By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
Signing to a major label these days is a dubious proposition. Yesterday's kingmakers no longer have exclusive control of the dissemination of new music and appear to be completely rudderless as they attempt to navigate the digital waters. Last month, Radiohead put itself in the vanguard of the digital revolution by opting to issue its latest effort, In Rainbows, on its own rather than renewing its contract with EMI or seeking a new suitor. And even though the band's handlers later admitted this was less a subversive statement than a marketing ploy, Radiohead had altered the traditional paradigm by skipping the middle man and allowing fans to name their price for the record.
Since then, a number of high-profile artists — among them Nine Inch Nails svengali Trent Reznor, whose contract with Interscope has expired — have intimated that they may follow suit, as have a few lesser-known acts. Last week, hot on the heels of news that the Charlatans will offer their next album to fans for free, the Fader label announced that Saul Williams's new Reznor-produced disc, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!, will also be available for free download (or a $5 donation). And at the same time, Madonna, a performer who's well past her prime, chose to join forces with Live Nation rather than re-up with Warner Bros.
With record sales at an all-time low — an act can essentially make it onto Billboard's Top 200 by moving as few as 3,000 units a week — now doesn't seem a particularly good time to be aligning with a major. Still, many musicians regard such status as validation, something that they've strived for their entire careers. For Isaac Slade and company, things obviously worked out. But for every Fray, there's an Augustana, an outfit that joined the Epic roster around the same time but never really made it off the launch pad.
Patrick Meese, whose namesake band just inked a deal with Atlantic Records, is well aware of what he and his mates are facing. "I don't know, man, with Madonna and everything else that's going on in the industry right now, you can't deny that their primary income, which is CD sales, has dropped 20 percent," he allows. "I think it's just going to keep getting worse and worse. But I feel it's different for every band. And for a band like us — we don't want to sleep on the living room floor, and we don't want to do this for ten years before we can quit our day jobs. So this is definitely the best option. The money is there, and they'll give us the big push that a pop-rock band needs to really get out there and get out there quick."
"Quick" is a relative term, however. Meese and his cohorts have only been at it for three years, but the five months of dancing with Columbia and various other labels seemed like a lifetime. The group eventually chose Atlantic Records, the same hapless half-wits who completely screwed the pooch with Vaux, arguably the most brilliant band to come out of this town. (I'm still a little bitter about that.) And while I have high hopes for Meese, cynicism leaves me a little leery. Attrition at the label is partly to blame for the Vaux fiasco, and the same problem with turnover has hamstrung countless other promising acts.
"Our A&R guy ended up leaving Columbia right before we were about to sign," Meese says. "So we were kind of left high and dry. They still wanted to sign us, but they didn't have an A&R guy lined up. There had been other labels knocking. Atlantic was one of them, and it turned out that the A&R guy that left ended up going over there. We kind of lost contact with him after he left Columbia. But he told Atlantic, 'Hey, these guys are good; you should check them out.'"
Atlantic dispatched A&R personnel to catch the band at Red Rocks on the last date of the Fray tour, no doubt spurred on by the interest of other imprints and the frequent airplay the act had received on KTCL. "It definitely got everybody's attention," Meese notes. "To have our name go on the radio charts was big. So we owe a ton to them for doing that."
And Meese still hadn't heard back from Columbia. "They were still looking for an A&R guy," he recalls. "So we flew out to Atlantic and met everyone. They were really into it. They were much more aggressive and offered us a better deal, so we ended up doing it."
Meese signed on for more than one album and plans to begin recording in January or February. That debut will likely feature several songs from past releases, as well as some of the newer material, songs such as "The Start of It" and "Taking the World On." Before any of that happens, though, the band must nail down a producer. While nothing has been solidified, Meese says some names are floating around, among them Fray producer Aaron Johnson, who looks to be the frontrunner at this point. Nailing him down could be tricky, though. Right now, Johnson is gearing up to start work on How to Save a Life's followup.