Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Mastodon excavated from underground by Warner Brothers

I saw Mastodon on Monday night at The Chance in Poughkeepsie, NY, performing with Rob Zombie. Not being the biggest Zombie fan, I basically shelled out $38 bucks just to see Mastodon, who I believe lead the resurgence of commercially viable but utterly brutal niche metal with bands like Dillinger Escape Plan and Lamb of God.

I had the opportunity to speak briefly with [insanely talented] Mastodon drummer Brann Dailor about his band's recent signing to Warner Brothers. Dailor echoed the same reasonable sentiment I've heard from several bands after singing to majors: if the band has a strong fan base and has already done all they can on an independent label (Relapse) to market their music, why not take a shot at a larger audience and paycheck?

This clip from a Mastodon interview at SchwegWeb says it all:

SchwegWeb: When Mastodon recently signed to Warner Brothers [were] there any musical control issues...
Bill Kelliher (guitarist, Mastodon): "...stipulation-wise, we want to do our own thing. We pretty much said don’t fuck with our sound, our art and they were like no that’s great you guys already have a great fan base, you guys already have awesome art work, you guys do your own videos for under $20,000. They love it. It has to be that way. With Relapse it was kinda like we just recorded our record and they put it out, it was cool. We made it very clear to Warner Brothers that we are not a radio band, were not making hits were just writing the music we like for our selves. There’s a fan base and were cool with that. Were not trying to deal with the fuckin radio and all that shit. Were just making music for ourselves."

Fact is, Mastodon deserve to be rock stars because they already are. They create immaculate music with amazing packaging, production and presentation. They have rocked the right tours, made the right business decisions and connections. Later in the interview, Kelliher makes an analogy about the major label singing as an equivalent to "getting a raise" in one's music career. Mastodon have well earned their raise.

These days, major labels are concentrating more on established independent artists rather than trying to manufacture genre knock-offs. But for all the success stories, it's important to remember why major labels sign bands: to make lots of money. Not just a little money, like, say, fifty grand (which could provide one musician a great year's salary or a band a good supplemental income) but more like five hundred grand, in the first week of sale. The 95% of bands that they don't cash in on... well, you've seen the bargain bin.

The insane corporate business tactics of major labels have been well publicized in well-executed exposes by Steve Albini and Moses Avalon. It's true that the current collapse of the recording industry has humbled labels a bit. But they're still out to make millions on a relatively obsolete business model.

As bands move more towards new business strategies (interactive media, online communities, podcasting) and back to old standards (live performance, merchandising and "pass-the-hat" gratuity), the majors will be further forced into a more rigid position on the music industry food chain. Less bands will be discovered and more bands will be "promoted" from the independent music industry.

It's a complex situation that can't be done total justice in a blog entry; suffice to say Mastodon will be an interesting band to watch as they transition to the big time. Independent bands should follow Mastodon's example and pay their dues both creatively and in a business sense as well. We need to dispel of the 'rock star' myth wherein the only respectable music career in on a major label. For every band that makes the cut, there are twenty bands that have rolled in dough until the advance runs out and failed to recoup even a quarter of their expenses.

I guess what I'm getting at is that there will always be a place for major labels and rock stars. But we need to do everything we can to dismantle the old music industry so that the independent and unsigned artists can operate on an even playing field with the media conglomerates. This means supporting artists' rights organizations such as Downhill Battle to ensure that you don't have to sell 200,000 albums to have a legitimate music career.

200,000 albums sold on a major: $200,000 to the artist (actually $0 if the band fails to recoup the advance and recording/marketing budget). 20,000 albums sold by a band that recorded and promoted it themselves: $200,000 (the band needs only recoup their personal investment of time and resources.) Are you a rock star or a realist? You gotta dream big, but you also gotta sell the dream. Bands seem to turn out better when they introduce the major label to the market, not the other way around.


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