Believe it or not, there was a time before The Unsigned Guide came into existence and shone a guiding light over the music industry from a grassroots perspective. This was also a time when the never-ending array of music websites dishing out free advice and handy hints to musicians which we have grown accustomed to today was decidedly more limited. It is hard to imagine how things have changed in such grand terms since the start of this decade; not only the digital developments which mean bands can now release and distribute their own material and promote themselves to fans and new audiences around the world, but the general upsurge of the unsigned scene which has multiplied massively, giving rise to the likes of Orange, Red Stripe, Diesel and many other major brands wanting to grab a piece of the action through various emerging competitions and initiatives.
But before all of this came to be, unsigned bands were faced with a much more challenging situation if they wanted to book gigs, promote themselves and release their material. Although most bands and artists would undoubtedly become reliant on their cherished notebook filled with names and numbers of local contacts for venues, studios, rehearsal rooms, and promoters, it wasn’t so straightforward if they wanted to set their sights beyond their immediate scene. Which is how the idea of The Unsigned Guide came to fruition.
The concept initially came about when the publishers of the guide, Stef Loukes and Lee Donnelly, were running the infamous Boardwalk rehearsal centre in Manchester, where Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses, The Charlatans and Oasis all practiced regularly in the earlier stages of their careers. Many of the bands using the rooms depended on word-of-mouth to broaden their existing contact base, so Stef and Lee were often asked if they could put bands in touch with labels or venues in other cities. This eventually developed into the creation of an A4 sheet of names and numbers which the pair gave out to bands rehearsing regularly at The Boardwalk. Stef recalls:
‘As time went on, bands would then come to us to see if we had an updated list or any more contacts we could put them in touch with. At this point we started to realise that there didn’t seem to be anything available for entry level bands. We couldn’t believe it, so we went to the Musicians’ Union to ask them if that was the case. They confirmed it was so we discussed our plans to create a document to fill this gap. They liked the idea from the start.’
And so began the early existence of The Unsigned Guide. The process from initial concept through to publication of the first edition in 2003 took 3 to 4 years. Over the years a team including Stef, Lee and various work experience staff and volunteers worked on a part time basis to develop the plans and managed to obtain partial funding from both the Musicians’ Union and the North West Development Agency. And thanks to a great amount of research conducted by the volunteering staff, plus the professional experience which Stef and Lee possessed from their ongoing work within in the Manchester music scene, the book gradually began to take form.
‘The unique selling point in our eyes was always the information in the contact listings. We took time to thoroughly research what companies actually do so we could include a paragraph about each business listed and how they could help emerging bands. So it became more than just page upon page of names and numbers which don’t mean much to anybody and aren’t very helpful. The aim was always to take the legwork out of the music business for the bands. Their time is arguably much better spent writing music, recording and gigging, instead of on the phone. We took the time to do the laborious bit; the data collection, so they wouldn’t have to.’
Fast forward 6 years and The Unsigned Guide has continued to prosper, along with the flourishing emerging scene. The release of 2 North West editions of the book in 2003 and 2004 then led to a Greater London edition being produced in 2005, and eventually the all-encompassing UK edition was launched for the first time in 2006, which continues today. So whilst the regions covered by the guide, not to mention the size and weight of the book, have all grown over the years, contributions have also been welcomed from significant industry bodies and organisations such as the IFPI, PRS For Music and the BPI. Louise Dodgson, Editor & Research Manager since 2006 explains why the contributions are a necessary element of the book:
‘The music industry has changed at an unbelievable rate in the past 5 years, and it can be hard to keep up. Bands and musicians have the facilities to do a lot more for themselves now in terms of getting their music out there and self-promotion, so knowledge of how the industry works as a whole is crucial. It is still a business at the end of the day and you need to know your stuff if you want to get ahead. This is why we were keen to have involvement from organisations such as the IFPI. Not only do we want to provide unsigned artists with the contacts they need, but we also think it is extremely important to help them gain an overall understanding of the industry they are entering to put themselves in the best possible position.’
Now, with the arrival of The Unsigned Guide Online, it seems that those serious about sustaining a career in the music industry will find making that a reality a great deal more straightforward than those who went before them. Paul McManus has been Production Manager of the printed edition of the guide since 2006, and extending his challenges even further, has more recently constructed the online service.
‘The first move into actually publishing the information in an online format came after the 2nd edition. Initially the idea was to offer subscriptions to just the information included in the book, but after many discussions and meetings between myself, Louise, Stef and Lee, we realised there was a gap in the market for an ‘online’ magazine aimed at unsigned bands, musicians, budding promoters, managers and people wanting to start up their own labels and venues.’
The brainstorming turned into the birth of The Unsigned Guide Online which you see before you today, and although it has taken quite some time to reach the finished article, Paul thinks this was necessary in the evolution of the site:
‘It seems a lifetime away since the first meetings and discussions, but within reason it’s been a beneficially slow process. It’s given us time to sit back and question all the features we are offering and are going to offer in the future, to make sure that subscribers are getting brilliant value for money for the service. The Unsigned Guide Online provides bands, musicians and people working or who want to work in the music industry an insight into the business from a level they are currently on, and gives them the tools and education to help progress themselves.’
Quite understandably, after years of hard work and dedication, the whole team are thrilled to finally launch the online version and hope its success equals, if not exceeds that of the printed one. A final word from Stef:
‘We always hoped The Unsigned Guide would be the first words on any bands’ lips and that it would become a resource synonymous with starting a band.’
‘The Unsigned Guide is better than a foot in the door, it blows the door off its hinges!’ Tony Wilson