[Editor’s Note: Next week, we’re going to be covering Rethink Music up in Boston. To get you in the mood, we thought we’d reach out to a couple panel moderators and get some advice/information out of them. This is the first of two pieces]
Richard Gottehrer knows the music business inside and out. Over the course of his nearly 50 year career, Gottehrer has worked as a songwriter, artist, manager, label head, and producer for some fairly incredible names: he co-wrote “My Boyfriend’s Back”; he co-founded Sire Records; he produced Blondie’s debut album. In other words, if you wanted to find somebody who understood the music business’s past, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with somebody better.
But Gottehrer also saw the future coming too. In 1997, he co-founded The Orchard, a (primarily) digital distribution and marketing company that now does business in 69 countries. The Orchard works with hundreds of small, independent labels, and so Gottehrer was the perfect choice to moderate The Next Generation Record Label, a panel scheduled to take place Wednesday morning at Rethink Music.
To Gottehrer, companies like his will be vital to the next generation of labels, which he thinks will be leaner and meaner than people might expect. He also thinks that calling them labels might be sort of a misnomer. “They’re sort of great A&R visionary systems that function together with traditional systems,” he explains. “The labels are an identity.”
Whatever they are, and no matter how small and specialized they get, artists should know there are only a handful of things they can expect from a label.
The usual major label signing fantasy usually involves some fatcat telling an impressionable young band that he’s going to help them go platinum. A good independent label will do the exact opposite, helping them understand exactly what resources are being allocated to their music, and how they are being used.
“At Sub Pop,” Gottehrer says, citing one example, “they work with their artists and say, ‘This is how much we have to spend on making the record, and this is what we’re going to do for it.’”
It might not sound especially sexy, but that measure of honesty and transparency goes a long way toward strengthening the bond between artist and label. It also helps artists get a better feel for how they can chip in and supplement their partners’ efforts.
A company that knows its limits, and sources accordingly
Recent successes by artists like Arcade Fire and the Decemberists aside, the majors still do most of the selling. “If you want to blow it out, and you want to have massive hits, you’re going from time to time [to] need the resources that the major labels offer,” Gottehrer says.
This is because the majors have (or at least used to have) marketing, promotion, tour, and art departments packed with capable people. Almost every single independent label is missing one (or several) of those capabilities, and they should be honest about that. Any small label that tells you they can handle all of that themselves is lying.
But the lack of an in-house art department is not a sign of weakness. Some of the most successful, best-known independent labels took stock of what they couldn’t do well, and went out looking for trusted partners to pick up the slack. “You look at French Kiss,” Gottehrer says, invoking the home of Les Savy Fav, Passion Pit, and the Antlers. “They’re three people.”
So how do they do it? “They rely on the Orchard’s back end, we handle 65% of their sales,” and the label sticks to A&R and the things they can do themselves.
Ultimately, getting a record deal doesn’t guarantee you anything. No matter how respected the label might be, no matter what kinds of promises are made, the music business has always been rife with uncertainty. So if you’re offered a deal, make sure you genuinely like the people offering it.
“Sometimes the only thing you’re going to get out of it,” Gottehrer cautions, “is the pleasure of doing it.”
In other words, if you get an offer from some guy you’ve never met, or from some sketchy guy who kind of creeps you out, get to know him first. Don’t just leap on the first opportunity that crosses your path. After all, it’s never been easier to start a label. There’s probably one out there that’s a good fit for you.