What’s so great about a recording contract?


[If you like this post please “Digg it”]

We live in the age of the death of record companies. They may not know it. You may not know it but retailers do and many, many artist mangers are fully aware that the end has already come for the mega star record companies that ruled the music world from the 1920’s until 2001.

In 1999 I was retired from managing and owning a label and was living on my royalties. It wasn’t a huge income, I have never been rich but twenty-five years of managing and producing had set me up to retire. I had invested in musical copyrights. That means I owned lots of recordings, or parts of recordings.  Like most people I had worked hard and earned some time off. By 2002 my income from royalties had evaporated. The age of the file trader had come.  I am not relating this story to get sympathy. I am telling you this so that you can understand the magnitude of the changes that we are living through. People are  no longer willing to pay for recorded music. Let me rephrase that, people are no longer willing to pay Major label prices for music. Instead they will pay for music when convenance and connection with the band’s aura can be balanced against money. Let me rephrase that,  price your full length record at 5.99 with artwork or as a download, make the music amazing and you may just redefine the concept of the gold record.

This brings me to the general subject of recording contracts.  I have quite a bit of experience with these kinds of contracts and relationships. In 1993 I was managing The Figgs, an upstate New York band amongst other acts. They were extremely young and, of course, extremely ambitious. They wanted to be rock stars nothing less. In point of fact, they were rock stars, they had everything you wanted in a rock star and enough left over to produce other rock star’s records. Great band, nice guys, at least in the beginning.  They wanted to get signed to a major label. They wanted it bad. I warned them repeatedly that they didn’t have a clue what getting signed would do to them and it might very well destroy their music and destroy the band. Being young, wanna be rock stars they listened and didn’t hear a word.

I produced and released a single for them . We produced some indy sounding tracks and released them on lo fi cassettes. I booked them into places they only dreamed of playing. They learned faster than I could teach them. I filled out their musical knowledge, taught them a ton of studio tricks and got them lots of stage time so they could work up a show. (always remember you are putting on a show…if you’re not then stay home and play guitar hero on your couch..) In the late summer of ’93 (I think, it’s all a little hazy now) they moved into my house for a couple of months to record a real record. They spent their days smoking bongs, watching planet of the apes movies, playing under the covers with various female fans and eating my cooking.  Every night when the sun went down we went into my studio, Morrison Hotel, and cut tracks.  They were fuckin’ smokin’! I’ve recorded lots or sessions. thousands of hours of sessions and I gotta tell you these kids were burning it up.

We had a few rented pieces of nice gear, a couple of mics, a mic pre and a few compressors. I was recording everything to 16trk 1″ tape at 15ips. This may mean nothing to you but I’ll translate–we were laying down big, fat, rocking tracks. Whenever I hit playback the speakers almost melted. After we recorded about 25 tracks they cornered me and demanded to know when I was going to get them a record deal.  I repeated my warning about record labels. They basically told me to go fuck myself. Then I knew they were ready. If I hadn’t done it to them they would have dumped me and found some sleaze ball that didn’t give a damn about their music to do it. There was no doubt they would get a deal.

We were mixing the record down. It was tentatively called “Waiting for the Bugasaurus”. We had pared the tracks down to 15 and come up with a sequence. It was going to be a fantastic indy record. It would make them. I had tons of contacts in the indy record world and we could find a home with a cool, well-connected label. Maybe start with an English release then get the record played on every college station. Everything was in place.

I talked to the band about labels and tried, in vain, to warn them for the last time. They demanded a major label deal ignoring all of my warnings and logic. I made two calls and set up a showcase at SIR studios in Manhattan. The band played a set for a major label A & R guy. Halfway through the set he phoned the label owner and told him he found the label’s next big signing. For the story of how they met the label owner and got offered a deal see my first blog “It’s all about being famous”. This evenings blog is about what went wrong.

