
higher; guarantee plus the door—the best situation. A percentage of
the door is most common, though. Both you and the venue will be working to
get people there.

 

VW: How do we split the money?

MF: Figure out what the band will do with money you earn, and how
you’ll pay for band expenses. At first, all the money goes into a
band account. Later on, maybe half goes into the account and the rest is
split between you. If you’re solo, you pay people backing you no
matter what, even if you don’t make anything.

 

Vue adds: band finances could be a whole other article. Find an
accountant/bookkeeper who can give you advice and help you set up a system.

 

VW: What about soundchecks?

MF: The sooner you find load-in, soundcheck and set times out, the better
you can plan. Be prompt, leave early if you’re touring. First, set up
your gear on stage—place amps, drums, whatever you use. Next,
soundpeople run their lines—you need to get out of their way. When
they’re ready, you’ll test everything: drums, bass, guitar,
vocals, whatever else, do a line check. Then you’ll run through a
quick song. Play your loudest song, the one that uses the most instruments.
Don’t crank your amps when you’re on stage—lots of young
bands do this, and you can’t hear vocals. On stage it may sound
great, but out in the audience, no. Let soundpeople do their job—they
know the room. Keep levels where they set them, ask for something in
monitor if you can’t hear well enough on stage, but only do that
during a show if you have to—you’re bringing the audience back
to reality, abruptly. Respect your soundperson. When they give you advice,
it’s usually good. If you have the inexperienced
soundperson—and it happens—or if something goes wrong, be
gracious and ask them for help with the problem. Don’t assume
sabotage, unless you’ve been an asshole—then you probably
deserve it.

 

VW: How do you book your own tour?

MF: Plan three to four months beforehand. Ask your contacts and mailing
list about whether they can help with places to play or stay, do your
research on venues and bookers and local media. Be open to interesting
shows, like house parties. On the road, play as much as possible, even just
for a place to stay and food and drinks. Corb Lund was great to the Uncas
and asked us to play with him when he could on the road. We didn’t
tour “with” him, but we drove out where we could to open when
we got that opportunity. It may not pay much, but a chance like that is
worth the investment—drive to Vancouver and spend $800, even if you
only make $100. It’ll be worth it playing a full room—better
than headlining with no following. And set up other shows on the way there
and back.

 

Vue adds: start in summer with regional dates, then hit the west coast
before tackling central or eastern Canada or winter tours. International
tours are beyond the scope of this article, but bottom line: do your
research and paperwork. Get a passport before you need it, just in case.

 

VW: Road tips?

MF: Take care of yourself. Two weeks into a six-week tour, half the Uncas
were sick—I lost my voice—from stress, crap food, partying
every night and some gross conditions in band rooms. Try to hit grocery
stores when you can and make your own food when you can—it’s
healthier, you play better and it’s cheaper and saves you time. 

 

VW: How often should we play?

MF: Even your best friends won’t see you every week. Play a lot the
first few months for experience—if you’re always
opening—but don’t overplay your hometown. Don’t freak out
if there’s one bad show, but if crowds are shrinking, you
haven’t put enough work in to the show or are overplaying. Take time
to write, rehearse, build your set and give your audience something new
every time.

 

Vue adds: many places won’t book you within two to four weeks of
another show (in town).

 

Recording

 

VW: Where do I start?

MF: You’re going to have trouble booking shows without a demo, plus
you need to get songs together for your MySpace page. Recording’s a
big investment. Start with a rough demo, and after your first few shows
think about recording a better demo or high quality EP, three to five
songs.”

Terry Tran: Sometimes I think it’s better to do two or three songs to
promote yourself on MySpace or else an album. It’s way more fun to
make an album because you can really make something with it—you come
up with a journey, a theme, unify it and make it a real listening
experience. Sometimes an EP feels like a collection of songs that
aren’t quite whole. There’s more creative aim with an album.

 

VW: Can we do it at home?

