Everything you've wanted to know about major labels

I just finished reading the Maximum Rock 'n Roll (MRR) reprint Everything You've Wanted to Know about Major Labels. It is something anyone remotely interested in the music industry should read.

Scam indies (indies actually backed by majors). New concept. But since I buy from majors all the time, it doesn't bother me. Since I also "steal" from majors, I'm pretty apathetic towards that. My problem is that I have no respect for money. Steve Albini's article is one of the best (makes me want to go check out Shellac, even though I've heard bad things about their music) in terms of actually getting the details of where the money goes when you make an album with a major and a must read since most people are money conscientious. But it's useful only if you are are that way. If I got signed to a major label tomorrow and I got no money out of it, I would be happy that my CD got to people all over the world and I wouldn't care that the label made $3 million out of it (which is what the example he gave does) and I made nothing because I do not care about the money (ergo, all the music (and everything else) I create is freely distributable). And once you take away the issue of money, half the effect of this reprint dies. Because while you can argue about creative freedom being taken away by major labels, the bottom line seems to be that it is the money sucking that bothers all the "punks". But if you're indifferent towards money, it's all moot who has it and who gets more and who gets little. Take money out of the picture and analyse this again.

But ignore what I just wrote (I had to make this point). It is true that once you take money out of this picture it falls half apart (i.e., there's no reason to dislike major labels) but what about the other half? The articles in this MRR reprint show that you don't need to think about money to dislike major labels. The money has an effect in the end, and that is in order to get the most money, people make you stand on your head. After reading this it is very tempting to say "screw major labels", but I have a few problems with all this: (i) How come I've heard stories of bands (even non-famous ones) where the actual recordings were done by the bands and the labels just distributed them? Are the bands lying or is the column writer ranting? (ii) Why can't you get a contract that is a few lines long that you can understand or just refuse to sign a long unintelligible one (in fact, one of the reasons I'd never sign a contract with anyone is because I dislike the legal profession)? (iii) Why can't you use the major label purely to distribute? That is, you do the recording yourself and give the completed CD to a major label (these days you have national distributors and I am not sure if there is a connection between them and major labels) and tell them the price you want the CD to sell? (iv) And regarding corporations themselves, why can't do you do something like what Nader does? I think the issue would've had a greater impact (on me at least) if it had focused more on the creative freedom being taken away than the money aspect. I can narrate several examples of bands I am familiar with who were forced to change their style to sound like a more popular band, but it comes from signing a ridiculously binding contract.

Another great article is by this guy who wrote a column called Life with Larry. He sums it up best: "If you can't sing or play an instrument, start a label, or a zine, or figure out another way of insuring that the music you believe in reaches the ears of those it was intended to reach. If you're just going to sit there whining about how so-and-so sold out, pretty soon nobody is going to be listening." And if this is the same guy who owns Lookout Records and became rich off of Green Day, I can see why he'd say this. It's all about money. Sad. But if he's not, I apologise.

But Ben Weasel of Screeching Weasel has a similar opinion: "First of all, I'd like to extend a kick in the pants to anyone who is actually stupid enough to believe that major labels moving in and buying up punk rock is a big deal. That is not a big deal at all. Major labels exist to make money." They do, and my philosophy is to figure out ways to exploit them and not to blindly whine about them.

A few points regarding the details in the article:

According to Albini, A&R people are universally young (just contrasting this to the image Chanel gave of me of fat people not caring about music) and include people like Lyle Preslar (who was in Minor Threat) and other semi-famous people.

The analysis on Cobain's death is dumb---haven't you guys had friends who were heroin addicts? I know two people who've died from suicide after indulging in heroin! It fries your brain enough to make you stupid.

The column by Michael Terney is even dumber (ah, I'll save tearing it apart, it's too easy). He should study the physics of sound a bit more. I have heard quite a few people who record purely digitally and get the analog warmth. Most people cannot and so the complaint is valid, that there's no "colouring" of the sound in the digital medium by most artists, but some people CAN. Support DATs! Support 20-bit sampling!

My ideal, stupid as you might think it is, is to see music be Free. I think music shouldn't be done for the sake of money and I believe that if you make music you will always make money and still have the music be free (i.e., by selling media that your music is on). It is money that is driving the cycle of greed that we see painted in dark strokes in this issue of MRR. Don't dream of being rich or supporting yourself with your music. The more you depend on music for your income, the more you're going to prostitute your creativity away. Stallman goes into detail about how programmers can make money while still programming for free in the GNU manifesto, and I think musicians can do that.

"And that's all I have to say about that." ---F. Gump

You can order the MRR reprint Everything You've Wanted to Know about Major Labels (I recommend it highly) in the US by sending $1 to MRR PO Box 460760 San Francisco, CA 94146. Since I wrote this, I've rigourified my ideas on free music and I've put them forth in the Free Music Philosophy and other related articles. Check it out and let me know what you think!

Music ramblings || Ram Samudrala || me@ram.org