Major Mistakes

Signing to a record label can be bad for a band's health. So why do they keep doing it?

When Steven Holt's dream came true, no one else was there to see it. There he was, living the musician's fantasy, signed to a big-time record label--what every boy longs for from the moment he straps on his first guitar and plays his first clumsy chords. There he was, a young man from Dallas, raised in local clubs and used to playing for beer money, suddenly with millions of dollars behind him.

And all Holt could think was, Something ain't right.
It was April 1996, and Holt could taste impending success. His band, Tablet, had just released its debut album, Pinned, on Mercury Records, home to such platinum-sellers as Bon Jovi and Joan Osborne. Tablet's single "Cancelled"--a pristine example of bright agitpop and insidious hooks--was all over local radio. All seemed right; prosperity was at hand. This was what Holt had been promised in 1995, when Mercury's president Ed Eckstein and artist-and-repertoire man Aaron Jacoves inked Tablet to a multi-album deal. Making Pinned was only the beginning; soon enough, Tablet was schmoozing with industry types, and the band's advance money would allow them to buy a van and rent a rehearsal space. Tablet's albums would even be released through an imprint called Kudzu to retain that "indie" cachet.

It seemed perfect: Release a record, get on the radio, and the world will be yours.

"But the rumors had started," Holt says now, reflecting on what was supposed to be--and what never was. "We knew there was something going down."

Between the signing of the contract and the release of Pinned, Ed Eckstein had been fired as Mercury's boss and was replaced by Danny Goldberg, the man who had once managed Nirvana. Goldberg had no idea who Tablet was, and when he saw the future for Mercury, its name was Hanson and then, later, a band from Smalltown, Texas, named Radish. Then Jacoves was fired. Then Kudzu was shut down.

"It all continued to decay," Holt recalls. "Our record was released, but we got no support from the label. No promotion at all. No push for national radio play. No one was working on our behalf--we were completely lost in the shuffle. They never hooked us up with any booking agents, and we never got any support to tour. By then it was just ridiculous. We asked to be released from the contract, which is what finally happened. Our lawyers went in. We got the rights to the album back."

And just like that, Tablet was a major-label band no more.
In less than a year, Tablet had gone from rock-and-roll hopeful to rock-and-roll discard, one more band ground up by music-biz cliches. The band wasn't officially dropped from Mercury, but Holt knew it was only a matter of time.

"The ride was over," he says.
In the end, Holt's story is no different than those told by most every musician who danced with the devil known as The Music Business. Maybe there are variations, subtle nuances told a different way, but it's a tale as old as recorded music itself.

And no one ever seems to grow tired of hearing it...or telling it. Perhaps that's because no one ever seems to learn from it, either.

Take Steven Holt. Again.
Last Friday night at Trees, Holt took the stage for the first time with his new band. Rangy, confident, and cracking jokes, he was primed for a new spotlight. Tablet had long since been dissolved, and Holt's new band, Bicycle Thief, seemed a truly impressive follow-up to Tablet's truncated legacy. Live, the five-piece band's songs were tight, polished, wonderfully melodic.

Off stage, Holt's attitude matches his performing demeanor. When asked the next day whether he'd consider signing Bicycle Thief to a major label, he doesn't hesitate.

"Sure," Holt says, as though it were a silly question. "Well, I wouldn't go looking for it, but my work ethic has changed, and I understand now that for the labels it's all about money. The larger the investment, the larger the risk and loss. And really, if someone's willing to offer you thousands and thousands of dollars to do what you love to do, to make a living playing music, then, well, let's just say I'd do it for a very large sum of money."

Of course he would.

Right now, the music business is a decimated battlefield strewn with corpses--the bodies of publicists and A&R execs, accountants and lawyers, and dozens of bands. They're all sacrifices, victims of a multibillion-dollar buyout that will once more reshape the music biz--this time into the images of Seagram Company Ltd. chairman Edgar Bronfman and Universal Music Group chairman and CEO Doug Morris.

In recent weeks alone, such venerable labels as A&M Records and Geffen Records have been destroyed, reduced to shadows and dust by the Canadian liquor giant, which already owned the Universal Music Group (home to MCA, Geffen, Interscope, and Universal Records) before purchasing PolyGram Music in December for $10.4 billion. With the purchase of PolyGram--the parent company of such labels as Island, Motown, A&M, and Mercury--UMG becomes the largest player in the music business, controlling almost a quarter of the industry.

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