“If you have a passion to make music, your music will be heard,” says Kelli Miller, guitarist for The Trembling, one of Detroit’s up-and-coming bands.
While Miller’s message denotes the positive aspects of the area’s broad music scene, the harsh reality of record label woes and venue buy-outs tears down the hopes and dreams of many a new band. Regardless of the problem, The Trembling, along with several other Detroit artists, offer helpful alternatives and marketing strategies in the publicity battle between corporate America and the common band.
Often, artists try to snag a record deal from top labels, thinking the only way to achieve success is through the mainstream avenues. But, it is these same labels that, whether intentionally or not, are starving artists out of key exposure opportunities. From booking venues entirely for their purposes to monopolizing the airwaves, corporate labels have a history of manipulating publicity in their favor.
Miller explains, “Most of the venues that exist in the city are booked by Clear Channel, and they tend to focus on their own best interest rather than the idea of giving local bands a chance to play.”
Even smaller companies recognize the downsides of their larger counterparts for local bands. Marie Kelly, a producer with DataFeedback Recordings, says, “A major label … may be able to front a lot more money for someone starting out and not worry about the outcome as much.”
Detroit and its surroundings cities still boast a lively, supportive music scene in the right environment. Community-based venues, like Detroit’s The Lager House and Ann Arbor’s The Neutral Zone, usually prefer the independent crowd. Indie labels, such as Plumline Records and Dischord Records, are comprised mainly of musicians who are also striving to publish records, and such labels are often more willing to help out newcomers.
Amid the fight to find an open venue, Detroit bands encounter trouble just drawing people to the gigs. “Since Detroit is primarily a commuter city, it can be difficult to get people to come out to a show, especially if it’s on a weeknight or in an unfamiliar neighborhood,” Miller notes.
The task of starting a label is undoubtedly overwhelming for any brave soul, and almost anyone will tell you it takes much more than a little money and hard work to make it happen.
“There’s so many resources and so many aspects and avenues to focus on, from booking to promoting; mastering to pressing; duplications, tours, venues and even how to conduct yourselves,” Kelly warns.
Although creating a label is a viable alternative to existing labels, the process requires even more sweat from already dedicated groups.
Dale Nicholls, a musician with the band Spy Island, says, “You need a good product, money, imagination and a love of music. Mostly, (you need) money.”
Because brand new labels are so complicated, it is sometimes easier to hook up with a friend in a musical coalition or find a trustworthy, reliable company to support you. Kill Rock Stars, a fairly well-known independent label now, began as a community of friends looking for interesting musical talent in their own city. Supporting a local company more often than not gets the job done the way one wants it and also allows the label’s name to be noticed more, which in turn helps other bands gain recognition.
In regard to the question of what labels look for in their future exploits, there is no real answer. They all have a different definition of what is marketable and what has character. DataFeedback Recordings looks at the band’s target audience, how often one is looking to tour and what the artistic goals from both parties are. Grand Haven’s Fall Records think originality and determination are the two key factors.
Marie Kelly argues almost the exact opposite. “(DataFeedback) is not necessarily looking for ‘cutting edge’ all the time. I personally love good old-fashioned rock and roll, but a band that we appreciate as musicians will work well.”
Even if you have a label, it’s not time to relax. There’s still music to create and a band to keep together, which can be troublesome jobs themselves.
“Starting out in Detroit, I think, is easy. It’s staying together and staying true to what you believe in that is the daunting task. It’s also difficult not to get lost in the shuffle,” observes Monday Busque, bass player with The Trembling.
Nicholls and fellow band mate David Serra endorse the concept of just writing songs and having fun with the work. “Making music is a kind of ongoing dialogue, and we want to mash it up a bit, put in our two cents worth.”
After all these criticisms and complaints of the music business, it isn’t hard to imagine that some people consider musical success to be an unattainable, stressful idea. Busque replies, “Be in a band because you love music, and you love to do it. Don’t do it for so-called success because it’s a success if you’ve just gotten a band together. It’s a success if you play for ten people in a basement or 500 in a club.”
The search for the right publicity manager has its paybacks in the end, despite its problems in the beginning. Stronger and perhaps more determined, a band comes out with a fanbase, a crowd cheering the music, the excitement and the struggle within a meager four walls. Kelly admits, “When you put all that together and it works, you’ve got something truly brilliant.”