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.
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My distrust of the old guard notwithstanding, I'm still stoked for Meese, a good group made up of really good dudes. And if Atlantic manages to keep a team together to support them, the label could just have a Fray-like blockbuster on its hands. Meese is clearly capable of writing the same type of catchy, accessible pop songs that earned its comrades multi-platinum status.
Regardless of how it ends up, Meese's frontman is just relieved that the deal is done so that he can get back to business. "It honestly feels really good," he concludes. "I've been telling myself not to get excited. I assumed this pessimistic role to protect my feelings. But honestly, this is what we were aiming for the past three years. So to finally have it done, especially after five months of negotiations, it feels really good. And we're still on cloud nine."
Upbeats and beatdowns: Meese isn't the only Denver act turning heads these days. Fresh off a string of dates in New York for CMJ, Born in the Flood has been picked up by Madison House and joined with the Agency Group, which also books Drop Dead, Gorgeous and Fear Before the March of Flames, in addition to Nickelback, 3 Doors Down and the White Stripes. Also in Gotham for CMJ was Flobots (uh, number 24 on that magazine's hip-hop chart, if you need 'em). The band, profiled here two months ago, has generated a massive buzz thanks to its recent sellout at the Gothic for the release of the killer Fight With Tools. And a bunch of major-label suits are apparently working themselves into a lather in hopes of signing 3Oh!3, which reportedly just finished a fresh batch of demos: Nathaniel Motte and Sean Foreman must really have this shit on lock. Finally, Savage Henry just announced plans to record its next disc with Ross Hogarth, an engineer/producer known for his work on Slow Down, Keb' Mo's Grammy-winning disc, and with Gov't Mule and Ziggy Marley.