It was only a year ago that DefDisco, an independent recording label based in Sheffield, England, loudly announced its entrance into the Dallas market. The hype continued to grow in the months that followed as it built a roster of electrifying local talent. But ultimately, the artists were taking the bigger gamble. They just didn't know it.
Dallas manager Cliff Simms resigned in December, causing DefDisco to dissolve this spring and leaving several artists without contracts. In the messy aftermath of the label's breakup, those involved are pointing fingers at each other from across the pond.
Dallas has tended to train talent and then export it. We have a few indie labels to boast about; Hand-Drawn Records owns a vinyl-pressing plant, and Vice Palace Tapes is a cassette-only label funded through a city grant. But despite the talent and numerous recording studios in DFW, DefDisco seemed poised to be the first unifying label here.
Simms and Barry Gilbey founded DefDisco in 2014. Two more partners, Justin Williams and Paul Herron, came on board a year later. It operated an outpost in Dallas, with its headquarters in Sheffield. The concept was a label for the modern age with a strong focus on promotion and brand partnerships. DefDisco became part of Warner's ADA, a subsidiary supporting a network of indie labels.
The pitch attracted the likes of Kaela Sinclair, a Denton singer who recently joined French electronica giant M83. But even after hooking up with M83, Sinclair kept her eye on her solo career, choosing to sign with DefDisco. Now that Simms has resigned, she's without representation.
"Without me being involved, there is no U.S. side of it," Simms says. "Everyone's over there [in England], so they've got no one here to run it."
The British ex-pat spoke to the Observer about the untapped talent he observed in Dallas, which inspired him to set up shop here.
"It was a unique business model, it being a combination of a label and agency as a hybrid, sort of the first one of its kind to be operating that way," Simms says. "Trying to operate as a label and PR, it was too much of a drain; it became unbalanced. There was not enough cost regulation in place."
Rapper Sam Lao, who seemed destined for stardom, was another of DefDisco's first signees. She signed to the label last November.
"I got all creative control and was able to have a bigger hand than I would get in things," she says. "There's really not much else to say other than they were saying all the right things."
Now Lao says that decision has cost her. She had released her album, SPCTRM, through Soundcloud in February 2016. Upon signing, the label made her take it down, promising a wider reach through its distribution channels. As the months went on, she waited for a green light that never lit up.
"They held it hostage," she says of the album. "It looked like I didn't have music through this entire time."
Lao says that DefDisco denied her request to put the album back online for the week after SXSW.
"They were pretty much telling me I would be in breach of my contract, and I didn't want to get in legal trouble," she says. "I asked them then what we were waiting for, and they never had an answer for me."
The label never re-released the album as it had promised Lao.
"They kept holding me off like my concerns weren't valid, like I didn't know what I was talking about," she says. "The very next thing I heard from them was a month later when I got an email from the label's attorneys in the U.K. saying that everything was done, that the label was being dissolved and as of May 1, I was released from my contact."
Lao says she's "disheartened" by the ordeal. "I was like, 'Why did you guys waste my time if you knew that you were doing this?'" she says. "Nothing that was promised came to be, not a single thing. They just couldn't back it up."
Lao is back to self-managing her career, planning the re-release of SPCTRM and a tour.
"This isn't stopping me at all," she says. "I prefer to think of it as a stepping stone and not a stumbling block. The show must go on."
Amber LaFrance, president of Dallas-based PR agency CultureHype, took the job offered by Simms in January 2016 to manage PR for the label and its artists. She brought on Kirk Thurmond, a soulful R&B singer, as well as pop singers Larry G(ee) and LEV.
After working for the label for a year, LaFrance says that many of the agreements in the artists' contracts were not honored and that she wasn't compensated for several months of work, amounting to $15,000 in owed wages.
LaFrance says she was initially brought on to oversee press on local releases and that when DefDisco parted ways with its U.K. PR team, she took over all worldwide PR.
"In hindsight, they may have parted ways with their PR firm for the same reason," she says. "Maybe they didn't get paid."
She also brought on Eric "Mac" McIntosh from Nashville to handle DefDisco's business development. McIntosh, she says, was responsible for the label's partnership with ADA Warner, which came as a conjoined deal with a music investment firm in New York.
LaFrance stopped working with the label this January after receiving a bounced check.
"This was the end of the road for me," she says. "The company started looking into why the check would bounce, and they made it seem like they had no idea what was going on and why there wasn't enough money in the U.S. account."
Both LaFrance and McIntosh say that a $35,000 investment that was allotted for marketing campaigns for two artists was never used for that purpose, prompting the investment firm to pull out. They say this caused Warner to sever ties.
LaFrance adds that she was patient in awaiting compensation.
"I was trying to work with them, but they kept making up excuses," she says. "Once they lawyered up, they only talked to me through their attorney, and that's when I found out that the U.S. side had no assets and it would be dissolving."
LaFrance says she was most worried about getting the artists out of their contracts, but the label's dissolution freed them from having to pursue litigation.
"I was helping people pro-bono after that, until they figured out what they were gonna do after this," she says. "They have to start from ground zero."
She and McIntosh are hoping to still push DefDisco's former artists as independents through ADA Warner.
"The shame, too, is that I don't want people to think it fell apart because these artists don't have potential. They have so much going for them," she says.
