Roll Your Own

Roll Your Own

It used to be that in order to have any sort of chance of making it in the music business, an artist had to get signed to a major label. Many artists had to basically sell their soul to some deep-pocket record label just to get recorded. They had little other choice. Maybe they could get some backing from some Sugar Daddy or Sugar Mama, but that came with a price as well, as Stevie Ray Vaughn found out when he was presented with a tab when he finally started enjoying major success.

The gear necessary to just creating a good quality recording used to be incredibly expensive. On top of that, you had to depend on the label to promote and distribute the record as well as handle all of the legal ins-and-outs. Artists – who are often totally happy to be shed of such responsibilities – would sooner or later find out that none of this was free. Many fine artists, including the Beatles, found themselves working for years before they ever saw any real money. Besides having to pay back the bloated and wasteful corporations for every penny that was spent in getting the music out to the public, artists often found their creations compromised. In exchange for the label support, varying degrees of creative control were routinely surrendered to the label.

If an artist was fortunate enough to achieve some fairly high level of success, only then they could have enough clout to maintain a relatively high level of control over the creative aspects of his recordings. While the artist having a high level of creative control does not always make for the best end-product, about the only way we used to be able to compare the artist’s original vision was if you were lucky enough to catch them on the way up, or when years later a box set came out that had the demos or alternate takes of their hit songs on it. Sometimes it could be determined by hearing the live show, but the labels often had a hand in coloring this, as well. Many artists never had the option of maintaining this control, and no doubt many very fine artists have gotten so discouraged with this that gave up their dreams of making it in this business.

Times have changed.

Today, an artist can pick and choose what parts of the business they want to handle, and what parts they want to pay to have done for them. The price of the equipment necessary for creating a high quality recording has dropped so dramatically in the last 20 years that most any band with some resources and no really bad habits can afford to produce their own recordings. A decent digital home studio capable of creating a sound that 20 years ago would’ve cost a half-million dollars to achieve can now be had for in the range of $10,000 or so.

Many artists are choosing to start their own labels, and it’s not just the new struggling artists. Steve Earle already had a label, but he walked away from a major record company contract when they didn’t want to support his bluegrass record.

Fred Eaglesmith was dropped by a larger independent and started his own Sweetwater Records. Eaglesmith has since discovered that he can do quite well without label support by constantly touring and selling his merchandise at shows – while letting his wife handle the mail and Web site orders. Eaglesmith has been quoted as saying that the road is a much preferable form of damnation compared the damnation that one gets when tied to a label.

Ricky Skaggs found his career suffering after country music’s turn towards the Belly-Button Pop Diva acts. Skaggs started his own label and found that he could make just as much money selling a third or a fourth of the number of copies that he would’ve had to sell had he been under a major label’s control. Skaggs even started a sister label and signed the Del McCoury Band to it. Skaggs has noted that as a result, all the members of the Del McCoury Band now own their own homes.

Smaller labels, due to their more efficient nature, are also able to mine the back catalogs of some rather well-known artists, where a major label might find it not profitable. For example, Emmylou Harris is legally bound to one label for her new work, but her manager’s Eminent label was able to re-release two of her earlier “Never before released on CD” recordings last year. Look for more of this type of thing.

All this does not go unnoticed by the industry. Ricky Skaggs has rejected several buyout offers from other labels, and I’m quite that sure other successful independents are having similar experiences.

What’s in the future? More of the same, and then some. Just as competition from the Japanese automakers forced the American automobile industry to finally get their act together in the ’80s, the major record labels are headed for a period of re-adjustment that will benefit us all. I expect the major labels to eventually emulate what’s going on outside their confines. There’s too much money to be lost by not adapting. While there probably eventually will be some consolidation of the existing smaller labels for purposes of efficiency, the concept of artist-owned labels offers a whole lot of benefits to all but the biggest of acts.

Smaller more-focused media companies who promote these independent artists are also proliferating. This alone cuts out a lot of waste as these smaller companies can be more focused and get the product to its audience rather than taking the old scattershot approach to marketing.

Many – if not most – artists already have Web sites where you can listen to samples, get updates on touring schedules and keep up with any news about them. In many cases, you can even order their product directly from them. Artist discussion lists also offer some artists a level of word-of-mouth promotion like nothing we’ve never seen. Some artists’ discussion list membership exceeds 2000 members. How’s that for a focused audience? Some artist discussion lists can be more effective than some small magazines or newspapers at increasing the awareness of new releases – and it’s totally free publicity that is reaching the very people who spend a lot of money on entertainment.

More new music is available than ever before and it’s only going to get better. The music we get from these labels better reflects the artist’s vision better than ever before. These are the good old days.

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