As more and more people have learned to trade MP3s over the Internet, profits in the recording industry have taken a nose dive. Apart from the availability of free music, another reason for this trend may have to do with the common feeling that the quality of major label music has simply bottomed out. “Top 40” [and “alternative”] radio music has become too watered down, too risk-free to actually spend money on. Nevertheless, hordes of overnight-success, “one-hit-wonder” bands continue to be pushed through the radio processor, with many independent-label musicians wondering how they can be next. Having been through the process myself, I have received dozens of emails from “indie” bands interested in getting signed to a big label. Unable to give them the magic formula they seek, I usually just tell them my story. In April 1994, my band, Poster Children, signed to Sire Records, which was then a part of Reprise/Warner Brothers Records. At the time, we were already under a 3-record contract with a very respectable independent label, Twin/Tone Records, to whom we owed two additional records. But we hated the way Twin/Tone treated us – not even allowing us to design our own cover art – and we wanted out. Twin/Tone wanted $60,000 to break the contract, and the only way we could get that kind of money was to sign to a major label. It was the year Nirvana broke. Major labels were teeming around any band with guitars, looking for the next teen-spirited rock sensation. Out of fourteen other labels that were courting us at the time, we chose Sire because they seemed to treat their artists well. Dinosaur Jr., My Bloody Valentine, Flaming Lips and Babes in Toyland were all part of our new Warner Brothers/Reprise family. To find out exactly what to expect from a major label, we consulted a number of other musicians and record producers. Here are some of the cautionary tales we were told: • Signing with a major does not guarantee that your record will be released in a timely fashion, or at all. Your A&R person (the one who brings you to the label) may quit or get fired, leaving you with no one at the record label to back you. Without backing, your record will probably get delayed or even ignored. You’ll be stuck with no record for your fans to hear, and no income. Your album may also get delayed simply because “it’s not the right time yet.” The label wants to concentrate on other albums because it doesn’t think that yours is going to sell. So you wind up you sitting on your ass for months. Also, beware the “memo” deal, in which the label buys a demo from you and holds onto it while deciding whether or not to sign you. If another label wants to sign you during this period, you’re out of luck, since you are forbidden by the “memo” to re-record the songs. So those songs are dead until the record label decides what to do with them.
- The record label may drop you at any time. There are stories of bands being dropped the week before their record was scheduled to come out, with albums already pressed, packaged and ready for distribution.
- The label will probably force you to change your music. So when you play your record for your grandchildren one day, what you will hear will not be your own artistic vision, but the revisions of some guy who didn’t give a rat’s ass about you and quickly forgot about you while he went on to change other peoples’ music. Some contracts allow a band “complete control”. But even in this case, the label might tell you to change your song or they won’t put out your record. If you decide to sue, you’ll have to hire an expensive lawyer, then wait a couple months for a hearing. Meanwhile, the record label puts out fifteen other bands’ albums each week, and you again sit on your ass with no recording, and no option of putting the songs out anywhere else. All you can do is wait, and waiting like that can kill a band.
- When all is said and done, you will probably have made less money than you would have made by flipping burgers. [Out of a $100,000 contract], you will have to give 15% to your lawyer, 15% to your manager, taxes to the government, and then share the rest among your bandmates.
This will leave you around $12,000 on which to survive until you start making profits on your record, which usually doesn’t happen until you’ve sold over 500,000 copies (“Gosh, hope the record release doesn’t get delayed!”). Meanwhile, you’ll have to tour, and a major label doesn’t necessarily provide tour support. If you spend money on a tour bus, you’ll almost definitely return home with empty pockets. One band I know had a whole budget worked out, promised by their record label, Hollywood Records. But in the middle of the tour, the label stopped sending financial support, and eventually the band members didn’t even have enough money to buy food. These are just a few of the horror stories we had heard before signing with Sire. As it turned out, however, we were quite fortunate and managed to survive on the label for around five years, which is far longer than most bands. In fact, things worked out as well as we could have hoped. We were left completely alone in recording our albums, designing our cover art, and taking our promo photos. Unfortunately, we were also left alone in trying to sell our records. But through it all we remembered our roots, remained humble, and realized that just because we signed to a major did not make us a different (or better) band. What goes up will always come down; a major label contract is only temporary. The fact that Poster Children was just another feather of “indie-credibility” in Sire’s cap doesn’t upset me so much; I’m just glad that we survived. Hints for how to “make it in the music business”? For starters, I would recommend searching the web for Steve Albini’s “The Problem with Music”. This article contains the best advice you’re likely to get on the subject, and will explain more fully why not to sign with a major music label. Secondly, take a close look at the labels you are thinking of signing to – including indie labels – and ask yourself what they will provide for you. Will it be just another “label” for the back of your album? Will they take 50% of your profits but not be able to do more for you than you could do for yourself? My bandmates and I have recently discovered that many indie labels are rather powerless; you might find yourself better able to recoup the money spent on your CDs by pressing them yourself. Finally, music should be made for the love of making music. Don’t bother doing it for any other reason. When you’re doing it to please someone other than yourself, when your creativity is compromised, your art suffers, and so do you.
Rose Marshack is a graduate student in Narrative Media at UIUC, a computer programmer, a teacher of Tae Kwon Do at H.M.D. Academy in Savoy, a student of Kung-fu and Buddhism, and a bass player for the bands Poster Children and Salaryman. Poster Children have just recently self-released a live-action tour diary DVD entitled “Zero Stars.” Their website is http://www.posterchildren.com
photo of Rose taken in Atlanta by photographer Frank Mullen