Record labels have been a necessary evil in the world of music for nearly 100 years. Artists feel like they put their hearts and soul into a project and the label rips them off for their art. They aren’t wrong in that, the labels do keep a lot of the money from albums and from touring, especially in the early stages of a musician’s career. That really isn’t disputable, it’s factual. Labels aren’t all evil, they’re trying to build a musician up so that they can go out and make millions for themselves and the label. However, in the internet age it has become possible for record labels, the middle man if you will, to be cut out of the equation.
Bands can now record an album in the comfort of their own homes or even rent studio time themselves, master and mix the album and throw it up digitally. All of this can be done for under $10,000. If you want to put it out on CD that gets to be a little more pricey. Radiohead famously did this when they paid to make their own record, In Rainbows and then offered it up at a pay-what-you-want rate. Now, the Limousines are trying something different and controversial. They’re using funding website Kickstarter to raise money from fans to make their album. It’s controversial, because instead of earning the money themselves, while subverting the label system, they’re asking fans to donate to their cause.
I found this to be a shameful way to go about making a record and registered my complaint on Twitter. When lead singer Eric Victorino took issue with my statements he agreed to an impromptu interview. Here is that interview in its entirety:
Matt: So I guess my issue is as an investor I would expect to get a return back on my investment. I wonder about the ethical implications that go along with asking for money from fans while they recoup no return for their investment. I strain to find an analogy to this circumstance of giving money while a band profits. Now I understand the dynamics of a label profiting, but again the consumer knows what it is they’re getting.
Eric: Ok so that’s the beginning of an interview? What we’re doing on Kickstarter has nothing to do with investments. These are donations. While that may seem an issue of semantics to you, I’m happy to clarify what’s going on so that you can understand why. Today you might look at a band reaching out to their fans for funding as “begging” and “disgraceful”, a year or two from now you’ll be wondering why it took so long to catch on.
Here’s what a fan gets when they get involved in our campaign. It’s not a return on their investment, it’s a thank you gift, and at the very lowest levels, it’s a chance to pre-order an album from a band they already know they like. If I were on the other side of this, a fan of The Limousines, I would love to be a part of helping them find another way to release their music if I knew they’d been burned by record labels in the past. I would love to get my name in the credits of the album package, proof that I was in on the ground floor. If I had the money I would love to have my favorite band play at my house or write me a letter. I’d love to have the chance to own clothes and props used in their music videos.
You said something to me on twitter like, “At least with a record label the fans know what they’re paying for.”
You think so? You think fans know how their 10 bucks breaks down when they go and buy their favorite band’s CD at a store? Maybe you don’t know either, so let me break it down for you.
Retail Price of a CD: $10
Retailer bought CD from Distribution Company: $6
Retailer keeps: $4
Distribution Company Bought CD from Label: $4
Distribution Company keeps: $2
Label has $4 from sale of CD.
Apply that against what is owed by the band. Much of which could be travel, food, telecom, hotels and rental costs of label employees traveling, sometimes traveling to meet new bands they might want to sign. Maybe the band has a bunch of debt from borrowing gas money from the label. Either way, if all that debt is paid off, which it rarely is but let’s say for argument’s sake the band has broken even.
The label gives $0.80 of the money it made from that one CD being sold at retail to the band. The band takes that 80 cents and gives managers and lawyers 20 cents. The band now has 60 cents (from an album sold, not a single song). The band has, let’s just say two members instead of 4 or 6…Payday! Thirty cents each! No, wait now, let’s not forget about taxes. So I, a band member, have now made 17 cents from the sale of my album at a store.
“At least with a record label the fans know what they’re paying for.”
I think if they knew that they might be open to ways they could actually help their favorite bands, don’t you? With our Kickstarter campaign you can pay 10 dollars to reserve yourself a copy of our next album. Out of that 10 dollars, do you know how much money each band member will make, even after the costs of mass producing the CDs? It’s more than 17 cents.