LaFrance isn't hopeful that she'll ever be paid for her time and effort.
"Any money that was owed to anyone, they're not gonna get back. I don't know that I'll ever see that money again," she says. "I put ... all my eggs in that basket that year; I was focusing all my efforts on DefDisco."
LaFrance believes that the label's ambition outweighed its ability to deliver.
"I think they bit off more than they could chew, and they over-promised to the artists, to me," she says. "It was a huge shame. We built it up, it had so much potential, we signed all this talent and set them up to have a huge year, and all of this fell apart."
She says she witnessed things that match up with the partners' accusation that Simms was spending excessively.
"I don't think Cliff could keep up with what was going on. He got in over his head," she says. "To be honest, it didn't really surprise me. He was having daylong meetings at the office and buying everyone drinks; he had a really expensive office that he didn't use. It was kind of reckless, so it didn't surprise me that the funds that were earmarked for certain artist campaigns were used for other things."
LaFrance also says that Simms occasionally promised money for production expenses such as music videos and didn't deliver. More important, he failed to deliver any marketing funds to the label's artists.
"Their big sale was that they were a music agency first and a label second, but they didn't actually have a brand partnership to show me until Mac and I came on board," LaFrance says. "Looking back, I don't even know what they were offering artists other than brand support and a bunch of broken promises."
Gilbey, Simms' co-founder, offered a single statement via email. “On the advice of our legal team I am unavailable for comment whilst there are legal actions pending against Cliff Simms, a former director of the DEFDISCO LLC. A full statement will be made in due course,” it reads.
Simms says he's unaware of any impending lawsuits. He offers this explanation of his decision to resign: "We had differences of opinion about how the company should be run, which was very difficult without their support. There was no financial support from the U.K, which was the problem all along," he says. "Resources were being generated in the U.S., but the U.K. side of it was supposed to be generating extra funding, and it didn't materialize. Therefore, things we were putting together over here, we weren't able to move forward with. We were spinning our wheels and not getting anywhere, and I needed to move on."
But Simms says it wasn't his decision to close the label.
"I didn't put the company down when I gave my resignation in December. When I left, my remaining share went back into the company," he says. "The decision to put the company down here was a decision the three of them [Gilbey, Williams and Herron] made, not me."
He also says he isn't responsible for any unpaid wages.
"That's really a question for the remaining partners of the company. I'm not personally responsible; the company is," he says. "Some of them I actually paid personally, out of my own pocket. That was one of the reasons why I left, because I couldn't afford to keep putting any more money into it."
Simms says there were funds available upon his departure: "When I left there was still money there, so I don't know what happened to that after I left," he says. "I left the management to the remaining members."
Ultimately, Simms agrees mismanaged finances caused the label to collapse.
"I think it's a case of the company being underfunded. There was money that was supposed to come through at the end of November, but it didn't materialize for whatever reason. It damaged the company's effect to be able to meet its obligations."
McIntosh disputes this claim, saying that he saw funds – like the $35,000 investment that was granted in November – make their way into the company.
"His [Simms'] signature is on all the financial agreements and all U.S. contracts for DefDisco," McIntosh says.
Simms says the biggest difficulty came in managing funds for a company that spanned two continents.
"Money came into the LLC, but what goes to the brother doesn't necessarily go to the sister," he says. "Whatever money was coming into the company, all the partners were aware of it."
Simms is still working with some of DefDisco's artists.
"I'm working on rebuilding a new agency," he says. "We're gonna use a similar model, but backed by a bigger label."
He is vague when responding to the accusation that he misspent the label's funds: "There are three sides to every story: your side, mine and the truth. It's a shame it didn't work out."
Kirk Thurmond, who signed on with DefDisco last April, says he felt relieved when he was released from his contract.
"It didn't look like anything that they would be able to recover from; it was reaching a point of turmoil," he says.
Thurmond is aware of the rumors that Simms is to blame for the company's failure, but he's not buying it.
"There was stuff in the contracts that [the U.K. partners] were saying was put in place without their knowledge, that they were never ready to back up," he says. "They laid it all on Cliff on the phone. And there was always something in the back of my mind saying, 'You're trying to tell me all of this happened in the U.S. without you guys knowing?' We're talking about contracts' processes, files of artists that you signed."
After a sit-down with Simms, Thurmond has no qualms about continuing to work with him.
"He was able to convince me," Thurmond says. "It's so messy. ... I didn't know the background. All I know is that I've never worked with a person that understood what I was trying to do and knew exactly how to help me do it like Cliff. That may mean that I jumped at the chance to believe him, but at the end of the day, we're still working together and we're still making shit happen week by week, so I think I bet on the right horse."
Thurmond believes that Simms' partners were simply tired of their Dallas experiment.
"I think they were trying to wash their hands of Dallas," he says. "I didn't feel they even valued me as an artist. I didn't feel important. I didn't feel like they thought I was talented."
Lao sees DefDisco's collapse as a cautionary tale for other Dallas artists who are eager to get signed.
"Hopefully it's a lesson for someone else who's maybe thinking of doing it because it sounds awesome as an artist to say that you're signed to a label, and hopefully now they'll rethink it," she says. "Hopefully it teaches them to be more considerate of who's approaching them claiming they can help and do all these things for them. Sometimes when something sounds too good to be true, it actually is."
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