SPEAK OUT: Reaping What You Sow, Part II

Reaping What You Sow

In the first installment of Reaping What You Sow, I addressed why record labels should invest more into their artist rosters. This investment can take on many forms whether it be marketing dollars, financial resources to help fund touring and practice facilities, collaborating with their artists’ management to draft together a structured and cohesive business strategy, or, perhaps most often overlooked, the time investment it takes to allow an artist to develop. And the list goes on. While I was writing and discussing the article, an interesting question dawned on Moe and I; namely, how much leverage should record labels allow their artists; should labels be in the business of grooming artists or is it more advantageous to let all recording artists retain full artistic control and work independently?

These are tough questions and I feel the answer is completely dependent on that artist’s vision and what they personally want to get out of the music business. If someone prefers to be a YouTube phenomenon and never tour, frankly they don’t need the assistance of a record label and can continue to produce material independently, maintaining complete control of their creative vision. However, some artists are still enamored with the lofty yet antiquated ambition of becoming arena gods, desiring to play in front of thousands of people and sell millions of records. This may or may not be feasible in the current music business climate, but if the possibility exists at all, it’s imperative to have some kind of financial backing via a corporate sponsor or a traditional record label.

And then there are those artists who don’t necessarily feel the need or desire to get caught up in all the trappings of fame and fortune, but still want to be able to record and tour steadily and make a career by earning a livable income from their music. There are, of course, different paths to success, each with their own benefits and pitfalls. As a resident of Atlanta I want to examine a few bands from my city that I feel are successful, and that can be analyzed as music business case studies.

MastodonThe first group is progressive metal band Mastodon. Mastodon was formed in Atlanta over a decade ago by a relatively seasoned group of musicians who had performed in various metal bands across the Southeast. In the beginning phases, they utilized a completely DIY approach: booking their own tours, recording their own EPs and releasing a 7-inch on a very small indie label. As a result of their hard work, they were picked up by a bigger indie label (Relapse) and released a masterpiece record called Leviathan that garnered the band international acclaim. After the critical and popular success of Leviathan, Mastodon signed to Warner Bros, released two huge records, and have since transformed into a gigantic and hulking beast, crushing stadium audiences worldwide.

From a managerial/record label perspective, I feel bands like Mastodon need autonomy. Metal is a genre that formed out of the DIY punk/thrash scenes and metal musicians tend to want to write their own material, book their own shows, create their own promotional devices, etc. For all their many strengths, Mastodon is not a “radio-ready” band. Honestly, I didn’t feel they were the slightest bit radio friendly until the release of “Blood and Thunder,” but even that was mostly college/alternative radio. None of Mastodon’s singles appeal to the mainstream pop crowd so stylistically fashioning them after a pop/soft rock group is a bad strategy. Moreover, bands like Mastodon don’t require a gimmick or any other selling point aside from their live show. One cannot fully understand their crushing power until you see them live and the stage is meant to be the home for bands like them. Too much label interference with the creative process or pushing the group to endorse products they don’t believe — that’s futile. I feel in these cases, it’s pertinent for record labels to allow the artist more breathing room and place them in situations where they can gain more exposure and revenue from a heavy touring schedule.

The second artist I want to look at is B.o.B. B.o.B is a rapper/singer from Decatur and his origins are a bit more nebulous. After establishing himself and gaining some momentum in the hip hop underground, his 2010 debut record produced three popular singles. Two of them — “Nothin on You” and “Airplanes” — hit the number one slot on the Billboard charts that year. It’s very rare for grassroots acts to achieve this level of success, which leads me to believe B.o.B was manufactured to some degree prior to the release of these singles. Because he is a pop artist and creates catchy songs meant to capture the greatest possible audiences, B.o.B can and should be marketed as a product.

