Major Mistakes

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

In 1987, Dallas hadn't had a rock-music scene long enough to have suffered any cautionary tales. The New Bohemians were the first to feel the industry sting. The New Bos, prior to signing with Geffen, had to that point been a fine example of both Deep Ellum promise and member solidarity. But once the band began recording its label debut, 1988's Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars, Geffen made it clear that the only part of the band it cared about was Edie Brickell. One album later, the band blew apart.

The Buck Pets, signed to Island in 1988, hadn't the time to absorb the lesson. As a major-label signee, the band was as vulnerable as a newborn baby left to the wolves--or PolyGram, in this case, which bought out Island in 1989 and canned the Buck Pets shortly after the release of their second record a year later. The Pets would resurface on the indie Restless in 1992, then fade away.

After that, things got quiet for a while. Plenty of rumors abounded about bands on the verge of the verge. But Dallas' only substantive export was a former Krokus-Van Halen cover band reborn as the platinum sons of Sabbath: Pantera.

But when Nirvana released its second record, Nevermind, on Geffen in late 1991--after having issued its debut, Bleach, for Seattle's then-tiny Sub Pop label--a new cycle of signings began. In the unexpected wake of Nevermind's careening popularity, both major and independent labels descended upon every American city like bloodhounds on crank. They were in search of the next Breakthrough Alternative Act. Dallas wasn't spared when Funland was pegged by a zealous junior A&R man from Arista Records.

"It's what I had always wanted," says ex-Funland frontman Peter Schmidt. "When you're 10 years old and you buy your first KISS record and you just know that's what you wanna do from that point on, then it's just a natural reflex. They were telling us what we wanted to hear, what I'd wanted to hear my whole life."

But Funland's A&R rep left a few weeks after the contract was signed, and the band's EP, Sweetness, was mixed and remixed until not even the band remembered what it was supposed to sound like. Eventually, Funland went to Nashville to record demos for its full-length debut--and Arista execs rejected the songs.

"They didn't get it," says Schmidt, who, along with his bandmates, ultimately asked to be released from the contract. "It was a soul-crushing event. You can't trust these people you wanted to trust."

The list of local bands signed to--and eventually released from--major-label deals reads like a who's-who list of Big D Hopefuls: Tablet, Jeff Liles, Mad Flava, Course of Empire, Hagfish, Tripping Daisy, Reverend Horton Heat, Jackopierce. And with the UMG slim-down, local bands signed to its subsidiaries are prime victims of roster bloodletting.

Only two Dallas artists not in danger of being kicked out into the street by UMG. One is Erykah Badu, whose 1997 platinum debut Baduizm made Universal Records a legit entity. The other is the Toadies, recently told by Interscope it still has a home at the label when the band finishes its second album, the tentatively titled Feeler.

But even the sure things aren't so sure anymore: At the end of last year, Mercury Records had Radish's sophomore effort Discount Fireworks on the release schedule for March 23. On Monday, a Mercury publicist said the album no longer appears on a list of forthcoming releases, leaving frontboy Ben Kweller out in the cold with everyone else affiliated with UMG.

Slowpoke, the tomorrowpeople, and Deep Blue Something also languish in UMG purgatory. Deep Blue Something released its second Interscope album, Byzantium, in Europe last summer--but there is no U.S. release date yet scheduled. Slowpoke inked a deal with Geffen in October 1996 and released its label debut, Virgin Stripes, in April 1998--even though the record had been done for almost two years. Virgin Stripes ended up selling by the handfuls, making the band a prime candidate for the shooting gallery. Dave Gibson, frontman-founder of Slowpoke, expects to be notified of his band's status within the next few weeks.

"UMG's philosophy," Gibson says with resignation, "is to trim a lot of fat."
But no band is more frustrated than the tomorrowpeople, who were signed last year to Geffen after releasing their debut, Golden Energy, on Last Beat in 1997. The band finished recording its major-label debut, tentatively titled strangepowers, last September--and still has no idea whether it will ever be released on Geffen-Interscope. Guitarist-singer-co-songwriter Mike Gibson says the tomorrowpeople should learn of its fate by February 15--after the accountants at UMG sift through the rosters, looking for bands that could put money back into the coffers.

That puts the tomorrowpeople in a precarious position. Mike Gibson says strangepowers went significantly over budget, with so much money being spent on extravagant string arrangements and post-production work. The album was mixed twice in expensive Los Angeles studios, with Chris Lord-Alge (who mixed Hole's Celebrity Skin) brought in at the end of the process to work on two songs. But Gibson says no one at the label ever balked when the band asked for more money. "We were blowing money like there was no tomorrow," Gibson says. "No one stopped us. They kept writing checks."

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