Pop Smarts

How Harvey Danger and a new breed of industry-savvy musicians are taking care of business.

Everywhere you turn, you hear another critic bemoaning the sorry state of pop music: the glut of one-hit wonders, the death of the album, major labels jumping on the bandwagon of the latest Billboard chart topper. But anybody who thinks there’s been a radical downward shift in pop music is ignoring its history. Pop music began as a singles format—to this day, dance music, hip-hop, and R&B are singles art forms. There have always been one-hit wonders, and sometimes they even grow into critically acclaimed bands: Radiohead was once tagged as a one-hit wonder, but its last album was up there with Bob Dylan on the 1997 critics’ polls. Those wailing about the album dying are ignoring all pop music before Sgt. Pepper or Pet Sounds. And record companies are, above all, companies. They’re in it to make money. Maybe what’s brought on all this wailing is the assumption that the early 1990s were anything but an anomaly in the music industry. During that period, major labels did their best to conceal the importance of the profit motive. “‘Credibility’ is a word that was used a lot around 1993—you know, ‘We’re going to release a nine-minute song to college radio,'” recalls Robert Roth, front man for the Seattle band Truly.

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So many “credible” bands (Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Mudhoney) signed to the corporate labels like Capitol, Warner Bros., Epic, and Columbia, that it’s now impossible to “sell out” by signing to a major label. Eventually, everybody gets a deal (and today’s bands would laugh at the reported $60,000 advance that shocked everyone back in 1988 when Mother Love Bone took it). Nobody cares if you’re on a major or an indie, as long as your music is good.

Unfortunately, artists face more of a struggle to make the music they want on major labels, where accountants wield their balance sheets like swords. But a new generation of bands are learning from the experiences of “credible” bands—Royal Trux, the Lemonheads, the Posies—that were scarfed up by major labels in the early ’90s and are now finding their way back to indies. The lesson: Clearheadedness and a good lawyer are any band’s best assets.

Back in the day…

A lot of Seattle bands have been through the worst of the major labels’ ’90s ride. Pilot and Truly are just two of a list that includes Love Battery, Hammerbox, Flop, and others who learned hard lessons from dealing with both majors and indies. Their experiences are potent examples of the music business’s cyclical nature.

Truly—with members Hiro Yamamoto (Soundgarden’s original bass player), Mark Pickerel (the original Screaming Trees drummer), and Robert Roth (formerly of Storybook Krooks)—was hailed by some as a “Seattle supergroup,” when its first two Sub Pop EPs appeared in 1991 and 1993.

“We got offers [from major labels] in ’92, and we could tell that they wanted clone-type bands, so we blew them off,” Roth recalls.

“Capitol told us, ‘We want to build a career’—which is the biggest con in the world,” Roth says. “I don’t know if it was a complete con, because the industry really did change its focus for a while. When we were signed to Capitol, we were told: ‘Push the envelope. We don’t want you to focus on singles until your second or third record.’ For a window of a couple years, a band could get signed and make the record they wanted to make—that hadn’t happened since the ’60s with Jefferson Airplane, the Doors. Then the whole industry shifted towards one-hit wonders, three-minute pop, Green Day, and whatever. The people we worked with [at Capitol] were frustrated—a lot of them have changed positions or been fired. Now I imagine it’s much worse—they’re looking for the ’90s equivalent of the Partridge Family or something.

“Mark [Pickerel] has his own record store [Rodeo Records in Ellensburg], and kids used to come in looking for the latest Drag City single—the new Pavement, or whatever—but in the mid-’90s people stopped searching, because anything cool was pretty much guaranteed to be snapped up by a major label in a few weeks. Those adventurous kids don’t exist now.”

Indies and majors: Is there a difference?

It would be nice if there were obvious heroes and villains to this story—heroic little indie vs. big bad major—but the truth is, there aren’t. The general consensus among musicians who’ve worked with both indies and majors is that they’re pretty much six of one, half-dozen of the other. “I don’t know anybody who’s been on an independent label—or a major label for that matter—who’s had a positive experience,” says Jeremy Wilson, the front man for Pilot.

