Formats, Fetishes & The Future:
How Is Your Music Being Distributed?
3. Can / Should
If the most exciting thing about the modern age is that we can – and do – have access to making art in almost any way we want, then the most boringly predictable thing about 2020 is that there are format considerations that seem secondary to many artists. And, to some, the aesthetics of the specific release that is being put into my hands seem to be the last things that were considered, and it shows. It is a pity, as someone who encounters an incredible amount of music throughout a given day, to see hundreds of CDs that all look essentially the same, piles of tapes that could basically be interchangeable from a design point of view, and ham-fisted (or half-conceived) cover art that betrays any quality of the musical content inside. All because the packaging and the format you have to wade through – if there is any all – speaks so poorly to that quality of what I’m about to listen to, that it completely renders me uninterested in engaging with the material at all.
If there is a problem in 2020, it is that not enough people take advantage of the wide range of possibilities that are available to us. In the 2000s it was a CD-r in a white envelope with your project name in sharpie, but the worst culprits 20 years later are the people who just send you what amounts to an anonymous link to their “new stuff.” This is so ubiquitous in this day and age that I almost never follow a link to music that someone sends me. It has to be something by a close friend, someone I’m working with, or maybe a pre-release by someone I REALLY like. But in general, the e-mailed link is the last way I’m going to engage with your band, not because the music is bad, but because there are hundreds of other ways to dress up that same link, and make it so much more engaging. And yet you never gave the matter a second thought.
And this problem exists in every format: certain ways that people package their material becomes standard because of the cheapness or a certain ubiquity in a certain scene, and soon enough, your tapes look mundane, your CDs look boring, and your records are… well… lackluster.
Being a great musical artist doesn’t mean that you are as good at design, though you might be. You might be fantastic at making music, but the design choices of your format and packaging might be harder to pin down, and convenience might lead you to using some shortcuts to make it easier for you, but makes your work seems chintzy, and less likely to hit it’s mark. Certainly, there are a number of traps I’ve fallen into as an artist, where I’ve used the easy trope, and went with something I could just replicate simply rather than do something that actually fit the content.
Perhaps you have an aesthetic that you enjoy, and there is a simplicity to the design that you have chosen intentionally. I’m not directing this at you. If you make an aesthetic choice, and a carefully thought out one, we will notice. Go ahead, continue. We don’t want you to stop, and we love what you’re doing. I don’t want to get on your case.
But here’s a few tips I want to offer for people who might be struggling with the way their music is currently being released, and how it is getting to the people listening. If you’ve ever wondered what to do once the music is made, and just want to skip to the part where people hear it, then you might want to give the next section a little more attention.
4. The Overall Idea vs. The Release
Developing and creating a fully formed notion of a project can help direct the focus of the releases you are making, and this is often achieved by considering narrative, and its relationship with your art. By ‘narrative’ I don’t mean that you need to write a story about how your project started and how it got its powers. But the consideration of the story of your art, and how it will express itself, can lead to some interesting places. Why that project name? What does it evoke in your mind? What does it evoke in others? In the DIY community, we are not burdened by the “image” that a performer must maintain, which is often driven by press. The press isn’t following us, so we can create narratives within our art that doesn’t even have to be seen, read, or heard by the public. The story behind your act can be personal, but it can also be revelatory, and that can lead to new ideas, and hopefully, new releases.
What are the rules of your project? Maybe you don’t have any. Maybe you have a lot. Maybe you don’t know that you are following rules yet, and that’s okay. By establishing the kinds of boundaries that your project has to work within – or without – you can better focus the kind of work you make. Maybe you only release cassettes? Maybe you only release download codes on t-shirts? Maybe you only perform live? Only analog gear? Or maybe just cuts up on your laptop? By determining the kinds of rules that you are following, and the ones that you might want to impose on yourself, you can further define the realm that your project operates within, rather remain unfocused and meandering. Maybe being unfocused is your thing? That’s cool, too. But knowing this ahead of time, and knowing how you want to direct the project through that kind of thinking, can really lead to some empowering ideas. I regularly think about what kinds of restrictions I want to work within, and how I want to impose them on the project of Mini-Mutations, to get a better sense of what I should do next.
How do I want to say what I want to say? This goes a little beyond “How will I release my work?” but the questions are very much related. As a project with a narrative and rules, this leads into the idea of how the audience will interact with you and your music. This plays into the way you will make your art: is it recorded, performed, or interactive? Am I a solo act, or a group? Songs, or soundscapes? What am I getting at with my drones? Do I have an agenda? The narrative is where you have been and where you are going, and the rules are how you react in given situations. But now you need to decide on what you are hoping to convey, in the moment. Perhaps you want to avoid saying something? Or you want to evoke the sense of thoughtlessness, or meditation. While what you are hoping to convey can change from show to show, day to day, release to release, and even song to song, careful consideration of what you are trying to say will only lead to a more fulfilling piece of art when you are done, and a more concrete idea in your mind of how you should say it.
