Umm & Arr Men

Getting your band noticed by the music industry is easier said than done, so I explored what the A&R men want and had a stab at promoting an unknown band to them.

Published in the Melody Maker, 31 Jan ’98

Obviously your band is the best on the planet, only it’s not us you have to convince: it’s the A&R men. Suw Charman asks three of them and XFM DJ Gary Crowley how to get your band noticed, and follows the unknown Minifish’s attempts to get organised.

All things come to he who waits. Except record deals. According to Dave Laurie at Nude, they only go to “absolutely fucking brilliant” bands. Most A&R scouts get most of their leads via a host of industry contacts who, if they come across an outstanding band in the course of their job, will recommend that act to the scout.

So, whilst it’s true that your demo may just end up in a large pile with loads of other demos on the A&R department floor, the process of rehearsing, recording and gigging may ultimately result in A&R interest, albeit by a rather circuitous route. Forsooth, ye recording industry worketh in mysterious ways…

If you do decide to send out a demo, the most important thing to pin down is your budget, which will determine everything from how many tapes you can duplicate to how you’re going to package them. Try to leave a substantial leeway as there will undoubtedly be plenty of chances for disaster to eat away at your savings.

The unsigned, unknown, but unswervingly dedicated Minifish found Sod’s Law kicking in right from the beginning when their first recording session had to be cancelled due to a nasty bout of flu. The second session also proved difficult. As vocalist Lee says, “When you do a demo you get an engineer, not a producer”, and in this case you get one who doesn’t know how all the equipment works. When the session ran over, he had the cheek to attempt to charge for the extra time, but at four to one the odds didn’t seem worth it.

Rarely does an unsigned band have tonnes of cash to throw about, so it’s handy if you can call in a few favours from friends. Liam’s mate Ed is studying graphic design and provides the logo for tape inlays, letterhead and stickers. Gareth duplicates the tapes on a DAT machine at his college and Steve has a friend who volunteers to take some photos.

Various ideas for the shoot are bandied about, such as Minifish on Underground train, in scene of urban decay, by Thames or up tree, but Sod has another hand and every effort to get band and photographer in the same place at the same time fails miserably. After the third attempt Minifish give in to fact that, unless they’re going to use holiday snaps, their demo will not be accompanied by photo.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because unless the photo is particularly inspired it’d probably do more harm than good and, as Dave Wibberley of V2 UK says, a shot of “another four guys stood by another wall” isn’t even going to recognise the mustard, let alone find a knife.

A badly written biography can also leave you stranded you on thin ice, so it’s important to keep it brief and relevant. Although you may want to explain your influences, avoid simplistically listing bands as it doesn’t really mean anything, but instead try to give an impression of the direction you’re coming from.

What is also important is the (obviously positive!) reaction you’ve had to recent gigs. If you’ve had good feedback from the venue managers, as Minifish have at The Orange and The Rock Garden, then say so as that kind of external approval is something the scouts will be looking for. A big turn off, according to Andy McIntyre of Mushroom/Infectious, is “a biog that says ‘We’re the best band in the world and you’ve never seen anything like us before’ as that might be true, and it’s good in that it shows their confidence in their material, but it’s a little bit patronising in the sense that it’s my job to judge whether they are any good or not”.

On a very basic level, it’s a good idea to send out your demo in something that is not dull brown and envelope-shaped. The spangly holographic boxes were deemed more likely to be opened first, thus encouraging early aural perusal of the demo, hopefully whilst the A&R scout still has ears unjaded by tonnes of crap. Minifish also enclosed in postcards which, self-addressed and with a mini-questionnaire on the back, could act as an acknowledgement of receipt.

Having got all that together, Gareth had to get a couple of gigs to which the A&R could be invited. It’s fairly important to consider where on the bill you’re going to be — first up and headlining are two of the worst places to be as the audience either hasn’t arrived yet, or leave before you go on. It also helps if the bands on before and after you sound like a zoo burning down and Minifish stand out as having the energy and tightness that a lot of unsigned bands lack.

Whilst it seems to be a truism that record companies don’t often sign bands directly from unsolicited demos, recording them remains an invaluable experience. The full results of distributing Minifish’s demo have yet to be seen as the process doesn’t stop with the posting of the demos, nor indeed with the receipt of rejections. Whether they get signed directly because of this demo is presently an unknowable, but it was, at the very least, a laugh.

Minifish will be playing at The Underworld on 6th February and The Orange on 6th March.