Wilson signed his first record contract as an 18-year-old member of the Dharma Bums. Now 30, he’s dealt with both respected indie labels and majors. He thinks the majors have only themselves to blame for the industry’s current sales slump. “The record labels lost billions of dollars because of the grunge scene,” he says. “In 1991, before Nevermind came out—when there was a true, viable independent music scene with its own network set up—it was easy to tour the US because there weren’t tons of bands doing it. There were 6,000 to 7,000 releases a year. Within two years, the majors pushed it to over 17,000 records each year. Which means you’ve completely glutted the market. All these mom-and-pop stores can’t stock all these records. We’re paying for it now.”

As Wilson sees it, there’s no reason a fledgling band shouldn’t go straight to a major label. “What choice does a young band have right now?” he says. “You can’t get a weekend gig at the Crocodile without being signed.”

Cash is king

The similarity between majors and independents—and it’s a big similarity—is money. Labels always need more of it. “Indie labels generally don’t have large amounts of capital, so they can’t keep individual accounts truly individual,” Wilson says. “Proceeds from one record that are supposed to go back to a band as royalties go back to financing overhead on the next project. The indie label depends on the popularity of artists, and artists’ independence and naivete. To give you an example, I didn’t know the term ‘tour support’ [money provided by a label for a touring band, to be used for travel expenses like gas, van rentals, hotels, per diems] until I signed with Elektra. That’s how ‘independent’ I was.

“The thing that amazes me is how much I believed in my own vision of things—it made me blind. I wanted so badly to hear that they’re in it for the art when my A&R person on Elektra told me that they were looking for career-oriented artists—i.e., we’re not going to drop you after one record. The truth of the matter is, Pilot got dropped, along with 50 other bands, before the record even came out, because East West merged with Elektra. It devastated me. After playing music for so many years, I went to work in a coffee shop.”

The holy grail of exclusivity

Seattle musicians now know to go into a label deal—particularly with a major label—with their eyes wide open. They’ve also learned, if not how to exploit the system, to at least make it work to their advantage. This new crop of musicians realizes that signing to a major label doesn’t have to mean the end of artistic ambition. They see bands like Sonic Youth, Flaming Lips, and Built to Spill thriving creatively as part of an enormous corporation’s roster. They see that there can be advantages to a major label’s financial muscle.

Compare the experience of Truly and Pilot in the early ’90s with that of the Presidents of the USA, who signed to Columbia Records in the spring of 1995. The three band members were friends with many of the musicians who’d survived the major-label feeding frenzy of the early ’90s, and in the case of drummer Jason Finn, had actually been on the major-label roller coaster before as a member of Love Battery. The Presidents’ first record had three top 40 singles, 2.5 million in sales, and was nominated for two Grammies. Their second record was less successful but yielded two hit singles. Having made their mark—and their money—they broke up in early 1998.

Being “inserted into the machine” is how Presidents guitar player Dave Dederer describes the journey from six-month-old band to hot prospect.

“We wanted to do a one-off with an indie or go whole hog and sign with a major. Most indie-label contracts are as or more onerous than major-label contracts… [For Columbia] we didn’t have to give up creative control. The only thing you have to give up—and most indie labels will want that too—is the holy grail of exclusivity [the label having the right to release any and all records a musician makes]. Only Beck has been able to get out of that.”

First lesson: Get a lawyer

The importance of the lawyer to a young band nowadays can’t be overestimated. “Managers are important,” Dederer says, “but lawyers are more important. Lawyers are the only ones who deal with everyone—manager, agent, publisher, label, booker. They’re the only ones who know the nuts-and-bolts of your career on any one day. With a lawyer, you want someone who’s nice enough to have as a dinner companion, but enough of an asshole to get you what you want.”

