Major Mistakes

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

And why shouldn't they? After all, UMG will simply take it out of the guarantees the tomorrowpeople receive for the next record...if there is one. It only stands to reason that after sinking so much money into the tomorrowpeople, UMG would like to make back some of the costs. After all, the tomorrowpeople make music for the radio--they're a pop band and so very proud of it.

"I would think they'd want to recoup their investments, but even if we spent a million dollars, that's such an infinitesimally small amount of money in UMG's big picture, it doesn't even come up as a blip," Gibson says. "We're dealing with such a big picture here--12 labels, billions of dollars. They might look at us and think, 'This band sure knows how to blow money.' We've been told they're listening to the music right now, looking for bands that sold records and can recoup the investments. They're looking for sure things. Then they're listening to unreleased bands and whether they have a hit they can speculate on. That's why it's taking a while. I guess."

By now, the tomorrowpeople expected to be on the road, promoting strangepowers; they expected to hear their songs on the radio. They expected anything but this waiting game, biding their time till Bronfman's henchmen notify them of their fate. Gibson says it hasn't all been wasted time: The band has played around town often enough to polish its live show, and the group has recorded two complete sets of demos--some songs that might well make it onto strangepowers, no matter who releases it. Either way, the band would like a record out by summer.

Gibson says he has no problem with being cut from UMG's roster; he just wants to get on with his life. He talks about how, should the inevitable occur, the tomorrowpeople might well shop the record to an English label and then license strangepowers to a U.S. distributor. He insists there are options--only the band can't legally shop around strangepowers until it receives its walking papers from UMG.

"I am full-on prepared for being dropped," Gibson says. "I would be an idiot not to be. And it's all up to some guy I've met once, others I've never met, and a bunch of bean-counters. I don't like it. I don't like it at all. But as much as I hate the idea of mergers, if I were in the situation where I was taking over a company and spending billions of dollars, I could see it. I think a lot of those labels signed a million bands and a lot of them didn't make money, a lot of them suck, and a lot of them crap out after one record. There's a lot of fat. I'd sharpen my ax too. But I don't want to be one of those people getting cut."

If nothing else, the UMG merger could well result in yet another indie-label boom. Indies seem like such a sweet deal: With smaller staffs, casual agreements, and modest expectations, bands never get lost in the shuffle--because there isn't one. Hell, the label's A&R guy is usually the owner--not much chance of him getting fired. With an indie, a band's achievements, however humble, are often appreciated.

"Indies tend to look for bands that bring something other than the music to the table," says steve records' Sam Paulos, who has released albums by the likes of Funland, Buck Jones, Meredith Miller, and ex-Funland members Will Johnson (Centro-matic) and Schmidt (Legendary Crystal Chandelier). "Generally, indies are still run by people who love music, but it's still a business--still a risk. There's just less money at stake. And most bands have a pretty good idea of how successful they can be."

Once the very definition of "launching pad," independent labels are just as likely to foster and keep bands that have no interest in dallying with the majors. It's a trend that's picking up momentum in the post-sign-and-drop backlash.

Locally, indies such as One Ton, Last Beat, Carpe Diem, steve, Direct Hit, and Jeff Liles' HEIRESS-aesthetic are responsible for some of the best music to come out of this town: Cafe Noir, Slow Roosevelt, Captain Audio, Meredith Miller, and Brian Houser are just some of the acts on those labels' rosters. Up in Denton, tiny labels such as Quality Park (Little Grizzly) and Hot Link (the Dooms U.K.) guarantee that the college town's thriving music scene is heard by more than just the kids that catch the bands onstage at Dan's Bar and Rubber Gloves.

And one of the nation's premier jazz labels is a tiny business run out of a small house on Richard Street off Lower Greenville. Since it was founded by Mark Elliott and Keith Foerster in 1994, Leaning House has released eight albums by the likes of Marchel Ivery, Earl Harvin, Shelley Carroll, and other local jazzers who fly too low on the radar screen to garner the attention of the larger labels. Mark Elliott also produces each of Leaning House's releases.

Last year, Leaning House released perhaps its most prestigious album to date: Live at the Village Vanguard by saxophonist Wessell Anderson, a member of Wynton Marsalis' band. Before signing with Leaning House, Anderson had released two albums for Atlantic Records, the former home of John Coltrane. And each time, Anderson felt as though he had been an annoyance rather than a favorite son. Enamored of the time and devotion Elliott and Foerster gave their own artists, Anderson decided he would rather record for people who were willing to spend their own money making sure his music was heard. The result was Live at the Village Vanguard, chosen by New York Times critic Ben Ratliff as one of his top 10 albums of 1998.

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