I'm always excited when I hear about a homegrown band being pursued by the bigs. But I'm also a little bit leery; I can't help but think about the cover of the June 1994 issue of Maximumrocknroll: "Major Labels: Some of your friends are already this fucked." That headline, if not jarring enough by itself, was accompanied by a close-up of a man with his mouth wrapped around the barrel of a 9mm handgun.
I was a naive twenty-something when that issue hit the stands, and I didn't really understand how the music industry worked. But the words and image on that cover so compelled me that I forked over two bucks, took it home and read it cover to cover.
One article grabbed me. It was a reprint of a piece penned by legendary underground producer Steve Albini, which had run a year prior in a Chicago zine called The Baffler. The story, titled "The Problem with Music," debunked all the myths of signing with a major label. In it, Albini equated being courted by a major label to a race: Swimming in a trench filled with runny, decaying shit, only to be told by the "industry lackey" holding the contract on the other side that you "need more development, swim it again, please. Backstroke."
At the time, I thought the piece was merely the conjecture of an underground purist/elitist. After all, Albini was a punk icon: He was supposed to hate major labels. But when several of my friends started getting courted by the big leaguers, I saw firsthand the trench and the swim Albini had been referring to.
In a nutshell, it works like this: After much time, effort and luck, Band X finally attracts the attention of an A&R rep who's looking for the next big thing. Somehow the bandmembers have managed to get their work into the "right" hands -- unaware that said industry minion literally has hundreds of discs on his desk from other acts that look and sound more or less like Band X. If Band X is fortunate enough to command the rep's attention, its disc might get listened to. And then, maybe, just maybe, Band X will have the "right" three songs, the right look, and -- this is very important -- be the right age to spark some interest.
See how narrow the odds become? It's a painfully arduous process that can take a year or more; not to mention that major-label reps are notorious for dangling the carrot and then yanking it away, for no apparent reason.
Albini also detailed the expenditures by the average major-label newbie who had received a $250,000 advance -- generous even by today's standards. The facts and figures are dated now, but the principle still holds: Albini alleged that after all was said and done, each bandmember would make only one-third of what he or she would have made working at a 7-Eleven. In essence, the label functions as a mortgage broker, lending the act money based on potential. However, any funds the band receives it must pay back. It's also subject to the label's demands. The album must be promoted in a certain way (i.e., videos, radio festivals); the label chooses the studio and the producer to be used, and now the band requires the services of a manager and lawyer. All of this has to be paid for by someone -- guess who?
If signing to a major label is so terrible, why is everyone stepping all over each other trying to make it happen? Are they crazy, sadistic or just plain stupid? Three words: Marketing, distribution and radio. A major simply has more marketing and distribution muscle than a small indie could ever offer. And with radio -- now that a certain San Antonio-based media mogul has a stranglehold on the airwaves -- it almost takes an act of Congress to get a new artist added to rotation, and the bigs already have program directors across the country on speed-dial.
That's why I'm hoping that Love .45 proves me and Albini both wrong and not only gets added, but goes to number one with a bullet. The quartet -- Trinidad, lead vocalist/rhythm guitarist Micki Shivers, lead vocalist/bassist Danny Elster and drummer Jim Messina -- recently recorded a new demo with Geoff Ott (Nickelback) at Seattle's London Bridge Studio and is in the midst of a major buzz. The four-song EP was financed by Chris Henderson (3 Doors Down) and mastered by Erick Labson at Universal Records. Trinidad says the disc contains four of the act's best songs -- handpicked by Henderson -- and is its best offering to date.
While Universal is interested, Trinidad says the act will also be shopping the demo around to other labels that have expressed interest.
In the meantime, they'll be working toward the ultimate goal of returning to London Bridge this fall. The act will finance the next trip the way they always have -- by playing live and occasionally scoring a high-paying, covers-heavy gig. While Trinidad says Love .45 has no problem moonlighting as a cover act playing some Kiss songs here and there, it has caught some flack from other acts in town for it.
"We take a big-money gig, and we suck it up; we play a few covers and throw them in there. If some of the other bands saw our paychecks after some of these gigs, I think they'd be doing the same thing," he says. "You get tired of walking out of some of these original gigs with barely enough money to go buy Taco Bell, if you're lucky. How does anybody expect to run their business if they don't have that money coming in? If we can make the money doing what we love anyway...."
I point out Albini's assertion -- that Trinidad could theoretically wind up making less money as a major-label artist than as a 7-Eleven employee. He doesn't blink.
"I've heard all the horror stories, and that doesn't change what we want to do," he says. "That's the risk you take. It's not set up to benefit the artist, as it stands now. Hopefully that will change."
When I spoke with Trinidad, I felt compelled to warn him, to tell him the stories of countless friends who've been there, done that. I wanted to say, "Paul, Albini was right."
But I didn't say a word. I'm pretty sure that if I had said anything, it would have just come off sounding like conjecture from a purist from the underground. And besides, who am I to step on somebody's dream. I never let anyone step on mine.
Some babies never learn.