One can already see with his deal with Adidas and songs appearing on ESPN, that he is being pushed as a franchise. I feel this is an amazing strategy for these kinds of artists; it’s not about sincerity, it is about sales. What better way to drive up the demand than to have the artist move into other entertainment/multimedia ventures, and judging from the careers of similar artists like Justin Bieber, Ke$ha and Hayley Williams of Paramore fame, that is the sole intent of their labels and management. In these scenarios, record labels seek almost complete control over the artist. The artist has already agreed to be marketed and sold strictly as a product, not a cultural or creative phenomenon, and I’m a firm believer in good business — market the product anyway you can. Many of my peers do not agree with this strategy, but my perspective is that most recording artists operating in the 21st century understand what they are getting into prior to signing these kinds of deals. In the end, you get what you ask for.

DeerhunterThe last two artists I want to look at are Deerhunter and the Zac Brown Band. Despite being in two completely different genres, Zac Brown and Deerhunter followed a similar evolution as artists. Zac Brown played local venues for years and I recall seeing his name on the Georgia Theatre banner in Athens, GA as far back as 2006. His band performed all over the East Coast, booking as many as 180-200 tour dates a year. In addition, Zac Brown released his recordings under his own label Home Grown, which would eventually change names to Southern Ground.

Although he did very well for himself as an independent DIY performer, it wasn’t until he signed to Live Nation Records and then Atlantic Records that Zac Brown’s career really took off. The signing allowed him to venture into bigger new media deals, including a lucrative contract with Ustream in which they streamed a live performance at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre. In 2009 and 2010, Zac Brown received several CMA and Grammy nominations and won the 2010 Grammy for “Best New Artist.” He has scored five #1 hits on the Billboard country charts. Without a doubt, the Georgia-bred country/Americana singer has kicked open the door to the mainstream.

Despite his corporate success, however, Zac Brown has not forgotten his independent past or his entrepreneurial spirit. Using his significant popularity as leverage, he has attached Southern Ground to a variety of ventures, from a successful line of BBQ rubs and sauces to a pair of festivals — the Southern Ground Music and Food Festival and Sailing Southern Ground, a floating musical festival cruise hosted by the band. Earlier this month, he announced the launch of Southern Ground Artists, Inc., a new record label “…dedicated to developing, introducing and promoting some of Georgia’s brightest rising stars.” This is a terrific example of an artist refusing to rest on his laurels and using his success and marketing savvy to create new business and financial opportunities for himself. Yet, if you analyze his audience and target demographic, it’s doubtful that any of it would have been possible without major label support. Indeed, out of all these case studies, I feel Zac Brown and Mastodon represent the two groups that took the most traditional routes to success in the music business.

Experimental shoegaze-pop/Pitchfork Media darlings Deerhunter achieved success in a similar fashion: they built their fan base organically by touring all over the East Coast and eventually were recognized on a few major blogs. Shortly after releasing their third studio album Microcastle, Deerhunter opened for Nine Inch Nails and the rest is history. From a managerial perspective, I would personally push for Deerhunter to make that final step onto mainstream radio. Their music is very catchy and full of friendly pop hooks; Deerhunter has already been played in several commercials. In my honest opinion, their live show is not stellar; their recordings are where they really shine and as a record label I would push that aspect of the band most. Certain new media partnerships and ventures could also be highly beneficial. I could see them as spokesmen for a cause or an alternative brand that they believe in, utilizing their music as the medium. Personally, I would like to see a more beefed up and epic live show from Deerhunter, complete with visuals and movies. But ultimately, I feel the band is in a great place considering the cultural climate in our nation. They straddle the line between being labeled as a “sell-out” or indie phenomenon, and they remind me a lot of Sonic Youth in that sense. Either way I feel this group will triumph.

Overall, it’s tough dictating how much involvement a record label should have in an artist’s career. In some cases it can be highly beneficial and in other cases extremely detrimental. All of this must be fine-tuned to the artist’s vision and career goals, and management is absolutely crucial in determining these factors. In the past, record labels have attempted to create formulas to market all their artists as type A, B or C as if the music business can be boiled down to alchemy or science. I feel this is a recipe for disaster; it’s crucial for an artist to pinpoint what they want and figure out if the label can help them reach their goals.