The Figgs signed with Imago Records. Now let’s pause for a moment and remember that the band has a great album done, it just needs to be mixed. Now the band has to deal with an imbecile A & R guy that knows nothing about music. He listens to the unmixed record and hears one major problem. Even though he listens very carefully, through an extremely expensive stereo at ear shattering volume he just can’t hear enough of HIS OPINION in the record. As a result it just sounds flat to him. So he immediately demands that the band rerecord the record. Then he demands that we use his sequence. When one of the band members points out that he sequenced the record with the first 5 songs in the key of D, one after the other, he looks at them like a dog watching a Fellini movie and says ” Tell the engineer to change the key of the songs in the mixes so that it’s not a problem anymore” . Now the band wants him dead.  

Of course the album is rerecorded and remixed. It does well but the label does not. The label folds in the middle of their second guaranteed album. So The Figgs move to Capitol Records, following the same A & R troglodyte. At the new, bigger label they are much smaller fish compared to the bands the label is making money off of.  Whole departments of Capitol Records listen to demos and rough tapes of the album that is in the works and come to the conclusion that the band is utterly lacking these departments opinions and should start over. The art department wants to change the name of the record. The radio promotions department wants to change the band’s idea for artwork. The distribution department wants the band to reschedule the release for 16 months from now when they are certain they will not be busy since they operate on a 15 month in the future calendar. The band gets stoned one night and decides that the most important thing to argue about with the label is what color the paper label of the band’s vinyl release will be even though vinyl is only 1% of the sales at this point in history. 9 Months later they release an album with the original title “Bando Macho” (an inside joke so it means nothing to the fans), Artwork that they never approved and makes no sense, a really cool rear cover photo which was the only thing the band did. They get their special colored label on the vinyl release and the label immediately drops them. The fact that they battled to a standstill with the label president over the color of the vinyl record’s label certainly contributed to his decision to drop them despite their guarantee of three records.

This illustrates many of the problems that come with every recording contract with a large label.  I can’t even claim that it only happens to smaller bands that have no clout with the labels. Phish signed with Electra when they were well on their way to being a stadium act. Electra treated them like crap.  For example, the band wanted to get some play for its videos. So their manager put pressure on the label to get them some attention at MTV.  Did the band get medium rotation? No. Did they get a few plays on the alternative video show? No. Instead they got an offer to be the house band for a pilot for a children’s show! The label even argued that they should be thankful since the show would pay each member a regular salary of $800 a week for the 13 week run if the show got picked up. Phish turned down the offer and were angry. The label was mystified. Perhaps the fact that the band was routinely selling out theaters and earning $100,000 a night had something to do with it.

Now let me touch on another point about recording contracts. It is a point that I will expand into a complete blog at a later date. Recording contracts are set up in a way that all the benefits go to the label while all the risk is the band’s. The band pays for everything but the label ends up owning it. The band pays for everything but the label decides everything that is important. Even with the advice of a talented knowledgable lawyer the band ends up signing a deal that largely is a massive con job. Why would any band do this? The labels control the gateway to fame. Once an artist becomes famous the relationship becomes a battle with the band winning sometimes and the label winning sometimes.  Fortunately for everyone reading this blog, the earth has opened up and swallowed the record labels. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch of guys.

In the post web world the labels no longer hold all the cards nor do they control the keys to fame. The only traditional system that the labels still control is commercial radio. There is even light at the end of that tunnel since radio is in a confused desperate period. They have no idea what to program and the cracks have appeared under their feet – satellite radio, web radio, podcasts and many more trends have begun to destabilize commercial radio.  So the last of the Major label strangleholds is on the way out.  Where does this leave the record labels?

It leaves them stripped down to what they have always been, marketing companies. For decades the labels have argued that they were powerhouse artist development machines, starmakers (not to be confused with star fuckers!), distribution geniuses and creators of musical trends. Little of this bragging has been true. Certainly a label like Blue Note helped popularize certain jazz trends and Rough Trade/4Ad rewrote the rise of post punk. Dischord defined hardcore and rap, hell the rap labels have tattooed numerous street trends on multiple generations of kids but in the end they are just marketing companies. They don’t make great records they promote great records.

