By Jaime Lees
By Roy Kasten
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Long, long ago, in a music business far, far away, the companies that manufactured and distributed recordings — popularly referred to as "record companies" by their devoted customer base — used to, well, mean something.
This is not to say they stood for something — at least, not anything more complicated than making money — but for a long time, a music fan could get a pretty good feel for an album's contents just by looking at the logo on the back cover. Columbia's "Walking Eye" stood for class and quality, Atlantic's big A promised bold rock and soul, and Warner Bros. and Reprise gave us a motley crew of creative iconoclasts who sometimes sold as many albums as they deserved (Jimi Hendrix) but more often didn't (Randy Newman). Whether real or perceived, each label had its own culture — sometimes they were cool (Blue Note), and sometimes they were not (MCA). But they were all different. During an era when most teenagers dreamed of bathing in the money, fame and adoration of rock stardom, the labels offered an assortment of spigots. All you had to do was pick your favorite and figure out how to turn it on.
And then came the mergers and acquisitions and the slow dying off of old-fashioned record men, and by the mid-'90s, executives were shuffled around as quickly and interchangeably as logos were re- or deactivated. This stripping away of label culture was careless, but it didn't matter much as long as the labels held a monopoly on mainstream music's delivery system. And then, of course, you know what happened next — the kids with their Napsters and their MP3s and their iPods came and stole the spigots, flooded the boardrooms and left a pack of wet and angry label execs in their wake. Now the industry is broken, record companies are going broke, artists can't get paid, downloading is the Devil, hallelujah and amen. As Jace Clayton put it in his 2008 essay for the n+1 print journal, "You need to believe in music or money, not both."
This statement carries a whiff of truth, and it might be true for whatever's left of Columbia, Atlantic and their peers. But as a growing number of indie labels are discovering, you can still believe in music and money — just maybe not as much of the latter entity, and you have to be smarter about finding it. Labels such as St. Louis' own Red Pill Entertainment, for example.
Fully cognizant of what cofounder Jacob Detering refers to as "this very bleak environment" in the modern music business, Red Pill has set about changing not only the traditional label business model but also the way artists think about their own careers. Those old dreams of money, fame and adoration worked out for a lot of artists, but they usually came with unacceptable costs. What Detering and business partner Lauren Markow focus on is, in Detering's words, "developing, assessing and iterating processes necessary to survive together with artists." Or, as he puts it more plainly: "In talking with artists, I find the need to often redirect the relationship and refocus on the notion that it's not about what we are going to do 'for them' but rather what we are going to do together."
Both Detering and Markow are St. Louis residents, friends and long-time rock & roll veterans — Detering as a songwriter, performer and producer, and Markow as the battle-scarred survivor of a number of ill-fated ventures. (As she jokes now, "I lost enough money in the music business to make the IRS more than curious as to why I was continuing.")
"In that Lauren and I both owned a lot of gear and were both uniquely positioned to 'help' artists without taking on massive liability, we felt combining gear and efforts would allow us to touch more people," says Detering, before adding, "Likewise, Lauren and I have very complementary skill sets. She tends to be very big picture-minded, while I tend to be more process and operationally focused."
Introduced by mutual friend and then-St. Louis-based producer J. Christopher Hughes, Detering and Markow realized they had enough equipment to fill a professional studio, and enough optimism to try again. In 2007 they decided to reorganize Red Pill — which Detering founded in 2002, signing local rapper Osiris Stargod — as a partnership. In the three years since, it's grown to encompass an artist roster that includes singer/songwriters such as New Hampshire's Amy Petty and St. Louis residents Caleb Travers, R. Scott Bryan and Javier Mendoza.
Partnership is a recurring theme at Red Pill, not only between the label's owners but also between the label and the artists — especially as Red Pill moves away from traditional recording contracts and embraces a hybrid model that goes beyond just fronting the money to release albums. Describing their roster moving forward, Markow says, "A small number will be exclusive artists, while others will partner with us in non-exclusive arrangements focused on either distribution alone or a distribution plus jointly financed studio project." It might mean less money upfront for the artist, but it also means a greater share of profits — all part of what she refers to as "the spirit of sustainability."
In that same spirit, Red Pill is active on Facebook and Twitter. The label views the networks as avenues for the artists to reach and interact with fans directly, as well as a way of fostering community among other forward-thinking outfits such as the Web-based musicians' resource network Artists House Music. Instead of simply broadcasting links and expecting fans and followers to do the rest, Markow, Detering and the Red Pill artists foster two-way communication with their networks — interacting, responding and building one-to-one relationships. This focused, organic approach might reach fewer people in the short run, but it creates a more immediate emotional connection with those ever-elusive fans. Thanks to a million rock biopics and Behind the Music episodes, we've been conditioned to believe that labels exist to rob artists and cheat consumers, so all of Detering and Markow's good intentions might just seem like more pavement on the proverbial road to Hell. For their artists, however, Red Pill has proven a refreshing change of pace. Javier Mendoza took advantage of these expanded possibilities with a pair of 2009 releases for the label: the English-language You and a companion album, Tú, which offered Spanish translations of the songs. Saying he "jumped at the chance" to work with the label and calling it "a very positive experience," Mendoza says, "What I enjoyed about recording with them was that we could work on a handshake, and there was good faith in both parts. I also feel they truly believe in the music of the artists they represent."
Amy Petty echoes the sentiments of a lot of current artists when she says, "I would never have imagined that I would want to be signed to a record label" — but she quickly follows that by adding, "the term 'record label' as it's become known doesn't really apply to Red Pill. They're good people, funny, creative, adventurous and supportive. I couldn't have handpicked a more complementary team." The New Hampshire-based Petty's signing to Red Pill underscores the label's use of the Web — Markow introduced herself to Petty on MySpace — as well as their willingness to embrace an unproven talent who, at the time, had barely begun recording demos. This faith was rewarded with her label debut, 2008's Mystery Keeps You, which found enough success to justify the follow-up Petty's currently recording between bouts of touring.
"We have never been interested in being a traditional label," Markow says. "Never. What we have been interested in is helping each artist make progress in their career by creating a great recording and then working with that artist to strengthen their business skills in order to increase their career viability and hopefully grow marketing opportunities."
Adds Detering: "We have a studio [Red Pill Studios, the south St. Louis recording house affectionately referred to as 'the Pillbox'], so we make records in a fiscally responsible manner. Our standard contracts are simple and attempt to establish controlled risk and partnership with artists. And too, we expect our artists to connect with their fans in authentic ways."
It obviously isn't an approach that suits every artist — but then, it isn't meant to. Red Pill — and, perhaps, most other labels that will succeed in the new music business — is built for small sustainability, a model that blends love of music with the cold, hard truth that each artist is a brand and needs to work to position itself as such. It is also, in Markow's words, "a family tree with roots and wings."
As it turns out, maybe music and money aren't as mutually exclusive as some of us thought. Maybe you can believe in both. Maybe the key is in believing.