You’re hung up on the idea of a stuffy business person who wants to know what his yield is gonna be with a nice diverse portfolio. That’s not what this is about. If we raise enough money to do this without a record label getting involved, we won’t have anyone telling us our dreams aren’t possible. We won’t have anyone but ourselves to blame for our failures. We’ll have our friends and fans to thank for every inch of ground we gain. We will own the rights to our music.
I don’t know how your music career has gone, must have been pretty fantastic so far for you to be supportive of record labels, but ours hasn’t gone so smoothly. We don’t like the fact that people we hardly know, people who barely tried when our lives were in their hands, still own the controlling rights to our album for another 13.5 years. That hurts. I’m sure when you signed your really great contract and went on to sell 10 million records and recouped all your expenses, it left you feeling like labels are the only legitimate route. More poser to you, superstar, you got lucky.
I’m in a little independent band. I have $14 in my bank account. I love to make music and I’m fortunate enough to have people all over the world who’d like me to continue making music. I think selling out is quitting music for a cushy desk job. I think rock n’ roll is about doing what you want to do the way you want to do it, not selling ownership of your art to a company who’ll try their best to package and market you to the largest audience possible.
To say I’m begging anyone is an insult. To say what we’ve done here is a disgrace? We’ve made a direct bond and partnership with our fans, we’re all in it together and we’re all going to get exactly what we expect and want. Nobody is being lied to, nobody is being taken advantage of, and no one is doing anything that goes against their principles. You want to talk about what’s “not very rock ‘n roll”? I think someone calling me out in public for what we’re doing, meanwhile defending the traditional music business practice of exploiting and abusing artists – man… rock n’ roll is fuckin’ dead.
Matt: I’m all for breaking away from the traditional model, it is inherently broken and if you were paying for this album yourself, like you said you did the first time, ”We released our first full length album, Get Sharp on our own label back in 2010.”, then it wouldn’t be an ethical issue. However, what you’re doing is going to your fans and saying, “Give us your money, we’ll give you a CD and we will profit from it.” Why not use your own money? Why not take out a loan yourself and put faith in your own talents recouping your own money? Why go to the fans and say, “give us your money so we don’t have to give that money to the labels.” What you fail to mention in your breakdown is money received from touring, merchandise and signing bonuses. I’m well aware that artists make about 10% off an album, which I don’t agree with, but that’s something that can be negotiated in a contract. That’s where that 20% for a lawyer/manager comes into play. The fans will give their money, because they want to be a part of something and you, as a band, will gladly take that money, put out an album and say thank you in the liner notes. Again I’m not against you, if you were doing this on your own instead of shilling from the fans then I’d have no problem with it. In fact, when Radiohead did the same thing and released their album at a pay-what-you-want rate it was applauded industry wise and yet it hasn’t become a thing.
You say it has nothing to do with investments, but it really does. These fans are investing in you; they are giving their money so that you can subvert the record companies and make more money yourself. This isn’t, as the Owl put it, “Your story of leaving your record label strikes a similar note to stories of soldiers refusing to return to duty. Do you consider yourself to be a music industry conscientious objector and refusenik?” You guys are making music not avoiding death and your intent is to profit from it without putting out your own money. I find your cause of breaking away from the labels and doing it on your own to be admirable, but the way you’re going about it to be disingenuous.
