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Major Mistakes

When Steven Holt's dream came true, no one else was there to see it. There he was, living the musician's fantasy, signed to a big-time record label--what every boy longs for from the moment he straps on his first guitar and plays his first clumsy chords. There he was, a young man from Dallas, raised in local clubs and used to playing for beer money, suddenly with millions of dollars behind him.

And all Holt could think was, Something ain't right.
It was April 1996, and Holt could taste impending success. His band, Tablet, had just released its debut album, Pinned, on Mercury Records, home to such platinum-sellers as Bon Jovi and Joan Osborne. Tablet's single "Cancelled"--a pristine example of bright agitpop and insidious hooks--was all over local radio. All seemed right; prosperity was at hand. This was what Holt had been promised in 1995, when Mercury's president Ed Eckstein and artist-and-repertoire man Aaron Jacoves inked Tablet to a multi-album deal. Making Pinned was only the beginning; soon enough, Tablet was schmoozing with industry types, and the band's advance money would allow them to buy a van and rent a rehearsal space. Tablet's albums would even be released through an imprint called Kudzu to retain that "indie" cachet.

It seemed perfect: Release a record, get on the radio, and the world will be yours.

"But the rumors had started," Holt says now, reflecting on what was supposed to be--and what never was. "We knew there was something going down."

Between the signing of the contract and the release of Pinned, Ed Eckstein had been fired as Mercury's boss and was replaced by Danny Goldberg, the man who had once managed Nirvana. Goldberg had no idea who Tablet was, and when he saw the future for Mercury, its name was Hanson and then, later, a band from Smalltown, Texas, named Radish. Then Jacoves was fired. Then Kudzu was shut down.

"It all continued to decay," Holt recalls. "Our record was released, but we got no support from the label. No promotion at all. No push for national radio play. No one was working on our behalf--we were completely lost in the shuffle. They never hooked us up with any booking agents, and we never got any support to tour. By then it was just ridiculous. We asked to be released from the contract, which is what finally happened. Our lawyers went in. We got the rights to the album back."

And just like that, Tablet was a major-label band no more.
In less than a year, Tablet had gone from rock-and-roll hopeful to rock-and-roll discard, one more band ground up by music-biz cliches. The band wasn't officially dropped from Mercury, but Holt knew it was only a matter of time.

"The ride was over," he says.
In the end, Holt's story is no different than those told by most every musician who danced with the devil known as The Music Business. Maybe there are variations, subtle nuances told a different way, but it's a tale as old as recorded music itself.

And no one ever seems to grow tired of hearing it...or telling it. Perhaps that's because no one ever seems to learn from it, either.

Take Steven Holt. Again.
Last Friday night at Trees, Holt took the stage for the first time with his new band. Rangy, confident, and cracking jokes, he was primed for a new spotlight. Tablet had long since been dissolved, and Holt's new band, Bicycle Thief, seemed a truly impressive follow-up to Tablet's truncated legacy. Live, the five-piece band's songs were tight, polished, wonderfully melodic.

Off stage, Holt's attitude matches his performing demeanor. When asked the next day whether he'd consider signing Bicycle Thief to a major label, he doesn't hesitate.

"Sure," Holt says, as though it were a silly question. "Well, I wouldn't go looking for it, but my work ethic has changed, and I understand now that for the labels it's all about money. The larger the investment, the larger the risk and loss. And really, if someone's willing to offer you thousands and thousands of dollars to do what you love to do, to make a living playing music, then, well, let's just say I'd do it for a very large sum of money."

Of course he would.

Right now, the music business is a decimated battlefield strewn with corpses--the bodies of publicists and A&R execs, accountants and lawyers, and dozens of bands. They're all sacrifices, victims of a multibillion-dollar buyout that will once more reshape the music biz--this time into the images of Seagram Company Ltd. chairman Edgar Bronfman and Universal Music Group chairman and CEO Doug Morris.

In recent weeks alone, such venerable labels as A&M Records and Geffen Records have been destroyed, reduced to shadows and dust by the Canadian liquor giant, which already owned the Universal Music Group (home to MCA, Geffen, Interscope, and Universal Records) before purchasing PolyGram Music in December for $10.4 billion. With the purchase of PolyGram--the parent company of such labels as Island, Motown, A&M, and Mercury--UMG becomes the largest player in the music business, controlling almost a quarter of the industry.