Now, with the web you too can promote great records. This blog proves it. In the nineties, your access to the advice of an experienced manager/label owner would depend solely on your connections. Now it depends on your broadband connection. So in the 21st century learning to be a rock star on a web blog is one of the magical ways to succeed at rock………….

©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010     Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.                     ZMVTCS8QHAVF

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Classified Madman!, the greatest goddamn f##king band of all time!


In the late eighties I signed a band to my record label.This band, the Vestrymen, were a jangly guitar pop band from Amherst Massachusetts. Now I have quite a few insane stories about this band including but not limited to How they came to give me autographed photo of the band members naked whilst tripping in the woods, How the drummer tried to kill me over a misrouted tape of loop of Ingrid Bergman and last but greatest the story of the greatest rock prank of all time the story of John-O! Tonight’s story has nothing to do with any of the sordid tales instead it concerns something that The Vestrymen discovered in a paper in Providence Rhode Island while on tour. Like any bored musician on the   road they were scanning the musicians wanted section of the paper and ran across an ad.

  The Vestrymen had a gargantuan appetite for drugs. Bless them they were stoned rock n roll stars. Imagine that! As a result, like all rural stoners they lived in a semi secluded ranch house in the Berkshires. (that’s part of Massachusetts that doesn’t appear on any maps of America. At least any maps of America that outline the places in America where Americans have jobs, work and suffer from common sense) This ranch house developed a legendary status as a crash pad, party house with the usual mix of midget luggage and imaginary teen runaways. Oh wait a minute. Sorry, I suddenly drifted into the story of John -O. Damn.

This ranch house, nick named the Ruby Ranch, was a standard rock crash pad party house.  The refrigerator in the Ruby Ranch was covered by a mix of tour memorabilia and in the midst of this chaos was THE classified ad.    What follows is a word for word transcription of the ad. I’ve included a scan of the ad at the end of the blog but it’s difficult to read, hence the transcription.  Now as you read this keep in mind that the writer was PAYING BY THE WORD. A typical ad like this in the eighties might have cost $20.00 for the first twenty words and then .25 per word thereafter. Since the Ad has 888 words this puts the printing charge around $235!  This man had a dream and he was going to back it up with his wallet. I recently wrote to one of the band members asking for him to dig up this gem of rock madness.  It stands as definitive proof what ten thousand spins of “Houses of the Holy” will do to a young, impressionable mind……………..


