Major Mistakes

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

"We'll entertain any and all options," Avsharian says. "We'd conceive of signing to a major. Our experience made us a little bit wiser. We know what to ask for, know what to expect, know to look for the danger signs. You gotta buy a ticket to win the lottery."

Over the long haul, most labels tire of their artists...or most bands tire of their labels. Unless you're one of the rare exceptions--say, Stevie Wonder at Motown; Fleetwood Mac or Van Halen at Warner Bros.; Tony Bennett, Barbra Streisand, or Bruce Springsteen at Columbia; or Whitney Houston or Barry Manilow at Arista.

Most artists simply don't stay in the same home forever. Gone are the days when one executive could remain at a label long enough to champion an artist, protecting him or her against the whims of the marketplace. Signed today, dropped today--and it's really no big deal. Today's hot commodity is yesterday's cutout-bin reject is tomorrow's next big thing.

For bands who eventually land deals with labels, getting a product in the stores is essentially a process of waiting in lines. Record companies, given the fickle nature of pop-music trends, can't possibly prioritize, and the A&R men who champion individual acts have to lobby continuously for the promotion and security of the performers they bring into the nest. And those guys always get fired the week before your record's due in stores.

Things will not get any better, not if the UMG bloodletting is any sign of things to come. The music business has simply become too big, a $12-billion-dollar industry (in the United States alone) getting bigger--and, in the case of UMG, smaller--every single day. There is too much money at stake for labels to release albums that don't sound as though they were manufactured by radio programmers; there is too much to lose by signing bands who won't look good on MTV. Labels will become less and less willing to risk even petty cash on bands that won't score the sure-fire Hit Single. As one label executive shrugs, now, it's one strike and you're out.

That same exec, speaking the week before UMG began its massive firings, refers to men like Seagrams chairman Edgar Bronfman as the ruin of the music industry. He compares Bronfman to Wall Street's Gordon Gekko--"someone who tells you he had to destroy the village to save it." This label employee speaks affectionately of Arista chairman Clive Davis and DreamWorks boss Lenny Waronker, but admits that rare are the labels run by men who know or care about music.

"With the invasion of Wall Street in the industry, there is greater pressure today than there was before," says Geffen's Tony Berg, among the few employees not fired in the wake of UMG's downsizing. "The record companies used to be the last maverick bastion, but now it's more like all other industries--the film industry, the publishing industry. The bottom line has shifted in the past 10 years."

But, insists Berg, even in the face of billion-dollar rock, amazing things still happen in this Big Business: "Sonic Youth, Pavement, Radiohead, Bjsrk, Beck." He pauses. "Beck has managed to do amazing things, without any coercion." By "amazing," Berg presumably means the artist's vision has transcended the expectations of the label or the public--meaning, he got lucky.

Sure, Berg can tick off the names, but it's a list of exceptions. For every Radiohead, there are still a dozen matchbox 20 or Backstreet Boys clones waiting in line.

As for coercion, stories about bands being asked to write poppier songs aren't rare; just ask any of the Dallas bands who have signed to majors. Labels demand that artists revamp their image in order to sell, and bands are left to wonder why they were signed in the first place. In the end, no one gets what he'd hoped for.

"The homogenization of the music is the greater evil, but nowadays, the bands do it to themselves," says Bubba Kadane, whose former band Bedhead turned down several offers from major labels in order to sign with an indie. "It's self-censorship, self-plagiarism. They're following the ground rules before the A&R guys even show up. It's a very dark time in the history of music."

Bedhead could well have been among the ranks of Dallas bands swallowed whole and spit out by the music business. Kadane says several labels, among them A&M and Atlantic, phoned Bedhead about signing on the dotted line. But Bubba and brother Matt--the band's singers, songwriters, guitarists, and founding members--never returned the messages. Instead, Bedhead's modestly promoted recordings on Austin's Trance Syndicate label and low-budget tours raked in glowing reviews, arguably enough to shove the band into alt-tinged stardom. Yet Bedhead chose to continue its organic, slow-and-low focus on the music.

Last fall, Trance's owner, Butthole Surfers drummer King Coffey, decided he could no longer afford to support the endeavor. And instead of taking offers from other labels, major or independent, Bedhead called it quits.

"We avoided the bigger labels for several basic reasons," Kadane says. "We didn't want anyone controlling what we did. We didn't want to schmooze with people, we weren't interested in making videos, and we didn't want to tour at someone's command. Nowhere in our history will you find any evidence that we were ever interested in major labels, though the horror stories we heard about them were reinforcing. Really, I don't feel sorry for the bands anymore, the stupid bands that buy into the major labels. I have no sympathy for them."

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