Without a doubt, the Internet is an incredibly powerful promotional tool. Used wisely, this inexpensive platform can help unsigned artists distribute and promote their music globally. Enterprising musicians have tapped into the Web to increase album sales, climb to impressive rankings on popular Internet music charts, and make money from song downloads and online plays. Yet despite all the hype surrounding online music, the dream of scoring a record deal by way of the Web still seems as elusive as ever. The hope that online notoriety will catch the attention of major labels and lead to big-money record contracts just hasn't panned out on a large scale.
But don't write off the Internet too quickly as a vehicle for landing a major contract. Earlier this year, a band named Fisher finally hooked that groundbreaking record deal, proving that the idea of getting signed as a result of a strong Web presence isn't so far-fetched. This article isn't an overnight-success story, nor is it a record-industry fairy tale that could never come true for an average musician. Fisher's record deal came only after the band spent more than a year in the top ten on several popular Web music charts, chalked up millions (yes, millions) of MP3 downloads, released an indie CD, and put in a lot of old-fashioned hard work. The group's experience demonstrates that Internet presence alone isn't enough to snag a record deal. It is only a part - albeit an important one - of a multifaceted, comprehensive marketing and promotional plan.
BACKGROUND CHECKFisher's core members are Ron Wasserman (production, songwriting, and keyboards) and Kathy Fisher (vocals and songwriting). Wasserman describes the band's sound as "artistic pop - Sarah McLachlan meets Pink Floyd in the year 2000." After more than six years of playing and writing music together, Fisher has seen its share of ups and downs, from the high of having a song placed in a national television commercial (for Hyundai) to the low of being promised a record deal if they would only sound more like the band Garbage. Through it all, Fisher made a point of taking advantage of every opportunity that crossed its path, including playing MP3.com-sponsored gigs at the House of Blues in Hollywood and paying for its own touring expenses on the Lilith Fair tour.
Fisher recorded and mixed its first independent release, One, in Wasserman's home studio, operating on a shoestring budget. The CD sold about 6,000 units - not a lot by major-label standards, but a very respectable amount for a small grassroots indie effort. True North, Fisher's major-label debut with FarmClub/Interscope Records, is essentially a remake of One featuring improved production (a live band replaces many of the virtual MIDI tracks on the original album) and four new songs. At press time, True North was scheduled for release in October 2000.
FIRST BREAKSFisher's biggest break came a few years ago, when a friend of the group managed to get the song "Breakable" to Darren Higman, vice president of Atlantic Records' soundtracks division. Atlantic wanted one more song for the Great Expectations movie soundtrack, and Fisher's track turned out to be a perfect fit. The attorneys were called in to negotiate contracts, and the soundtrack was released in February 1998.
The movie was no blockbuster, but the soundtrack was well received by audiences and critics alike and went gold. Fisher's track was slated to be the sixth single released from the soundtrack, but unfortunately the label stopped with the fifth one. To make matters worse, Fisher had spent the previous year experimenting with a different, "edgier" sound at the request of a well-known record executive who was considering the band for a recording contract. That meant that Fisher didn't have enough material like "Breakable" to persuade Atlantic to offer an album deal.
Nevertheless, the soundtrack provided invaluable exposure for the group. The record company set up a Great Expectations Web site, where visitors could check out the album's selections. The soundtrack boasted several big-name artists, including Tori Amos, Iggy Pop, and the Grateful Dead. Fisher was the only unsigned band in the bunch, and its members were wise enough to use that exposure to their advantage.
INDEPENDENCE DAYUnable to ink a record deal, Fisher thought about recording an independent album. To do that, though, Wasserman had to overcome his negative preconceptions about indie releases. "I thought that if you do your own CD, you're a loser," Wasserman says. "Which at the time really was the case. If you weren't good enough to be on a major label, you did an indie CD." He began to rethink this premise as he considered the power of the Internet. "When I saw what was about to happen with indie music online, I realized that doing your own CD is actually really smart," he says. So the band formed Raw Fish Records, put up a modest two-page site for Fisher, and linked it to the Great Expectations site. The e-mail messages started to come in from folks looking to buy a Fisher album.
