What are record labels good for, anyway?

Written for Collapse Board

For about as long as record labels have been signing artists, there’s been a conflict between label and band; commerce and conscience.

Labels, so we’re told, are greedy exploitative bastards trying to line their pockets with the blood and sweat of the unwary musician. Labels will force you to abandon your creative dreams and dance to their puppet-strings. Labels will explain that they’re providing a service, investing tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars and incalculable resources of connections and expertise. After all, since the 70s, bands have been perfectly able to press and distribute their own music, so why sign to a label at all?

The obvious answer would be that it demonstrates that someone else has had enough confidence in your band to invest in it. It’s one thing to have someone say, “I like your band”, but when someone says, “I like your band enough to bet $x on your future success”, it says something else entirely. Especially if that person has the type of reputation where their investment is a signal to others that your band is worth paying attention to. After all, once a label signs two or more good acts, it’s common for fans to look through the rest of the roster to see what else they might enjoy. Critics will be sent other similar bands on the label’s books in addition to the album they asked for. The advantage for the band is the benefit of association.

Where the relationship between artist and label breaks down is usually when the band feels that they’re not getting enough of a service for the money they’re effectively paying the label. In a traditional indie deal, the label might take 50%, but in return pay for all recording costs, handle all publicity and distribution and promotion, and offer an advance (loan) to cover touring costs. If your record is a huge success, this can leave you both happy, but if the record fails to recoup its cost the band can frequently end up owing the label money. Add to that the digital era where the download-to-purchase ratio is a thousand-to-one, and the musical climate is one in which budgets are tight and generosity is scarce. It’s no longer unusual for a label to expect the band to pay for their own mastering or even advertising costs, which would lead the artist to question, “If I’m paying for all this, then what the hell are you doing?”

Collapse Board invited three labels – Brassland, New York’s rising stars whose acts include The National and Buke & Gass; Armalyte Industries, home to K-Nitrate and Haloblack; and tenzenmen, the “Australasian DIY specialists” hosting 8 Eye Spy and Ourself Beside Me – to justify themselves before the court of you. Let’s start by asking them why on earth they ever thought setting up a record label would be a good idea …

Alec Hanley Bemis, Brassland:

“Frankly, the best statement of purpose probably appeared in an interview I did very early in our life, in 2003, with the filmmaker Vincent Moon:

“We just happened to move to New York at the same time, and events conspired to make it possible. The story goes a bit like this. I knew Bryce [Dessner of The National] in college, and Aaron [Dessner] tangentially through a band they both played in called Project Nim. Bryce and I were good friends, but I wasn’t that fond of his band. The first time I met him, I believe the first words out of my mouth were, ‘I hate everything your band and your music stands for.’ He thought pretty much the same thing about all the weird hardcore, lo-fi, and indie rock bands I was into. But we liked each other personally. [laughs] By the time we approached graduation, I had mellowed out and our musical tastes had converged, and we were talking about working with one another on something …

“Basically, after years of trying various musical combinations that didn’t take off, Bryce and Aaron made two records almost at the same time with their separate projects. Those were the debuts from The National (Aaron) and Clogs (Bryce). They didn’t really have any sense of what they would do with the recordings or any preconceived notion that they could be sold or become popular or critically lauded. They just recorded them because they wanted to document what they had been working on. However, they had a kind of magic to them, and we listened to both, and all thought there was something important going on there. At the time, I was making my living writing about music, and thought putting out records was a far better outlet to express my love for the stuff than writing about it. So we agreed we’d set up a label to develop an outlet for their material, and foster the growth of the bands and the community around them. We thought it’d be a breeze!

“There were some more high-concept reasons for starting the label, as well. Bryce had just finished his classical guitar training and was more frustrated than ever by the lack of musicianship (virtuosity, technique) in popular music – especially indie rock. Yet he was also bothered by the fact that the ‘new’ music scene (classical, jazz, etc.) didn’t place a great deal of emphasis on making great popular records. He wanted an outlet to reconcile these two issues. At the same time, I had started to outgrow my musical roots — which were in alternative metal and punk and indie rock – and was no longer getting as excited as I used to by the latest releases on Matador, Drag City, SubPop, et. al. I started to feel like the underground was obsessed with novelty and lacked ‘roots.’ I’d started listening to lots of contemporary classical music, R&B, Southern hip-hop, Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, and 70s classic rock. I felt that these influences hadn’t been properly integrated or considered in the indie/underground scene, and wanted to be part of a label that helped bring these (and other) sounds to the fore. Aaron didn’t really have any “issue” per se – he’s less snobby than me and Bryce – but Brassland was definitely a way to address some of this stuff.”

(continues overleaf)

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