Independent Labels: Alive and Well

Independent labels today are putting out excellent product by talented and creative artists who have chosen the independent route for a variety of reasons. Not the least of these reasons is that they feel they have the freedom to do their music the way they hear it and believe it should be done.Independent labels today are putting out excellent product by talented and creative artists who have chosen the independent route for a variety of reasons. Not the least of these reasons is that they feel they have the freedom to do their music the way they hear it and believe it should be done.

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Artists who are signed with independents are totally involved with their project, whether it’s their very first album on their own label or their fifth for an already established label. Not only do they often write the sons, record them and present them to the label, they help market the product through point-of-purchase sales at concerts, fan club mail order, by doing radio, television and print media interviews, and by hitting the road with a heavy tour schedule.

Artists on independent labels are comfortable in the knowledge that they are focused enough to know what they do best and how lived daily through the writing and performing of their experiences. It is not a persona invented by a marketing person in Los Angeles, Nashville or New York City-the person you see on stage is the person you’ll meet next day on the street.

Following are some observations and comments from artist signed with independent label and/or those work there.

Gary Meskil, Pro-Pain Contents Under Pressure (Energy Records)

Gary Meskil with Pro-Pain, a group which has never been on a major label, says being on an independent label allows the band full artistic freedom. “On a major label you get picked apart, looked at under a microscope. This is our third release and we make it work for us.”

The group toured Europe for six weeks after their latest album, Contents Under Pressure was released there, then returned to the U.S. to tour after its release here.

“The label pretty much gives us the green light as to how we wanted to record this album,” Gary relates. “They are always very supportive. It was the first time we had produced ourselves and handled the art work…I think it’s our proudest work and it was recorded in the bass player’s garage.”

His advice for up-and-comers? “Keep at it, keep making demos work out playing gigs, sell your product from a merchandise booth, keep accurate records, get out there and be visible.”

Roy Wunsch, chairman of the board and CEO (Imprint Records)

“We started the label with the thought toward distinctive music,” says Roy Wunsch, president of the new Nashville country label. “We didn’t want to complete, if you will, with rest of Music Row and what they did best, and they do middle mainstream artists really well. We felt that frankly there was some hunger for country music that might be slightly to the left or to the right of that road. Certainly, singer/songwriters seemed to blend so well with the concept of the company.”

Wunsch points out that the concept of Imprint was to have a group of people who have had major label experience, and who recognized a need for a greater degree of focus on developing artists, than these individuals at the label had experienced in the past.

“It seems to us that there have been a lot of unique artist who never got their full shot at success because they were a little bit too different from the mainstream,” Wunsch continues. “What we offer frankly is a chance for a large handful of distinctive artists that happen to be singer/songwriters, a greater amount of focus for a longer period of time, with most of the financial resources that a major label has. We are a boutique company; it allows us to focus on a smaller number of artists rather than hopping from one to the other.”

Wunsch says that he and others at the label look for the same thing that other labels look for when signing an artist. “We look for that gut instinct, that what you are hearing is distinctive, yet distinctive within the framework of country music as we know it to be. There are a lot of wonderful singers, certainly a lot of wonderful songwriters, but collectively are they artists, and that is an educated roll of the dice.

Rory Block,Tornado (Rounder Records)

Roy is now on her ninth release for Rounder Records and is obviously happy with her situation at the label. She says she was on a major years ago, but at the time it was not a good experience for her.

“They tried to railroad me to do what was the style at the time,” she says. “When I approached Rounder with my music, I asked them if they wanted me to be commercial, and they said ‘don’t worry, we don’t release singles. Just give us a record that is beautiful.’ That was 11 records ago. I have made one every year, and they have grown so much. Now they are releasing singles, discussing video possibilities, but they still don’t have megabucks. It takes lot of strategy and planning and hard work to break a new act, and the label has to decide where best to spend funds allocated for each record. But there is so much more than before.”

