Once upon a time, record labels were run by musicians and producers — rather than lawyers and accountants. In those near-bygone days, labels had A&R (Artists & Repertoire) departments staffed by people who understood music and were responsible for discovering talent, matching them with the right producers and looking for great songs for the artists on the label's roster. Over the years, spreadsheets replaced lead sheets and demographics replaced demo recordings in the big labels' artist selection process.
In their zeal to find the next megabuck superstar band, larger labels lost interest and patience in artists that sold “only” 50,000 or 100,000 units. Money for artist development simply dried up, label tour support disappeared and recording budgets dropped. Meanwhile, money for — and emphasis on — the all-important video promo was on the rise. But once the MTV clip mania waned, labels looked to new media — film and video game soundtrack placement, AOL sessions, etc. The words of one song lamenting the change said it all: “Who would want to listen to a band that looks like that?”
Yet changes at the majors opened opportunities for independent labels that — lacking the bloated infrastructure of the big guns — could get by just fine with a roster of mid-selling artists. Often producer-owned, these independents were free of the majors' “anything less than a million-seller is a failure” mindset and could take a chance on developing new talent without wondering if their jobs were at stake. Many of these new ventures flourished; a few textbook cases include successful indies such as Rhino or Alligator Records.
A relatively new phenomenon is a movement of commercial studios into the independent label game. A quality recording facility (also typically owned by a producer) with available studio time is ideally poised to make the leap with a minimal investment. In this issue, Mix's Maureen Droney spoke to a number of studio owner/independent label entrepreneurs, among them Chris Schneider of Chicago's Blue Cactus Entertainment, who not only sees a financial opportunity, but also the benefit of boosting the local music scene by creating a Chess/Motown-style production environment.
However, not all independents are big-money operations; the majority are much smaller, with a few artists — or just a single act — on their rosters. Access to low-cost recording gear, independent pressing plants and alternative distribution — through the Internet, fan clubs or offstage sales — allows self-labeled bands to generate additional revenue while increasing their exposure through local and college radio.
But whether unsigned, labeled or self-labeled, the place for bands to be this month is in Austin for South by Southwest 2005 (www.sxsw.com), held March 11 to 20. Austin has always been a music town, but with hundreds of acts showcasing on 50 stages throughout the downtown area; a huge slate of musician-oriented panels, workshops and conferences; interactive media and film festivals; and the nearby Mix-sponsored Musician's Hotel (www.musicianshotel.com), the joint will be jumping.
See you there.