In a world where the Internet lets you watch unlimited cat videos, deliver your food shopping and bid for imaginary friends on eBay – maintaining a band does not seem that far fetched.
Rock and Roll isn’t dead and local music scenes are bustling. Anyone who can play an A chord has already been in bands, split, and then reformed again. So what if record label bosses won’t snap up your Nickelback tribute act? Your music take-over of the galaxy starts in your bedroom instead.
Record labels have always been under scrutiny and carried an air of government about them, so naturally they’ve never been trusted. Simon Cowell is the smug face of the corporate music industry; the Colonel Sanders of a machine in self-destruct. But the ‘indie labels vs. major record companies’ argument has since become extinct as much as ‘video vs. cassette’ seems a century ago. Times are drastically changing and priorities are shifting.
The Internet is the modern record label.
“With the Internet and home recording, power is definitely more in the band’s hands now” says Niall Coffey of Adults, The Elderly And Children; an unsigned band who inherit their name from the back of a paracetamol packet. “We do everything ourselves” he boasts “The first EP was a school project in our last year at University and the second was just done at home. The whole thing only cost us like £60”. And you could not tell the difference. Really. If you asked someone which out of the two sounded more professionally done, out of their new EP and say Blur’s discography, they’d be swinging between them like a transsexual deciding which toilet to use at the National Water Drinking Championships. “If you just take a little time to educate yourself you can cut out all the middle men” he declares with an air of newfound authority. The philosophy seems to be that if you want something done properly, do it yourself. “There’s so many shit promoters out there that put out mishmash bills and then charge £20” quips frontman Nick Ellis. His solution? Fuck that – They’ll do it their way. “Find places where you get the room for free, get friends to do the sound, ask bands you want to play to do it free, and you know they will because it’s cool”.
In a generation where bands make their own chances it seems getting signed isn’t the make or break of a band. So what do they offer? Independent record labels account for 28.4% of world sales (a figure found in 2005), which is impressive baring in mind their relative finance when it comes to making, releasing or promoting a record.
Kevin Douch founded Big Scary Monsters in 2002 whilst still at sixth form. Ten years later he has seen the small label release over 130 records and explode to the forefront of Britain’s innovative music scene.
I crashed Kevin’s Xmas Party at the quaint Star Of Kings pub in London to talk about the future of small record labels (and at the same time listen to the inter-set DJ pump out such hits as the Eastenders theme tune and Postman Pat). “It used to be that we could offer distribution and marketing opportunities which bands couldn’t find themselves, but that’s no longer true” he says.
This revelation is almost single-handedly down to Bandcamp; an online music distribution service which caters for the unsigned. The site, whose influence has snowballed since 2010, has made almost $13 million for it’s users and over $1 million in the past 30 days alone. Bandcamp is an industry anomaly due to it’s site albums outselling it’s tracks 5 to 1. In reality, tracks outsell albums 16 to 1.
The slick website also works wonders for Kevin and Big Scary Monsters. “The good thing with doing it via Bandcamp is that it makes people feel like they’re giving it to the band or label as opposed to a massive corporation. It’s the same thing as buying a CD directly via us or an independent shop rather than at HMV. These days I’d say that what indie labels bring to the table is a certain amount of credibility, first and foremost. There are a LOT of bands out there these days so labels almost act as filters, stamping bands with their seal of approval”.
So if bands can record themselves with readily available professional software, sell their records internationally using Bandcamp and promote themselves on almost every social networking site known to man: Why sign to a small indie label? “It’s not about money” assures Alan Welsh of Tangled Hair, one of BSM’s biggest bands.
If Foo Fighters are the guitar gods of big riff rock, then Alan is the Dave Grohl of Kingston. But as money goes, although it is free to sign up and join, Bandcamp and Paypal take 15% of your earnings for themselves, each. The remaining 70% is then split 50/50 in the case of Big Scary Monsters (which still is rarely generous). So the band ends up with 35% of what their music actually makes. But as Alan assures, “you sign to a record label to become a part of it. All Kev wants to do is help you, even if it’s not in his best interest”. “You’re all working on the same team. If somebody like the other bands on your label, they’ll check out the rest” adds James Trood, Hotel Receptionist by day and Tangled Hair Drummer at night and weekends.
From the sound of it it seems that one of the main benefits of signing to a label is the family aspect. “You should have seen my wedding” says Alan looking particularly bemused. The frontman’s wedding bash last summer was full of people from the office as his fellow bands serenaded him on stage with guiltily good performances of Dirty Dancing, Madonna and even extending to the likes of Peter Andre.
“But we do live in exciting times for new music” he admits. “Unsigned bands are in a better position than they’ve ever been before”.
Finally someone has changed the record.