Major Mistakes

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

To pay for his purchase, Bronfman and his cost-cutters have already laid off 500 employees at Geffen, A&M, and Island; 3,000 workers worldwide will have lost their jobs when the merger is complete. And in coming weeks, bands will be dropped like blitzkrieg bombs over London; hundreds are to be released from UMG-affiliated labels. This is deep-cut surgery in the grandest sense, a type of violent roto-rootering to clean the muck out of the companies' clotted veins. Even such revered bands as Sonic Youth and Girls Against Boys will not be spared: Both are expected to be gone from Geffen (which is now part of Interscope, as is A&M) before spring blooms.

Bands--among them such locals as the tomorrowpeople, Slowpoke, and Radish--await word of their fates. The promise of six months ago has turned into the threat of tomorrow: Welcome aboard, fellas. Don't let the door hit you on the way out.

And still, there are thousands of bands out there who would sign a deal with a label tomorrow--bands that still believe the system works, bands who want to sell a million records by any means necessary, bands that have been betrayed but are willing to try again. The road to acheiving success in the music business has grown increasingly ugly, loaded with potholes and speed traps and bogeymen. The business is obsessed more than ever with the bottom line and uninterested in the welfare of the musicians, if not the music, that supports that line.

To which so many musicians would say: So what?
Most bands believe, or at least hope, that signing a contract's dotted line is like taking out an insurance policy for their musical career. But a handshake with any of the so-called Big Five labels--UMG, Warner-Elektra-Atlantic, Bertelsmann Music Group (home to RCA and Arista), Sony Music (home of Columbia Records), and CEMA (Capitol Records' parent corporation)--is really more like a surrender. The companies know your chances for success, or their definition of it, before they even draw up your contract. Only a quarter of all bands signed to the five major music conglomerates each year break even, making enough to cover recording and touring and promotional costs.

"The ratio is about what it's always been," says Tony Berg, an A&R veteran at Geffen who signed Beck and is currently putting together a New Bohemians best-of. "Record companies don't force the bands to do anything they don't wanna do. They don't force them to take a big advance. They get their advance, they've made their deal. It's up to them to ask themselves, 'Am I comfortable or not with what's expected of me?' It's bands with commercial ambitions that look to deal with major labels."

So what defines success? Local label owner Sam Paulos, who runs Crystal Clear Sound and steve records, estimates that "a typical major-label deal shoots for the sale of at least 100,000 units." Paulos, by comparison, would be happy to sell 5,000 copies of the albums steve releases, including Love or the Decimal Equivalent by Peter Schmidt's Legendary Crystal Chandelier.

But "the biggest problem with a big label deal is how little they pay the artists," says Jeff "cottonmouth, tx" Liles, a local spoken-word artist who released one album, anti-social butterfly, on Virgin Records in 1997--only to find himself dropped a few months later, without so much as a phone call from anyone at Virgin. "They get the advance, but bands make only about 9 to 13 percent of the net [profit]. That's about a dollar per record sold. So they have to sell 100,000 records to just break even. Hardly anyone sells that many. Kids aspire to be like those bands without even knowing how it works, how hard it is. It's a shame."

Just in the past year, three Dallas-based bands have severed their ties with major labels: Reverend Horton Heat ended its three-album association with Interscope, citing lack of artistic freedom. Tripping Daisy left Island after turning in the best album of its career--then insisting the label release a six-minute single to radio. And Bobgoblin parted ways with MCA Records after releasing a single disc.

Bobgoblin found itself homeless when its A&R man, Mitch Brodie, was fired from the label just weeks after the band released its 1997 MCA debut The Twelve-Point Master Plan. MCA had signed the band partly because its high-tech element (the band's CD, designed by bandleader Hop Manski, doubled as an interactive dossier) meant less promotional work for the label. But the record heads didn't stick it out long enough to see the results. They didn't get it--so Bobgoblin did, right in the end.

"MCA never really got on board," says Rob Avsharian, Bobgoblin's drummer. "Your rep getting fired is the kiss of death. They considered our first album dead in the water. We were left hanging. Our lawyer went in and asked them to cut us loose. They were wasting our time; we were wasting theirs."

Bobgoblin has since rechristened itself The Commercials and is currently recording a demo of new songs. Yes--the members are still wide open to the idea of signing with a label, be it large or small, in order to get their music in stores more quickly. And in order to expedite things, The Commercials have hired Mitch Brodie as their new manager. The man whose firing led to Bobgoblin's short tenure with MCA is now charged with sending the demo tape to labels that might start the whole process anew for Manski, Avsharian, and the band formerly known as MCA recording artists.

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