MF: Not all home studios are created equal—Nik Kozub’s, of
course, is terrific. But you can go pretty basic for a demo—a laptop,
$200 sound card, decent mic and a program is a makeshift studio. A home
studio’s valuable, especially to figure out what you want. If you
have a great one and one of your band guys or gals is a producer type, use
that resource until you want to take advantage of a studio. If it ends up
sounding rough, it’s not wasted work. Consider it a good start and
head to a studio.

TT: Depends on what you’re doing—making a record for the
industry or for yourself and your friends?

 

VW: What’s the difference between a producer, engineer, mixer?

MF: An engineer takes care of technical stuff: setting up mics to get the
sound you want, pressing record and stop, cabling, etc. A producer has a
vision and a more creative role overseeing sound. She or he has ideas for
harmonies, arrangements, sonic soundscape. A mixer is often the same person
as the producer—they’re responsible for the final sound. It
takes longer than you’d think, adding finishing touches, making sure
every sound is sitting in the right spot. They listen to the recording in
different stereos and situations, compress vocals a bit and make sure you
can hear them, add a touch of cohesion. The process goes: tracking, mixing,
mastering.

TT: In bigger studios or projects, they specialize and work as a team. Some
people do everything, are good at everything, but usually it’s out of
necessity. I’d rather work on a specific role—you can really
focus. We did that on the SO4 record.

 

VW: And masterer?

MF: Mastering’s done by a pair of fresh ears. They keep dynamics
intact, bring the album together, make it a unified whole, boost levels and
even out volumes. Put an unmastered CD on after  [listening] to a
mastered one on the stereo and you’ll hear it.

 

VW: How do you know who you need?

MF: What do you want out of your recording? Figure out the kind of sound
you want and find the producer and studio who can do that well. Never go
into a studio without a clue of what you want to sound like. The more time
you spend figuring it out, the better. Then you don’t have to spend
as much on pre-production.

TT: Bands have to sort out what’s best for them, and not just by
price. Everyone knows different things, specialize in certain things. A
good producer balances the technical and musical. They’re a top-level
manager and bridge between engineers (technical) and band
(creative/musical). Two types of bands who work with producers: the band
who knows their sound and the band who works with a producer to develop
their sound. Developing a sound isn’t easy—it should be done in
pre-production, with the producer there to bounce ideas off of. If you just
need an engineer, you don’t need them for pre-production, but the
more a producer or engineer knows your sound, the better you’ll
do. 

 

VW: Can we co-produce?

TT: How many records have you worked on? Every year I go to at least one
audio convention where I hang out with people who do this work and get
exposed to the latest in the industry. Co-producing only works if the
producer and band have respect for each other, aren’t trying to
one-up each other, there’s a common goal and a clear vision of
working towards that goal.

MF: If someone in your band has those skills, great. But remember, this is
a craft people go to school for. If you come to a studio, this is their
career. These people have studied how to get this sound, analogue versus
digital, mic choice and placement, and gotten that experience.
There’s also a difference between someone who knows how to record and
a producer.

 

VW: How do you choose a studio?

TT: Producers generally use a studio they’re affiliated with. Someone
independent like me, it depends on what the band needs. Every
studio’s so different—some places are better for overdubs,
mixing, live off-the-floor, it depends. Using professionals gives you
access to other spaces, because we know other people in our community.

MF: Find someone interested in your project, hear their work, research
different studios, book a tour, meet them, find out if you’re
comfortable there.

 

VW: How do you choose a producer?

TT: Hire a professional who’ll tell you the truth about your stuff.
Your friends and parents will always tell you you’re great.
It’s best if they love your music, but sometimes a producer may do a
project for the technical challenge—producers try to reinvent
themselves just like bands do. Studio owners or new producers may want to
get experience or to stay alive. I think you can really tell who you want
to work with. Meet a bunch and see who resonates. A good producer will also
ask you why you want to work with them. And there’s one thing I ask
bands, and almost none of them have an answer: what does your band offer
that no other band does? Look at SO4: two drummers, four bass players that
play synths, all-vocoder vocals. Who else can say that? A lot of bands
aren’t sure. They’ll say something vague like,
“We’re melodic, with deep lyrics.”

