|If Artists Think They’re Going To Avoid The Problems That Often Exist With Major Labels By Signing With An Indie, They Better Think Again. You Might Expect Better Communication And More Personalized Attention, But As You’re About To Read, This Isn’t Always The Way Things Work Out.
Halou, a San Francisco-based band who describes its music as electronic and atmospheric, was on the hunt for a label committed to signing and developing “non-traditional” music. Indie-labels such as Sub Pop and Mute were top on the band’s list, but Nettwerk, known for nurturing the careers of Skinny Puppy and Sarah McLachlin was Halou’s target company. When the Canadian-based indie label expressed a sincere interest, Halou was more than ecstatic.
Halou’s co-founder and spokesperson Mickeal Eldridge (AKA Count) remembers that the band was very optimistic but realistic about its relationship with Nettwerk from the start. “After working at a popular indie label for several years, I completely understood the economics and practicality of the record business,” says Count. “We were prepared to bust our butts and create a buzz that would eventually stimulate label support. The band, however, never expected what was to come next. Our plan completely backfired.”
According to Count, Halou ended up doing all of the marketing and promotion for its CD. The band sent out their record to radio and press people and paid for print ads to announce its street date. To make matters worse, after completely funding their tour and drawing impressive audiences, Nettwerk never seemed to pick up the ball and get behind the band. In fact, according to Count, the label even turned down promotional requests by retailers to do in-store appearances and signings. The results: the band quickly ran out of finances and ran out of steam.
Today Halou remains optimistic about finding a new record label, but are baffled as to why a very capable label like Nettwerk would release a record and then completely fail to promote it; especially a record from a band who worked so hard to succeed! Halou hopes its comments won’t read as a complaint about their former label but rather a reminder to young artists that though music is an art, it is also a serious business.
The following is the band’s play-by-play account of its relationship with Nettwerk, intended to provide greater insight as to what, when, and why things went wrong.
Band’s Play By Play Account
January 1993: Halou forms in San Francisco consisting of three core members: Rebecca Coseboom, Ryan Coseboom, and Mickeal Eldridge (Count).
October 2000: Halou is approached by Nettwerk A&R rep Geoff Goddard from Canada who expressed an enthusiastic interest in signing the band. Count recalls that the U.S offices of Nettwerk interestingly did not have an A&R department. The band remembers feeling an initial awkwardness between the two companies. “I may be totally imagining this,” says Count, “but I felt as though there was almost a resentment from the US office towards Canada for making them feel incapable of signing acts. Perhaps this was the beginning of the end for all I know.”
July 2001: Nine months after the initial contact with Nettwerk, Halou finally inks the deal. The hold-up was purely due to a lack of communication says Count. “All we were looking for was someone to press, distribute and market our already finished record , yet the label couldn’t decide on a ridiculously small amount of money to close the deal. Whenever we countered with a figure, the reps either seemed to be on vacation or out of the office. This should have been an indicator that there was going to be a problem, but we truly believed in Nettwerk as a label and we wanted to make the deal work.”
September 2001: Halou discovers that Nettwerk has no plans to put any money into print ads to announce the bands record release. The band initially tried to negotiate marketing support into its contract, explains Count, but Nettwerk wouldn’t agree to anything in writing. Count even went as far as writing up his own marketing plan to offer ideas to the label, but they only committed to the ideas verbally. Again, Count knows this should have been a sign of things to come. Frustrated, Halou invests $3000 of its own money to run a series of print adverts.
October 2001: Halou books and organizes its record release and opening-tour party performance in Seattle without any support whatsoever from Nettwerk. The event was sponsored by radio KEXP, and broadcast live on the air. Local record stores sold-out product long before the day of the event, and according to Count, Nettwerk never followed up by re-supplying product into these stores. The label didn’t even mail out CDs to college stations in the towns in which the band had scheduled its small tour; even when these city’s radio stations were already playing Halou’s previously released material. The label also turned down retail outlets such as Easy Street Records in Seattle who requested Halou for in-store signings. When confronting the label on this matter, Halou recalls that the label simply responded with “It’s not good timing.” Not good timing, says Count, “Our CD release performance was right down the street.”