Format, while a later consideration, should not be given any less thought. Having figured out what you want to say, it is likely that a specific format is now screaming at you, hoping that you will use it over the others. But in case that isn’t obvious at first: how would you like to encounter this work in the world? On a CD? Maybe a lathe? This might be when you put a code on a balloon, or something similar. Choosing which format to use shouldn’t be haphazard, or even put off until it is too late. In fact, I recommend that you don’t even consider the next step until you have thought all of this through, because sometimes you’ll find you need to start over if you don’t have these considerations in place first. A good thing to remember about format is: this isn’t a release for fetishists, or collectors, because they have plenty of that crap out there to buy already. This release is an artistic statement, and you want it to be appreciated as such. The format is as much a part of that statement as anything else.
This might seem strange, but the last step is to start creating your work. So many people I know make their music first, and then think about the rest later. But that’s sort of putting the cart on the road and hoping a horse wanders over that might be interested in hanging out with you or the cart. Certainly, record and make music all the time, without the idea that it will “become” something. But if you want to take this seriously, then you’ll start making stuff at the very end. From there, I assume you know what you’re doing, but I will say that all the while, keep the other points above in your mind. You are obviously creating a release, and that will be the thing that people will buy in the end. But with the narrative and rules informing the format and recording, you will find that the release begins to take a different shape in your mind, and might require some further design considerations when you’re done.
There is a point, in making any kind of art, where there needs to be a lot of repetitive work done, when you are duplicating discs or printing insets, or some other assembly process. But this is good time to consider the finishing touches that you will want to include in your release. A cassette does not have to come in a traditional, clear-plastic case, especially if the work involves the notion of breaking down walls. A download code might not work on its own, but packaged with a zine, or on a tote bag, or on a keychain, can say a lot about the work you’re about to hear. Almost everyone includes a download code by default in their physical releases, so much so that it is almost entering into the “annoying trope” territory. I make sure that all my codes that are within a release offer material for download that isn’t on the disc, or is “bonus” material. That certainly helps shake up the way the code can be used. Maybe your CD comes with stickers, or your lathe-cut record has humorous playing instructions that can be inserted into the packaging. At every point, the question should be asked: if I bought this somewhere, what would excite me? Again, sparseness might be appropriate. But without thinking that through first, you might be overlooking some of the best details that you can include in your release.
In a lot of ways, physical distribution is almost an afterthought, but there are options now for DIY artists, unlike in the past. Even most digital stores (like Bandcamp) offer an interactive store for fans who want physical merchandise, and sellers like eBay and discogs can really put an artist directly in touch with the person who wants to listen to the music. Perhaps you don’t want this available for order online? Are you only giving these away on tour? A mail-order club is popular these days, too, provided you think that makes the most sense for your material. While there are fewer considerations with how an item can be distributed, it’s still an aspect of how the audience interacts with your work, and is an opportunity for you to control your art in yet another way.
5. In the Final Analysis
I’ve done three tours where I had merch for sale, and I can report that, regardless of how much thought I’d put into the work I made, the tapes all sold out first, and were the last items I made, mostly with the hope that I might be able to trade them with artist that only make tapes. The records I had made sold fairly quickly too, and the CDs moved the slowest, even the ones I made with particularly inventive packaging. (I’ve wound up giving them away more than anything.) So, there is another consideration to be made, for sure: if you want to move your merch, make what your fans are buys, certainly.
Each artist’s fanbase is different, and it is undeniable that we have to discover, and cater to, their needs as we learn who they are and what we like about each other. And, let’s not forget the joys of being a creator and artist, too. Following your muse is not only essential, but makes all the above suggestions irrelevant, really. If you need to create a CDr with your project name in sharpie on it, for aesthetic / creative reasons, don’t let my tastes as a consumer tell you that’s a bad idea. You’ll find something that makes sense, if you pay attention to what your art is saying to you, all rules or considerations will soon fall away, and seem irrelevant.
But, for those who are feeling a certain lack of “ooomf” to their work lately, you should remember that we live in a time when you can make almost anything, in any format you can imagine. We are no longer restricted by the financial barriers that we suffered from 200 years ago. And, there are hundreds of other artists in the DIY community who are all ready to create, often together. I’m sure you can find like-minded designers, if that’s what the project demands.
Sometimes, when I get a pile of albums that all look basically the same, it can be fairly discouraging. Maybe everyone has thought of everything already? Are there any new joys to be found?
I’m here to report that there are. But, like in the old days, it will only turn my head if you have something interesting to share with me, first.
And I think that’s what matters the most. Yes, you can make anything in almost any format. Any idea can be realized for fairly cheaply.
Now: Can you make good art in spite of that?
– Austin Rich