 

VW: How can we prepare for the studio?

TT: Settle these questions at the start of the process—you should
have a budget and schedule and know their rates, work out additional
musicians if you’re a solo artist, what to bring and expect at the
studio. Lay down the process, set up goals and approach—live
off-the-floor or overdubs? Talk about sound: most people can describe what
they want, but be realistic. That Jon Bonham sound on drums? He’s
using a particular kit, particular way of playing, in a particular room,
with particular engineers—all these things that brought them to this
moment in time. You can use it as a reference, but you’re not getting
that exact sound, but something that’s yours. And talk to the
technicians: use a drum tech, get the guitars intonated so they stay in
tune. Sometimes people have shitty guitars or little things like that. Fix
everything before you go in—put it in your budget.

MF: The studio can be intimidating. The worst thing is when the quality and
production are there, but performances are lacklustre. You’ll be
unhappy with that record forever. Put in the effort, know your parts, get
familiar with studio practices. If you’re doing live off-the-floor,
that’s where rehearsing comes in. Unless you’re really
experienced or going for a dirty, looser sound, you’ll probably be
using overdubs, which means you’ll use a click track. You can
practice to a metronome or click track at home. Yeah, it’s boring,
but you need it for overdubbing.

 

VW: Studio etiquette?

MF: Be prompt. Appoint one band person to go between you and the producer.
While most studios have been around, remember your album never changes when
it’s done. One year later you don’t want to be saying,
“Oh, I was so baked.” Don’t assume post-production will
fix everything. Try not to put too much pressure on yourself. It’ll
take longer than you think and there are times when it’s frustrating
for everybody. You’re on a budget and watching the
clock—it’s stressful. Remember we’re all human.

TT: Don’t assume anything and bring all your equipment. Most
producers will only work as hard as you will—hard work before the
studio means preparation: practising, working on performances and
songwriting.

 

VW: Anything else?

MF: Don’t set your CD release before your record is done and in your
hands. So many bands have a horrible CD release with no CDs. Forget
deadlines and work backwards: for an October release, you want them in hand
in September and sent to the media, replicated in August, mixed in July and
tracking done around June. Of course, you’re working around the
studio schedule—find out from them what’s realistic, stay on
top of everything, and know everyone is juggling. And a lot of people
don’t know we have a replication place in town: mehco-inc.com.

 

Promoting

 

VW: What’s first?

MF: Start an email list right away, at your first shows. Have a sign-up
sheet out and track where names are from—which cities, which shows.
Get organized at the beginning with whatever database program. That list
can be another gold star when you’re trying to book shows—you
can say you have 500 people on your mailing list. Sort by city and
province, make a note of who’s extra-supportive, who wants to be a
friend to the band. You may be able to crash with them or they’ll
bring you real food or work your merch table down the road.

Ken Beattie: The first person you should hire is a publicist. I’m not
saying this because I’m a publicist—I mean even before you can
hire anyone, that’s the role you should take on yourself first. You
need to create some sort of buzz. Obviously, be concerned with your art,
but after that—what’s going to attract a manager or label or
whatever to you? Press will. Radio play will. Even if you make cold calls,
being able to say that you have press helps. So I’m a publicist
because I believe that.

 

VW: How do we build a following?

MF: Fans want to feel involved and be friends with the band. A lot of bands
don’t understand that. Part of your work is to be down to earth and
approachable. After shows, don’t just go up to your room. If
it’s a good show, say, “Come talk to us, we’ll be over by
the merch table, come say hi.”

KB: Even if no one knows you, there are things you can do. Burn up a bunch
of singles or an EP of your demos, hand that out to everyone at your show.
Make people buy in early. Everybody has those stories, of when Chad
vanGaalen had handmade discs he was giving out or whatever. That person
will be a fan forever—there’s an emotional attachment beyond
the music. It’s really important that artists connect with people and
say hi. If you have something in your hand you can give it out and say,
“Hey, thanks for coming out to the show, we’re working on a
record, these are some of the songs we’re working on, there’s
more on our MySpace, if you like it you can leave your email and
we’ll let you know when we’re playing another show or the
record is coming out.” Give them a reason to come up to you, and make
the most of that contact. 

