Thursday, April 16, 2009

Making It: Who needs a label anymore? Your band, actually.

Making ItI've heard this statement (or some variation of it) many times in the past year: "Because of MySpace and the Internet, indie bands don't need a record label to be successful anymore."

Yes and no. On the one hand, sites like CD Baby and iTunes have allowed unsigned artists to sell their songs direct to the fans without coughing up huge percentages to a label. So in that sense, you don't need a label. But that's a short-sighted way to look at it.

The actual part of the label that makes it a necessary evil for new bands isn't the distribution side but the promotion side, the marketing side. Unsigned bands can't pull the same strings that labels can to get on the radio, in magazines, and on big tours. Distribution was never an issue, even in the days of cassette. You could always sell tapes out of your trunk, at shows, or even via mail order. It's the backing power, the money, the name recognition, that makes labels just as relevant today as they've ever been.

Obviously, this is all under the assumption that your band wants a national presence. I've talked with bands that are happy being local acts, because Austin is where their friends and family are and they don't want to leave. That's fine; I totally respect that. But I've also talked with bands who say they want to leave Austin and tour as much as possible. They want to "make it big". Not stadium-tour, Spinal Tap big, but big enough to be able to make a living, quit the tedious day job, and tour nationally and regionally many times a year. If that's your band, keep reading.

When you look at Austin's most successful bands, the ones that tour nationally and internationally, and seem to be supporting themselves financially, it almost never fails that it was the step up to a label that made the difference. I'm not talking about major labels, your Universals or Interscopes. I just mean any independent label that isn't a bedroom label. The national indies, I'll call them: Merge, Matador, XL, Secretly Canadian, etc.

Ask all your non-Austinite friends to name five bands from Austin, and I bet the lists will look very similar: Spoon, Okkervil River, Trail of Dead, What Made Milwaukee Famous, Explosions In The Sky.

What do all of those bands have in common? They signed to a well-known out-of-town label early in their careers. Ask those same friends to name one unsigned Austin band and you might get nothing more than blank stares.

Did the bands I just mention get signed because they were the best bands in town at the time? Not necessarily. They're all good bands, but are you gonna tell me there aren't bands in Austin right now that are louder than Trail of Dead was in their prime, more intricate than Explosions In The Sky, or more feel-good poppy than WMMF? If you think that's the case, you're not spending enough time on Red River.

My point is that you still need a label, for better or worse, if you want to be able to play shows for more than just twenty of your closest friends and co-workers on a Wednesday night at Emo's indoor stage.

So how does a band get discovered? How do you get signed to a label that indie kids around the country have heard of? I don't have the answer (if I had an absolute surefire answer, I'd sell it for lots of money). What I do have is my observation skills, my analytical mind, and my instincts. So what I'm attempting here is to create an ongoing conversation about making things happen in this industry. I don't mean selling out. That's one thing you DON'T have to do. Sincerely.

In the coming weeks I'll be sharing my opinions about what it takes to get your music out there to the masses. I've been to too many sparsely-attended shows featuring bands that should be bigger than they are. That's my reason for doing this. I'll be discussing topics such as touring, social networking, EPs Vs. LPs, and more. I'm not an expert. Just a fan whose been around just long enough to have an opinion. Take it or leave it.

So, 'til next time, here's your friendly neighborhood nite owl saying, cheers.

Next installment: What my favorite unsigned bands are doing right.

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