Eric: Singing bonuses! Haha what fucking decade are you living in, man? How many record deals have you had? How many have been what you wanted them to be? I’ve had three in my lifetime and I think I deserve to try a different route. Do you know how much money a band that isn’t huge makes on tour? Sometimes nothing…the nightly guarantee usually isn’t even enough to buy gas, feed and pay your crew, pay your insurance, pay your taxes, pay for hotels, pay for equipment and hopefully have enough to be able to afford a phone or computer to keep in touch with people back home. What other job do you know of, that isn’t the fucking Peace Corp, where you leave home for months on end, essentially working 24 hours a day and come home with nothing? That’s what touring in a band that isn’t famous is like. Would you do that? I would. I have. And I will continue to do so, because I love making and performing music and I love meeting the people who enjoy the music. The fact that you keep using words like “Gaming our fans for money” like you’re accusing us of scamming people makes me fucking sick. Nobody who’s participated in our Kickstarter project feels ripped off. Everyone knows they’re not buying something or making an investment. You have the most bizarre view of the relationship between bands and record labels if you think that coming out of this thing with a finished album and the money we need to promote it ourselves, the way we want to, with no interference, and hopefully even have enough to go on tour without having to borrow money from a label who owns our music. It’s just mind boggling to me. I can’t believe I’ve let you piss me off. It’s like if a dumb old dog barked at me and I took it personally enough to go on an email rant against him…
Matt: Yes, people know what they’re paying for, no one is being lied to, but you stand to make quite a bit of money just as Amanda Palmer did. I’m not saying that doing it yourself is wrong, but why go to the fans? Why not do it yourself and stand on your own feet and accomplish it yourself? Do you not feel the slightest bit of embarrassment going to fans and saying give us money so we can make our art and sell it to Toyota or Honda or Tide or Kraft and make money? We can get airplay because we have powerful friends that out of the goodness of their hearts want us to succeed like Aaron Axelson at Live 105? So we can say your name in our liner notes as we line our pockets with your donations? As such do people get a tax deduction from this “donation” as you call it? That’s slightly rhetorical, because you’re not a non/not for profit agency, you’re a band that is trying to subvert the labels (good) while taking money from people and keeping the profits for yourself (bad). How is that art? You can say I’m ignorant until you’re blue in the face, but am I ignorant for putting my faith in someone who is going to make money while all I get out of it is a cd? OK maybe a cd with my name in it. So there’s my name along with 1000 other people who donated their wages that they earned from working so you don’t have to? How am I ignorant because I think you should make your own money to create your own art?
Eric: OK. I should make my own money to make my art. So every band should just be a hobby until they make enough money to make more money? Bands don’t get good unless they have time to, they don’t write good songs when they have to work 40 hours a week to make their rent. That’s when a label comes in, hopefully gives them the money they need to focus on making music, but more often than not they give a band just enough to pay for a producer and an overpriced studio. The band no longer owns their music. Most bands trade lifetime ownership of their art to a record company for less than we’re going to raise in this campaign.
We want to make this thing and own it ourselves and our fans want to help us make that happen. You seem to have a problem with that and I can’t change your mind. If you want to run around telling everyone who has donated to us that we’re scamming them somehow, go for it. See how well that goes for you. We’ve been honest with everyone about what we are raising money to do. If you have a problem with the whole concept of Kickstarter, then I’m afraid you’re going to be pretty uncomfortable in the future when things like this become the new normal. I have been ripped off all my life by this business and if I can find a way to make the music I want to make without a company standing in my way, I’m going to do it, regardless of what some bitter stranger on the internet has to say.
You seem content in your belief that bands are better off with record labels than doing it the way we are. My advice to you is simple. Start a band; put half your life into honing your craft. Hope you’ll get lucky with longshot after longshot. Invest every penny of your own into your future, forgo college and job security to sleep in a van through a few Texas summers. Play shows to empty rooms. Play shows to full rooms, then empty again, and wonder if you’re wasting your time. Jeopardize and complicate every loving relationship you’ve had for decades, all in a feeble but noble attempt to live the life of your dreams. Eventually, you could find out it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, it’s lonely, it’s emotionally draining, there’s always some asshole waiting for the right time to say the wrong thing that just crushes your spirit. You’ll watch everyone you grew up with buying houses and driving fancy cars. You’ll hope someone buys a T-Shirt so you might have enough cash to buy a gas station burrito. But at least you’re proud of yourself for trying so hard. It feels good when someone tells you a song you wrote saved their life or just makes them smile. They might ask for an autograph. Who knows? Maybe eventually you’ll meet the right people, maybe you shake the right hand, and maybe you’ll sign a record deal. Call me one year after all that happens, when you know what the fuck you’re talking about. Then maybe our conversation will be a little more light-hearted.