DIY music: the acts that are taking control

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The Independent Culture

The days when a band needed the vast armoury of a major label in their corner to succeed are long gone. When the Arctic Monkeys can become a fully fledged phenomenon months before they've even landed a label, you know a revolution is underway. "The labels aren't the ones discovering bands anymore," says Archer, "so it's now down to the bands themselves to do their own ground work."

Archer actually had a major label deal with his first band, Contempo, but that went pear-shaped and he retreated to his native Staines, where he formed Hard-Fi. The band built themselves a studio in a former mini-cab office and, armed with £400 and a second hand computer, they recorded a mini-album which they released on Necessary Records, a label established for them by their manager. Those seven tracks formed the core of what would later become the band's Mercury-shortlisted, Brit-nominated debut. "The computer is now the greatest punk rock instrument," says Archer, "you can record your music, mix it, master it, do your art work, host your website, distribute your record, and with MySpace, get your music heard by thousands." - the website that famously sparked the Arctic Monkey's rocket-like rise - is an invaluable tool for bands on a shoestring. Musicians can post up their music and, if it's good enough, a buzz can start and spread quickly through the millions of registered users. "MySpace is great for people like me who haven't had much radio play yet," says Imogen Heap, who now has a whopping 90,000 MySpace "friends". The artist re-mortgaged her house to fund the recording of her 2005 album, Speak For Yourself, which she then released on her own label, Megaphonic, last year, soon selling all 10,000 copies of the album she made for the UK.

Heap's download sales have been even more impressive. After her songs enjoyed priceless exposure on the trend-setting series The OC and the Narnia blockbuster soundtrack, she used the internet to capitalise on the opportunities that exposure presented. "When my song featured on The OC," she says, "I read on message boards that people wanted to hear it, so I set up an account with iTunes and made it available for download. It was such a great feeling to be able to do that." The track, "Hide And Seek", sold 30,000 downloads in two weeks.

Building a strong fan base is another vital step for any band taking the DIY route. Having gathered fans' email addresses as they toured the country, Four Day Hombre realised they had an untapped resource at their fingertips. "We sent an email out to our mailing-list saying we were setting up a label - a limited company," explains Four Day Hombre's front man, Simon Wainwright. "We offered our fans the chance to buy shares in the label (Alamo Music). The response we had was just incredible. We soon realised we'd be able to raise the amount we needed."

The £20,000 they raised was enough to allow them make their elegant Coldplay-meets-Elbow debut album, Experiments In Living. As they were in charge, they recorded it in the studio they wanted with the producer they wanted. If that kind of creative control is one of the great motivations behind releasing your music yourself, then actually owning that music should be another.

"To have a catalogue and own it is of huge value," says Mick Hucknall. When his Simply Red contract with Warner reached its conclusion in 2000, Hucknall opted not to sign another major deal and, like Heap, re-mortgaged his home to set up his own label "Under a traditional recording contract you spend a lot of time and money making an album and at the end of it the music you make is the label's property. Years of that eventually wore me down so much that it robbed me of my enthusiasm."

Being fully independent and making his own decisions about his music, has, says Hucknall, been enormously invigorating: "I feel like I have more freedom to try different styles; to take risks," he says. "With majors, you're always under pressure to come out with something that's more generic."

But there are risks involved with being your own boss. "If the album you make performs badly," says Hucknall, "then it's you who has to take the heat." On the other hand, being in charge of the purse strings means it's easier to keep a tight check on outgoings. "There's just no need to spend £10,000 on a photoshoot or £50,000 on a tourbus," says Four Day Hombre's Wainwright, "and there are ways of making videos without spending thousands and thousands of pounds." Plus, as Hard-Fi's Archer points out, "if it's your label, then you don't have to sell as many records to get the same money back." And yet, if it's your label, you will have to find the cash to pay for the manufacture of those records up front.

But as both Heap and Archer have discovered, the initiative, determination and commercial nous of a DIY act can be rewarded with a win/win licensing deal. Having made such deals with Sony/BMG and Atlantic respectively, Heap and Archer have retained their 100 percent creative control, but now have access to the kind of funds they just wouldn't have otherwise. In exchange for a slice of the profits, the heavyweights will pay for the CDs or fund an American tour. Having that kind of financial support and the guarantee of absolute artistic autonomy is just too good an opportunity to turn down. "No matter who you are," says Wainwright, "unless you're going to cut your nose off to spite your face, if someone's going to offer you more money to promote your music then you're going to take it."

But as Heap and Archer explain, they would never have landed such favourable deals had they not laid the building-blocks of success themselves. With mainstream labels often unprepared to take risks, bands might feel they have no option than to go it alone. Thanks to their initiative, solid determination, self-belief and, of course, some striking musical talent, Heap and Archer seized the moment and put themselves on the musical map. "To get your music heard," says Archer, "you don't need a big label behind you. You just need some good ideas, some time and the patience to make it work. And when you do it yourself, any success you get feels even more rewarding."

Lone stars

The Cottage Industries: Seth Lakeman/I-Scream and Kathryn Williams/Caw Records

Folkies Seth Lakeman and Kathryn Williams founded their own labels (I-Scream and Caw Records) and began releasing their albums from the comfort of their front rooms. Their efforts were rewarded when, after submitting their records for the Mercury Music Prize, both were shortlisted: Williams in 2000 for Little Black Numbers and Lakeman for last year's Kitty Jay. Williams' success landed her a licensing deal through East West while Lakeman is currently in negotiations for a similar major-label deal.

The Professionals: Delgados/Chemikal Underground

Glasgow popsters and John Peel favourites, The Delgados, set up Chemikal Underground in 1994 as a vehicle through which to release their debut single, "Monica Webster". But the humble indie label has grown to become a renowned Scottish institution. Responsible for a 12-strong roster of acts which include Bis, Arab Strap, Mogwai and the criminally underrated Malcolm Middleton, it also spotted talent in New York post-punkers, Interpol, and releasing an early single, helped launch their career.

The Part-timers: Super Furry Animals/Placid Casual

Established in 1998, there's a charming lack of ambition about the Welsh rockers' record label, Placid Casual. "Placid Casual exists to expose to the world, when we can be bothered, songs that come our way that may be ignored otherwise," they say. Home to the band's excellent Welsh-language LP Mwng and front man Gruff Rhys' Welsh solo debut, Epynt, as well as a handful of other Welsh-made releases, it's a enterprise run by passion not for profit.

The Scenesters: Conor Oberst/Saddle Creek

In an unusual display of brotherly love, Nebraskan Justin Oberst set-up a record label to release his 13-year-old sibling, Conor's, debut EP, Water. Stranded in Middle America, hundreds of miles from any of the country's music industry hubs, releasing your own record was the only way to get music heard. Now, 13 years on, Conor Oberst is considered to be one of alternative rock's most prolific and talented songwriters. While the label, Saddle Creek, is the heartbeat of a thriving Nebraskan music scene and one of America's seminal independents, responsible for releasing records by highly-regarded bands like The Faint, Cursive and Bright Eyes as well as discovering the now Warner-signed Rilo Kiley.

The Webcast Queen: Sandi Thom

After years of touring scuzzy venues with her band every night, this Scottish-born, Joplin-esque 24-year-old decided to play a two week residency in her South London basement and broadcast the gigs over the internet. The first performance found 70 punters tuning in. But by the middle of the second week, the buzz had drawn over 160,000, including curious bigwig A&Rs. Two weeks later, Thom had herself a major label deal, the signing of which was, appropriately, broadcast live via webcast.