In 2003, after 20 years of toiling in the fields of intellectual property I got the idea that I had the record business figured out and that I could some help artists that I liked release, distribute and sell their music. I could sense that much of this work was practical common sense stuff but it was daunting to a lot of musicians. From my years of watching artists and record companies, I sensed that there was a tremendous amount of money being wasted. I wanted to start a record company.
I used a free plane ticket to go visit a distributor I had a good working relationship with. They agreed to work with me. Then I convinced a good friend and client to let me release his next solo record. Part of my game plan was that I only wanted to work with artists who had previously released records and had some kind of market awareness.
My friend finished his record and we got another friend to design a cover. I was shocked to discover that my first choice for a label name was already taken. I was in such a hurry that I didn’t have time to get a logo for my first release. I reserved a web site domain name. I hired a publicist, lined up manufacturing and (to paraphrase John Prine) put my hand on a rock and started a record label.
I figured that in 2003 – 2004 the concept of chasing radio was foolish so I limited my radio push to a few selected college radio stations (remember them?) and friends with internet radio shows as well as some international shows. I had a client who ran an international export business and he helped us out with some foreign sales. I gave my publicist a bio and a bunch of CDs and wished her Godspeed. My artist/friend did an in‑store at Tower Records (remember Tower?).
We generated a bunch of orders from retail outlets like Best Buy, Tower, Amoeba, the Trans-World Stores, etc.
So what happened?
Actually the first record was sort of successful despite the fact that the artist did not tour. The record itself was excellent and generated some really spectacular reviews. I was happy to latch onto many of the in‑store marketing opportunities my distributor offered. We flirted with the beginning of digital distribution.
Then I decided to release a second record. This was by a lesser-known artist who had been a member of a much-loved band. He had no solo track record but I loved his songs and he put together what I consider to be a brilliant record. I hired a photographer friend to shoot the cover, used the same album designer and publicist as the last time, got a few orders through my distributor, a glowing article in the artist’s hometown paper and then…nothing.
The world didn’t care.
Again, part of the problem was that the artist didn’t tour but I was also beginning to learn some dirty little secrets that I was not aware of previously. For example, it’s difficult to get reviews when you don’t buy ads. Also, I was witnessing the simultaneous obliteration of retail record stores and many of the print publications I had assumed were going to be around forever (remember No Depression?). I also witnessed firsthand the explosion of internet file sharing. It was one thing to witness as a fan, another to witness as a lawyer, and quite another thing to witness as a label owner.
So while my first record sold respectably, the second record sank without a trace. The real end came for me when UPS showed up at my office door with 12 big boxes of CDs; the dreaded “returns”. Most of these boxes still reside in my garage.
The label still exists in the digital realm but my fantasies of finding more artists, releasing cool records on vinyl, re‑issuing some of my favorite recordings were pretty much gone, at least for the present.
What I gained from this experience is a really healthy respect for all the independent label owners out there. Even though I thought I understood the work they do. I realize that my knowledge just scraped the surface.