IN THIS ISSUE, 11 MOTIVATED PERFORMERS TALKED about their careers, and many of them discussed the importance of maintaining creative control over their work. Separately, about the same number of producers describe techniques designed to turn out the best possible recording, music the musicians might not have conceived on their own. Somewhere, the creative control lines blur.
Artists aspire to Jack White’s success with his Third Man Records, but let’s get serious. First, few artists have White’s talent, intelligence, contacts and energy, and even White first signed with Richard Branson’s V2 Records, which launched the White Stripes. Second, White, now 35, started his label after dubious success in furniture with his Third Man Upholstery business. Today, Third Man is not UMG, or even Eagle Rock. Only in 2009 did Third Man establish a physical location, and White’s worked very hard at this for almost 20 years.
Young artists often see outsiders as stifling their creative process, but like talking a friend through a difficult situation or taking his car keys, a concerned but unemotional perspective can be a lifesaver. Here at Elmore, we see creative control run wild every day, from cheesy cover art to self-indulgent guitar solos and watery rip-offs of Willie Dixon. In our own field, Elmore staffers spend days calmly deleting creatively misplaced modifiers, inventive punctuation and heartfelt phrases like “burned into my soul.” Correcting creativity ain’t always bad. Seasoned professionals like Johnny Cash and the Rolling Stones entrust producers with their work—usually to good effect—because they know it works. They also sign record deals with The Dreaded Majors.
Ah, The Majors. We’ve all heard horror stories about labels which sink artists’ careers (Columbia and Moby Grape) and Cinderella stories (Bob Dylan, known as “Hammond’s Folly,” also at Columbia), and many so-so stories in between. Surely Motown, Stax, Atlantic and other star-making labels had a firm hand on their artists’ creativity; you’d better believe that Clive Davis and Quincy Jones never used the phrase “Whatever” in their lives, yet their artists prospered, and then some.
Like our healthcare system, record labels are fl awed but not worthless. Established labels created many of their own problems, but to categorically bypass them is folly. The industry—including artists—needs to look at labels from the ground up. One- or two-artist labels succeed only in reinventing the wheel, and sacrifice economies of scale. Labels know marketing, promotion, distribution and tour support. They can keep artists’ rents paid and hire a producer to add value to the project and, with the artist, make the best possible record.
New labels crop up every day—Ellen DeGeneres just started one for a 12-year old. The Rolling Stones, the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, among others, started labels in their heyday, turning to Atlantic and EMI for distribution, yet today the labels languish and the Stones record for UMG. Listen and learn: if you write brilliant songs, why spend your time working out distribution deals? Better to pick the best label for your project…and watch them like a hawk.