The decision to record One was simply a logical response to the ever-growing online fan base mustered by the Great Expectations soundtrack. "The Internet is how we initially started getting feedback from fans," says Fisher. Interestingly, Tori Amos fans in particular seemed to appreciate Fisher's sound. As it turned out, the Great Expectations site was linked to the hottest Tori Amos site on the Web, which was extremely helpful in pulling in new people. The demand for Fisher material existed, and it was time to make an album - with or without a major label's backing - or risk missing the wave of interest generated by the soundtrack.
TAKE ONEThe home studio where Wasserman recorded and mixed One is centered on an E-mu Darwin 8-track hard disk recorder and a Mac G3/266 MHz desktop computer. He used Mark of the Unicorn's Digital Performer 2.5, with a Digidesign Audio Media III card handling the input and output duties. (For a complete list of the equipment used to record One, see the sidebar "Fisher's Tackle Box.") Wasserman started the production process for most of the tracks by laying down some drum loops and virtual tracks (bass, pads, and so on). Next he created a stereo submix of these tracks on the Darwin. The submixed tracks were then used as reference tracks against which all of Kathy Fisher's vocals and any other instruments (such as guitars and strings) were recorded. Wasserman says that he recorded to Darwin directly rather than into Digital Performer because, at the time, the external stand-alone hard drive recorder was more dependable than the computer-based DAW.
Kathy Fisher's vocals were recorded with a Rode NT2, which Wasserman says sounds great for an inexpensive microphone. The mic was run through an Amek System 9098 single-rackspace preamp. "It was Rupert Neve's last analog mic pre," says Wasserman. "And for how much it cost, it wasn't that impressive sounding." For additional acoustic tracks, such as drums and strings, the band rented a Neumann U87 mic from Audio Effects, a music-equipment rental company in Los Angeles.
After the vocals and overdubs were tracked on Darwin, Wasserman transferred them to the computer two tracks at a time via S/PDIF. Kathy Fisher's vocal takes were edited together in Digital Performer to create the final takes. Any other instrument overdubs that required editing received the same treatment. Wasserman usually added a song's final production elements, such as additional keyboard sounds, effects, and extra loops or samples, after editing the vocal and acoustic tracks.
In spite of the limits of his CPU, Wasserman managed to mix the entire album in Digital Performer. "Even though the system didn't have any separate TDM cards for extra processing power," he explains, "I still managed to roll off 32 tracks and a couple of effects." He found Digital Performer's native MAS reverbs and delays "pretty decent sounding" and particularly useful during mixing.
CHOOSING SITESIn early May 1999, right about the time Wasserman was putting the final touches on One, MP3.com started to generate a buzz. Wasserman checked out the site and a host of other music-oriented pages. "Because people initially found us through the Internet, that was the logical way to start marketing One," Fisher says. The band decided to focus its promotional efforts online using the RealAudio and MP3 file formats.
Wasserman and Kathy Fisher were very picky about where they uploaded their music, adamantly refusing to associate their songs with sites that had slow load times and bad layouts, both of which might have deterred fans from listening to Fisher's music and downloading song files. "We have a thing called `the Evelyn test,'" says Kathy Fisher. "Evelyn is Ron's mother. She's 80 years old and likes to surf the Web, but she gets easily overwhelmed by sites that are poorly designed." The two show Evelyn a site and see if she can navigate it without getting confused and frustrated. If she can, then the site is deemed suitable for upload. (For a list of the band's favorite music sites, see the sidebar "Fave Raves Online.")
