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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