As the company has expanded, Rory says they have not asked her to change her music at all. “A couple records ago I asked what I should do and they said ‘don’t change, the charts have to come to you.’ I then realized that what I do is commercial, and I didn’t have to change, which I didn’t feel I had to do. I was determined to n ever give up my artistic control, and Rounder has been absolutely great about that.”

Her advice: “I think that if you can get on a major label and you can have artistic satisfaction-not freedom, there’s no way you’ll have that, because they are not going to look at the music as you do-you should do it.

“A lot of people end up making their own CD, and if that is your only alternative, then I recommend that highly. It’s a very good calling card. If you go around with a cassette, you’re not as likely to get the attention if you already had product. You need to make a good quality record, even if it’s simple. Make a nice package, print up 1,000 CDs, sell them at your gigs, give them to labels. That helps you establish your musical identity. This doesn’t mean that if you don’t have the resources, all is lost. It helps you get involved and you feel like you are doing something. I think a record company is more likely to listen to a well put together CD with nice artwork and good liner notes.”

Ray Wylie Hubbard, Lost Train Of Thought (DejaDisc)

“I can call up the president of the company and tell him what’s going on with me,” was Ray Wylie Hubbard’s reply to why he was on an independent label. “I can let him know when certain stores don’t have my record in the store, and that’s a pretty good deal.

“Another advantage: When I went in to record, they said ‘here’s your budget, bring us the master dat’-I didn’t have anyone looking over my shoulder. There was a lot of freedom, and it’s great to have freedom like that.”

Additionally, Ray said he really likes the other artists on the label. “I felt like I was very honored to be among these writers like Sarah Elizabeth Campbell, Lisa Mednick, Michaell Hall-I really like being with writers like that.”

Plus, Ray believes that the music drives the label. “The great thing with DejaDisc is they really care about the music. A few years ago they did a compilation disc of all these writers doing Woody Guthrie songs, and I knew then they were doing it for the love of the music!”

When getting ready to sign with an independent, Ray suggests the following. “Ask about promotion and distribution, and see that they are gonna have the records in the stores. Just ask them how they will promote the record and how you can help, as far as in-store appearances, radio call-ins, interviews, and ask them how they’ll help.”

As for Ray, “I really enjoy the chance of being on an independent label. I’m doing the music I want to do, I can sing what I want to sing. I’m not having to do it for the money.”

Rees Shad owner (Sweetfish Records, Anderson, Ohio)

Though he’s quite successful with a recording studio in up-state New York, this is Rees’ first release. He chose to start his own label after talking to several majors, all of which liked what he did but couldn’t figure out how to market him.

“I had been marketing my recording studio for years. It’s one of the top studios in the world because of my marketing. So I thought, why am I wasting my time with these people, I’ll show them how to market it,” Rees says.

He went out, landed DNA distribution, and put his product on the market. Though he plans to sign others to his label down the line, his initial approach is simple and honest. “If I’m going to go to artists and say we can market you, then I am going to be the guinea pig. I don’t want people to be mad at the label; I want to be the one to experiment with.”

When asked if people should put out their own album, Rees replies, “If you can get distribution, do it. If you can’t, don’t bother printing CDs. I have people come in the studio and want to record an album and I ask them ‘why.’ IF you want to shop, you only need three songs. That will get people to believe in you. Spending the money on the recording process is putting the cart before the horse. Do one the best you can, don’t cut corners. If you can’t afford to record it you can’t market it. You have to have the complete package. Before we sent out Anderson initially, we sent out a letter explaining what the project was. Inside was a postcard of the town of Anderson and they could fill it out and return it if they wanted a copy of the album. It was already stamped so they figured I was serious. It cost us some money, but I didn’t waste sending CDs to someone who didn’t want to hear it. And I made some friends. And these friends have helped me with the entire project.”

