Major label blues
It’s a brave new world for independent musicians after the mp3 revolution helped lance the profit-laden “record-label bubble.”
At first glance, Celeste Lear may not seem like the poster child for the struggling independent musician of the New Century. But Lear, granddaughter of the late William Powell Lear, inventor of the private jet and the 8-track cassette, says that despite her namesake, she is no “trustafarian,” content to coast on the good fortune and scrappy business savvy of her grandfather, Bill.
“To be honest, my family did put me through school, and they helped me get on my feet, but I never had a trust fund, and all the family money is actually locked away because of the will,” says Lear. Apparently, grandfather Lear’s last will and testament strictly states that none of the family fortune can be handed to the grandchildren until after their parents pass away. Bummer.
One ear LEAR
The Verdi native currently resides in Venice Beach, Calif., where she freelances as a remix engineer for other dance track artists to help make ends meet and support her own take on electronic dance music. It’s also where she runs the day-to-day legwork of her label, “Boutique Electronique Records.”
“I’m not starving or anything, but I’ve definitely had to have jobs. When I moved to the Bay Area and in LA—the cost of living is so expensive—so I’ve had to had a variety of different gigs.”
But financial support has come in the painful form of substantial settlements from two automobile accidents. When Lear was 16, she was in an accident that resulted in a total loss of hearing in her right ear.
“I figured as long as I have one ear, I could do what I need to do,” she says. “Even with the sound engineering, I was so naturally drawn to it, I just knew it was what I wanted to do in my life for my work, so I just kind of forced myself through it.”
Two years ago, “One Ear Lear” (as she was dubbed by friends following the first accident) was involved in another fender bender, this time due to a drunk driver. She says that most of the money allocated to what she calls her “broken knee fund” went to developing her music career.
The aspiring electronica recording artist spent her childhood oscillating between small town Nevada in Verdi and the upper-class hippie enclave of Topanga Canyon, inland of Malibu and Pacific Palisades in California. She began playing music around the age of 15. At 20, she headed to California, where she promptly fell in with the rave scene while attending college in Santa Cruz and became immersed in dance/trance/electronica music.
Throughout the 1990s, there was a rather healthy contingent of glow-stick twirling kids with huge pants listening to techno music while circulating a range of various federally prohibited drugs in the Santa Cruz and the surrounding suburbs.
But Lear had no time for chemical mind alterations, she was too busy learning recording engineering and music software applications, the tools of the dance music trade. In addition to programming and producing her own music, the jet scion also plays bass, guitar and drums. She says her songwriting is a hybrid of many styles.
“The word I’ve claimed for myself is ‘altronica,’ a cross between alternative rock and electronica, but a lot of it falls into the down tempo and trip-hop categories, so [it’s] a little more on the mellower side, but it’s still got the beats and loops of electronic music,” says Lear.
Dreams gone wild
Like many musicians in hot pursuit of the rock and roll dream, Lear ran into a brick wall after an unsuccessful period of soliciting record companies for a recording contract.
“I spent a year shopping my demo around while I was living in Reno,” she says. “Sending the demo out to labels—anyone that we could—but the more people I talked to, the more I found out that the industry was changing.”
At present, the recording industry is scrambling to find a way to stay afloat because, unlike the 8-track, dwindling album sales and iPods are here to stay. Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, major and medium-sized record labels gorged themselves on the cash cows that were the glory days of CD sales. While they fell asleep at the dinner table and drooled on themselves, the internet happened.
As CD sales revenue dries up, and various business models are touted as the next savior every other week, labels have become much more reluctant to sign artists. When labels do roll the dice on a new artist, they expect the act to be fully developed, with a built-in fan base and already recorded album. They are much faster to drop the new act if they do not make the numbers.
Major label contracts are much less attractive to modern artists with the advent of “360” deals, which allow labels to siphon off revenue streams previously only enjoyed by the artists themselves, such as from touring income and publishing. Subsequently, going it on one’s own is not such a bad option. In fact, artists like Lear have found it to be their only option. “It’s way more competitive, and artists aren’t getting signed. I would talk to a lot of friends in LA, and it generally just seemed like hard times all around, but a lot of bands are starting their own labels because it’s relatively inexpensive to start a label. To have money to run a successful label, that’s a little bit harder.”
In 2005, Lear started Boutique Electronique Records as a Nevada-based LLC. Aside from a little guidance from other musicians, she admits she is pretty much learning the business as she goes along.
“I have friends that have done this before, so I got tips from them, but to be honest, I’ve really had to dive head first into something that I didn’t really know all that much about,” she says.
“I just pick up information as I go along. It’s just been this submersion in the music industry.”
Lear says that running her own one-woman label is a daily labor of love. The majority of her time is spent doing web research, looking for different DJs and writers at different papers to contact for publicity.
“You wake up and get on the computer and start emailing people,” she says. “I have a list of names, emails of industry people, radio people—so I just send out emails and press kits, and I also contact radio stations.”
She says she also manages herself, though occasionally retaining an entertainment lawyer to look over the odd contract.
Earlier this year, Boutique Records released Digital Bliss, an all-female compilation of various trance and electronica artists. Lear says that while sales have not exactly been through the roof, they are steady enough to indicate a small but loyal fan base.
In lieu of substantial CD sales, many musicians, including Lear, look toward licensing their music out for television and commercial placements as an alternative source of income.
“One of the best ways for bands and artists to make money since record sales are down, unless you’re a big act, is licensing your music,” she says. “I’m a member of several web organizations that help you place your music in commercials and movies, and that’s really where the money is in the industry. A lot of the revenue comes from placing these songs.”
As with her record company, Lear established her own publishing company to collect any royalty income. Recently, she had a song placed in a Ralph Lauren fashion show, which helped pay some of the bills. But the life of the independent musician is fraught on all sides with uncertainty and financial instability. Ultimately, it comes down to living to work, not working to live. Lear maintains that she is dedicated to a life in music, no matter the cost, even if it means having to slog away at a menial job.
“You do what you can if you want to get your music out to people, even if you have a 9 to 5 job,” she says. “As with anything, if you love it, you’ll keep doing it.”