I have been meaning to write something similar (not quite as in-depth) for a while. Everyone sending tracks to us, and others, please take this seriously. Time is limited these days and you want to make it as easy as possible for us to listen to your beats.
To those familiar with dubstep and electronic music, a dub may be an oft-heard term. Short for “dub-plate” it's traditionally a promotional vinyl that will have a limited number of plays that producers would give to a DJ to allow them to play tracks pre-release, if indeed there would be a release at all.
A “dub” as we know it today is a progression of this culture to the point where it is now a term used to describe a non-format-specific pre-release or unreleased track. Producers will swap dubs with each other in order to promote their material and attempt to secure a label signing, or some hype surrounding a forthcoming release. So I'd like to take a closer look at this culture, and specifically the sending, receiving and presentation of these dubs. Since we no longer seem to just pass vinyl to one another, and the competition has stepped up through digital channels such as email, AIM or Soundcloud – It's worth addressing a few issues in an attempt to aid those budding producers sending their all important tracks to the big-players, promoters and DJs.
So you've listened to your track over and over, you've given it a run in a handful of different systems, on your headphones, in the car and beyond. You're happy with it and convinced it's worth letting other people hear. First you have to think about who you're sending it to. Consider your recipients. Who in their right mind is going to listen to your track, and what would make them want to? Let's find out. We spoke to a handful of people who are sent dubs, demos, unreleased tracks (call them what you will, we're all on the same page here) and found out what they had to say. Here is a quick overview of who we spoke to:
Who produces as Blackdown, writes the Blackdown blog, and has a monthly show on Rinse.fm at 11pm on the last Thursday of every month.
A DJ and journalist writing for Resident Adviser, his blog Sonic Router, and web magazine The Quietus. Oli also works in the office at Fabric in London.
A Belgian DJ and producer, who has a very popular, award winning weekly show, “Fresh Off the Boat” which goes out Thursdays on Sub.fm, writes a popular blog and Djs all over the world.
Owner of Naked Lunch records, based in Ireland. Naked Lunch has released tracks from TRG, Breakage, Jus Wan, Instra:Mental and Scuba to name a few.
A DJ and producer who has a Sub.fm show on Saturday afternoons, and alongside THC has a hand in both 10 bag and 3.5 Records.
Of those we spoke to, most of our subjects reported anywhere from 20 to 200 tracks a week. I think it would be safe to assume that around 50-70 tracks a week would be about average. So considering the sheer volume of tracks that these people get, you should really work at making sure your tracks are easy and simple to access, well named and tagged, and above all else, well produced. If you don’t think that your track is the best it can be, then don’t send it out – producers and Djs are unlikely to want their communication channels clogged with unfinished, half-baked attempts at premature promotion.
Our subjects reported differing opinions on how many of the tracks they get sent are discarded, there were a few who said that they don’t delete anything they get sent, some for artistic reasons, some for organisation and reference, but even those who don’t delete dubs did report that their listen-again rate was minimal if at all. From those who discard tracks, most get rid of between 60% and 99% of what they’re sent. Definitely something to bear in mind if you’re following up on tracks you’ve sent out.
When it comes to mastering what you send out, it would seem that it’s not too important. Most of our subjects would agree with Oli when he says “Masters are always preferable but a well mixed demo usually gets the point across well enough…”. For radio, the mastering doesn’t seem to matter too much, since broadcasts often have limiters on the output, but if it comes to playing your dubs out live, most of the recipients seem to prefer mastered. As Micky says “Mastered would be nice.” At this point I’d like to add something of a personal note. As a recipient of a good number of unreleased and promotional tracks myself, I would urge you to stop and think before sending anything out. Consider whether it’s really your best work, and if you’re really behind the track or not. Have you listened to it on a number of systems? Has it been heard by your friends and family? Have you tested it on headphones? Is there any little part of the track that annoys you or any part of it that you don’t like listening to? If so – don’t send it out. Re-work it, or hold off till you’re happy with it. There is a huge, huge, HUGE amount to be said for quality control.
When you render a track, it's likely you'll render an uncompressed 'wav' file or 'aiff' file. So with the rapid spread of high-speed broadband, what's to stop you uploading that to make sure your recipients get the best quality? Well nothing really – provided you can find web space or a hosting solution so that the tracks can be downloaded – but we'll get to the delivery later. What's key to remember here is that not everyone can listen to the same formats as you. As Martin says “What is often confusing is odd formats (like .wma, mp4 or .aifc), or bit rates like 24bit or above, which confuse my iPod.” and on the subject of hardware, Ben also mentions that 32bit wav files don't seem to play ball with his CDJ800s and so prefers 16bit, which incidentally is lower file-size anyway.