Utopian Band

Do you sometimes stay up late at night and dream that you are a member of the greatest rock and roll band of all time? I do, and I want to make that dream come true. I am 21 years old and want to be the lead vocalist. I have no experience, but I am extremely ambitious and intelligent. Ninety percent of my music spectrum includes the following bands. Heavy on Led Zeppelin and the Doors, while I am also into the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Moody Blues, U2, Sting, Pink Floyd, the Monkees and the Rolling Stones. To put this band together I need a lead guitarist, a bassist, a drummer a keyboardist and someone who can play the synthesizer. You must be able to unleash the raw power on your instrument that it would take to form a magical, mystical, eternal, everlasting sound that will rock an entire planet. How good can we be? Put it this way, there are 5 billion people in the world. Now imagine a kickass construction crew has just built a stadium that when full to capacity will hold 5 billion people. In every city and every town the word is being passed around the greatest band in the Universe is playing there.  The stadium sells out and everybody has the time of their lives. I am into freedom, liberty, peace, nuclear and conventional disarmament, a central world economy, one world language (English) and for everybody in humanity through the power of music to be mutually happy and satisfied. I follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King, Confucius, Mahatma Gandhi, Plato, Aristotle, Socretes, Goethe, Sartre, Camus, Rimbaud,Nietzsche,Buddha, Mohammed and many people in the bible. I am not a deeply religious person but I have read the Bible from Genesis to Revelations at least 15 times. Some of the group songwriting we should do should come from experiences in the Bible. I really want to get to know you people very well, therefore we should get together and find a house to rent with a large basement so we can jam there. I am very intense when it comes to practicing. I believe we should practice at least eight hours a day, seven days a week. I have a complex yet simple ideology on life. I believe people should move to a world democracy, collaborate, consolidate and over-all contribute 100 percent to humanity as one society without war or conflict. The U.S.A. and her allies have about 10,000 megatons of atomic weapons, and the Soviet Union and her allies have 10,000 megatons of atomic weapons. There are about 1,000 20 megaton nuclear bombs between the superpowers. The are also about 50,000 smaller nuclear warheads in the world.  A 20 megaton bomb within a radius of 15 miles turns everything into molten lava; at 30 miles people are set on fire and burnt to a crisp, at a 100 miles people are permanently blinded. Nuclear strike zones in Rhode island are Newport, Quonset Point and Providence.  This will never happen, but I don’t like living under the threat of total destruction.Through the powers of the United Nations and the recent signing of the INF treaty and the successful summits between the USA and Russia, relations are at an all time high. Disarmament and development are two of the most urgent challenges facing the world today. They constitute priority concerns of the international community in which all nations developed and developing, big and small, nuclear and non-nuclear have a common and equal stake. Disarmament and development are two pillars on which enduring international peace and security can be built. The arms race is absorbing far too great a proportion of the world’s human, financial and natural and technological resources placing a heavy burden on the economies of all countries and affecting the international flow of trade, finance and technology in addition to hindering the process of confidence building among nations. Thus, there is a commonality of interests in seeking security at lower levels and finding ways of reducing these expenditures. I smoke marijuana and hashish to explore the deepest realms of the human condition.I believe time has no beginning and no end, life and the joy of living are infinite. I am a vegetarian and take vitamins for good health. I meditate to find inner tranquility. I would like to rent out this house on the east side of Providence and eventually move to New York. The house must have a huge basement that we can jam in. I must stress the intensity that I am looking for in you people. The lead guitarist must have the sheer power of Jimi Hendrix. The Bassist like John Paul Johns. The drummer like Ringo Starr. The keyboardist like Ray Manzarek. And the synthesizer player must play like the almighty God. I don’t want to do any covers. I just want to write songs and be as totally original as possible. It is extremely important that each band member can powerfully sing in harmony on backup vocals. Together we can put together the greatest goddamn fucking band of all time! This ad has appeared in Providence, Boston, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Dallas, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Houston, Miami,Memphis, New Orleans, Tampa, Orlando, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Diego, Buffalo, Rome London, Dublin, Paris, Moscow and Peking.


 

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It’s interesting to note that he fails to give any clue as to how to contact him. A slight oversight on his part.  I believe he is still waiting to for the kick ass construction crew. How can you fail to admire this guy’s ambition?

 

 

Copyright Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010

Lesson #14 Radio, Radio………….


I received a few questions and even one or two demands on the topic of radio. It seems everyone would like to be on the radio. Why would you want to be on the radio? I don’t get it. Only kidding. I get it. I also know that what most of you are talking about is commercial radio.  For the time being you can forget it. It is impossible to get on the radio until you are large, established act. Not only do you need to be an act playing large theaters or greater you also have to fit into the “ya kinda sound like everything else” category to have a shot at being on radio. It’s sad. It’s also not the end of the conversation.

American pop and rock radio is rotting on the vine. Playlists for commercial stations are dominated by acts that are largely ten to fifteen years past their date of expiration or are one of the eight to twelve major label acts that have broken through. The explanation for this is all commercial radio is controlled by bribes that are controlled by consultants that are funded by the three major music groups. 

The last time that commercial radio programmers had any idea where they were going and had a reason to be playing what they were playing was 1995. ( I almost typed 1955 and that might have made more sense). Radio is going through hell behind the scenes. It is under attack from web radio and college radio and I tunes and guitar hero and satellite radio and god knows what else. In short it is doomed. It will survive but radio will be changing soon or it won’t exist.