 

VW: When do we get “people”?

KB: It’s good for bands to self-manage at the start. For one thing,
it makes them realize what it takes, so when they do bring another person
on board to take that over, they aren’t in the dark about what
they’re supposed to be doing and can stay active and in control. I
may have five or six things sitting on my desk and I love all of them but I
can only work with one, who’ll I pick? The truth is, you’ll
pick the band somewhat further along, someone who has a band member who
takes the reins. If you’ve done two to four tours across Canada, if
you’ve made a couple albums, if you’re making money and are
stable and working on another album, maybe it’s time for us to step
on board. But people want to see a certain level of accomplishment, of
self-sufficiency. Just remember—there’s a lot of great,
talented people we can work with. Distinctions make a difference: if
it’s a choice between the band that’s easy to work with and the
one that isn’t, you can guess who people want to work with.

 

VW: What’s the minimum we should have for publicity?

KB: Decent photos. Not a hipster shot where you’re a mile away.
I’m not saying you can’t have those shots, but they can’t
be the only ones you have because they look awful in some papers. You can
have your creative images, just be sure you have straight-up close ones
too, 300 dpi jpeg. Have your album cover available in that format as well.
Don’t waste money on hard copy photos—you only need digital
images. Craft a press release of some sort. People need something to write
about: a bio, some descriptive info, band member names and instruments, who
does the songwriting. Web presence: Facebook and MySpace for sure, and
maybe your own website. MySpace may be dead and over to you, but I
guarantee, everyone else goes there to look for something. If some media
person somewhere is looking for what’s on this week so they can put
an image and a couple of lines about it in their “best bets”
section, if you have everything they need digitally—images, some band
information, and maybe some songs up on MySpace—and it’s easy
to find you, boom! It’s your show in that slot, with a photo, as a
“best bet” for the week. Things come up at the last minute in
papers, a story or ad falls through or whatever, and you could be in that
space and not even know about it. And then you have your foot in the door:
you can say, “Hey, we were in ‘best bets’ in
Calgary.” And if you’re really smart, you find out who put you
in that slot, and you email or call and say, “Hey, thanks for putting
us in your ‘best bets’ last week. Can I send you a CD? Would
you like to come to our show?” Always ask, “What can I do with
this foot that’s in the door?” 

 

VW: That’s all a publicist does?

KB: We make sure the right people hear you. It’s all about
relationships—you’d hire someone like us for our relationships
with the media as much or more than anything else. Some places get 100
albums a week. Think about something like CBC—how do you cut through
that? If you’re a band, you can do the research yourself and find out
who all the weeklies are in all the cities across Canada and maybe beyond
and you can research all the college radio stations and you can find all
the media contacts. But a lot of people don’t have the means or time.
And even when you do, and if you do all that work and find all that out,
how do you get to the top of the pile on their desk? It’s really
tough to cut through that. If your album isn’t coming from a
reputable person who they know, someone who knows them—not everyone I
send your record to may like it, but most people I send it to will listen
to it. We’re working with albums we really love and we put them into
the hands of people we’ve built relationships with, who we think may
also love them. If you can get some radio play or some reviews in early, we
make a new press release that reflects the interest there and send that out
again, and it builds. We have a strategy, we stick to it, and it works.
That’s why we have 40 or 60 people calling us up every month wanting
to work with us.

 

VW: Really—what’s the secret?

KB: Look, this may sound like I’m over-simplifying, but if
you’re loyal and respectful, you’ll get ahead. Remember your
manners, remember people who gave you those chances, and you’ll
create your own breaks. And you just need two or three of those breaks to
start building something more substantial. Keep making contact with people.
Most people in music are here because they love music. Understand
we’re all humans. Be decent. V

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