Lousy Label Luck 

For many bands, genuine independence works best

Last week's issue of City Paper celebrated the Best of Charleston with a theme of luck — good, bad, and weird. Sometimes it's good to be unlucky — especially in the music biz. Remember when one of the ultimate goals in a career in rock music was to get signed with a big label? It wasn't so long ago when aspiring rock stars and songwriters instinctively knew (or assumed) that once ink was put to the right papers, it would be a short matter of time before everything fell nicely into place. Unfortunately, rarely do such youthful dreams come true.

As a handful of Charleston acts can attest, getting lucky in the music biz isn't always the best thing — especially when dealing with record labels, large and small. Fortunately, many of the local artists who've veered in and out of record label dealings over the last few years surmounted the unforeseen ugliness and disillusion and actually landed on solid ground with more confidence, wisdom, and toughness.

Ask any of the Jump, Little Children guys; they'll tell some disturbing tales about leaping into a record contract, suffering from the aggravation and red-tape runaround, and finally emerging into independence again.

Local songwriter Joel Hamilton's long-running band The Working Title signed with Universal/Motown in 2005 and released a well-polished, expensively-produced album titled About Face. They were dropped from the label soon after. Hamilton's latest Working Title and solo projects have been totally independent and low-budget — and they're as artistically expressive and successful as anything he did while signed.

Another local survivor is Slow Runner, led by singer/songwriter Michael Flynn and multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaler. They signed a deal with J Records in 2005, but things petered out just as they were ready to release the new album. In recent years, they independently released two EPs and successfully marched ahead on their own.

The idea of scoring a record deal with a major or an independent record label doesn't seem to be top priority for most up-and-coming bands these days — and that's a good thing. Over the last 10 years, several major labels stumbled into disarray and the music business model went upside-down.

Luckily, the 2010s look a shade more stable. There's greater opportunity for genuine independence. Bands don't have to beg, borrow, and plead with executives and agents to get their music properly released. They can skip several middlemen, retain creative and financial control, and actually make more money directly from sales of their music — online and otherwise.

Many of the most significant album releases of 2009 have been by Charleston-based artists unaffiliated with record labels — from James Justin & Co.'s Southern Son, So Far and White Rhino's In Common Places to Josh Kaler's Auditorium and The InLaw's oddly-packaged I Am the Back Woman (the disc comes tucked inside a greeting card). Such local diverse indie acts as Lindsay Holler's Western Polaroids, Travis Allison Band, Rik Cribb & The Problems, The Bushels, Run Dan Run, and Gaslight Street financed, packaged, and promoted their own collections with complete financial and artistic control. Ever-escalating rock trio Leslie could have signed with a number of labels in the last two years. Instead, they released The Rebel Souls EP last year and wrapped a self-funded studio session this winter.

Even those who've allied themselves with a label have kept things close and local. The Plainfield Project's self-titled debut, for example, is on 10t Records, a tiny side label branching from the studio Charleston Sound. The Green and Bold's Love, Luck, and Regard was tagged as a Cord+Pedal release. A handful of townie songsmiths assembled several new recordings for release under the label name Shrimp Records with an egalitarian/cooperative approach. Young pop/rock band The Whisperjets and blues man Jeff Norwood issued records with the Awendaw Green imprint (again, the studio stepped in as the "label").

The negative experience of dealing with an established record label might be enough to knock some previously idealistic rock bands off track, but for others, it's not such lousy luck at all.


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