In another smart online marketing move, Wasserman uploaded Fisher songs to several smaller, mom-and-pop sites. "These sites are more likely to do write-ups and reviews," says Wasserman. It was those articles and CD reviews that continued to build the interest in Fisher's music. The ultimate result was enough online listens and downloads to put the group at the top of some of the most popular Internet music charts (for example, the MP3.com Top 40 and Pop Rock charts). Once Fisher reached that point, people checking out the top songs would become interested in the band. "Our position has pretty much become self-perpetuating," says Kathy Fisher.
Wasserman adds, "There are also sites like Rhino.com that go to popular MP3 sites and pick out their favorite tracks. They pirate the MP3 files over to their own sites and highlight these songs as the top picks you should listen to." Consequently, Fisher's music is featured on more sites than just the ones the band posted uploads on.
PREPARE TO POSTThe objective was to sell CDs, so Fisher didn't want to give all its songs away as free files - just enough to entice fans to buy the album. The band decided to post four songs online as MP3 downloads. Three of the songs were chosen because they always seemed to get extremely positive feedback from fans, and one song was a wild card.
The first MP3-authoring software Wasserman tried was Microsoft's WinAmp. "When I originally started creating MP3 files," he says, "I couldn't get things to encode right on the Mac. But I had a PC, so I transferred my Mac AIFF files to it and then I converted them to MP3 files using WinAmp. I then put the MP3 files back into the Mac and uploaded them to the Web." These days, Wasserman prefers to use BIAS Peak 2.0 software, because "the quality is much better than WinAmp's." It also eliminates the need to transfer files between platforms, as Peak 2.0 is Mac-based. Wasserman's only complaint about Peak 2.0 is that it takes an incredibly long time to encode a file. "It takes about 25 minutes compared to what previously took maybe 35 seconds," Wasserman says.
Wasserman didn't make any special tweaks to optimize the tunes for the Web, but the CD was mastered by Chris Bellman of Bernie Grundman Mastering. Even though Fisher recorded One on an extremely tight budget, using little more than Wasserman's modest home-studio equipment, the band didn't skimp on the mastering process. Bernie Grundman's mastering services cost between $300 and $400 an hour, and Wasserman says they went back several times to refine the final master. No matter how inferior an MP3 file sounds compared with the original mix, a solid mastering job helps your MP3 files stand out from the crowd.
CATCHING AN EAREventually, Fisher's online popularity caught the attention of the traditional media. The band was written up in Hits magazine, a popular music-industry journal, as the next hot group to watch. That sort of coverage carries a lot of weight in A&R circles, and band members expected the phone to start ringing off the hook with offers. But the phone didn't ring. "We got maybe one call, and I'm sure it was the wrong number," Wasserman says. "We weren't even contacted by any small indie labels - nothing." Catching the ear of a major label was not so straightforward.
But as it turned out, Tony Ferguson, vice president of A&R at Interscope Records, did have his eye on the group. Aware of Fisher's Internet buzz, Ferguson had also heard of the band through Taxi, an independent A&R organization that Fisher had become a member of as part of its ongoing promotional efforts. Taxi's president, Michael Laskow, and vice president, Doug Minnick, had both brought Fisher to Ferguson's attention. Consequently, Ferguson took Fisher's material to Andy Schuon, the president and CEO of FarmClub.com, and asked his opinion. (FarmClub.com is a Web site created by the founders of Interscope. Artists upload songs to the site, and the public rates them.) Schuon had heard Fisher's music while surfing MP3 sites in search of new talent, and he had been watching the group's progress. Schuon and Ferguson decided to bring Fisher onboard. The only thing needed was final approval from Doug Morris, chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group (the distributor for FarmClub/Interscope Records). Morris also happens to be a cofounder of FarmClub.com.
A few weeks later, with the Christmas holiday fast approaching, Schuon met with Morris in New York. Schuon played Fisher's CD for Morris, and according to Wasserman, "Morris went nuts. He called the Interscope offices and had them stay open into Christmas Eve in order to give us the first offer." At first the label didn't believe Fisher's MP3.com download numbers. "They actually thought we were faking the numbers, so I gave them my access codes to the MP3 stats to clear things up," says Wasserman. After about six weeks of negotiations, Fisher had a deal. Best of all, Fisher negotiated to keep all its digital rights (for example, download royalties, MP3 dissemination, and so on), a sort of reward for the group's Internet enterprise. At the time, such a deal was unheard-of.
