For The Sake Of Development And Collaboration: Big Label Affiliation Vs. Small Label Family Values

kris gruen

Videos by American Songwriter

Kris Gruen, a New York native making Americana folk music in Vermont, released his 3rd album, New Comics From The Wooded World earlier this year. During previous tours, Gruen has shared the stage with artists like Sean Lennon, The Avett Brothers and Jesse Malin. Kris tells us about his experience with his independent label Mother West and his fondness for small labels.

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Though I’m not an independent artist, I’m as close as one can get. I’m on a small, savvy independent label called Mother West, based in NYC. It’s the kind of shop that introduces you to legendary industry leaders in the morning, then joins you at your grandmother’s luncheon in the afternoon. The kind of outfit that doesn’t need to be reminded to avoid booking a tour on your daughter’s birthday, but also makes sure you have civilized accommodations when they do send you out (maybe even your favorite make, model and color of van if you’re lucky!).

A small label might have a harder time influencing mass appeal for an artist, but the level of devotion and personal consideration that comes from a house that knows you personally is robust and dynamic. Big label affiliation is just that, thin, something much less than family. After all, shouldn’t an artist’s/band’s work be the sole reason for popular interest in the end? Any other fan-base is purchased, and will dissolve if and when the money runs out.

It’s an old and trite story, that of the big-wig label buying up the rights of the starry-eyed and hungry artist for nothing more than production cost on their first release, only to throw the same trusting kids under the bus when the marketing campaign safety-pinned to their first tour returns mediocre sales. I chose the sound advice of those veterans I was lucky enough to know when I first entered the starting gate: “Go with a small, family-esque label if you can find one with any cred”. I did, and I’m still with them eleven years later.

When they picked me up, I was still learning how to tune a guitar, and it was a bad guitar at that. What they found artistically promising in me were the same things I valued about myself. Inversely, what made the label unique and quirky was the core of what made them cool and desirable in my eyes. Nothing can be more supportive of a productive relationship of any kind than this mutual regard, and precisely the reason most big label engagements fail for alternative, left-of-center artists: unless you promise to make them millions, the big labels won’t really support the development of an artist or band.

I was never really interested in big-money production. I was inspired to write and record music that was off the beaten path, which lead me to others off the beaten path. Once there– lingering amongst the self-righteous wallflower hipsters suffering to protect the integrity of their art—I was lucky to find a realistic mensch to manage my career. They learned my schedule and woke me up in the morning on time to pursue whatever level of professional success might still be available to me in those rarified airs. I was adopted by a team of independents who had already established connections with networks of industry leaders without losing their commitment to independent values.

After a solid first release, I was introduced to my label’s concentric circles– groups of trusted partners, who now (with evidence to support my artistic capacity) reached out with offers to collaborate. Other cities were now truly relevant to my career— Nashville and Los Angeles in particular. Licensing music became a focus for those handling my productions, and collaborations became the norm.

Collaborations occur throughout the process of creating and placing music. Artists collaborate, producers collaborate, PR firms collaborate, music supervisors collaborate, etc. I don’t dabble in much past the completion of the song, so my experiences revolve around the birthing process. Co-writing sessions are always a gamble, because 99% of artists spend most of their time alone with their muse and become quite comfortable in her isolationist arms. But I’ve found great satisfaction in learning to share the writing process with other creatives, and have come to deeply appreciate the challenge of odd and unpredictable writing environments that result from leaving the garden gate of one’s own studio. Some of these sessions are more memorable than others.

Early on in my foray into co-writes, it was arranged that I was to session with a long time label affiliate based in the heart of Santa Monica. I was lead into a large control room outfitted with four, wall-mounted flat screen monitors in each corner of the front-facing wall. The owner of the production house was who I was to meet, and I was prepped in advance to understand that his time was more valuable than mine. We were left alone to discuss a concept. I sat in the middle of the over-sized leather couch behind him until he found a place to pause his preceding project. He did, then spun around in his chair and told me that he’d listened to my work and thought of me as an inspirational song-writer, good for something to celebrate the natural world, something soaring and hopeful. I said “thanks”. He said “Okay, I’m going to let you get to it, I’ll be back in 35 minutes, you should have something finished by then, right?” Then he flipped a switch and trotted out of the room. The screens filled with ribbons of Pink Flamingos banking through the rain-bowing mists of what looked like Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, Humpback Whales mating in the secluded bays of The Sea Of Cortez, eclipses and solar systems, etc. I waited fifteen or twenty seconds before I started chuckling at my predicament, loving the fact that I was the lucky indie-artist to be handed, what struck me as, a true “Hollywood moment.”

I found it ironic that my little label would connect me with such a mainstream industry environment, and loved it for the irony, but loved it more for the opportunity. I started writing, using the exercise on hand, transposing the high-def studies of extinction-list protagonists into poetry that read like something ridden hard and put away wet. The chords and melody had to match. Somehow, everyone was pleased with the results, and I was on my way to becoming a frequent collaborator of the team. More importantly, and more to the point, because of the family-esque introduction, I became a friend of the owner of the company, someone he’d want to catch up with in a crowded room. In fact, he shares a writing credit on one of the songs on my latest release.

Because I interface through a small, family oriented label, my career continues to evolve in this fashion, slowly gathering genuine relationships with industry producers and artists I admire and respect. I benefit from knowing the people I work with personally. This is the aspect of the music business that can’t be changed by the mighty dollar, only by the personalities within it. There’s value in becoming a trusted institution, a trusted individual. Some would say it’s worth more than gold.


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