For a young band or even a regional touring band the possibility of being on commercial radio is an impossibility.  It doesn’t matter. Instead new bands need to understand the use and performance (as in one of your songs getting played on some kind of channel) of their recordings through the prism of the new value of digital media. (fancy sentence huh?! I’m tryin to pat myself on the back) Let me put that a different way. Recorded music is not worth what it was worth twenty years ago. Recorded music is now like a business card.  On the whole you should GIVE YOUR RECORDINGS AWAY. Offer a single as a free download, attach the single to an email advertising a show.  Music has been moving in this direction for a long time.

[In case anyone gets confused here let me state quite clearly that I think a band has every right to charge for music the band has recorded. I think anyone that then steals that music is a thief.  It’s that simple. Now if the band decides to charge $22 per song as a download they are looking for trouble. The price of recorded music has dropped. The major labels and Apple hasn’t realized this yet but they will eventually get it]

Time for a story.  In 1989 or 1990 (I think) I signed Phish to my label. Great band, great guys. They only had released their music as cheap cassettes with black and white covers.  We set about planning a complete professional release for them. They had already recorded the album, Lawn Boy.  We pulled a track off of their cassette release, a song called fee which was kinda a hit, and added it to the album.  We worked out really nice pro art work and hired a pain in the ass photographer with great talent to shoot the cover. Me and a kid called Jeff Raspe (he’s now a kinda famous DJ guy) put together a big huge mailing list of people that would receive free copies of the album. When we had done all of this I felt that there was something missing.  This band was special and they really had a buzz going but I needed to get their name out quick all over the country.  They were just starting to become popular with Deadheads.

I went to visit a friend who was a big deadhead. While listening to one of his live tapes it hit me.  In those days (yes kiddies it was a long, long time ago) people traded cassette copies of live shows. This had started out as a Deadhead thing and had spread to every other act under the sun. The people that traded tapes were loosely organized. I asked my friend for a complete list of tape traders. The list was over 1200 names long. 

Now the way it worked was you would send one of these guys a SASE (that’s an envelope with postage on it). They would stick a copy of their tape list in it and mail back to you. You would mail them a list of your live tapes. Then you would work out a trade or maybe ask nice for them to copy a few live shows for you. These people were deep into trading and would tape every show they attended, often against the band’s wishes.

(Robert Fripp of the band King Crimson once saw an ad from some kid saying he had live tapes of King Crimson to trade. Fripp showed up at the kid’s house, knocked on his door and then told the kid to go get all the tapes. When the kid returned with a box of tapes Fripp took them and stalked off without saying a word)

It’s important that you get the underlying message here. Music gets around in all kinds of ways. Each way is an opportunity if you know how to use it.  So back to the Phish story.

I got a really good live show from the band playing to a sold out house at Nektars a hometown nightclub. I had twelve hundred copies of this tape made.  I then paid a woman I knew to write notes that went something like this ” Hi Harold. It was great meeting you at the show. I know it’s been a long time and you thought I forgot but here’s a tape of that band I was talking about…” signed Judy. Now I knew that these traders went to tons of shows and would often receive multiple tapes in any given week.  It would often take about three weeks for them to get around to listening to their incoming mail.  I also knew that these people would go to shows that they weren’t really interested in in order to tape them if they thought the band would be valuable to trade with someone else.

After we mailed out all of these packages which were a primitive version of spam we waited. We did this about two months before the release of the record. Soon the show started to pop up on tape trader lists.  Then like clockwork, other shows started to show up on lists as the traders went to Phish tour dates to flesh out their collection.

Now I knew that Phish didn’t have a prayer of getting on MTV or the radio so we had to take other routes to the top. When the album came out I went to a bunch of Dead shows and handed out promos (free copies) of the album to random people in the audience.  Within four months the band’s buzz was ramping up nationwide……

Why did I tell this story in a blog about radio? Radio is changing. Find the new, alternative and experimental ways that music is being spread and work those systems SYSTEMATICALLY.  If anyone tells you that bands get big by sheer luck that person doesn’t have a clue. When a band becomes big, someone is quietly working behind the scenes to make it happen…………..this is how you succeed at Rock………………

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Copyright Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010