Oli Marlow adds that he prefers tracks to be in a zip archive file (to those who don't know, just Google for Winzip or Winrar and you'll find an answer) which I guess means you could always provide more than one option to account for listening problems. Worth noting is that although most recipients mentioned a preference for wav files, they would be happy with mp3 files rendered at 320kbps, and Micky expressed a uniquely mp3 preference, so my suggestion would be to go with a 320kbps mp3 file to begin with and if you get a positive response, maybe offer a wav as a follow-up.
Everyone is bound to have their own naming conventions which could be a combination of file-names, and embedded mp3 tags amongst other things, but one thing is for sure – nobody wants a track that they can’t identify. If your recipient can’t identify a track producer, name or a forthcoming label or contact information then you’re not doing yourself any favours. Nobody has time to download, re-name and categorise your tracks. You need to do that work before you send!If there’s one thing that all of the recipients (and countless other people I’ve spoken to over the past few years) have agreed on it’s that there’s crucial information that needs to be in the file name at least, and if that info is also in the mp3 tags (format permitting) then all the better. Martin says “Seriously, people need to name their files more. I get 250 tracks a month, things can very easily get lost.”. Will also says “Having a file that is just ‘trackname.mp3’ is ridiculous... I have no idea who made it!”. As if that wasn’t enough, Ben says “I quite often have a lot of work on my hands with gathering the relevant info from e-mails and then changing the file names which is time consuming.”
All recipients mentioned that they would prefer the artist name and track title in the name of the file – and optionally in the mp3 tags. There was also mention from a few of the label name, or if it was unsigned. On top of that, some mentioned contact details were important, since as Martin mentions above, things can easily get lost considering the volume of tracks people can receive.
By now you’ll no doubt have presumed that you need to stand out in order to even make it to your recipients ears in the first place. But how do you know you’ll be a
cut above the rest? Well it would seem that it’s really all about the music. Provided you can follow the steps to get your audience to listen in the first place, at that point the music really needs to stand up on its own. You’ve provided the right conditions, platform and arena for your music to shine, now it’s over to the actual tune believe it or not! Ben says “for me the only way to stand out is musically” Oli agrees: “In all honesty it’s the music that always wins” as does Will “It was simply the musical element that stood out... I don’t really care much about anything else.
So maybe it’s worth considering when you try to embellish upon what you send to your chosen recipients. Before you go writing that huge press-release or meaningless descriptor of the stuff you’re sending consider our interviewees. “Occasionally people send artwork and/or a press release, but it tends to get ignored unless I really like the tracks.” says Will, backed by Oli who says “Some people go to town, but a lot of the time it can be an un-necessary thing to include.”. Martin puts is best when he says “Labels send images and press releases, but honestly they’re 99% meaningless. Digital has separated the physical aesthetics of packaging from the music, there’s no point pretending otherwise. Press releases I make a point of not reading, at least until I’ve made a judgement about the music itself first. They’re usually full of unverifiable claims... The new PR is no PR spin.”
It is worth saying that if you’ve made it as easy as you can for a recipient to listen to your tracks, then you shouldn’t worry about them not checking your stuff out. Oli says “even if [you think it’s going to be] gash you still listen. Even if it’s only to prove you were right to think that...” and if you’re worried about a producer making presumptions about your music based on past performances, you can be comforted somewhat by Will, who adds “I still try to check at least 30 secs of them if I have time, just in case they’ve got better all of a sudden!”
320kbps seems to be the standard at the moment for sending mp3 files. We asked the fellas if it should be. All agreed that it seemed to be the standard for tracks at the moment, which seems fair although Martin adds “Realistically as broadband speeds go up, wav should be [the standard] but I’ll accept 320k mp3 for now. I’m no audio snob, despite producing.”. There was mention that anything less than a 320k mp3 is considered sub standard. Oli Marlow says “Don’t mug people off, and don’t mug yourself off. If I listen to a tune on the office system (JBL speakers) – which I often do – it’s going to have to be of a certain quality…” and Martin also raises an interesting point when he says “The lower bitrate you go, the less you feel any ownership over the actual file. It begins to simply not exist.”
So you’ve decided on mp3 as your chosen format. Now, to tag, or not to tag? That is the question... We asked our recipients how many mp3 files they received that were badly tagged, or not tagged at all. Two said 90 percent. One said around half, and two said they didn’t notice. It’s a bit of a mixed bag of responses, so I guess that one’s down to personal preference. I would say that it certainly wouldn’t hurt to put them in, since that way you can keep everyone happy. Most audio players like iTunes or Winamp will let you edit the tags usually found under “track info” or “ID3/ID2 tag” menus. Alternatively, Windows (XP at least) will allow you to right-click and edit the information on a track.