The bottom line in having your own label, Rees says, is how good the product is and how well you deal with your customers. “As the record company director, I’m making relationships everyday with everyone who goes out and buys one of our CDs, I have to make sure it’s a good product, and they get it in a way that’s easy for them to purchase it.”

Tony Villanueva, The Derailers, Jackpot (Watermelon Records)

The Derailers didn’t get together as a group and rush right out to find a label deal. “We tried to get good at what we were doing and hoped someone would come along,” says group member Tony Villanueva. “There were a few labels in town (Austin, Texas) that pursued us, but Watermelon seemed like the best. For an independent, we knew we would be able to do the songs we wanted to do and could do the music we wanted to do. We thought that would be a good way to start out, just as we are. And it’s nice to have a personal relationship with the record label. It’s like we’re all friends. It’s business, but it’s just across town and we can go over anytime. The good thing is to get some music business generated in Austin. It’s a live town, and it’s a great family to be a part of.”

Watermelon gave the group complete freedom to work with producer Dave Alvin and do the kind of record they wanted for their first offering. “We had been playing a lot of these songs for awhile, and a few were new for the record. Heinz Geissler and John Kunz(executives with Watermelon) came and saw us a couple of times and basically liked our live show and our set, and other than that we never really talked about it. They just said, ‘you and Dave Alvin take care of it.’ Then they just checked in periodically to see what we were doing.”

Peter Rowan, with Jerry Douglas, Yonder (Sugar Hill Records)

Peter Rowan has a history of both major and independent label signings, from his early recording with Bill Monroe on Decca to his stint with Jerry Garcia, David Grismon, and Richard Greene of the bluegrass band Old And In The Way.

“I was on a major label until 1972; then I went independent at that point (because) it seems like the politics of jockeying for major label kind of stonewalled personal development to a degree,” Rowan remembers. “As categories became more and defined, the executives became more and more wary of people who weren’t straight up pop or rock ‘n roll. By contrast I could say that was the beginning of growth of independents. By 1981, both sugar Hill and Rounder were starting to really do some stuff.”

Rowan did move to Nashville in 1982 (he had first lived here in the 60’s when working with Bill Monroe) to sign with a publisher and seek a major label deal.

“I never wrote more songs in my life that I never sang,” he says of the next few years. “I had some success with songs cut by Ricky Skaggs and George Strait, and suddenly I was on everybody’s agenda except mine. So I decided to change my agenda to my notebook again, and go back to writing. I kind of bit the hand that fed me. I don’t have the patience to chase the deal. I have to put my energy into songwriting and focusing on the next project.”

While he was in Nashville he recorded several albums, including Dust Bowl Children which he describes as, “1990 Woody Guthrie meets Robert Johnson and Bill Monroe on some lonely stretch of road out in the dustbowl. I used the whole mood of the time as a metaphor so I dropped out of writing songs for the country music market and wrote these songs for and about the people who can’t even buy records…I began to forge myself as lyricist, and wrote about life-Ruby Ridge and life as an American Indian. Everyone wants to let the sleeping dogs lie, but if you’re going to be an independent person you need to reach people. I don’t believe in writing songs for the sake of the song as much as songs for the sake of the listener.”

Red SteagallCowboy Code (Eagle Records)

Red Steagall is one of the foremost cowboy singers and poets today, and he is in a unique situation in that he has product on both a major label, Warner Western, and a CD box compilation on Eagle Records. He signed with Eagle, “Because I felt like they had the ability to put the box set together properly and merchandise it.”

Interestingly enough, the songs on the box set come from material Red released on his own label, which is sold primarily through mail order and limited retail outlets, so the material will have been released twice on an independent label.

Arnold Thies, director of marketing and development for Eagle Records, explained the company’s approach.

“We will have our normal distribution through INDY Alliance, but also plan to market the box set on television,” Thies comments. “Red also has side areas he sells into which are geared to the cowboy market, like western stores and tack shops. He also has a radio show which we will be doing some advertising on. Plus we’ll do some advertising in some of the western magazines that reach the market we’re trying to reach.”

