The art of the biography
Ah, the all-important accompanying blurb. What should you write? How hard should you sell yourself? Surely this A&R man needs to know you once sniffed one of Shed’s farts, or owned the junior school orchestra with your Thelonious Monk improv’ at the 1988 Christmas Concert? Not really, but then neither is an anonymously enigmatic message much use either.
“There seems to be a standard format where people list everything,” reckons Russell. “Genre, style, even the fucking MP3 size!” It’s important not to get carried away, but giving the label a bit of background info about yourself and your music is still a good idea. Most labels agree that a few words about your influences are best.
“An easy way to understand where someone is coming from before you even listen to anything is from their associations,” Russell explains. “If someone goes into a bit of detail and says they like Aphex Twin and Matthew Herbert instead of Nic Fanciulli or Nick Curly or whatever, I’ll probably give it a listen.”
But don’t make the mistake of trying to explain just how amazing your own music is. If it’s good it’ll stand up to scrutiny without you needing to defend it, and the label can make their own mind up by hitting the play button. “When someone describes the music they’re sending, that’s stupid,” says Russell. Oh, and don’t try to butter up the label by telling them all about how good their trademark sound is, either. “We know what we sound like; you don’t need to tell us! Nine times out of ten, if someone sends us something they think fits our label, it’s not the case. It puts up this instant barrier that puts me off.”
Griffiths backs him up, encouraging a brief, straightforward approach: “A bio or some background makes you stand out. A little introduction, a sentence or two about what you’re into and whether you’ve released on any other labels – all this makes it obvious that people know what Tsuba is about. Most people don’t do it, though. They just fire links.”
Quality over quantity
Your biography’s been polished to a couple of hundred words of finely honed prose and you’ve identified the label you’re approaching, but wait a minute. What exactly should you send? How many tracks do you need to include?
It’s important that you appear to back yourself. Sending 12 tracks in one batch suggests that you aren’t really confident in what you send; or aren’t sure what will fit best. It’s also fanciful – do you really think that if a label boss didn’t like the first four he’ll keep trawling through the rest to see if there’s anything better? Hypercolour, Tsuba and Defected all agree that three or four tracks is the most you should be sending. Turbo go one further. “Send as few as possible to get the point across,” says Von Party. “Send your best. Never advertise that things are unfinished; it’s insulting. There’s no need to say things are unmixed or unmastered either… In a way, the less said the better.”
Never advertise that things are unfinished; it's insulting.
Of course, had this guide been written just six or seven years ago, it would look very different. Back then, the challenge was to get your slimline jewel case to shine brighter than the hundreds of others piled up on the doormats of label HQs around the world. Nowadays, though, a return to the old-school methods may well be just the thing to get you spotted. But again, before you go burning CDs like some sort of iffy market stall chancer, do your research; not everyone appreciates physical demos. Russell admits he rarely opens the bills that come through the door, let alone a CD promo.
Von Party also makes a valid environmental point: “I object to wasting resources shipping stuff around. Also, I use a MacBook Air so CDs are a hassle, for the most part. That said, I will accept gifts and/or bribes.” He’s not the only one who will at least be swayed to check a demo if it comes with a little something extra. So too the folks at Defected, who also point out that if you make the effort, so will they.
“Every now and then something will get posted to the office and someone will have made quite a bit of song and dance and effort,” says Daniell. “The thing is, if someone’s made that level of effort to send it in, I’ll make the effort to reply to them. Someone recently sent in his CD, a biog and a bottle of beer. It’s not the beer or anything, just the fact he did something different and caught our attention. It wasn’t right for us, but I made the effort to reply and send him some pointers.”
Of course, face-to-face connections will usually help. It’s harder to ignore an email or a physical demo sent by someone you’ve met than it is a complete stranger. Don’t assume everyone will want to be your friend though. Again, research is king. Rumour has it that some of the moodier techno DJs insist that only one pre-assigned person is allowed to talk to them at any given event. Not so Russell.
“I will talk to any fucker who comes my way!” he says. “I’m too nice to tell them to go away. I will basically stand there and talk to them until they walk off. That’s just the way I am – I don’t want to leave a mark on someone that makes me look a cunt! On the other hand, by default, I don’t respond to anything on Facebook.”
Tread carefully with the personal approach. If you can find the right person it’s a great way to make a contact and open some doors, but hassle the wrong label boss at the wrong time and you could find yourself blacklisted for life.
Wasting your time?
As much as it would be nice to believe that every demo you send to a label is going to be listened to, that’s sadly not the case. Realistically, there are some labels that won’t listen to anything, no matter how much gold you send in the envelope. It can be simply because they’re worn down by years of fruitless demo listening, or it can be because they’re reluctant to put in the time and effort required to develop and promote bedroom producers who have no profile. Aus and Simple chief Will Saul falls into this category.
“I don’t listen to any demos that are sent in electronically,” Will explains. “There are a number of reasons why. I’ve done it in the past and I’ve tried to develop people and their ideas, but I get sent too many demos every day. Where I have listened, the stuff’s been a world apart, stylistically, from the music we release and there’s been no thought put into the approach. Combine that with the way I’ve tried to develop the sound of the labels – I’ve been very conscious to pick people at the early stages of their careers. With Joy Orbison I didn’t even need to listen to all of the first track he did for Hotflush. I immediately got on the internet and tracked him down.”