In The Long Tail, I told the story of Birdmonster, a San Francisco band that was living the DIY dream and self-releasing their first album, No Midnight. I wrote:
Label were calling with deals, but Birdmonster turned the offers down. As [lead singer Peter] Arcuni put it, “We’re not anti-label in principle, but the numbers (risk vs. reward) didn’t add up.”
A music label exists primarily to fulfill four functions: 1) talent scouting; 2) financing (the advances bands get to pay for their studio time is like seed capital invested by a venture capitalist); 3) distribution; 4) marketing.
From Birdmonster’s perspective, they didn’t need that. A growing local fan base, amplified online, had already spotted their talent. Improving digital recording technology had made studio time cheaper than ever—they could record the tracks in a few days in the studio and then mix and overdub them at home using personal computers. The cost to record the entire album was less than $15,000, which they covered with credit cards and savings. CD Baby and a similar company called Cinderblock provided the distribution, which gave them a reach as broad as iTunes, Rhapsody and the other top services. And MP3 blogs and MySpace were free marketing.
Why sign their life away now to a label, they reasoned, when they can record and distribute their music themselves and keep their creative independence? If the first self-released album does well, they’ll be in a much stronger negotiating position with the label for re-releasing the first album in stores, or for the second album.
Well, now Birdmonster has in fact signed with a label, FADER (an offshoot of the magazine of the same name). My colleague Steven Leckart interviewed Arcuni to understand what changed his mind about labels:
Q: Last time around, you had plenty of interest from indies and majors, but ultimately decided to self-release. Why did a label seem more desirable this time around?
A: I think what it boiled down to was the question: "Do we want to be musicians or do we want to run a business?" To do both equally well just seemed unrealistic. The first time around we had written all these songs in a bubble. By the time people were starting to notice, it just made sense to do it ourselves. With the state of the music industry at the time, not many labels were willing to give a relatively unknown band a decent deal. Changes were occurring, but the industry was fighting them and bands were getting the short end of the stick. Bands I knew were getting gobbled up and then tossed aside just as fast. We just figured it was too early to sign away the ownership of our music when we still had plenty of room to grow on our own.
After the release of No Midnight and the year and half of non-stop touring, all we really wanted to do was go home and write another record. That was all the band wanted to give our energy to, but the business side had become draining(physically, mentally, and financially). So it became apparent to the four of us that if we wanted to be continue down that artistic road, we'd need help in other areas. Then it became a question of what type of label and deal was right for us.
Q: What made FADER such a great fit? How did things like tour support, radio, press, marketing, distribution factor into the decision?
A: FADER was actually one of the first labels that approached us when we began looking, and it became pretty clear right off the bat that these were the guys we wanted to do a record with. They had a similar mindset to us: First and foremost focus on making the music, and then we'll get creative and use the tools out there to share it with the world. Beyond that, it seemed that they had a great grasp of marketing (being owned by Cornerstone Promotions). I remember going to SxSW a few years ago, and before that no one in the U.S. had heard of the Editors. I doubt if many people left Austin without at least knowing the name.
That showed us that FADER could at least give us the opportunity to be seen and heard. Things like radio and press are a crapshoot - you might get radio play, you might get a good review, but you can't be dependent on it. At this point, we just want our music out there, and the opportunity to continue down this path.
Q: When you say FADER are "forward thinking" is there anything more specific you can point to?
A: They understand the industry, and are willing to change with it. Labels are becoming just one arm in a larger beast: management firms, promotions companies, etc. now all have labels. They are the ones that larger labels turn to for help, so why not have a roster of bands that benefit from those resources. I assume also that as record sales go down, it allows them take more risks with signing new talent because the future of the entire company is not wrapped up in the commercial success of one or two bands. With our deal, FADER came to us and asked us what we wanted out of it before making an offer. They were the only label to do that.
Q: How many records have you signed on for?
A: It's a two record deal.