Major Mistakes

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

"We're not so concerned with [sales figures] or chart positions as we are with trying to make a good record," says Elliott, who reports that Leaning House has sold about 4,000 copies of Anderson's disc--more than either of Anderson's Atlantic releases sold, according to SoundScan. "Do you value more the distant association of being on a label John Coltrane was on 30 years ago, or do you value more being on a label where you can be working with people who care about what you do rather than treat you as a product? The majors fail in a lot of ways to treat their artists as people."

But indies aren't always the Promised Land either. Most don't have the power to get their records on radio or into the larger retail outlets. "That's the only thing majors have that independents don't--the ability to expose your music," says Mike Gibson.

And for every One Ton or Leaning House, labels run by musicians for musicians, there are plenty of smaller labels that fancy themselves a minor-league team just waiting for its shot at the Big Show. Such a mentality has taken its toll on plenty of bands, acts that believed they could get The Word out without sacrificing what they believed in.

During the mid-'90s flurry of local band signings, Baboon hooked up with the New York-based Grass Records and recorded its debut Face Down in Turpentine in 1994. Not long after that, Grass was purchased by BMG and a non-music entrepreneur. The label was rechristened as Wind-Up and mowed Grass' roster of 30 acts to a mere six--keeping Baboon "as an experiment in their marketing machine," says Mike Rudnicki, the band's guitarist.

When the label released Baboon's second album, Secret Robot Control, in 1997, it did spend a substantial amount of money on promotion. But the great experiment blew up when the Wind-Up band Creed--which sounds so much like Pearl Jam, there's gotta be a copyright infringement lawsuit in there somewhere--began charting singles, getting radio play, and selling albums. Wind-Up wanted more; it was like teasing a starving dog with a single Milk-Bone.

"We gave the label new demos, [and] they said they wanted marketable songs, radio songs," Rudnicki says. "While that was probably good for our songwriting experience, we felt the pressure." Sidelined to Wind-Up's Creed-obsessed schedule, Baboon had asked for its freedom a few times. Abruptly, while preparing to go into the studio to record Robot's follow-up, the band got just that--released without warning.

"Indies can't be perfect," Rudnicki says. "In order to make money, to compete with the major market, they sometimes put out a generic [band] like Creed."

So then what? There is always the option of starting an artist-run label, which means the musician pays for everything...and keeps everything. It has made a legend out of Fugazi's Ian MacKaye and worked well for folkie Ani DiFranco, who has released all 12 of her albums on her own Righteous Babe label. She's so much of a success story that when The Artist Formerly Known as Prince split from Warner Bros. and started his own label, he called DiFranco for advice.

Jeff Liles insists that he is through with majors, that his experience with myriad labels over the years (including Island, Warner Bros., and now Virgin) has forced him to take charge of his own career. In just the past few months, HEIRESS-aesthetic, which Liles co-founded with longtime girlfriend Perla Doherty, has released albums by cottonmouth, tx; country singer-songwriter Brian Houser; and Reed Easterwood. And in a month, Liles plans on distributing to area high schools--for free--a 31-song local-rock compilation titled Orange Static. The album, Liles says, will feature "just about everyone good that's not with a major label," including Tele, Chomsky, Easterwood, and Centro-matic.

"Bands get screwed all the time, but I had no problem at Virgin," Liles insists now. "The label spent between $250,000 and $300,000 on my project, they put me up in L.A., and they gave me tour support and sent me on Lollapalooza last year...Everyone there was really cool. But the middle men were disorganized--it brought down the project. And all that proves that at that level, there are so many things that can go wrong."

But that will never stop those musicians who still dream of the perfect deal--the label exec who will get it, the radio programmer who will get it, the crowd that will get it. Even now, rumors circulate that Go Metric USA--which released one of 1998's best local releases, Three Chords by Two Verses, on its own--is talking to one UMG-related label about a potential deal. And Peter Schmidt, Baboon, and, yes, Tablet's Steven Holt all talk about how they will never "rule out" signing to a major.

"I'm a lot less likely to go with a major than I've ever been in my life, but never say never," Schmidt insists. "Actually, I've been burned on either side--indie and major--and never again will I put my music in the hands of people who don't really like it. It's not a charity they're running, and big labels seem to prey on musicians who have weak egos." He laughs. "That's the nature of musicians, isn't it? We got what we deserved."

Additional reporting for this story was provided by Robert Wilonsky.

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