[11 September 2008]
PopMatters Features Editor
Seems like not a year passes without one of these music survival guides appearing on bookshelves, claiming to have the solution to your band’s lack of popularity and empty piggybank. As if you started playing music to get rich and woo the line of groupies backstage dying to get into your pants. As if there’s some savvy, hip marketing potion that desperate musicians can drink, and suddenly wimpsters will dig their songs, and manic pixie dream girls will flock from the latest bromanitc comedy.
Tough luck, indie bands. Young musicians, open Randy Chertkow and Jason Feehan’s The Indie Band Survival Guide at your own risk. Forget about learning how to record your music for cheap and easily share your songs with friends. Instead, read about all the thrilling Internet techniques that not only degrade your music, but instill hesitation in your listeners. How ironic that your aggressive marketing campaign should turn your songs into frivolous junk, and your band into common snake oil peddlers.
Oh, and with a whopping 20 pages actually devoted to recording, all you’re really taught are the basic definitions of remastering and sampling. Add to the mix a list of equipment and software options that neither Chertkow, nor Feehan adamantly recommend, and voila, you’re already onto the next section, a subchapter that weighs the cost of CD production versus MP3 stores. Don’t you just hate that?
Indie band survival guide? More like marketing 101. More like dude delusions of fame and fortune, landmined with shameless promotional strategies, shoved down your throat by two vacuum cleaner salesmen. You can’t even turn five pages in this 335 page book without a shameless plug of their band “Beatnik Turtle” or their website. Do the math, that’s at least 65 flags, and heaven knows how many web traffic potholes on which Internet surfers are tripping.
But only a fool would debate Chertkow and Feehan’s music marketing tips. This reviewer has to give them some credit for covering all their profiteering bases, and honestly, they’re not wrong. If your indie band is desperate for some exposure, and you’re willing to slave over your website’s keywords and brand the soul out of your sound instead of, oh I don’t know, working on your music, The Indie Band Survival Guide might work for you. then.
See, where these two beatnik turtles go wrong is their DIY philosophy. Instead of focusing on what makes some indie bands amazing, like their killer riffs and lyrical prowess and sheer musical pleasure, Chertkow and Feehan say you can achieve some measure of fame and profit if only you flood the Internet with keywords, podcasts, and merchandise. In fact, this reviewer’s surprised they didn’t recommend that indie bands invest in business cards, and then call this shameless tactic something exotic like “meishi” or something trendy like “rockards”.
Connecting with fans is important, true, and booking gigs is great, absolutely, and some bands want to earn royalties hearing their songs on the radio, fair enough, but strictly speaking, the goal of a musician is actually making music. Whereas Cherknow and Feehan explicitly state that “you’re there for them”, meaning the fans and content hungry bloggers who incorporate your songs into their site. As if you couldn’t make music without a huge audience. As if you depend on them for artistic validation.
How misguided, how absolutely disturbing.
Essentially, Chertkow and Feehan aren’t just offering advice, but advocating a certain philosophy that could render future music impotent. Their motto: brand your band. Their philosophy: focus on the fans, because they’re the ones who’ll make you big and spend money on your stuff. Image and your Web reputation are becoming the new musical deities! This is Bono is God all over again!
Time and time again, bands with even the tiniest iota of business sense confuse self-promotion with the DIY tradition. Write lyrics all you want. Play your heart out even if you can’t play a lick. Share your sound with friends and fellow hipsters. But best of all, have fun DIYers, or else sacrifice your creative expression on the marketing mantle. In the classic words of Eddie Vedder, “Worship the music, not the musician.”
Then again, perhaps we’re being too hard on Chertkow and Feehan. Marketing is a harsh reality for the independent artist. Truth be told, smart business doesn’t hurt, and The Indie Band Survival Guide is a valid marketing textbook, especially for those condescending dude rockers who fantasize about stadiums full of screaming fans and bands who secretly think they’ve evolved past playing basement shows.
From cornering niche communities to monitoring your website traffic down to safeguarding the copyright of your songs, these two music promotion gurus can help beef up your marketing attack plan. You could even lend out your voice for a blog’s theme music, according to Chertkow and Feehan. Still, who would expect anything less from a corporate attorney and an information-technology specialist with Fortune 100 companies? Everything’s a commodity to them, even music.
But maybe we’re reaching the musical age when pop punkers can parade around in Brooks Brothers, melt faces, and still manage to discuss their stock portfolios backstage without losing sight of their skater, kid-core roots. Don’t get me wrong, independent music production (and distribution) is a great route and an amazing opportunity for some bands—Even Radiohead is on the DIY production band wagon after all—but always remember that personal expression and musical delight is what makes the indie group’s world go round.
While Chertkow and Feehan definitely know their stuff when it comes to marketing music online and perhaps some of their basic tips may serve you well, bands can definitely survive without this book, and the manual is far from complete when it comes to recording techniques.
What Publishers Weekly calls, “Indispensable”, this reviewer dubs “interesting, but excessive, and antiquated by next year”. Instead of claiming to be the cure-all survival guide for indie bands, a better title would have been The Indie Band Marketing Guide: Get Popular and Earn Money.
Chertkow and Feehan’s The Indie Band Survival Guide is simply this year’s lame attempt to quantify and brand music for what? 30 pieces of silver and 15 minutes in the spotlight? Count this musician out.