100 Coasters by Joe Moody, contributing writer

Home recording equipment has gotten much better and become much more affordable in the past few years. As a result, most musicians I know either own some kind of small recording setup or have a friend who has a modest basement studio. These home studios are great for doing pre-production work before the recording of an album, working out song ideas and arrangements or doing demo recordings for the benefit of other band members. But any band who is serious about trying to develop themselves as a marketable commodity might want to heed this word of advice: Most home-grown recordings should really not be distributed to the general public. Really. The majority of home recordings are examples of works in progress, and should be viewed by the band as rough sketches of songs which should be recorded properly in a professional environment before they are released to an artist’s audience. A band looking to present a professional image needs to be very careful about what they release to the public; any promotional materials or recordings which represent you or your band have to speak for you when you’re not around, and you don’t want them saying, “These guys are a garage band.” Unfortunately, some people get so fired up by their own genius that they just can’t wait for the world to hear how brilliant their new material is. This is usually a big mistake.

Here’s an example of the kind of thing I’m talking about: This band I’m working with tells me that the last recording they did was in a friend’s basement studio. “He doesn’t really know what he’s doing, we had to do the vocals in his laundry room, and he’s only got, like, three microphones, but he recorded us for free, for the practice.” Great, I say, it’s smart for the band to record themselves whenever they can. “Yeah, it pretty much sounded like crap, so we just gave the CDs away at a few of our shows.” I’m sorry, you did what? “Well, we didn’t want to charge anything for them since it sounded so horrible, so we made up 100 CDs with Tommy’s computer and gave them out for free.” Hey now, that’s a crafty bit of self-promotion – “This is a copy of our band’s new CD. It sounds fucking terrible, so you can have it for nothing.” Or, hey, maybe you could announce it from the stage: “Thanks for coming tonight! We’ve got a table in the back where you can pick up a copy of our horrific new CD, Crappy Sounding Songs From Billy’s Laundry Room – you won’t believe how bad this thing sounds, but it’s free! Take one for your friend, too! Oh, and we’ve got T-shirts for ten bucks!” Marketing genius.

Now, what do you think is going to happen to all of those CDs? Oh, I’d bet most of them end up getting tossed in the trash barrel on the way out of the club, scattered around the parking lot after being used briefly as frisbees by drunken bar patrons, or forgotten under the front seat of somebody’s car. Maybe the band will get some exposure on somebody’s coffee table if their new CD gets some use as a drink coaster. Where they aren’t likely to end up is in regular rotation in anybody’s CD changer. Generally, if somebody gets something for nothing, they place no value on it.

Truth is, if the band is lucky, nobody will ever listen to it at all. See, most music consumers, especially non-musicians, can’t tell the difference between a bad recording and a bad band. And, frankly, it shouldn’t be the listener’s responsibility to recognize and appreciate the distinction in the interest of forgiving a band for their lack of ambition. So if your band, The Pink Weasels, gives out a hundred CDs that sound like they were recorded using lots of tin cans and string, your chance of ever selling a CD to anybody that has heard this free-’cause-it-sounds-like-sh*t demo will be nil. Zero. Zip. In fact, if someone mentions your band to the person who heard your crappy CD, that person will probably say something like this: “Oh, man, I heard a CD by that band The Pink Weasels, and they totally suck! Don’t waste your money on anything those losers do, they sound like a garage band!” So much for your crafty self-promotion scheme. If only twenty of those 100 CDs gets listened to, and those twenty listeners each share their poor opinion of your band with ten friends who tell ten friends who share the hate with their ten friends, you’ve just poisoned your reputation with 20,000 people. You’ll have to either move to another city or change the band’s name to sell any CDs in the future. When you hand somebody a CD and say, “Hey, check out my band!”, you’re asking for their time, so don’t insult them by wasting it. Let’s face it, if you heard a CD that sounded like dogsh*t, you’d be a whole lot less likely to give half a chance to any future releases by the band that made it, wouldn’t you?

There are two exceptions to the “No home recordings” rule: punk rock and Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska”. With true hardcore punk music, a certain homegrown horribleness is worn like a badge of honor; a polished-sounding punk record would be an oxymoron in itself, and would be scoffed at by true punk rockers. There is a whole underground network of hardcore punk bands who trade recordings which all share the same rough ‘n’ ready production values, and there is no shame in a crappy-sounding recording in that genre. As for “Nebraska”, which was recorded on a four track cassette deck, this recording stands alone. Frankly, if you can write and perform songs like Bruce Springsteen, that crappy-sounding home demo will probably get you a bazillion-dollar record deal, and then you can smash your four track cassette deck with a hammer (or give it to your friend’s punk band) and hire a real engineer and record anywhere you damn well please, and make a great sounding CD that you won’t be ashamed to charge ten bucks for.

Here’s another mistake that some band members make: playing rough, unfinished mixes for anyone who gets close enough to be sucked into their vortex. I worked with a band that ended up making it a policy that the lead singer could never get a copy of anything we were working on until the CDs were back from the pressing plant, because no matter how rough the tracks sounded, and no matter how many times somebody implored him not to play it for anybody, his first stop after leaving the studio was this club where he knew the bartender, who would begrudgingly play a CD over the bar’s sound system. Then he’d strut around the club and shout over the out of tune vocals and empty solo section, “Hey, check it out! This is my band!” Then he’d bring his unfinished masterpiece to work with him and blast it over the company’s paging system. He would carry it with him for days, and shamelessly play it for anyone who would listen. “Check it out, this is my band! The guitars sound like sh*t right now, and my vocals are kind of rough, but we’re going to redo them all before we mix, so it’s gonna sound a lot better than this. Listen, this is the section where the guitar solo goes, can’t you just picture it? Trust me, it’s gonna be awesome!” I seriously doubt that Leonardo DaVinci ever dragged his unfinished paintings out into the street to show passers-by his works in progress – “I know her smile’s a little toothy right now, but I’m gonna change that – I figured I’d paint her just smiling a little bit, you know? Like, almost smiling, but not really? Can’t you just picture it? Trust me, it’s gonna be awesome! I’ve got some rough sketches I did on cocktail napkins that I’m giving away – take one for your friend, too!”