Looking back over the past 15+ years at my journey as an independent musician and thinking on my (first) band, the Machine in the Garden, I’m struck by how hard it was back then. Not that it’s not hard to be a musician now, but sometimes I’m amazed at all the hurdles we overcame fifteen years ago when releasing our first full-length album, Underworld, independently in 1997. Having both been on a label and also self-released I see the pros and cons of both. (I have nine albums under my belt with my two bands: 6 on a label and 3 without.)
In 1996, I met Roger and when I realized how incredibly talented he was, I begged him to let me join his band. Then I pretty quickly convinced him that we needed to release a CD. By ourselves. It was crazy! I had no idea what we were getting into but we’d already been rejected from every label in our genre so a self-release was the only way we were getting out there.
Recording music back then wasn’t the same as it is now. You could spend tons of money on studio time or you could spend tons of money building your own studio. We recorded Underworld at our condo (yes, in a condo) in 1997 using Studio Vision Pro with a digital audio card with two channels. Yes, that means we had two tracks of audio available to us at any given time. Without getting super technical, I’ll just say we definitely had to be creative at times. Now it’s so much easier, you can just grab a cheap laptop and a mic and start recording music right away. These days, the Machine in the Garden releases are recorded using Logic and Mirabilis songs are recorded with ProTools on a Mac Pro (yes, that means Roger and I each prefer a different application for recording and mixing).
All our gear back then was outboard - all the effects, drum machine, keyboards, mixer - everything was a separate piece of pricey equipment. And then we recorded it all to a DAT (how quaint!) and then sent it off to be mastered. If a mix didn’t sound right, we had to completely start over. We couldn’t just fire it up in the computer with all the knobs in the same spot and tweak something. Given all the limitations we had, it’s sometimes amazing to me that the album sounds as good as it does. I listen to it now and I feel like it sounds crazy good for the resources we had.
Then there was the artwork and manufacturing. We had a friend take our album photo (okay, so we still rely on friends for a lot of our official photography) and we did everything in two colors (magenta and black) to save money. We printed all the booklets locally (it was cheaper) and then shipped them to the CD replication plant to be put together with the CDs. I’m fairly certain we still have all the films used to make the artwork. (Film! How cute!)
As far as costs went, we were so naive, we simply did some math. If the CDs cost X amount of dollars each to manufacture, then we only have to sell X number at X dollars each to break even. Well, it turns out, it doesn’t work that way. We suddenly had all these other costs. There were all the costs of the studio we had built (well, mostly Roger had built) over the years, but suddenly we also needed to market the thing. We ran ads, mailed out promos to radio stations, clubs, DJs, magazines and more, and we made posters (to this day we still have some left over). That didn’t include the costs of playing shows (yes, costs, you don’t make anything playing live). We didn’t (and still don’t) play live a lot, but we did what we could.
Marketing was so hard then - the Internet was just barely making it’s way into the mainstream (the original iMac was still nearly a year away when “Underworld” came out) but we did have a good number of followers on the Internet and there were some primitive types of social media (webrings, anyone?).
We ended up pretty badly in debt from that release, which took us some years to pay off. After that we gained a label (for better or worse, sometimes both at the same time) and increased our following. Underworld has been out of print for years in physical form (but it’s available in digital format if you’ve never heard it: http://tmitg.bandcamp.com/album/underworld). I was just a kid, really, at 20 years old when we released that album, but Underworld holds a special place in my heart being my first ever release. I think, strangely, that the album still holds up today and I still enjoy listening to the songs we created together 15 years ago.