Hard times in the music industry mean that fewer record contracts are getting offered to local bands. For some musicians, however, it isn’t the end of the world.
When, two years ago, the Sacramento News & Review ran a cover story titled “The Signing Game: Making Music in the Money Business,” the future for aspiring local musicians still looked pretty shiny. The economy was still expanding, and most high-tech boom companies hadn’t blown through their wads of venture capital just yet.
Compact disc sales were lagging from years previous, but the conventional wisdom inside the five major record companies was that, once those pesky file-trading programs like Napster could be sued into oblivion, music fans would return in droves to their old CD buying patterns. And all would be right with the world.
For those Sacramento band members whose ambitions reached beyond Northern California, a major-label contract—and the international stardom that inevitably would follow signing on that dotted line—still sounded like a realistic outcome. The financial breakdown on what really happens for many bands, the notion that the typical major’s royalty rate was every bit as generous as Napster’s, still wasn’t well known.
So, two years ago, before the economy went south and the music business did too, and before mass layoffs ripped through the offices of the big record companies, it was still possible to go to a club or someplace where musicians congregate and hear a similar refrain. “So-and-so’s getting signed.” And, occasionally, you might have spotted someone from a record company at Old Ironsides or the Press Club, checking out local talent.
Today, however, economic reality has set in and that scene is a lot less common. Just last week, EMI, one of the five majors, announced it was cutting 1,800 jobs, around 20 percent of its workforce, including 500 employees from its two U.S. labels, Capitol and Virgin, in addition to some 400 artists from the EMI labels’ worldwide rosters. This follows earlier, somewhat less drastic reductions at the music divisions owned by AOL Time Warner, Bertelsmann, Sony and Vivendi Universal. With record companies shrinking rather than expanding, obviously fewer new bands will be getting record contracts.
While the music business appears to have gone through some wrenching changes in two short years, how those changes affect musicians depend upon from what direction the musicians themselves approach their careers. Obviously, any local band with a five-step plan to conquer the world and become fabulously wealthy in the process will have to rethink its strategy.
But some musicians and clubs will remain blithely unaffected, because they’ve been functioning as if the world of giant corporate record labels, radio networks and record stores doesn’t exist. For them, the future seems just as hopeful as it ever did.
While the music business may seem like it’s in some kind of slow-motion collapse, it remains true that some local bands still do hook up with major labels.
The Revolution Smile, for example, one of three bands that rose from the ashes of a former local major-label act called Far, just signed with Flawless, a label that Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst launched through Interscope Records. Another band, Leisure, has signed with DreamWorks, brought in by the manager of another successful area act on DreamWorks: Papa Roach. And Jacob Golden, formerly of Birthday, will soon see his debut, recorded for the English independent Rough Trade. Other local acts still affiliated with majors include Cake, which released its first album on Columbia last summer after three on the now-defunct Capricorn label; Tinfed, whose label Third Rail is moving from Hollywood to Interscope distribution; and Tesla and Soul Motor, both signed to Sanctuary, formerly known as the classic-rock label CMC International. Another local band, Oleander, is looking for a new home after its label, Republic/Universal, neglected to pick up its contract option.
But the free-spending era has ended and it is apparent to Dave Park. He is a locally based artist manager who also works as a freelance artists and repertoire consultant (read: talent scout) for the Columbia, Warner Bros. and Roadrunner labels. Park is like many entrepreneurs who work the less-glamorous, offstage facets of the music business. In the mid-’90s, the onetime manager of the Deftones helped get that band signed to Maverick, singer Madonna’s joint venture with Warner Bros. Records. He also helped local band Zoppi land a music-publishing deal with Warner-Chappell Music and a deal with MCA. Park also manages the Nevada City quartet Pocket for Corduroy.
According to Park, corporate accountants have reined in label A&R departments, replacing blank-check expense accounts with requisition forms that must be pre-approved. Because of these new, more stringent requirements, there aren’t anywhere near the number of label scouts traveling to places like Sacramento to sign bands.
Park has now seen what he calls the increasing “corporatization” at the labels in the last two years result in the same kind of bean-counter-driven mediocrity that has plagued other industries. “What the labels do badly these days is they don’t develop bands anymore,” he laments. “Obviously, any signing is going to be fraught with some kind of risk. But they look to minimize their risks with bands that either have a finished record or a band that is getting significant airplay or has generated significant, verifiable retail sales, or has generated a significant live following. But even talented bands, who tour well and sell records—until they write that one big hit song, they’re still going to be passed over by every label.”
The clincher, Park adds, is this: “The bottom line in the major-label community these days is shareholder value.”
Which can be a rude awakening for anyone who thought he was getting a job at a record label, where he could put the music on a pedestal. “These major labels,” Park observes, “are still staffed, by and large, with people who want to be in the music business, and who grew up romanticizing the record industry that you and I dreamt of when we were kids. Now, obviously, they’re put in a very difficult position, because they can’t sign all the bands that they would like to make records with. They can’t market bands in a way that they might prefer to market them.”
So what do these A&R people, whose job security is riding on the last thing they signed, look for in a prospective act? They want grit, determination, a little Darwinian confidence, and perhaps an intuitive understanding that when a handful of corporations own all the radio stations and concert promotion companies, wild-ass Captain Beefheart-like originality won’t score many points.
“It’s survival of the fittest,” Park says. “And the fittest band today is the band that not only plays well, looks good, understands who their fans are and puts on a great show, but also records well, writes well, understands arrangements and what it is that makes music compelling to begin with.” Not to mention the additional long hours rehearsing, making phone calls and playing extra gigs that any success-driven young artist must embrace if he or she wants to get noticed. “Those little extra things here and there will totally wear you out, but that at the end of the day, they’re really the bread and butter of why you succeeded and so many others failed.”
What this means for any local act wanting to sign with a label is that it needs to show a remarkable amount of gumption. An awareness of what’s currently selling, along with some kind of strategy on how to incorporate those commercially proven traits, is also a plus. What that awareness spells for any act that might need the luxury of three or four slim-selling albums to convince an audience of its idiosyncratic charms is readily apparent.
Park claims that today’s big labels depend upon exploiting existing markets, refusing to sign any act that might not be a knockoff of something already familiar.
“There’s what they call the 10-percent rule,” he says. “If you’re a band that sounds just like Puddle of Mudd, but you have a little twist that you do that sort of separates you from Puddle of Mudd, and you have a prospective hit song, even in the absence of airplay and a touring base, you can still get a record deal. You’re a band that would be very easy to market.”
Non-cookie-cutter bands have a harder road to hoe, says Park, who will admit he harbors a desire to find and sign the next Marvin Gaye, or at least the next AC/DC. But miracles occasionally do occur. “And every once in a while, there are some adventurous A&R decisions that get made. That’s why we have bands like the Strokes, Dashboard Confessional and Jimmy Eat World on major labels. None of those bands are going to be multi-platinum in a best-case scenario.
“But the majors are making some attempt at broadening the scope of their A&R decision-making,” he concludes, “because they realize that if they keep going this way, they’re only going to be signing one kind of rap act, and one kind of rock act. They’re alienating consumers faster than they’re generating new fans.”
New fans, of course, are what the people who sit in marketing meetings at record labels refer to as “the lifeblood of the business.” And while there’s a tacit acknowledgement that somehow “the kids” have to be brought back into the equation, it’s difficult to imagine that an endless stream of former Mouseketeers and Star Search graduates—remade into shiny new teen-pop idols and offered up at $20 a slice—will be doing the trick.
Add in the uniformly processed sound of corporate radio and the lack of places to see live music—if you’re under 21, you don’t have that many options outside of arena and shed shows these days—and it’s pretty slim pickings for the young music fan.
Which is why a venue like the Capitol Garage is so valuable to the Sacramento music community. By day and early evening, it’s an airy café tucked into the front end of an old garage on L Street and redone in late ’80s industrial fashion—wood, corrugated steel, brick and glass. But once the sun goes down, it’s transformed into a space where touring and local bands can play to people who are too young to get into bars.
Most of the musical acts the Capitol Garage books are alternative, using the definition of the word that predates the kind of corporate tattoo and nose-ring-focused campaigns that saw Bud Light re-branded as “the alternative beer” in the post-Nevermind ’90s. A lot of those bands are out-of-towners who pick up a Sacramento date on the way in or out of the Bay Area. Bands like Clinic, U.S. Maple or the Shins. But many are local acts, like Hella—which recently signed with Kill Rock Stars subsidiary 5RC—or Red Tape.
Some of the bands are decidedly unpolished, and that’s all right with Charles Twilling, who started booking the Garage five years ago after current owner Jerry Mitchell bought the place. Twilling, 30, had worked for an insurance company and as a soapmaker and didn’t have experience booking a club, although he had booked shows for the local band Forever Goldrush—whose frontman, Damon Wyckoff, still serves breakfast and lunch at the Capitol Garage.
“If there’s a band that’s been together for six months,” he explains, “and you can hear that they don’t know how to play that well, but they’re working on it, they’re practicing a lot, that’s a big thing.”
Like Dave Park, Twilling values a strong work ethic among the bands he books, but for different reasons: Experience has shown him that a band that will work its butt off handing out fliers and practicing before a gig is more likely to pack the house.
The payoff comes when one of those local bands develops into a solid draw, as Low Flying Owls and ¡Búcho! have.
Unfortunately, a quick glance outside the front door of the Capitol Garage suggests that the café-club’s days may be numbered. To its immediate west on L Street, a 16-story building is now under construction, with a Paragary’s restaurant going in on the ground floor. To the north, behind Beers Books, a 23-story office tower is planned. East, across 15th Street, a hotel will be going in. And to the southeast is the corner of the massive four-block East End Project. Twilling thinks it’s only a matter of time before the owner of the corner complex that houses Capitol Garage and Beers Books decides to cash in and sell the prime location to a developer that will bulldoze the lot and erect another office tower or hotel. “To be honest, I don’t think we’re gonna last,” he says.
Anticipating those changes, Twilling has started his own concert promotion company, Anodyne Entertainment. “I like the name Anodyne and what it is,” he says. “A cure for pain—that’s what music should be; it shouldn’t be hard and a lot of work and stuff.” He wants to look for larger venues to produce all-ages shows. Capitol Garage, which seats less than 100, is too tiny for a lot of the acts he’d like to bring in, acts that would do well in a club the size of the San Francisco venue Slim’s, with a capacity of 300-500 people. A nightclub in this range doesn’t exist in Sacramento; the closest might be Harlow’s on J Street, which doesn’t do all-ages shows.
Twilling says he isn’t afraid to set his sights even higher, figuring that if there are at least 1.2 million people who live in the Sacramento metropolitan area, there must be a good percentage of them who will fall into his target demographic. “You’ve gotta figure that a fourth of that are kids under 18, looking for something to do, who can’t go into club shows. We were talking today that it would be nice if there was some Memorial [Auditorium]-sized place that we could rent out to do an all-ages New Year’s show.”
Having two children of his own has altered Twilling’s perspective, simply from watching them develop an appreciation for music that’s ultimately frustrated by a lack of places to see it performed. Although kids and teens are heavily targeted by advertisers, and although much of the music played on commercial radio stations exists to lure them into hearing those ads, when they want to hear music played live, their options are few. There are Capitol Garage, True Love Coffeehouse and a few other cafés; there are in-store performances at record stores like Pug’z; there are the occasional shows at Arco Arena or Sac Valley AutoWest Amphitheatre.
Twilling insists that it doesn’t have to be like that. “Give kids more avenues and more options,” he concludes. “There’s been research about if your child is involved with music, they excel and do well. And just getting out and socializing, not isolating them, is really important.”
Given that the music business, historically, has depended on young people to buy its products, it’s surprising that so little is done by it to bring in new customers.