GEARING UPWith the recording contract, Fisher now had a real budget to use for True North. But instead of rushing into a major studio and burning through all the money in a matter of weeks, Wasserman decided to build up his home studio for tracking vocals and overdubs and use a professional studio only for recording the more difficult acoustic instruments (drums, strings, grand piano, and the like). Once Wasserman finished all the production and editing at home, the band would hire a top engineer to mix the album in a high-end mixing room.
Wasserman chose Digidesign's Pro Tools/24 Mixplus system as his DAW, and installed it on a Mac G3/400 MHz computer. His interface of choice was Digidesign's 882/20 (eight balanced 11/44-inch TRS ins and outs and S/PDIF I/O). "I don't see any reason to buy a couple of 888/24s yet, because I'm just monitoring the stereo mix, and doing overdubs one track at a time," Wasserman says. The computer, interface, and other hard drives sit in a closet adjacent to his studio to cut down on equipment noise (see Fig. 1). The Pro Tools sessions are backed up to Castlewood 2.2 GB removable Orb disks.
Wasserman paid particular attention to assembling a superclean signal path into Pro Tools. "The overdubs and vocals go through an Avalon 737 preamp into Apogee's Rosetta A/D converter. We purchased a Neumann M 147 microphone for cutting vocals," Wasserman says. "The signal path is real simple, but it sounds excellent. The sound I got on Kathy's voice easily matched the sound we were getting at a professional studio running through a Neve console and a vintage Neumann U 67." Everything was recorded into Pro Tools at 24 bits via the 882/20's digital ins, direct from the Rosetta's digital outs. (Even though the 882/20 is only 20-bit, its S/PDIF connections recognize 24-bit word lengths.)
A makeshift vocal booth was constructed in the bedroom. It's a simple affair constructed of several 4-by-6-foot Sonex pads, which hang from the ceiling to create a sort of foam tent (see Fig. 2). The house is in an extremely quiet mountain neighborhood outside of Los Angeles proper, far away from air traffic and busy streets. So having a soundproof vocal booth wasn't a concern. "All we needed was a way to take out the room reflections, and the Sonex pads do a fine job," says Wasserman.
TAKE TWO"After pre-production rehearsals with the full band, we went to Mad Hatter Studios in Los Angeles and spent four days recording the basic rhythm tracks to 2-inch analog tape at 15 ips with Dolby SR," says Wasserman. This included all the drums, the grand piano, and some rhythm guitar tracks. "We used a little Sony MiniDisc recorder, which I always brought to rehearsals, to help us reference song tempos and remember ideas while we were recording in the big studio."
After all the tracks were completed, a Pro Tools/24 Mixplus system was locked to the analog tape machine, and the tracks were transferred to the digital domain through Digidesign 888/24 interfaces. "Then it was back to the home studio," says Wasserman. "Recording at home saved a substantial amount on studio costs and allowed us to capture performances when people were ready to play or sing, as opposed to always watching the clock. This really helped get the best possible performances out of everybody.
"After the overdubs were done, I started digging into each track to clean up things such as guitar buzzes, coughs, bad jokes, noise. I also did a lot of vocal comping. Pro Tools allowed me to do all this editing quickly and accurately," says Wasserman. "Cleaning up all the tracks before we went into the big studio to mix saved us a ton of time, because fewer mutes needed to be automated. We probably saved a good two days total, mixing 13 songs, because I did this work ahead of time."