Andy McIntyre, Mushroom/Infectious
“What makes me sign a band? I don’t know. If you speak to 10 different scouts they’ll all give you a different answer. Personally, I have to see the band live and if my stomach goes in knots then I know I’m on to a good thing. But there’s a whole host of different reasons why you’ll sign or pass on a band and not all of those are relevant to how good that band is. They might be brilliant but you might not have the staff to work that genre of music. You also have to be sensitive to other artists on the label and make sure you don’t set up internal rivalries.

“When you’re looking at smaller labels like ours, a lot of it is to do with personality, so I ask myself: ‘Do I like them as individuals? Can I sit in a two hour meeting with them and not want to punch them in the face after 20 minutes because they get my back up so much?’ Little things like that are important.

“Obviously we get a lot of unsolicited demos through and I try to and listen to everything. I don’t think it matters if a demo is recorded live or in a studio, it’s much more up to the artist to decide how they can best represent what they do. Part of my job is to be able to see through all that and the only thing I’m getting from a demo is whether they can write songs, play their instruments and sound good.

“Bands often don’t follow up their demos, and they should. They should call up a week later and just ask if it was received, because quite often that tape will just be sitting at the bottom of a pile of 15 other tapes that are all waiting to be listened to. If you just get one nice, polite, quick call then nine times out of 10 the demo goes straight on the stereo and gets listened to that much faster. But there’s a real balance to be struck between showing enthusiasm and being a nag and a pesterer.

“Sometimes I get sent gimmicks, but if I think they’re trying to bribe me in to liking their music then it’s a big put-off. You occasionally get bands that send you something that’s really funny or cool and it’s not so much that it affects your decision about the music, because as a professional I have to judge purely on what I’m given to listen to, but it does excite my interest.

“As for Camden, the only reason it’s the centre for A&R activity in London is because there’s 12 venues within walking distance of each other, so with a bit of juggling you can see four or five bands at different venues. It’s not because Camden’s a particularly special place — it’s a grotty shit-hole. Personally, I don’t like the idea that we, as A&R, have this little Garden of Eden where, if you’re lucky, we’ll let you come and play. If a band are good enough to travel to go and see, then we make sure that we travel to go and see them, and if an A&R scout doesn’t want to, then maybe they’re not the right person to get involved with.”

Dave Wibberley, V2 UK
“Sending out demos is, frankly, the least useful way of getting an A&R department to pay real attention to your music. It’s much better to get your music into the hands of a manager, promoter or a journalist in your area. It’s the third party recommendation that really counts. I’m constantly talking to promoters, club owners, local journalists, local studio owners & engineers, all the people that a local band would encounter. We have our contacts in Aberdeen, Glasgow, Liverpool, Birmingham, and you just ring them up on a regular basis.

“Recently I got a call from the guy who books bands at the Lomax in Liverpool. He said ‘Wow we had a band on our audition night last night, they were brilliant. No-one knows who they are, but they were brilliant. So I’ve rebooked them, they’re going to be playing in a couple of weeks, you should get up.’ I’ll go up. It’s just logical.

“When I listen to a demo I want a great song, a great singer and then I want style and if they’ve got that, then my gut probably will be moved. The problem is that most of them have two of the three and personal experience tells me that all these things can be refined and developed, but none of them can be invented.

“Biographies should be simple, just enough information to stimulate you. Most bands frankly don’t have a hugely strong image, so often photographs are a bad idea because they haven’t got the money to have them taken by a professional. And I hate gimmicks. Demos wrapped up in condoms or knickers, demos in specially designed boxes or great big canisters. It’s unlikely that those tapes will even get listened to.

“There is a theoretical sort of equation which is that the degree of effort and ability put into the presentation of the demo is generally in inverse proportion to the degree of effort and ability shown on the demo. So when you get those little attaché cases with the CD in cutaway foam inside, you know that’s what’s on the CD is going to be crap. All you need is a well recorded, chrome quality cassette, no Dolby. That’s it.

“I also want a band that knows what they’re about, what they want to do and the way they want to move forward. I work with the Stereophonics and they came saying ‘We want our videos to be a bit like this, we want to be perceived like this, we wouldn’t mind supporting them but we won’t support them.’ They had an idea of what they were about. I’ve encountered other really great bands and you’ve sat them down and asked ‘What’s your vision about your artwork, your videos and the progression for the band’ and they go ‘Oh, I just wanna make great records.’ ‘Well yeah, but have you thought about producers?’

