As the musical festival South by Southwest 2010
rages on, there are literally thousands of bands
taking to the streets of Austin in the hopes that they'll end up at least slightly more famous this year than they were the last.
That doesn't take into consideration the thousands of other bands whose applications for the festival were rejected -- let alone the countless others who don't give a damn about an event like SXSW.
You know, the kinds that are content just playing in the basements, bars and VFW halls of their hometowns, with the vague hope that someday, someone will care about the music that they're making.
If you're in any of the latter categories, it's easy to feel like you're on the outside looking in: Anyone in a band who doesn't have to put in 40 hours a week at Guitar Center
seems like a person who's living an impossible dream.
And they are. At least, if you keep going about your music career the wrong way. Read on to find out how to avoid the pitfalls so many bands stumble into.
Why Your Band's CDs Don't Sell
The pride a young artist feels the first time he holds a shrink-wrapped, professionally pressed copy of his own CD in his hands is matched in intensity only by the utter despair he experiences six months later, when he's still got 95 percent of the copies he ordered in a box in his closet. And while it's not exactly a revelation to say "the future of music is in online distribution," now might be a good time to do away with the physical product all together.
That's the approach that worked for London's Boxer Rebellion
-- who are playing a rare handful of U.S. shows at SXSW this week -- when they released their 2009 sophomore album, "Union," as a digital-only product. Guitarist Todd Howe explained to Asylum why eschewing traditional CDs has been the right one for his band:
"The album went to number 82 on the Billboard chart after we were picked for the iTunes Single of the Week, and we had a lot of label offers after that. But we sold 10 times as many records digitally as we did when we were on a major label. It didn't make sense for us to sign at that point."
Not every band can expect to get lucky and end up with a Single of the Week on iTunes, but the fact that a band who had the opportunity to press CDs on a record label's dime opted to keep things digital-only is telling. If it's not worth the investment for a band whose record is in the Billboard Hot 100 to bother with a physical album, why on Earth should you? Why the Press Is Ignoring Your Band
Print media may be dying, but people spend more time reading about new music in 2010 than they did in the heyday of Rolling Stone. They just do it on sites like Spinner
and the A.V. Club
Getting the attention of the music press, however, can feel like as much of an impossibility as landing a coveted Single of the Week slot. Andy Seifert, associate editor at the A.V. Club's Chicago office, explained the difference between a band that gets his attention and one that doesn't.
"Bands should do their homework for each specific publication -- figure out who you're sending it to," says Seifert. "Don't just send it to some generic email at the publication. Focus it on the type of music that writer there clearly likes.
"I'll listen to any band that describes themselves as 'Beatles-esque' or 'Beach Boys–esque'," Seifert says.
That targeted approach makes a press release feel more like a personal correspondence, and means that there's more urgency to respond. Otherwise, he tells Asylum, "We get a ton of bland press releases, and when you get a million of those, you just toss them aside."
Why Touring Seems Impossible, But Isn't
It's pretty difficult to capture the interest of the music-loving population without leaving your hometown.
Brendon Massei, whose band, Viking Moses
, has played thousands of shows in hundreds of cities across the United States and Europe over the past 17 years while often serving as his own booking agent, explains why touring is so important that you have to take matters into your own hands sometimes.
"I've worked with booking agents who haven't been right for me for a few reasons," says Massei, "and every time I did a tour with one, I ended up losing money. When I book on my own, I can manage my money and routing better, and make sure that I get paid enough -- at least in practical terms, like eating and making it to the next city."
And while this approach may not have helped Massei crack Billboard like Boxer Rebellion, it's furnished him with a sustainable career as a full-time musician since 1993 -- longevity that a lot of bands who waited until someone else sent them out on the road would kill for.
So, while there may not be a tried-and-true "right way" to make it as a band, there sure are a lot of wrong ways. Avoid those, and maybe we'll all be excited to see your band play next year.