Los Angeles – Before they made the jump to Atlantic Records in 2004, the members of Death Cab for Cutie thought long and hard about leaving Seattle’s Barsuk Records.
But after six years of deliberation, and the ultimate satisfaction the band took in its decision, manager Jordan Kurland grants that there has been a twinge of remorse.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that after I saw Bright Eyes debut in the top 10, I didn’t think, ‘Ah, we should have done that…’ But we’re having a great time.”
Indeed, the band Bright Eyes bolted to No. 10 on the Billboard 200 in February with “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning,” released on Omaha, Neb.-based indie Saddle Creek. It was the latest shot an indie-label act fired across the bow into territory that was previously the domain of the majors: In the past year, Matador’s Interpol debuted at No. 15, Shadows Fall on Century Media nabbed No. 20, and Victory Records’ Taking Back Sunday opened at No. 3.
Despite such success stories, there has been great migration from indies to majors in the last several months, including Le Tigre (from Mr. Lady to Strummer/Universal), Hot Hot Heat (SubPop to Sire/Warner Bros.), the Walkmen (StarTime International to Record Collection/Warner Bros.), Yeah Yeah Yeahs (Touch & Go to Interscope) and Rilo Kiley (Saddle Creek to Brute/Beaute/Warner Bros.).
And the majors are circling a number of hot indie prospects, include the Arcade Fire, Interpol, the Postal Service, Shadows Fall and the Shins.
As managers and lawyers will attest, getting a handle on what caliber of label may offer the best home for their acts has never been more challenging – or rewarding.
Major-label consolidation and resulting cutbacks have made independents more attractive. And more releases from independently owned labels are now handled by one of the majors’ independent distribution arms, which leads to greater retail visibility.
Although it is diminishing, certain thinking remains that equates indies with artistic purity and majors with corporate machinery. As Hot Hot Heat manager Jim Guerinot says, “Independents usually are entrepreneurial and run by an individual. Once you go to a major, you’re with a logo.”
But it’s rarely that simple. And, as Bright Eyes manager Nate Krenkel says – even as his act remains resolutely in the indie camp – “It’s far more complicated than indies being righteous and majors are not.”
There isn’t any litmus test for the right time to move from an indie to a major, but there are indicators of when a jump could be warranted.
“If you’re the kind of band that has what it takes to be on the radio and be on TV, then, in general, you probably need the machine of a major label,” says Molly Neuman, who manages the Donnas and co-owns independent Lookout Records.
“I do think to sell 1.5 million records or more, you need to be on a major label,” says Kurland, although a handful of indies – primarily TVT – have proved they can take an act to platinum and beyond. (Billboard defines indie labels by the nature of their distribution.) LONG COURTSHIP Majors first started calling on Death Cab for Cutie in 1998, but the band was not interested until after Barsuk released “Transatlanticism,” its 2003 album, which has sold 283,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The band released one last EP on Barsuk on March 1, and is now cutting its first disc for Atlantic. (Barsuk will continue to issue vinyl versions of Atlantic’s releases.) “There was never a feeling of failure (with Barsuk),” Kurland says. “It was more a matter of the band wanted to see if they could reach exponentially more people with more resources and elbow grease.”
Death Cab also liked the idea of signing with one entity worldwide, instead of inking deals in individual territories.
For Yeah Yeah Yeahs, switching to a major was largely a quality-of-life issue.
Even though the members had a 50/50 split (after marketing expenses) with Touch & Go, “the band wanted a comfortable living, and it wasn’t really feasible on an indie,” especially when it came to tour support, manager Asif Ahmed says. “They want a bus. They tried a van for their first two tours, and it was like a petrie dish on wheels.”
Also, Ahmed felt the band could benefit from major-label distribution. “I told them not every store will carry a Touch & Go album,” he says. “Take into consideration that one kid in the trailer park who can only get the album at Wal-Mart.”
There are many advantages to remaining on an indie label – from a higher royalty rate to instant access to label heads and, of course, greater creative control.
When he needs answers, Bright Eyes principal Conor Oberst “can cut to the chase with Saddle Creek,” Krenkel says. Additionally, “he knows as well as anyone at Saddle Creek how the dollars break down. There’s a degree of transparency. I don’t know if a major could put him in a position where Conor would feel like he had that control.”
Plenty of major-label acts, from Social Distortion to Aimee Mann, ultimately have found the economics of an indie more beneficial because of higher royalty rates. But even more important, Mann’s attorney Laurie Soriano says, her artist needed creative control: “She just couldn’t stomach the notion of ‘give me a single”‘ while on a major.
Even if a major-label deal is the ultimate goal, there are often reasons to develop further on an indie.
Tom Sarig manages acoustic-flavored pop-punk act Against Me, which he thinks would do well in the mainstream. But so far, Sarig says the Fat Wreck Chords act has shunned mega-advances from major labels.
“Culture is consumed so fast now,” he says. “Sometimes it’s better the longer you can stay out of (the major-label system). These are good-looking young guys who write catchy songs. They just think staying indie is the right thing to do. It’s smart for bands to develop gradually. Even Green Day had a few records out before jumping to Warner Bros.”
And acts need to consider their sales goals and where they fit with a major. An album that sells 200,000 will be a home run on most indies, while it could be considered a disappointment for a major.
“Is ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’ a success on NBC or a failure? It’s probably dropped. On Bravo, it’s a big show,” Hot Heat manager Guerinot observes. “Is your ethos that you’re comfortable being a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond?”