 

To pay for his purchase, Bronfman and his cost-cutters have already laid off 500 employees at Geffen, A&M, and Island; 3,000 workers worldwide will have lost their jobs when the merger is complete. And in coming weeks, bands will be dropped like blitzkrieg bombs over London; hundreds are to be released from UMG-affiliated labels. This is deep-cut surgery in the grandest sense, a type of violent roto-rootering to clean the muck out of the companies' clotted veins. Even such revered bands as Sonic Youth and Girls Against Boys will not be spared: Both are expected to be gone from Geffen (which is now part of Interscope, as is A&M) before spring blooms.

Bands--among them such locals as the tomorrowpeople, Slowpoke, and Radish--await word of their fates. The promise of six months ago has turned into the threat of tomorrow: Welcome aboard, fellas. Don't let the door hit you on the way out.

And still, there are thousands of bands out there who would sign a deal with a label tomorrow--bands that still believe the system works, bands who want to sell a million records by any means necessary, bands that have been betrayed but are willing to try again. The road to acheiving success in the music business has grown increasingly ugly, loaded with potholes and speed traps and bogeymen. The business is obsessed more than ever with the bottom line and uninterested in the welfare of the musicians, if not the music, that supports that line.

To which so many musicians would say: So what?
Most bands believe, or at least hope, that signing a contract's dotted line is like taking out an insurance policy for their musical career. But a handshake with any of the so-called Big Five labels--UMG, Warner-Elektra-Atlantic, Bertelsmann Music Group (home to RCA and Arista), Sony Music (home of Columbia Records), and CEMA (Capitol Records' parent corporation)--is really more like a surrender. The companies know your chances for success, or their definition of it, before they even draw up your contract. Only a quarter of all bands signed to the five major music conglomerates each year break even, making enough to cover recording and touring and promotional costs.

"The ratio is about what it's always been," says Tony Berg, an A&R veteran at Geffen who signed Beck and is currently putting together a New Bohemians best-of. "Record companies don't force the bands to do anything they don't wanna do. They don't force them to take a big advance. They get their advance, they've made their deal. It's up to them to ask themselves, 'Am I comfortable or not with what's expected of me?' It's bands with commercial ambitions that look to deal with major labels."

So what defines success? Local label owner Sam Paulos, who runs Crystal Clear Sound and steve records, estimates that "a typical major-label deal shoots for the sale of at least 100,000 units." Paulos, by comparison, would be happy to sell 5,000 copies of the albums steve releases, including Love or the Decimal Equivalent by Peter Schmidt's Legendary Crystal Chandelier.

But "the biggest problem with a big label deal is how little they pay the artists," says Jeff "cottonmouth, tx" Liles, a local spoken-word artist who released one album, anti-social butterfly, on Virgin Records in 1997--only to find himself dropped a few months later, without so much as a phone call from anyone at Virgin. "They get the advance, but bands make only about 9 to 13 percent of the net [profit]. That's about a dollar per record sold. So they have to sell 100,000 records to just break even. Hardly anyone sells that many. Kids aspire to be like those bands without even knowing how it works, how hard it is. It's a shame."

Just in the past year, three Dallas-based bands have severed their ties with major labels: Reverend Horton Heat ended its three-album association with Interscope, citing lack of artistic freedom. Tripping Daisy left Island after turning in the best album of its career--then insisting the label release a six-minute single to radio. And Bobgoblin parted ways with MCA Records after releasing a single disc.

Bobgoblin found itself homeless when its A&R man, Mitch Brodie, was fired from the label just weeks after the band released its 1997 MCA debut The Twelve-Point Master Plan. MCA had signed the band partly because its high-tech element (the band's CD, designed by bandleader Hop Manski, doubled as an interactive dossier) meant less promotional work for the label. But the record heads didn't stick it out long enough to see the results. They didn't get it--so Bobgoblin did, right in the end.

 

"MCA never really got on board," says Rob Avsharian, Bobgoblin's drummer. "Your rep getting fired is the kiss of death. They considered our first album dead in the water. We were left hanging. Our lawyer went in and asked them to cut us loose. They were wasting our time; we were wasting theirs."

Bobgoblin has since rechristened itself The Commercials and is currently recording a demo of new songs. Yes--the members are still wide open to the idea of signing with a label, be it large or small, in order to get their music in stores more quickly. And in order to expedite things, The Commercials have hired Mitch Brodie as their new manager. The man whose firing led to Bobgoblin's short tenure with MCA is now charged with sending the demo tape to labels that might start the whole process anew for Manski, Avsharian, and the band formerly known as MCA recording artists.

"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."

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."

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.

"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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