Stars steering careers, with their own labels

by Alison Bonaguro
(Special to the Tribune),
Published April 1, 2007


Say you're Toby Keith, circa 1993. You've just signed a record deal and your debut single goes to No. 1, and you're focused on the music. Twelve years and almost 30 top-10 hits later, it's about more than the music.

Now, it's about the money.

In 2005, when Keith parted ways with his major record label DreamWorks Nashville to start his own Show Dog Records, it was simply because he could: He had the means, the star power and the relationships. But while it's easy to see how an artist with financial stability can do it, with kind of a take-this-job-and-shove-it mentality, it's harder to get a read on what is motivating them.

George Nunes, Show Dog's general manager, says it's about creative freedom. "Now Toby doesn't have to answer to New York or L.A. to get permission to get things done," Nunes told the Tribune. "At the majors,you have to fit into a little box." But he also admits Keith's assets are a big part of the label's success."With a star like Toby, you ship units that help fund the rest of the label. And right now, we're beholden to no one."

A start for Raney

Maybe that's why Tim McGraw started his own label, StyleSonic last year. McGraw's label has yielded nothing more than a movie soundtrack so far. But his cousin Catherine Raney soon will be working on her debut album with StyleSonic. McGraw is still under contract to release more albums on Curb Records, so he won't be on the label yet. But even Curb's senior vice president of promotions, Carson James, can see why McGraw would get in on the movement. "Tim's a great A&R [artist and repertoire] guy. He has the best ear for picking songs," James said.

Altruism aside, sometimes label ownership is forced upon you. Tracy Lawrence started his own Rocky Comfort Records last year after five labels and seven No. 1 hits. "I got moved around so much, it was hard to get momentum. But guys with a track record can do this," said Lawrence. "When I went to DreamWorks, I made a buck an album. But now I make $5 an album after everything's been paid out. If I sell a gold album now, that's a lot of cash."

Lawrence explained how difficult it is to make money at the big four (EMI, Universal Music Group, Sony BMG and Warner) because you have to pay those labels back with your profits for years.


But there are sacrifices, Lawrence admits. "We don't have the political power to make a top new male vocalist. And I gave up the ability to be [named] entertainer of the year. My chance at having a No. 1 record? Slim to none. I've made concessions," Lawrence said. "You have to be OK with that."

He added that you lose political leverage with a smaller label, citing the Toby Keith lesson: "Toby got five award nominations two years ago. Since he started his own label, he hasn't had one. Not one. If that doesn't tell you how political this is, nothing does,"he said.

Neal McCoy echoes Lawrence's feelings. "I'd been on another label and finished a project that never got out. I didn't want to be in that position again. I wanted artistic freedom," he said. And McCoy uses that freedom to lure artists to his label, 903 Music. "I tell them we'll put their single out right away, where at the majors it's in a stack and takes years before it gets out."

A handful of A-list artists from other genres have tried label ownership. The Rolling Stones started Rolling Stone Records. Prince tried twice, with Paisley Park and then NPG Records. Madonna did it. Eminem did it. But with financial backing from the major labels, those pursuits could be classified as nothing more than vanity labels.

There are some truly indie-rock labels that set a good example for the country industry. But those little guys, such as Sub Pop and Matador, aren't after commercial success as much as they are about signing bands the majors have snubbed. And those don't have big stars at the helm. Singer/songwriter/label owner Ani DiFranco, however, has an undeniable cult following and has done very well for herself with her Righteous Babe label. She's admitted to pocketing about $4.25 per unit, which is a higher percentage than if she were on a major. But even DiFranco has admitted, "I'm just a folksinger. Not an entrepreneur."

The major labels acknowledge the trend but are rarely threatened by it. Joe Galante, chairman of Sony BMG Nashville, said that private equity is buying up companies all over Wall Street.

"Why would the music business be any different?" he asked. "At the end of the day, they have to build a catalog and that will take 5 to 10 years. At that point, you can judge if it paid off."

Country radio, the one with the power to make or break an artist, welcomes the artist-owned labels with open arms. Marci Braun, music director at Chicago's WUSN-FM 99.5, says there's room for competition. "It's totally about the song, not about the label it's on or who's pushing the record," she said.

Equity Records (owned by artist Clint Black), who signed Little Big Town after they were dumped by their major label, is small but determined in its quest for airplay. Braun thinks these small labels are a good place for a new artist to start, or for an established band to find a resurgence. "Size," Braun said, "just doesn't matter in country music right now."

Picking the right players

As for getting past those novelty debut singles, he is confident they're signing the right artists for the job."Toby is songwriter first, and those are the glasses he looks through. That makes for a different business model. He knows what its like to stand behind that mic," Nunes said. So when acts do come around looking for deals, Keith can spot the ones with staying power, Nunes said.

Even before McGraw started StyleSonic, he was possessive of his potential artists. "A few years ago the bass player for Faith [Hill, McGraw's wife] noticed how Catherine's [Raney] pitch was just dead on," said Gina Raney, McGraw's aunt and Raney's mom. "Tim said, 'Yeah, well, she signed on my label' just like that."

Some recent releases from small labels

Country artists have started their own labels. Here's a look at how they're doing:

*Tim McGraw/StyleSonic: His "Flicka" soundtrack peaked at No. 27 on the country albums chart.

*Toby Keith/ShowDog: Besides Keith, no artist has had any noteworthy airplay.

*Tracy Lawrence/Rocky Comfort: Recorded his single "Find Out Who Your Friends Are" with pals Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney.

*Neal McCoy/903 Music: Darryl Worley's "I Just Came Back (from a War)" has more than 179,000 plays on his MySpace page.

*Clint Black/Equity Records: Hot country band Little Big Town is up for two Academy of Country Music awards next month.

*Willie Nelson/Pedernales: Set for a summer release from 40 Points, a band that includes Nelson's two sons.

*Garth Brooks/Pearl Records: Exclusive deal with Wal-Mart helps a new Brooks boxed set sell more than 2 million copies.

*Alan Jackson/ACR Records: Jackson's nephew Adam Wright and Adam's wife Shannon have had marginal success on ACR.

*Aaron Tippin/Nippit Records: Tippin's single "He Believed" is active on the country charts.

*Tracy Byrd/Blind Mule: Nothing more than Byrd's own 2006 album release "Different Things."

*Ricky Skaggs/Skaggs Family: Skagg's own "Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder Instrumentals" won the 2007 Grammy for best bluegrass album.

---------- ctc-arts@tribune.com Copyright 2007, Chicago Tribune

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