Thies said they will also market Red in conjunction with the individual companies for which he is doing commercials. These promotions probably wouldn’t include the entire CD box set, but selections from it will be on an individual CD made especially for that promotion.

“All of this gives Red that much more visibility and gives the product and the company more visibility,” Thies explains.

Thies emphasizes that marketing is of major importance to the success of a project. “I think a marketing plan with any company is of prime importance, particularly among the independents. Unless you have some way of getting into and penetrating the market, just throwing it out is not going to accomplish the needed effect. We have a two-pronged marketing approach. A lot of it will be available through television and retail simultaneously, because we’ve found that television ads drive your retail sales.”

Steve Haggard, Make Your Move (Wild Oats Records)

Steve Haggard is an internationally-known artist with his own label. In fact, Haggard has been concentrating almost solely on the market in Europe for the past five years, and is only now starting to look at U.S. penetration.

“Basically we started really small over there about five years ago,” Haggard says, admitting that he had only six names to contact “and I didn’t know what they were.”

He sent all six of them a cassette and one person gave him more names and then another gave him more names, and then he got a booking agent who did a tour for him.

“Then we branched out and now we’re all over the place. In the last two years I’ve done Germany, Austria and Switzerland, partly because the booking guys I had there were the most reliable and the money is better in those countries,” Haggard explains. “But I’ve been in most of the countries in Europe except for Italy and Spain. Now I’m doing licensing over there for them to manufacture and distribute my CDs.”

Haggard recommends that if an artist wants to crack the European market, they can do so but they must be willing to start small.

“Be prepared to find out how it works in a particular market; they are all different,” he advises. “Don’t decided how you’re going to do it, go see how you can do it. Find a couple of deejays that seem interested, send them some stuff, ask them for advice on touring, get feedback. Be prepared to start small. The first time or two you go over will be for exposure and making contacts. You need to find a couple of people there to help you coordinate it, people who know what they are doing. We do a lot of it by fax, but we have a lot of people in these countries who can help us out.

“There are other people who have been doing it longer than me—Tom Russell, Steve Young, the Dead Reckoning guys—are doing it now, but everyone has to look at it as long term and a building process.”

Kieran Kane (Dead Reckoning Records)

“It’s been really satisfying, but it’s a lot of work and takes you away from other parts of your life like anything else does,” says Kieran Kane, one of the principals with Dead Reckoning Records, when asked about starting a new label. However, he also said he would definitely do it again.

The label, in existence since 1994, has just recently established a European division that will be active on a day to day basis. The two divisions will work together closely on the promotion of releases.

“We knew there was a market in Europe, and it was important to set up a company and actually manufacture,” Kane says. “It enables us to have sales people there on a day to day basis. If an act goes over there’s a flurry of activity when they’re coming and while they’re there.”

One of the advantages of being on an independent “is that you know exactly what is going on,” Kieren say. “If things aren’t going well, you say it’s our fault, so let’s try and fix it. At a major label there’s an element of keeping the artist somewhat in the dark about what’s going on, how money is being spent, etc. So here you know what’s happening and who is responsible for it.”

Kieren suggest s that if you have a choice between signing a major label or an independent, weigh the pros and cons carefully. “At an indie label the expectations have more to do with the creation,” he says. “The indies can make records so much cheaper, so that basically if you can sell four or five thousand records the company’s in the black. The possibility of having a longer career is there also—many people have been on Rounder and Sugar Hill for a long time. If they had been on majors they would have been bounced several times. You have to decide where you want your career to go and what you want to accomplish. If you want to be Garth Brooks, don’t sign with an independent.”

The bottom line, Kieren believes, is the music. “You do music that is satisfying to you because at the end of the day that may be all you have. The only guarantee you have is the music itself. You can strive to see your own vision through. If it fails then at least you have done what you wanted to do.”


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