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
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
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
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
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
*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.
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune