‘Do For Yourself’ vs. Record Labels

Bands debate whether a label will help or hinder their fate

By JULIANNA CLAY

Many national and local bands are faced with whether signing a label is synonymous with success or if there are other alternatives. Quite a number of local bands have discovered that their goals can be accomplished independently.
Many in the music industry feel that what once was provided by a label can now be provided by themselves. However, even though the divide between signed and unsigned bands essentially no longer exists, many musicians are still undecided.
Do publishers, booking agents, management, sound engineers, producers and labels determine an artist’s success? According to Matt Winegar, a sound engineer, owner and producer of his own local studio in Salt Lake, Secret Sidewalk Recording Studio, labels are slowly on the verge of extinction.
He elaborated by saying that the rules have simply changed and aren’t what they once were. Local and unsigned bands have access to the same resources as larger, signed bands. They can fund and produce the same quality of an album that previously only labels could. They utilize smaller budgets and find new ways to create revenue, which is a concept lost on big labels.
“These days the lure of a label deal is not what it once was. In fact, many artists have figured out how these deals heavily favor the label and at times are detrimental to the natural arc of a bands career,”Winegar states.
Winegar has been in the business for years and has worked with big names like Primus, Coheed and Cambria and local superstar, Royal Bliss who has been on and is currently off of a major label.
Royal Bliss who started in 1998, has experienced firsthand how flawed the label system really is, but also how local bands can have a fairytale ending. They recently independently released, Waiting Out the Storm and cracked iTunes top ten on the rock charts.
After signing with Capitol in 2005, Royal Bliss members spent six months unaware they’d been dropped when the company merged with Virgin in 2008. Disappointed and dissatisfied they chose a smaller label, Merovingian records, in 2010, believing that they would be more personally invested. Unfortunately, they found that in spite of their preferences both the management and the recording company wanted to control the musical direction of the group.
“They wanted us to sound more like Nickelback or Papa Roach. We would write and send the material in and they would say they didn’t like it. They wanted someone else to write for us. All any of the labels did was give us money to cut an album and then put an official stamp on our work,” Richards said.
Royal Bliss divorced its label and management, resulting in lawsuits. In the end, Royal Bliss was able to completely sever ties. The band still owns the rights to all of its music, created its own record label, Air Castle Records, acquired new management, a booking agent and most recently a publisher.
Richards describes Royal Bliss’s experience as disillusioning, “A label should technically work with a band like a well-oiled machine. One band they actually work with will make it big. However, what about the other 20 bands you never hear of that were signed and have nothing to show for it? It’s because of that, that labels either have the ability to take your career and run with it or ruin it.”
The Suicycles and King Niko, are examples of local unsigned bands, that share similar experiences and sentiments.
The Suicycles, have only been around for over a year, but have already toured out of state and played some of Utah’s premier shows like, X96’s Big Ass Show, Utah Arts Fest, and Blue Harvest Moon Festival in Ogden. They have also released two EPs, and a full-length album, with another in the works. Producer, sound engineer and owner of Kitefishing Studios, Camden Chamberlain is their lead singer and front-man.
“I’ve always liked tracking all of it myself. I essentially consider myself a label. Plus building the studio was to make sure that I never had to rely on a label to go record. Everything a label can do or provide we provide for ourselves.”
Chamberlain employs what he calls the, “do for yourself” method. “Yes, it’s a new and scary concept and the chances of success are a bit lower, but it’s definitely a lot more rewarding. Why rely on other people in life in general if you can help it?” Chamberlain asks.
Winner of last year’s City Weekly Music Awards King Niko, also has no management, publisher, booking agent, or label. Front-man Ransom Wydner believes that the music industry is changing, but aren’t quite there yet. He indicates that bands like Radiohead and Royal Bliss had time with major labels to build their brands first.
Wydner talks about King Nikos experience with labels, “Warner Brothers is the label we have spent the most time with, but they’re not interested in what labels call ‘Artist Development.’ They want a pre-packaged hit album and a band to go with it.”
All three bands and Winegar agree that record labels are first and foremost a business whose main focus is to make money. Of course, like all investments the money comes with strings attached. Wydner puts it best when he says, “They don’t have anyone’s best interests at heart. They’re a heartless machine of capitalism. That’s not a good or a bad thing it’s just the way it is. The main point I’m trying to make is that even though the major labels are bureaucratic vestiges they still have a role to play in the industry and we still need them as musicians. There are a few exceptions and yes I would love to see something come up and replace them, but that hasn’t happened yet.”
Labels, particularly major labels, are still the biggest bully on the playground, but smaller bands are starting to think for themselves.  Perhaps the right formula for success is using a label to build a fan base before going independent.
A trend has been started. With CD sales diminishing worldwide, major labels are losing their appeal and death grip on artists’ creativity and freedoms. Where one has succeeded there will be more, if bands like Royal Bliss continue to pave the way. The ‘do for yourself’ music revolution is just beginning.