December 2001: After returning home from their self-funded, self-promoted van tour, which was extremely well attended due to our own efforts, Halou takes a meeting at its label to discuss where they felt things went wrong. Nettwerk apparently apologized for not supporting the band and agreed to fix the problems at hand. They wouldn’t commit to anything in writing, but Halou somehow had a renewed hope. The band, after all, truly believed in Nettwerk’s ability to nurture new talent. “But maybe we believed in Nettwerk too much,” adds Count.
Oct 2002: After playing the San Francisco club circuit and attempting to do everything in their power to build a strong buzz on it’s own, Halou finally got its big break to open before Soft Cell; a tour with an estimated audience attendance of 2,500 people each night. But to the band’s surprise, Nettwerk failed to get behind the band and offer tour support. This crushed Halou. Disappointed, but contractually bound to deliver a second record to Nettwerk, Count took his band back into his studio to finish up some previously recorded material and produce new tracks for the band’s sophomore release. Maybe things would be different the second time around?
March 2003: After delivering what Halou believed was its best work to date, Nettwerk admits that Halou’s music was not the direction they wanted to go. The label drops Halou from its deal.
Final thoughts: Halou understands that Nettwerk wasn’t out to personally hurt the band, but wishes they’d been more honest from the start about it’s desire to get behind the band. “We totally believe in Nettwork’s ability to break bands,” says Count, “We just wish Halou was one of them.”
The Record Label Responds
A Nettwerk representative in Canada, who wished to remain anonymous, provided the following short statement about its relationship with Halou.
“We are an independent label and artists need to remember what that means. We don’t have thousands of dollars in promotion money for radio and print ads like the major labels do. Nettwerk is a grass roots label who relies greatly on word-of-mouth promotion on the streets. This requires a slow long-term approach to breaking a band.
When Halou traveled through Canada to play a show at the Railway in Vancouver, we had all of our contacts there, we took out ads in local weeklies, and the room was packed. Nettwerk was very passionate about Halou and felt that we did the very best we could for the band. There’s only so much we can accomplish ourselves—we can’t be everywhere at once. Most of the band’s performances were in the United States anyway, outside of the territory of Canada. But from what I understand, our US office did a wonderful job with Halou. The band’s CD sold really well there.”
[NOTE: Nettwerk’s US office in Los Angeles declined to comment on Halou. I politely referred back to Nettwerk Canada where, as they put it, the band signed its deal.]
How To Avoid These Problems From Happening To You
Attorney Shawna R. Hilleary of Artist Law Group says there are many reasons why a band may not break on a label, whether independent or major,, the primary reason being that it is extremely difficult to succeed as a professional musician.
A record label is a business and if they want to sign you, it is because they believe in your commercial potential. However, because label executives can be fickle, the best way to ensure that you will get the support you require is to have the label put their money where their mouth is by guaranteeing marketing and promotion funds. Unfortunately, this is not always an option as Halou experienced.
There is no surefire method to avoid Halou’s scenario (even successful artists often end up lost in the shuffle), but here are a few points you may want to consider before signing a record deal.
First, your label is your home; you should feel comfortable, welcome and appreciated. If you believe you are being ignored or you are unable to communicate with key executives, that may be a good sign that this may not be the right label for you.
Second, request a marketing plan from the label. It is important to understand how the label intends to advance your career. Although, plans are bound to change, even an independent label should have a good idea of how they intend to market and promote a band prior to signing.
Third, do you need the label yet? The best way to gain leverage with a record label is to not need them. If you are selling CD’s and merchandise and touring on your own, it may not make sense to take a deal that does not guarantee marketing and promotion funds. Considering that most bands can make more money selling 10,000 CDs out of the trunk of their car than by selling 50,000 CDs on a label, the label should be the vehicle that takes
the band to the next level.
In retrospect it is easy to say that Halou should have known that this was not the right label for them; however, when you are in the midst of being courted by a label, it is really difficult to walk away, especially if there is nothing else on the table. Sometimes you just have to take a chance.
Ultimately, this is a great lesson to any band that believes that the hardest part of becoming successful is getting signed. The real work actually begins once you are signed
Bobby Borg is the author of The Musician’s Handbook : A Practical Guide To Understanding The Music Business,” which is available Now by Billboard Books at Amazon.com or in a store near you.
For more information: http://www.bobbyborg.com , firstname.lastname@example.org
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