Why is My Obscure, Vinyl-Only Band So Obscure?
Are you a musician? Is your group having issues? Ask Fan Landers! Critic Jessica Hopper has played in and managed bands, toured internationally, booked shows, produced records, worked as a publicist, and is the author of The Girls' Guide to Rocking, a how-to for teen ladies. She is here to help you stop doing it wrong. Send your problems to her -- confidentiality is assured, unless you want to use your drama as a ticket to Internet microfame. Dear Fan, I'm having trouble getting press for my band and other bands on the micro label we're on. It's an all analog label, that has actually been tracking/mixing to tape and pressing exclusively on vinyl for the past 5 years. So, there are no digital copies of our music in existence. We do have YouTube videos with quality clips of the music to provide samples of our sound. We've been trying to get an LP reviewed for some time now, and have upcoming releases we're very excited for and would like to have press about them. We've had a small amount of success getting smaller blogs to review it. But despite positive reviews, none of that really translated to any sort of buzz or records sales. I keep hoping reviews from higher profile media outlets might translate to 'buzz' or at least a couple record sales. No one from Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Spin, etc. is getting back to me. I'm also not hearing form lower tier magazines. Not sure if it's the emails I'm sending, if there's some secret password that gets you in the club, if it's the fact that we're not a major label, if they're all just afraid to admit no one on their staff actually owns a turntable, or if they just want money to review a record. Any advice on getting records reviewed?
Cheers, Not Merge
Dear Not Merge,
I am impressed by your commitment to the analog-nerd roll, it's also a nice thing to do for listeners and bands--especially given how exhausting it is to listen to blown-out digitally-mastered albums. Nevertheless, you know that this is The Digital Age™ we live in, the label you formed is an active reaction to that idea and the disposability, speed and accessibility that has come with it. Music consumers--fans, writers, the extant DIY industry--are used to consuming that way. Our busy days and our needs tend towards portability. I tend to buy vinyl of albums I already know and feel nostalgic for; buying vinyl is my allusion to a wish for a slowness that does not exist in my life, a fantasy of time I do not have.
Some other critics I know default to the medium, but most of us are earbuds and laptops out of necessity--but also because that's how most music is delivered/accessible to us. I think it's a little bit naive (sorry) to think that people at major publications might have record players, the time and interest to put on vinyl releases of unknown bands. Let's take your example of Rolling Stone and look at what they cover in their reviews section--a cursory glance: Robin Thicke, classic rock reissues, Backstreet. Looking at your roster, you have six local/regional bands and I have maybe heard of one of them but I think I am mostly just confusing them with a band with a similar name, and one of the genres you claim to release is "dirtbag spy jazz." While it is safe to say that writers and editors there might enjoy such a thing, going by what they cover and how--your Dirtbag Spy Jazz Band would have to be blowing the fuck up, joining the Black Keys, getting a 9.8 on Pitchfork--i.e. visible on mainstream indie radar for them to warrant coverage.
Everything you spell out here about your label--DIY, small time, local, vinyl only--is the domain of the underground. The underground is what is going to give those bands careers, so you need to focus there. Regional press, garage rock and punk zines, any publication that has a vinyl column or a fidelity boner, MRR on down and people that write about cassettes. Stop caring about why the Captain of the Football Team didn't ask you to go to prom. Your peers and the people who are naturally interested in what you are doing are small timers like yourself. Keep your expectations to the world you are in, because the kind of music you are releasing is for a small, self-selecting group that is a sub-group of a larger but still small, self-selecting group. Also, no one sells records. If the bands you are working with are not touring, touring outside of the midwestern state where you are based--they may never sell many records at all. If you want buzz that translates to sales, put out some trendy, on-their-hustle Brooklyn bands or try to find the next Shins. You put out inaccessible music in an inaccessible way--you should not be surprised that you are existing in obscurity--because those are the plays you are making. You know? Because right now what you are wishing for is for lightning to strike and make everything go in the opposite direction as you are aiming.
If what I am telling you feels like a surprise or you do not know where to start vis a vis underground press, you might want to reach out to some small independent publicists who consult on projects, or who will sell you a small database/email list of those folks who they think might care--it seems like investing in a full-on multi-month press campaign with a publicist might be for nought. You might try getting a little press for the label itself, to raise awareness about the special thing you are doing.
Lastly, if you are going to be digital, be digital--do a Bandcamp page where people can buy the digital versions and get the physical copy in one fell swoop. YouTube seems kind of half assed. Like, either bother or just don't.
Good luck! Ol' Fan
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