A key part of getting your files to the intended recipients is the delivery method. How do you dish out your tracks? Some people have their own hosting or websites, but for the less technically minded, there’s instant messaging services for direct transfers, email attachments, hosting services such as Sendspace or Mediafire, delivery systems designed for dubs, like FatDrop or Soundcloud and then there’s the option to link to your MySpace or Soundcloud profile.
Ben prefers AIM and adds “the cool thing with AIM is when I have the time, I can talk about the tune with the producer, it’s more direct than sending the feedback by email” Martin offers a somewhat opposing view: “AIM is good but I’d prefer to keep it for people I already know - it would be too much if too many people began AIMing at once.” Both Will and Oli are happy with links or direct transfer although links are better when the recipient is busy. Will however does prefer AIM over email: “I get so many unsolicited dubz to my email that I more or less ignore them unlessI know the person that they’re from, otherwise I’d spend 8 hours a day down-loading and checking tunes. AIM is much better for me.”In terms of hosting for delivery, there’s mixed opinions. Will and Oli don’t think hosting services like Sendspace are up to much: Will says “They all seem to be rubbish. They all have too many ads and are slooooooow... I guess DropBox seems to be one of the better services. No bullshit to deal with, still a bit cumbersome though!”. Oli continues with “Most of them are wack. Pop ups, waiting time etc.”. Martin expresses a preference for Sendspace. He adds “I’ll put up with most things to be honest, I appreciate hosting costs money and none of them are not so annoying you cant bother with them.”
Choosing Your Recipients
I was once told something of a gem of information from a well-known label owner, who informed me that a few well placed promo tracks sent to the right people could do much more for your reputation, promotion and resulting sales than the same tracks sent to as many people as you can find.
Consider your audience. If you send deep, chilled out tracks to a label or producer known for his heavy fast-paced bass, you’ll likely find they get disregarded. The same way as if you were to send heavy up-front tracks to a label known for deep releases. Sure, a label can expand and diversify, but it’s rare that your track will be the catalyst for that decision. You might find that you have to work your way up producers, Djs and label owners. Just emailing a big gun from the start might not yield much in the way of results, but if you can start lower down the perceived chain, then the big guys might get a tip-off, or perhaps you can have someone recommend your tracks to their peers and so on. I’ve found that it helps to build relationships.
Even if someone doesn’t know your style, if they’ve spoken to you about something online, or if a few emails have gone back and forth, you’ll probably find that they feel more compelled to check your tracks out. It will likely be a combination of courtesy and curiosity. Just remember your building relationships to get to know people, not just to bombard them with tracks as soon as you realise they’ll read your messages.
The Receiving End
Considering all the tracks people get sent, I was curious to see how the recipients listened to them. Was it straight away, was it in batches? On the computer? On an mp3 player? Here’s what I found out. The trend seems to be to collect tracks over a week or two and then have a listening session. The exception would be if a track was sent over instant messenger, where Oli says this “If I got the time and it’s on AIM or sommat I’ll try and listen and give instant feedback – unless its wank obviously – then I’ll pretend to be away from my desk.” He also raises a point about listening in batches “[It] can be a bad thing if your not feeling music that day or whatever but on the flip it’ll make a great tune stand out.” so it’s worth remembering that your track may be sandwiched by other unreleased or demo tracks.
On The Returning Journey
So the last thing to cover is really what these recipients can do for you. Specifically regarding feedback, since that would be the first point on the agenda for taking the tune further anyway, you might imagine. So should you get upset if you don’t hear back from a producer, DJ or label owner when you spend so long sending them a track? Apparently not it would seem. You might find your track just crops up in a mix or on a show. “I try to [give feedback] but the reality is that I never have time... if I like something I play it in my sets, so that’s the best positive feedback I can give.” says Will. The problem with time-scales is echoed by the others. Martin says “Feedback is important in principle but impossible with scale. Realistically the biggest feedback is whether it gets cut or played on Rinse, that should give a definitive signal. Getting on air means we rate the track highly.” Ben also agrees that “Time is definitely an issue”.
Oli has a slightly differing view however: “If you send someone tunes – it’s up to you to chase for feedback, you should want to know what people think of your shit. Most people don’t get back to you.”. So perhaps it’s up to you to chase your feedback, but getting the timing right is crucial. You can’t leave it too long, but in the same way you can’t start chasing for feedback too quickly it would seem. There’s still hope however, if you can’t chase everyone for feedback, you might take some solace in the fact that Martin says “advice is hard to give to everyone, but we do it. I wrote 4000 words to a pair of producers on a selection of their tracks recently, so you just gotta know when it can really make a difference.”
So there you have it. Provided you’re on top of your sending, chasing and presentation, you should be able to get out there, but just bear in mind that if your track isn’t good enough in the first place, or you don’t send to the right people, you’ll likely find yourself in exactly the same position as you started.
Written by DFRNT for Modus Magazine.