Even Severna Park, a popular unsigned local band, has its own attorney. “We had a manager for a while,” says drummer Fred Northup, “and we realized at our level, we could do everything he was doing ourselves. But we do need a lawyer. Because no matter what the situation—whether it’s The Real World wanting to use a song on the show, or one of your songs on an indie-label compilation—they’re going to hand you a contract. And nobody knows how to read those.”

When it came down to signing, Dederer says the Presidents took a practical approach. “The only reason to sign to any label is to get your record out there. So the main point is how fast can the label make the record, distribute it, and promote it. Sony and WEA have the best distribution worldwide.

“When it came time to sign, our lawyer advised us that we should pick a label first, then talk about money,” Dederer says. “We finally got down to two label guys—Josh Sarubin at Columbia and Guy Oseary from Maverick. We met with Don Ienner, the president of Columbia, and he said that if we signed by early May of 1995, he’d have the record out in July. Maverick wanted to remix and re-work the record—they were less excited about what we already had. And when it came time to talk about contracts, they were more sticky about certain details. We had a couple of singles coming out on indie labels. Columbia said: ‘So you sell 10,000; that doesn’t take any money out of our pocket.’ But Maverick was sticky about it.” Ultimately the band signed with Columbia, a Sony subsidiary. “Lots of bands sign a contract and the record doesn’t come out for a year or two,” says Dederer, “but ours came out in mid-July.”

Summing up his experience with the Presidents, Dederer says: “You want to be as informed as possible for two reasons: One, to empower yourself; and two, because you can’t trust anybody.”

Harvey Danger enters the machine

If you’re a musician with your wits about you, will that protect you from the record industry’s churn-and-burn mentality? The members of Harvey Danger are about to find out.

The latest Seattle band to step into the music-biz mill, this poppy four-piece recently signed to Slash/London Records, a division of Polygram Entertainment, after releasing 1,000 copies of its full-length debut, Where have all the merrymakers gone?, on the tiny indie Arena Rock Records (whose owner happens to be an A&R rep—a music scout who is also the main intermediary between a band and its label—for London).

Radio play was key to Harvey Danger’s success, since band members’ day jobs virtually guaranteed that their press would be minimal. The band was in the unusual position of having three members involved in the local press: singer Sean Nelson was an assistant editor at The Stranger; bass player Aaron Huffman also worked at the alternative weekly in the production department. Drummer Evan Sult was assistant art director at The Rocket. This situation left the various papers open to charges of conflict of interest if they wrote extensively about the band, but it also gave Harvey Danger the benefit of industry savvy.

Harvey Danger’s record got played on Jason Hughes’ local-music show on KCMU. Hughes passed it on to Marco Collins, the nationally influential DJ at KNDD, who put the band’s song “Flagpole Sitta” on heavy rotation. KROQ, in Los Angeles, picked it up in turn. Once it hit the top three on KROQ, Nelson says, “everybody started adding it.”

In today’s marketplace, only MTV rivals radio’s influence. Radio airplay—especially in large markets, and particularly on KROQ—infinitely increases a record’s chance of commercial success.

“It’s kind of a given that radio sells records,” explains Kristen Meyer, national director of promotions for Sub Pop. “It’s the one medium where people are hearing the song. If you look at the big records, they were all broken on radio—it’s the most immediate way to get your product to the consumer.

“The End playing Harvey Danger certainly expedited the process [of getting signed],” Meyer continues. “Not that Harvey Danger wouldn’t have gotten a label deal without it—I think they’re a great band—but if The End or KROQ plays an unsigned band, labels freak out.”

“It’s weird to be put squarely in the mainstream right away,” Sean Nelson admits. “I’ve thought a lot about that. The End plays a lot of bad music,” he says frankly. “We stick out when they play us and that’s why we’ve been embraced. It’s pop music, so it’s fairly conventional, but a lot of bands underestimate what people are capable of understanding. We give people a little more credit.”