“It’s that subtle difference between the artisan and the artist. A sense of vision and identity is the most important thing for me.”

Dave Laurie, Nude
“The bands we sign come from a variety of sources, usually from recommendations by other people, but the general rule is that they’re not signed from unsolicited demos. There is a very large network that A&R people tap into from time to time. They phone up recording and rehearsal studios, tape duplication places around the country, and local promoters, journalists and DJs. It’s very rare that a brilliant band comes from, say, Manchester, and the first thing the London record companies hear about it is an unsolicited tape. If they’re any good, people from Manchester know about it already. You always find out about a band before the tape arrives.

“If you are sending out demos though, live ones are usually crap. The mix you would do at the desk to make it audible on the cassette is not the same mix you would have to do to for it come out nicely through the PA, so if it sounds fantastic out front when you’re standing there watching a band, and you tape just like that off the desk, it’ll sound awful.

“Very few bands are good enough to get signed, and those that do generally get someone to act on their behalf in a management capacity. Bands are always taken more seriously with a known manager who can steer them past a lot of the A&R bureaucracy. A lot of the A&R scouts are just basically there to filter through things and make sure that all the tapes get listened to.

“You have to draw people in. I mean, if you’ve got five brilliant songs, then send two out and when they phone up and say, have you got any more songs you say ‘Yes, I’ve got another three, actually.’ You have to catch their attention and the bottom line is that, with a big pile of demos building up on the floor, it is possible that you’ll miss things if you’re playing 50 on the trot, so you do have to reel people in slowly.

“Other advice is just get the best set of songs together that you possibly can, and that isn’t the first 10 or the second 10. Possibly by the fourth 10 you might be just about getting there, but it takes a long time for things to click within groups and all of the best groups in the world have just started off writing absolute toss. It’s natural because you have to get in to a working and writing relationship with people in your band, and that takes practise and time to accomplish. Don’t be crap is the number one rule, cos you won’t get a second chance at it.

“If you’ve got someone to pay attention to you and it turns out that you’re not that good, then it’s very hard to get them to come a second time. Take your time, because if it’s worth doing it’s worth waiting for.”

Gary Crowley, DJ for Xfm, and his producer, Jim Lehat.
Gary: “The Demo Clash came out of us wanting to play new bands, so we play a couple of demos up against each other on a Friday morning, people ring in, and the winner is the first band to reach 50 votes. Right from the beginning people seem to have got in to the swing of it, although you do find a lot of the bands’ friends ringing up.

“We both take turns in listening to the small mountain of demos that we get sent, or I might get something from a friend or a manager. It’s a joint decision, so if Jim really loved something and was adamant that he wanted it on and I thought it was just OK, then I’d go with him, unless I really thought it was atrocious. It’s a hard thing to define, but you look at each other and you know.

“Obviously we’re thinking about the radio as well, so if somebody gave us an eight minute thrash metal track where it’s ‘fuck’ all the way through, we couldn’t play it. We can use cassettes, CD or vinyl, although if it’s a cassette we get it dubbed over on to the mini-disk here, just so it sounds better.

Jim: “The quality is important because we are putting it straight on air, so if it’s really bad then we can’t use it.”

Gary: “We’re looking for the performance, but it isn’t essential that you go to a 16 track studio. We’ve played maybe half a dozen four-track demos in the past at GLR, where it wasn’t a million miles away from being recorded in a toilet, but the song came out, that vibe transcended it.”

“XFM is about new music, and our platform for playing new bands is the Demo Clash. Other DJs have been known to play demos, certainly white labels — that’s what XFM’s all about, really. It can’t do any harm being played on the radio. Some of the bands that have been featured on the Demo Clash in the past [when it was on GLR] include Bush, Suede, Dodgy and Ultrasound. I’d never say that the Demo Clash alone got them the deal, but I’m sure it helps if you’re winning, you’ve been voted by the public and A&R men, promoters and managers can hear it on air. Matt and Brett [from Suede] have always said nice things about it and I think it can help in it’s own small way.”

Jim: “I do get A&R guys, venues, and promoters ringing, asking ‘Who was that band, they were great, can I have a contact number?'”

Gary: “If you’re going to send in a demo with two or three songs on, try and give us a cross section of what you do, perhaps the obvious crowd pleaser and maybe something a little less obvious that perhaps shows a little bit more substance. At XFM the style of music is across the board, although a lot people have assumed that it’s all indie guitary stuff, but we want to play some of the dancier stuff as well.”