Sometimes, however, isolation is desired. Certain musicians, especially after too many eardrum-bleeding nights onstage in the most toilet-like of clubs, begin to get quite enamored of the relative sanctuary of the recording studio. It’s quiet there. Usually, no one spills beer on you.
Record-making, of the bedroom sort, is the underground economy of the music business. Many local acts, from decidedly uncommercial acts like sonic frag bombers Little Bunnies and art-damage combo Überkunst to more mainstream acts like singer-songwriter David Houston and ethereal pop duo Park Avenue Music, aren’t tailoring their music toward what’s getting played on radio or signed by record companies.
Chris Woodhouse is, currently, the guitarist in a very Kinks-like and very good combo called FM Knives. He’s also put in time with a large number of Sacramento’s finer noisemaking outfits—Babelfish, Caboose, Cheesefish, the Dreaded Question, the Horny Mormons, Los Huevos, Karate Party, Laughing Jesus, the Lizards, the Nine-to-Fives, Pollution Circus, Pounded Clown, the Pretty Girls, Salmonella, the Shitty Things, Sir & the Young Men, the Surprise Package, Thermüs, Tru Valu, and an unnamed Milli Vanilli cover band. Those are the ones that actually made it as far as a stage.
But Woodhouse’s real claim to fame is that he’s perhaps the only one in town who can record an album of searing punk rock in an afternoon, turn around and mix the thing the next day in its entirety, and still make it sound good.
It’s clear that Woodhouse prefers the relative anonymity of the studio over the less-private confines of the stage. “In the last few years, it’s become obvious to me—after putting up with years of gig stuff—that I get more of a kick out of making recordings,” he says.
We’re sitting in his Midtown loft apartment. Woodhouse hunches on the floor, fingering an odd gold electric guitar called a Larsen. It was built by Little Red Rocket guitarist Kirk Larsen using a Mosrite Ventures body, the electrics from a Fender Telecaster and a Bigsby bridge, the kind you might see on a Gretsch Country Gentleman. He gets up, returns the guitar back to its cradle-like rack in the corner, then paces toward his CD player. “Wanna hear some FM Knives?” he asks.
Woodhouse’s band has just finished recording and mixing a 13-song CD, titled Useless and Modern, for Moo-La-La, the indie label that local writer and longtime fringe-rock booster Scott Soriano runs out of the loft, a performance space behind Time Tested Books on 21st Street. In typically contentious fashion, the most difficult part of making the disc was determining what the finished product would look like. “We’re going to go with a picture of some French new-wave crossover attempt from the ’70s that didn’t work. So it’s some French-looking guy with like the skinny tie loosened who looks the rough-and-ready punk star kind of guy, but whose record was really terrible.”
FM Knives’ music, however, is quite swell. The melodies snake through the room; the guitar tones hang in the air. It’s a perfect period piece that sounds like something that producer Shel Talmy might have cut with the Kinks or the Who circa 1966.
“I, and the people I mostly play with, all have some record-collecting obsession,” says Woodhouse, “or some period of time in music that they’re obsessed with, or some band they’re obsessed with. But it’s always about an obsession with some facet of music, and it’s not so much a reflection of personal ambition.”
“I’ve always had an ambition to make a record that I felt the same way about as one of my favorite records to listen to. I like a record that sounds like you can’t imagine how it was made, you can’t understand where it came from—it sounds like it comes from another planet.”
While the FM Knives stuff was recorded at the Loft, he alludes to a studio he uses in North Highlands.
Woodhouse admits that he’s working in a milieu that’s not likely to attract anyone remotely resembling a major-label A&R scout. But it’s satisfying, nonetheless: printing up 500 or 1,000 copies of an offbeat little 7-inch single and firing it off into the void. “You get this kind of small nationwide network of people who are into a certain kind of thing,” he says. “You meet these kindred spirit people who, it’s really funny, they’re really dedicated to this weird kind of music.”
In one instance, a bunch of vinyl EPs by Karate Party, a former trio that Woodhouse describes as “angular and abrasive as humanly possible,” found their way to Seattle. Some of the records ended up in the hands of a group called the A-Frames, who subsequently passed through Sacramento while on tour.
