Bad Business

Here's how screwed up the music business is, in 100 words or less. You're likely familiar with this story. Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was deemed sales cyanide by Reprise Records, so they ditched the record and the band along with it. Wilco bought back Yankee Hotel Foxtrot from Reprise and eventually sold it to Nonesuch, and the album debuted at No. 13 on the charts. Reprise and Nonesuch are both owned by Time-Warner-AOL; meaning, that company paid for the same album twice. Prolly looks real nice on the quarterly reports.

So the music biz is completely effed up, for that reason and a few thousand more. Nothing new there, except that Wilco's story actually has a happy ending. Still, just because it's been said over and over by Courtney Love and Chuck D and countless others doesn't mean it's not worth saying again. And again. Look, these warnings are like a snooze alarm for the industry; every so often, someone's gotta sound off until folks wake up, and not just the pencil pushers at Major Label HQ. We're talking about the musicians as well.

We'll give you a bite-sized chunk. Look at the recent track record of locals who have gotten their W-2s from one entertainment conglomerate or another. Erykah Badu? Solid. Toadies? Screwed. Sugarbomb? Cut off at the knees a week after RCA released Bully, its debut for the label. Dixie Chicks? In court suing and being countersued by Sony instead of finishing up a new album in a recording studio. For every Drowning Pool, whose fairly terrible debut, Sinner, spawned an inescapable single ("Bodies") and platinum plaques, you have three or more Flickersticks, a band that has watched the major-label re-release of its Welcoming Home the Astronauts (on Epic) come and go like a bored porn star.

Yet there are more than a few other bands in the 214/972 area hoping that when they spin the chamber and put the barrel to their temples, the trigger will click on a blank. Major labels and musicians have basically the same relationship as a stepfather and his teen-age stepson: Musicians hate the labels but still crave their love and attention.

N'Dambi has the right idea. The only way to control your own career and still get the benefits a major label has to offer is by cutting a distribution deal with one of the Big Five, and that's exactly what the soul singer and her partner Otis Johnson are in the process of doing. They're on the verge of finalizing a deal wherein Universal would merely distribute the albums N'Dambi puts out on her and Johnson's Cheeky-i Productions label.

So does Tracy Curry, better known as The D.O.C. Partnered with Vernon Norris and Tech Huffman, Curry has started Silverback Records, a D.I.Y. hip-hop label that already looks as though it's going to succeed, based on advance word of his forthcoming comeback disc, Deuce, and the strong stable of thoroughbreds he's lined up for Silverback. Same goes for Corey Cleghorn, whose Power Houze Records has already sold almost 20,000 copies of its first release, Family Business, a compilation featuring B-Flat, Young Hustlaz, Sir Charles, Rum and The Affiliates. Local hip-hop labels like these and others (including Redrumm Recordz) know that you can still play ball even if you're not playing on the majors' field.

"I don't think anybody that's going into the music business at this point, like, starting their career, they wouldn't even think about signing a major-label deal," says Barrett Martin, who should know what he's talking about. He's been on a major (Epic, with Screaming Trees), and he's recorded for various others in different bands. With that bad taste in his mouth, Martin and his partner Joe Cripps opened up their own shop, Fast Horse Recordings. (See "Brave Combo," May 23.) "I think the main thing that's happened is that the major labels just kind of shit in their own sandbox. They've just inundated the market with anything they can think of, knockoff bands that were just knockoffs of knockoffs."

Pay attention...

Say goodbye to Sack of Kittens for now, dear readers. Not backing off anything we said, nor are we giving up on the fight to save good ears from bad bands. And yes, there's more than a few that we didn't get to, and at least one or two that we're kicking ourselves for forgetting. There are plenty of groups hanging out in the bottom of the barrel, and by no means are those named thus far the worst of the lot. They just happened to wander into our crosshairs at the right time, and for that (and pretty much only that) we salute them. But the suits seem to think we've made our point, and they're probably right. Besides, writing about terrible music week in and week out is almost as demoralizing as listening to it. Time to cash out while we're ahead.


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