Pop Acts Forge Path Without Major Labels

By | May 24, 2004 at 12:00 AM

When a pop artist leaves the shelter of a major-label nest, the stark reality of being on one’s own can be a sobering experience.

But learning to fly solo can also bring tremendous rewards.

Although many rock artists have self-released their music after leaving the major-label fold, most pop artists are so dependent on radio play that they have often sought the deep pockets of another major or a large indie label to foot the bill.

But several acts – including Evan & Jaron, Sophie B. Hawkins and Alana Davisare forging their own path.

Former Columbia duo Evan & Jaron released “Half Dozen” April 13 on its label Twelve Between Us, while fellow Columbia vet Hawkins put out “Wilderness” a week later on her Trumpet Swan imprint. Ex-Elektra artist Davis is wrapping up her new album and hopes to release it early next year.

These artists all say they had the opportunity to sign with other labels, either major or indie, but decided against it.

“I had the option to go with different independent labels,” Hawkins says. “That made me feel secure for about 10 hours, but then I felt if you weren’t performing to their expectations within certain time limits, they would stop you.”

Davis decided to start Tigress Records so she could control her destiny.

“I used to throw ideas at, and they would smile at me and say, ‘You do the music, and we’ll do the marketing.’ They were following their own visions, but I have enough faith in my vision now to do it myself.”

Jaron Lowenstein of Evan & Jaron stresses that the decision to self-release is not a rebuke of the major-label system.

“A lot of people think we’re angry at the labels, but let me just tell you this: We have the awareness and the brand, and the only reason we have that is because of Columbia. They did a tremendous job of getting us out there.”


These acts paid to record and market their records themselves, often making substantial sacrifices to do so.

“‘Wilderness’ is all my life’s savings,” Hawkins says. “The cover of the album is the piece of land in Kauai that was my retirement land that I sold to fund this record. I was giving up terra firma for something more ephemeral.”

Hawkins says she spent $150,000 making the record and will spend another $150,000 promoting and marketing it. She estimates she has to sell 80,000 copies to break even.

Davis has spent $60,000 so far, but she is prepared to spend up to $100,000 to record her album.

Evan & Jaron made a second album for Columbia, which the label handed back on a contract stipulation.

“They gave us this $600,000 record back,” Lowenstein says. He estimates that the brothers already have invested another $100,000 of their own money in getting the record out.

“Even if we only sell 50,000 copies, it’s better than selling a million, because we don’t owe anyone anything.”

These expectations are far below what these acts have shown they are capable of selling.

Hawkins’ best-selling album is 1992’s “Tongues & Tails,” which sold 720,000 copies. Evan & Jaron’s self-titled 2001 Columbia release sold 240,000 copies, the same number as Davis’ “Blame It on Me,” which came out in 1998. All numbers are according to Nielsen SoundScan and are for the United States only.

During its first month, “Half Dozen” sold 5,000 copies. “Wilderness” has moved 3,000 copies in three weeks.

Leading the self-release pop parade is Hanson, which declined to be interviewed for this story. The three brothers’ “Underneath,” on its own 3CG label, has sold 60,000 copies since its April release.

While there are plenty of costs the acts must absorb, they have found that fans are often more than willing to help. “One fan printed up all my flats and posters for me for nothing,” Hawkins says. “That should have been $30,000. I can’t repay her.”

Fans help run Web sites for Evan & Jaron and Davis. And all acts utilize street teams – some with members numbering in the thousands – and e-mail blasts.

“At shows, I asked for e-mails and for them to put a star by their name if they would help when the new record comes out. About 70% said they’ll do anything they can,” Davis says, adding that Elektra gave her a database of more than 14,000 names.


Even as these artists explore every alternative avenue of exposure, including endorsements, sponsorships and placement in ads, radio remains the primary driver.

“My bread and butter is radio,” Hawkins says. “I’m putting almost all my marketing money into radio through indie promoters.”

Hawkins started pushing “Wilderness” at triple-A and moved over to Adult Contemporary April 19 with “Walking on Thin Ice.” She says if a station will have her, she’s there. “This is the only tour I’m not coming in the black, because I’m doing all these free shows.”

For the week ending May 12, Hawkins’ “Walking on Thin Ice” received play on approximately 35 stations, although much of the airplay was in overnights, according to Nielsen Broadcast Data Systems.

Through May 12, more than 22 radio stations were playing Evan & Jaron’s “What She Likes.” Many of the stations were spinning the song during the day.

Evan & Jaron have not officially hired indies to work the record, although a few friends have made some calls.

“It’s incredibly difficult to get airplay,” Lowenstein says. “I’m trying to compete against a staff of 30 and their independents. I don’t have the money to grease the stations, and we can’t fly ourselves in and out of every city to take care of people.”

But sometimes a good song is enough.

Tim Moore, PD at WJBQ Portland, Maine, admits that it is “very hard in general” for a self-released artist to get airplay. But he says Evan & Jaron’s song fits a niche for the station.

“These guys had played a show for us in the past, and when the release landed on our doorstep, we said, ‘Let’s at least listen to it.”‘

Ultimately, the station decided that “if this were on a major label, it could be a smash; it shouldn’t be off the air just because it’s not getting the national. The phones light up when we play it.”

That name value can also help with TV bookings.

Evan & Jaron have appeared on “On-Air With Ryan Seacrest,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and “The Late, Late Show With Craig Kilborn.”

Hawkins will be on “The Dennis Miller Show” May 27 and CBS’ “The Early Show” May 29.

While these acts admit that taking care of business can be a chore, they say the control they now have ultimately makes it worthwhile.

“What scares the most is that I might have enough rope to hang myself,” Davis says. “But I’m so excited to be the one at the helm. Maybe I’ll drive myself into the ditch, but at least I’ll be the one at the wheel.”

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