“These guys are from hundreds and hundreds of miles away, but we were both a super-loud, angular, three-piece rock band. And me and the singer, when he came down on tour, it became kind of a joke—he got out of the van and we dressed exactly the same and we’re both kind of tall. We took pictures of that night, of us standing side by side, and it’s just hilarious.”
The upshot was that Woodhouse started recording the A-Frames. Last fall, he tossed a few suitcases full of recording gear in a truck, drove up to Seattle and spent a few days cutting a new record with the band, which in turn flew to Sacramento a few months later to re-do the vocals. The full-length album, pressed on 180-gram audiophile white vinyl, will be released by the A-Frames on their Dragnet Records label this spring.
“You just send some little 7-inch off to Bumfuck, Alabama. And then, two years later, you travel out there and they travel out here, and you do their record and it’s the eternal circle. I mean, that’s almost the cool reason to do independent records—there’s this network of people into the weird kind of music we like. And we can make friends and travel, and go hang out and go drink beer with them in other cities.”
Woodhouse, who hasn’t given up his day job at Tower Records’ corporate headquarters just yet, doesn’t harbor any illusions about landing a seven-album major-label deal anytime soon.
“I think it’s safe to say that I’ve been involved in a number of bands whose focus was not on commercial world domination,” he says, laughing. “[The focus was] more on appreciation and emulation of a form of music that was never commercially successful, ever—just sort of a more obscure take on things. And it’s not to belittle the people who are pursuing the more mainstream things, but it’s just kind of the weird need to pursue this other angle that, at some level of your consciousness, you know isn’t likely to get you anywhere. Ever.”
While Park is focused on what music the established market already wants and Woodhouse and friends don’t seem to care, in the middle ground is 720 Records, Sacramento’s version of a regional independent record label.
Eric Rushing started 720 six years ago, inspired not by Sub Pop in Seattle, but by a small early ‘90s label called Rusty Nail, which released discs by Far, Funky Blue Velvet and Prayer Wheel. Rushing named his label after an old Atari game.
Jerry Perry and Brian McKenna, who promoted shows at the now-defunct Cattle Club on Folsom Boulevard, also served as role models. “I spent from 1990 to 1994 going to club shows they promoted,” he says, “and then promoted my own shows from 1994 to 1997. Then I realized I wanted to do the label thing full time. These days I still put shows together, but I hand them over to McKenna to promote them.”
The roster of 720 leans toward that intersection where metal, punk and pop music meet. The label’s biggest act, Shortie, recently left to sign with a Southern California label, Go Big, which is in the process of linking with a major. Another act, Tenfold, seems to be building the kind of momentum that will attract national attention. Other acts on the label include Red Top Road, Long Drive Home and 26 Weeks.
Because of 720’s profile on its Internet site, www.720-records.com, people outside the area are becoming aware of it, and the label now receives dozens of demos every week from other states. “People think the label is bigger than it is,” Rushing says, “so we are treated with lots of respect.”
Rushing doesn’t seem to mind that his label may serve as a way station for acts on their way to bigger things, either, saying that in five years he expects to be working with a whole new roster and what he terms the same ethics. “I would love to have a major-label joint venture,” he adds, “but realistically I want to be a strong independent label.”
The harsh realities of the music business at large have affected musicians and entrepreneurs, on a more local level, in different ways. Some, like Dave Park and the musicians he talks to, have elected to sharpen their game. They continue to pursue the big deals, even while they’re conscious of the more ugly, survival-of-the-fittest aspects of the signing game.
Others, like Chris Woodhouse and his friends, have decided not to go after any kind of major-label validation, instead seeking to make art for art’s sake. And others, like Charles Twilling, are finding niche markets that the big players are ignoring. Or, like Eric Rushing, they’re pursuing a smaller-scaled version of success.
But whatever their responses may be, one thing is certain: A lot has changed in a few short years, and the halcyon days of the music business are a thing of the past.