By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
Reason Number 894 why signing with an established record company is not always a good thing: Established or not, the company sometimes does wacky things, like filing for bankruptcy and leaving its signees in a strange state of professional purgatory. That's a lesson Chris Daniels and the Kings have been reminded of recently, with the Chapter 7 "reorganization" of K-Tel Records, the Minneapolis-based company that's primarily associated with compilation recordings and bizarre late-night commercials. Last fall, Daniels and his Kingsmen signed a juicy licensing deal with the company: K-Tel had signed up to license seven of the King's past recordings, as well as its new greatest-hits collection, Choice Cuts: The Best of Chris Daniels and the Kings...So Far, and one disc beyond (see "All the Kings Men," October 5, 2000).
For an independent band, inking with a brand-name outfit like K-Tel had exciting implications: For one, the label could get the band's material into large record chains such as Musicland and Sam Goody, which don't normally stock one-off recordings from unaffiliated acts. Yet as Cuts began working its way up radio charts -- the disc's first single, "Is My Love Enough?," hit number five on the New Music Weekly chart, ahead of tracks from Stevie Nicks and matchbox twenty -- Daniels sensed that all was not well in the K-Tel world.
"I started getting calls from distributors and stores who said that people had been coming in asking about songs of ours they were hearing on the radio," Daniels says. "And then they'd go to the section where Choice Cutsshould have been, and it wasn't there. Our older stuff, our Rounder record, would be there, but not the one that was being spun around the country. I calculated it was maybe fifty to a hundred records we could have been moving a week. That's a lot of dough. And it hurts not to get it."
So in February, after tracking reports of K-Tel's failure to keep up with the demand for Choice Cuts for five months, Daniels and his manager decided to file a cease-and-desist order against K-Tel, requiring the company to relinquish the rights to the Kings material. Their timing turned out to be fortuitous: In early March, the company fired most of its staff and headed to bankruptcy court, reportedly with the intent of emerging as a very different K-Tel, one with an emphasis on producing compilation recordings for businesses and distributing DVDs. (K-Tel management could not be reached for comment.) Had the Kings not reclaimed the rights to their own music, it could have been tied up in legal rigmarole for several years.
"We are just grateful and relieved that we got our stuff back," Daniels says. "And we are still planning to go into the studio in the fall to record the album we were going to do for them. It just set us back a bit."
The sour K-Tel experience strengthened Daniels's belief that artists must continually lubricate their "industry" deals with their own elbow grease. So he and a small staff are currently working to fill orders through Daniels's Moon Voyage label (which has re-released Choice Cuts) and independent distribution companies such as Denver's USA 1 Stop. And despite the current lack of a familiar imprint on the album, Choice Cuts is continuing to do well on the radio: Its second single, "An American Tragedy," is currently at number 58 in radio-tracker FMQB's Top 200 chart.
"I feel a little bit like I'm taking my cue from Ani DiFranco," says Daniels. "She's a brilliant businesswoman who has the right idea about managing her affairs. We've had, over the years, different deals with different companies: BMG, Virgin/France, Flying Fish, Rounder. And what I've seen with every single one of those deals is that we never got accurate returns on how the record was selling. We never got good information, and we always seemed to manage to be in debt to the record company.
"This experience in particular has taught me that you really make your own success in this business," he adds. "Major record labels can do an incredible service, but only if every single thing falls into place. You've got to know that it's got to be up to you. If the label starts to drop the ball, you are there to catch it."
Choice words from one who's been there.
Jeffrey-Paul Norlander's decision to bring back the Denver Gentlemen (see "Revival of the Fittest," page 89) is not the only wise artistic choice he's made recently: Earlier this year, Norlander hooked up with Absalom Recordings, the Canadian indie, for the long-awaited release of Introducing the Denver Gentlemen, a live album recorded at the Bug Theatre in 1996. Absalom has proved itself to be a label full of good ideas, as evidenced by its current series of limited-edition CD EPs. Though the releases (available by subscription only) branch off into two camps distinguished by instrumentation, both feature wonderfully diverse rosters: The acoustic set includes music from Songs: Ohio, the Czars, the Baptist Generals, Howe Gelb, Calexico and Johnny Dowd, while the eclectic set enlists the Autumns, Soul Junk, the Roman Candles, Unwed Sailor, Simon Raymonde and Paul Mumaw. Aside from quality, the most pleasing common denominator is the presentation: Each EP is packaged in hand-stamped cardboard and is teeny-tiny, measuring only three inches across. They're so...cute -- just the thing for the rare-CD collector (or miniature fetishist) in your life. Check out absalomrecordings.com.