Recording Electronic Music and Promoting it, in the Olden Days.

Notes about what it was like to Compose, Record and Promote Electronic Music during the 1990s to mid-2000s.


by DJ Robot Citizen, updated 2024-03-01


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The article below was initially in the introduction for the “History of Releases by Canberra Electronic Music Producers“. However it became fairly detailed so I made it this separate article.

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1] The Technology – the Expense and Limitations:

To create electronic music in the 1990s and early 2000s was very expensive.

Artists spent in excess of ten thousand dollars [I did, among others] to slowly acquire – over years – the range of equipment that enabled a fuller rich sound ie. multiple synthesizers, samplers, drum machines, FX units, multi-track tape machines, mixing desks, cables, amplifiers, speaker monitors, powerful computers with the necessary software plus storage racks, cases and transportation tools.

On the progression of recording technology:

Up to the mid-1990s the following methods were available to record:

A] To record tracks at home, artists either:

* Recorded live takes to a home cassette player or, for much better quality, to a stereo DAT [digital audio tape] machine; that’s if you knew someone who had one!

* Used a 4-track cassette-tape machine [cost $1-2000] and mixed that to analogue tape or a DAT [cost $2000+] .
Because of the costs people were often borrowing and loaning such equipment.


B] To record on 8-track machines you could hire time in a recording studio and take all your gear in there. To record a few songs with a quick mix you could need a budget of ~$2000.

Each option placed limitations on what could be done.
Most of all the available technology limited the sound quality that could be obtained.

From the mid-1990s 8-track DATs become available to hire or buy for home recordings; units such as the Tascam DA88 and Sony ADAT [cost ~$10,000].
These greatly expanded the spectrum of what could be achieved; coming very close to studio-level sound quality.

Towards the end of the 1990s it became possible to record audio to computer hard-drives and mix them there; if you had a very fancy expensive computer and digital mixer setup that might sent you back $15,000+ [that being more than enough as a deposit for a 3 bedroom house then!]
I recall a digital mixer like a Yamaha O2R sold for ~$12000.
And a suitable Apple Mac computer would be $5000+.
In the early-mid 2000s some aspiring artists were making tracks exclusively on computer ‘tracker’ software. However it sounded limited and ‘thin’ in scope. I recall people sending me demos like that and I was reluctant to play them on the radio.

I recall it was somewhere in the mid-2000s that software termed ‘digital audio workstations’ [or DAWs] became a viable thing for home recording, to replace the 8-track digital tape machines.

Hence, by comparison, to achieve a similar sound quality:

* in the 1990s you needed to spend perhaps tens of thousands of dollars

* since the mid-late 2000s people could use a laptop and free DAW software!

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2] Tools of Release Promotion – the Expense and Limitations:

In the 1980s and through most of the 1990s the main format for independent artists to release music was the cassette tape. That was the most affordable form for releasing ‘demos’. On one hand you could make a small batch at home with a double-deck tape player. To have them professionally duplicated at a factory – with printing and superior sound quality – a batch of 500 cassettes would cost you around $1500.

When you were more serious about what you’d made and had a bigger budget saved up, that’s when you would make vinyl or CDs. As vinyl was a dying format in the 1990s not many did that. It was reserved for pressing 12″ dance tracks aimed at club DJs. For the general public, you would release music on CDs. For around $3000 you could press 500 CDs.

What are those $ figures above in 2024 terms? 

As a rough guesstimation I’d triple those. Maybe more … considering house prices have gone up 7-fold since 2000.

Around the year 2000 is when the MP3 format became a way to release music online. The early popular sites – where independent artists could release their music – were and the Aussie version … I recall that instead of releasing hard-copy CDs, many artists focused on releasing music on those sites …
Similarly in the mid-to-late 2000s became a popular place to
release music and build a fanbase …

What many of us learnt though is that such huge websites are likely to be temporary. Imagine that after devoting years to building a fanbase for your music on them,
you log in one day to find the website has been sold to a large company, who has decided to obliterate your accounts and replace it with their products or just nothing. And with other sites you may find that the once-popular site loses traffic and within a few years is a ghost town.

In hindsight, I feel it was a mistake to focus so much with promoting via those music websites in the 2000s. It contributed to my sense of ‘burn out’. After that it took me a long time – years – to consider investing time to other sites that popped up, like soundcloud and bandcamp. I look back and realise I and others could and should have released more music on CD in the 90s and 00s. Of course, that would be pointless now, as things have changed again – music streaming sites now rule the waves.

And then there was the great hassle and expense of making promotional video clips!

I’ve always felt it should “be about the music”. I’m not a fan of videos for music. And it’s a different art form. However for a lot of the general public, video clips are proof that your music project existed; that you did something noteworthy with music, by having a little movie for them to pay attention to. It seems, strange as it is, that you only existed as a music producer, if you have a video to prove it … Crazee!!! imho

Over the past 10-15 years artists could potentially make cool-looking video clips at home with zero or little budget. You could film them on your own gadgets, edit them on your computer and release them on youtube and so on. Through that your friends and fans could share it and build a buzz. Obviously you’re likely to make something better though with a budget and with people with the video skills.

Whereas in the 1990s and 2000s, to make a video clip you either needed:

* to be signed to a major record label, who had the thou$ands and the connections with experience video production teams; or

* save and spend thou$ands and devote the hours to have a go at it yourself; or

* make friends with people who had spent the $ and time to acquire the skills and equipment to make video clips; and hope for a discount or freebie through them.

You might have needed a budget of $5000+ to produce a basic video clip in the 1990s, of a quality for TV broadcast. And even with that, it might never be shown anywhere! Hence, it was too much of a risk for struggling independent artists.
Thus independent artists of recent times can have video clips and an online presence. Whereas artists of slightly older times don’t have videos that documented their time in the sun.

With both audio and video, there was a zone of about 5 years, around 2010, where the technology improved and became affordable and possible for independent artists to achieve higher levels of production and promotion; meaning they have a presence online. The artists of before that time, it’s sadly like they didn’t exist, as they have comparatively little presence online.

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3] Summation … about Then and Now:

So today, in 2024, you can make music and video at home with high quality and
release it online for free or, to get it on major sites, for a small distribution fee. Your music can then potentially be heard by ‘the whole wide world’ – that’s if you slog your guts out and sell your soul to massively promote it.

But back in ye olden times, the 1990s and 2000s, you would need to save up thousands to make just 500 copies of your music on a hard copy format!

And likewise think of $5000+ for a video clip that might never be shown anywhere; possibly once on ABC-TV “Rage” at 3:30am!

My main points via the above tangents are:

* when listening to tracks from earlier years, if it doesn’t sound as polished as what is possible today, in the past decade up to 2024 … and

* if it seems that artists from back then weren’t popular, because they don’t have the big online presence of current young’n’active artists …

Appreciate that artists back then were achieving the best they could with the equipment, budgets and media available.
Many gave a huge % of their income, their time, to be able to create and record music.
It’s highly like that 98% of people who now dabble with electronic music, they wouldn’t have done so if they were alive in the 90s, because the barriers were so high.

So, if you ever come across a broke musician from the 1990s, empathise! 🙂
And if they look hungry and homeless, give them some spare dollars … maybe buy them a meal or … even a house! 😉 🙂

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The above ravings were rambled by a Robot Citizen 🙂 in February 2024.
Based on earlier write-ups in blogs and social media channels.

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