PIANO MANWhen cutting synthesizer parts, Wasserman would often "trash the sounds" to get a dirtier, bigger-sounding track. Because of this, high fidelity wasn't an issue on these parts, so he usually recorded the synthesizers at 20 bits (directly into the 882/20). Wasserman's favorite synth right now is the Access Virus, which he describes as incredible. "I'm using it all over the new album," he says. "It's really great to have knobs that actually do what they say they're going to do." He also uses his old Roland JV-1080s, but says, "They sound a little muffled to me now, though I can still get some great sounds out of them. For example, I made a Mellotron sound out of a couple of flute samples from the orchestral card, and people thought I had rented an actual Mellotron.
"When we tracked the grand piano live in the big studio, we used the figure-8 pattern on a couple of AKG C 414s. We wanted that older, warmer sound. It sounded great, way better than any sampled piano. But I wasn't sure I had played the part that well. So when I got home I booted up the GigaSampler piano, thinking I was going to recut the track. The GigaSampler piano is great, but it just couldn't compare to the actual grand piano." Wasserman went with the imperfect performance. "Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to let go," he says.
However, Wasserman points out, "The new album isn't such a keyboard project, not like the first album. I really backed off." He jokes, "When this album goes on the road, I'm going to have a lot of breaks. True North sounds so much better than the first album because we have a real budget and can work with real musicians now - it's great."
THE FINAL MIXWith all the tracks cut and produced, Fisher was ready to mix. The renowned Don Smith (whose credits include songs by the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks, and Cracker) was called in to do the honors. The mix sessions took place in June 2000 at Capitol Records' studio in Hollywood.
"For the mix, we rented a full 48-track Pro Tools system with six 888/24s that we plugged directly into the Neve console at Capitol," Wasserman says. Wasserman thought that Smith would want to transfer some of the tracks he'd recorded at home back to 2-inch tape to warm them up. However, by the end of the mix sessions not a single track had been transferred. Smith had never mixed an entire album exclusively from Pro Tools. "But apparently he thought everything sounded just fine," says Wasserman. "A great advantage of using Pro Tools to mix was having the ability to loop a little part and let Don really dig into the sound."
They didn't have to squander a lot of time cueing up the tape to make multiple passes over a particular part, either. "Working with Pro Tools has, again, saved us time and simultaneously given us the best possible mix results by letting us really focus on specific sections," says Wasserman. "Though Don does say he misses his `rewind breaks.'"
A popular plug-in during mixing was Amp Farm by Line 6. "On a lot of the guitars we used Amp Farm," Wasserman says. "The guitar players we work with actually prefer the sound of Amp Farm over miking a cabinet." Wasserman likes to record the guitars dry and then use the plug-in to beef them up in the mix. Amp Farm allowed complete flexibility with the sound of the guitar tracks, giving Wasserman anything from big distortion to subtle overdrive effects. "When Don wished a guitar sound were a little bigger, it was like, `Hey Don, look what I can do - try this with those Rolling Stones tracks.'
But the biggest gift came from Pro Tools. "Its ability to nudge tracks using the QWERTY keyboard's arrow keys - that's the best thing," Wasserman says. "You can knock things off by a sample or a beat and have this incredible new part that works." But he warns, "The bottom line is to be careful about going overboard on tweaking. Truly great performances always include some degree of imperfection." Today's plug-ins make it extremely easy to over-perfect everything, and that can sap the life from your music.
ONLINEFisher landed a record contract not only because it has a solid act and great songs (essential ingredients for any artist), but also because people knew about the band - fans and A&R execs alike. The group intelligently used the Internet to capitalize on its first success (the Great Expectations soundtrack), a move that garnered additional attention, built a global fan base, and put the band at the top of the Internet music charts. After Fisher had spent months at the top of those charts, it was virtually impossible for A&R scouts to surf the Web and not run across the band's name.
It would be ludicrous to say that anyone can do what Fisher has done, because nobody can follow another band's path exactly. But Fisher's journey from being an unsigned group to making it as a major-label band serves as an interesting case study. It shows what talent, marketing smarts, technical know-how, Internet savvy, and steadfast determination can do for your career.