I posted a recent Facebook comment regarding our policies with signing artists and found myself getting into a discussion of what the role of an independent label is in 2012, something I’ve often been asked about in interviews but have never really been able to elaborate on.
Basically, it started off by requesting that bands don’t send us vinyl LP’s or professionally made CD’s in the mail because it’s a waste of money and resources, but also because we’re not interested in working with a band who have an LP or CD out on another label.
As I was responding to the discussion that was happening between myself and people that follow the label I realized that there is an alarming situation occurring in the independent (whatever that means anymore) music scene. Scoping out a lot of people’s “Best Labels of 2011” lists I noticed a lot of the labels scoring high (at times even #1) on these lists had not released a single debut release by a single artist.
Amongst them were labels big enough to have an A&R staff with a yearly salary, which got me thinking, what is the role of an A&R person at this level? Is a label anything more than a manufacturing plant when they just sign acts who are already achieving a lot of internet buzz or, even worse, already have a successful independent release out there?
It’s obvious to me that when you’ve grown to that size as a label and there’s a large staff to pay (as well as what I can only imagine is an ungodly overhead) you’re not going to be able to take as many chances as when you were smaller. But that doesn’t make it worthy to celebrate and it doesn’t make you a purveyor of good taste, it just makes you a manufacturer of a known entity. The label, in a sense, becomes a press relations and distribution hub. The A&R staff, I can imagine, determine the value of the artist based on the sales and momentum of their previous release. I’m sure in many cases they genuinely like the artist’s material, but so do thousands of other people by that point. So why not just hire an accountant to crunch the numbers?
Will it really be news when Iceage sign to another label? I have no problem with them as a band whatsoever and wish them all the success in the world, but is it the feather in the cap of the label that signs them? What have you shown us in terms of your ability to bring a new artist wider acclaim? Dais and What’s Your Rupture are great, relevant, modern labels and they got that first LP wider success. Beyond that, for the band, their success is owed all to themselves, not to whoever does their next LP. At best, you will be a facilitator.
Clearly, there are situations where a band outgrows it’s label, and no artist should be held back on that accord. From the band perspective, an upward move is nothing to scoff at. However, if a label is to maintain any esteem or credibility, it should maintain a 50% homegrown talent base. If you can’t maintain that meager ratio you’re probably not a record label, you’re a manufacturing plant with a cool logo. A lot of these labels don’t even care about a physical product anymore. To them, a record is a big advertising sign for what their main objective is: publishing and licensing. A murky world rarely understood by the artists and sometimes even the label.
The scary thing is it’s pervasive beyond the “big indies.” Mid-level indies, our contemporaries and peers, are doing the exact same thing. They’re poaching each other, with bands making parallel moves. There’s even lawyers and managers involved at this level, making a big deal out of money that is far less than what most of our parents made in a single year, all to have a little more upfront as opposed to creating a long-term relationship mutually beneficial to the label and artist. Our reaction to this meddling between labels over these kinds of bands is pretty simple: we’ll stay out of it. We will, of course, make efforts to keep our bands when their deals with us run out, but we’re not going into the fray for someone we aren’t involved in.
All that being said, we’ve yet to be “poached.” When we first started the label, we weren’t signing bands. We did handshake one off EP deals with Dum Dum Girls, The Fresh & Onlys, etc. And that was all well and good at the beginning. The Beets and Tim Cohen have moved on to Hardly Art, but our deals with them were very casual and their aesthetic might be better off with another label.
Recently, we were talking to a known band with several releases in their catalog from notable labels who wanted to work with us. I was debating the possibility for quite a while, to the point where the artist actually got pissed at me for wavering. (Sorry.)
But I had a bit of a revelation thinking over it and looking over our current roster. With the exception of only Thieves Like Us, we’ve done pretty much every release from our artists right from the beginning. The Jameses had only a self-released 7”, Mac DeMarco had a small-run cassette by his former monicker Makeout Videotapes, Catwalk had two 7” singles on an Oxnard label called Yay! that is now defunct, but none of them really had distribution or any promo. What I’m most proud of is that we did the debut singles, LP’s and EP’s by Wild Nothing, Beach Fossils, The Soft Moon, Craft Spells, Widowspeak, Soft Metals, Blouse, Minks, Dignan Porch and soon Dive and Heavenly Beat. We didn’t pluck them up after they were getting blogged about or after their first LP did reasonably well, we got them right from the start and we grew (and are growing) together.
I’m not trying to bring an emotional or moral aspect to what is, at the end of the day, still a business. There’s no wrong or right way to release records. I just think if you claim that what makes your label special or innovative or even relevant is your ability to find unheard music that people relate to and feel a part of as an audience, then prove it.
I think it is a relevant question to ask in 2012 what the purpose of a label is. Do we need them when a band can pull a stunt and get featured on Pitchfork or Stereogum and wait for the offers to roll in? No, for those kinds of things, we really don’t. And that’s exactly where the labels who are interested in using blogs and other labels releases as an an A&R tool can continue to mine for their roster. I wish you luck with that (not really).
To sum it up, Captured Tracks is no longer accepting demos, LP’s or CD’s from artists who already have a significant release out. We’ll probably miss out on some great opportunities, but if we’re going to maintain any idea of relevance or respect in the eyes of the fans of our label, then this is the policy I feel we should take.
If we want your record, we’ll buy it! If you don’t have anything out, please send it our way! And if we sign you, we’ll try to keep you happy and put out all your records like it was when labels mattered. Think of it as our Factory/Joy Division/New Order policy. I’d never compare us to Factory, but it is one of the labels who had a sense of itself and what it means to be a label, and for those purposes has to be regarded as one of the greatest ever.
If you work for one of the venerable, esteemed, lauded, classic independent labels signing bands 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th records, remember that you were lucky enough to be around when people were buying a lot more music and the money you’re signing these bands with comes from a lot of that catalog. If you’re going to collect the best sellers from labels who weren’t lucky enough to be around in that era, you owe it to independent music to take a chance once in a while on an unknown band.
And if for some reason our policy means, down the road, we don’t poach a band or two from a label that has the A&R ear and the drive to one day become a great indie label, then that in and of itself is enough reason not to do it. God knows you will need all the help you can get. How is a label ever supposed to sustain itself under those circumstances? I honestly have no idea how we got through that beginning period.
Edit: More than happy to answer any questions regarding this. I’m seeing some re-posts with people’s take on this, which is great to get the discussion going, but I’d like to elaborate that a band should never feel obligated to stay with a smaller label if a larger one comes along with a great opportunity for them. Bands should do what is best for them, absolutely. This is directed at labels. It’s up to the LABEL to remain relevant by not just grabbing whatever band first’s LP does well or who’s currently without an LP but is still lauded a ton in the press. It’s fine to do that as a label from time to time, but what’s the point if you aren’t able to prove that you’re capable of finding noteworthy bands all on your own?
Need to show the full text here since it’s entirely true. and worth reading.