With “Flagpole Sitta” getting national radio airplay, Harvey Danger became instantly interesting to the majors. “We’re not something London thinks is going to be marketable,” Nelson notes. “We’re something that’s already sold.” Subsequent events bear this out: During the week of April 14, KNDD has 32 singles in rotation, with Harvey Danger at no. 1, getting 45 spins a week—above such proven hit-makers as Garbage and Pearl Jam.

Once the majors came calling, Harvey Danger did the smart thing. It hired a lawyer.

The one-record guarantee

What can a first-time band expect from a major-label contract? Everything depends on what you negotiate, says attorney Scott Harrington. Harrington works at the Los Angeles­based firm Manatt, Phelps and Phillips, and his clients include the band Candlebox and producer Rick Parashar, who worked on the first Pearl Jam record.

“There are ranges to what you could expect if you’re a first-time band with no label competition,” says Harrington. “A typical recording contract would be $125,000-$250,000 for a recording fund for the first album—everything you do comes out of that—and a guarantee for one record.

“Usually a contract is for seven records, but they only guarantee that they’ll do one record—they have an option to continue with another one and another one. So you’re tied to the label, but they’re not tied to you—they can drop you at any time after the first record. You may renegotiate if you’ve been successful, but for the first couple of records, you’re stuck with the deal you made in the beginning.”

In the 15 years of his career, Harrington has seen the “bidding war” phenomenon go through phases. Now, he says, is a particularly bad time. “This is a period when labels are less interested in taking on bands that need development. Now there are so many bands who, by the time they get to a major label, they’ve got their own tour promotion, their own merchandise, they’ve had a record. Labels now look for bands that are already selling records. They’re going to write themselves out of business if they don’t return to [band] development. Because the bands won’t need a label. Now that we have the Internet, a band can do its own marketing, promotion, booking—it can sell directly to retail.”

Low-balling the advance

Harvey Danger’s contractual negotiations bear out Harrington’s description. “We were getting offered this amazing money. We decided we didn’t want to do it,” Nelson says. Ultimately it seemed smarter to low-ball the advance to get a solid contract—”one without a lot of theft.” Under the contract, Nelson says, he and his bandmates aren’t making any more money than they were at their day jobs. But the band does have “total control over creative. The structure is set up so that we sink or swim based on our own decisions.” In fact, Harvey Danger already refused two of London’s requests: Adding extra songs to the re-release of merrymakers, and rerecording “Flagpole Sitta” to leave out the word “god-damn.”

Rock is dead! Long live rock!

Maybe there will come a day when the music industry doesn’t have to have huge hits in order to justify its existence. Until that time, new indie labels are springing up with heartening regularity. In Seattle, tiny indies like RX Remedy, Slabco, and Fire Breathing Turtle are putting out local bands with little fanfare outside the Northwest.

“The bottom’s gonna fall out,” predicts Rob Roth of Truly. “That’s what happened in the late ’80s. There was that Spin cover “Is Rock Dead?” with Paul Westerberg on it—then boom! A few weeks later, Nirvana. But even though it was one band, Nirvana, it was a movement with a lot of bands, an undercurrent—you could go back to Patti Smith and the Ramones. It’s more about a groundswell and people taking the responsibility for their culture in their own hands. It’s a cyclical thing. [Now] other people are starting to rediscover it or continuing to do it, and people will go back to indie labels and stop looking to Spin or MTV for what’s next.”

Like Roth, Pilot’s Jeremy Wilson has a survivor’s optimism. “Artists have to realize, it’s gotta come from yourselves, and you can’t rely on anybody. In the early days, there was that kind of ideal, that romantic idea—how is that supposed to exist now? You’re looking at an industry that’s totally corrupt—they commercialize stuff, degrade it to its lowest common denominator, so they can sell it. All of a sudden, you have these fabricated products that mean nothing.

“As much as big capitalists want to think that the common man is stupid, people have seen through all of that. The cool thing now is that there’s a table that’s set and ready for new things to come forward…. The ideal is new independents. If something is real, organized, and visionary, it can grow as interest in it grows. Start from Seattle and let the repercussions go outward.”

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