By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
I met Gregory within my first few weeks in Los Angeles; she was 23, working in the L.A. Weekly’s mailroom, and â alarmed that a newcomer to the paper knew so little of the L.A. music she deemed important. So she made me a tape: the Blasters, Dave Alvin, X and Joe Henry — a collection curated with passion by a genuine connoisseur. I listened to it until it wore thin, and somewhere in my piles of CDs are records I bought on nothing other than Gregory’s advice. As I watched her work on Miles of Music’s Web page 10 years later, inserting commentary in other staffers’ blurbs, deciding what to feature, it occurred to me that what she’s doing is the same thing — making compilation tapes for a larger audience in the form of sample MP3 files, an online catalog and pictures. “We’re trying to give you that feeling you had at the record store when there was somebody at the counter who knew what you should be listening to,” Gregory says. “And where else would I get to write, in big capital letters, ‘WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH THE WORLD THAT HAZELDINE DOESN’T HAVE A U.S. RECORD DEAL?’”
Typical online record distributors and retailers, such as Amazon, take 50 percent of the artist’s cut of sales in exchange for overhead and promotion; Miles of Music takes about 36 percent (and, significantly, no future rights). Some artists on Miles of Music’s list do have record contracts, although they’re mostly modest endeavors with small labels: Dolly Parton’s new album, Little Sparrow, on Sugar Hill, is one of the staff’s favorites. Other bands, such as L.A.’s Gingersol, are enjoying Miles of Music’s promotional support while they wait for the A&R guy to show up at the door, acceptable contract in hand. A significant number are in Brooke’s shoes — their record labels lost interest, but they still have an album to sell. Carroll sold 1,000 copies of his CD, Not for Sale, on the Web site. The proceeds hardly constituted a decent living, but it was at least enough to fund another week in the studio. And enough to allow Carroll to continue a career as what people in the industry see as an increasingly common phenomenon: The disintermediated artist.
Since the record business began, artists from Howlin’ Wolf to Elvis to Moby have complained about the companies big and small that hold the rights to their music. But they have also needed them: Record labels might demand more in royalties than the song-makers think they should get, but they also write the checks that get records made, offer artists unparalleled exposure, and often give good advice. “The Beatles were only the Beatles because they hooked up with George Martin at Parlophone,” says Geoffrey Weiss, a former vice president of A&R at Warner Bros. who was recently hired in the same capacity at Hollywood Records. “There have been a couple of times in history when the services labels provided went up significantly in their standards. One of them was in the ’60s to the mid-’70s, during the heyday of A&M and Warner Bros., when the labels were really nurturing a community of artists. Another was after the punk era, when there was this infusion of fresh excitement and young people in the industry through the early ’90s.
“But now the industry’s being run by accountants and attorneys,” Weiss acknowledges. “The environment isn’t really all that conducive to developing great talent.” Still, he argues, as much as certain artists complain that the vertical integration of the record industry has left them without anyone to gripe to, industry conditions are not the worst they’ve ever been. Artist royalties range from 10 percent to 25, and however little songwriters net, at least they get paid something. “A lot of the early labels were small businesses, and as such were subject to the whims of cash flow. Morris Levy,” Weiss states of the infamous mob-affiliated founder of Roulette Records, “did not provide artist services.”
Canadian singer-songwriter Jane Siberry made two unusual but acclaimed records for the Reprise/Warner Bros. label before she scored her first commercial success, When I Was a Boy, with two strong singles and one certifiable pop hit, “Calling All Angels,” which her handlers at Warner arranged for her to record with K.D. Lang, over Siberry’s initial protests. Judging by the song’s success — Wim Wenders chose it for his film Until the End of the World, and the song resurfaced in Pay It Forward — the label was right, presuming, that is, that Siberry wanted to be a pop star, and it’s not clear that she ever did. Left to her own devices, Siberry writes tunes that unravel like spools of gossamer thread and frequently go on for many minutes without chorus, hook or bridge. After four albums of low-to-moderate success, the folks at Warner asked that she renegotiate her advances and hire a producer. “I didn’t want any part of that,” Siberry says, “so they were kind enough to let me go.” She doesn’t blame them: “I don’t think I would’ve signed myself. I would’ve looked at the advance and the potential sales and said, ‘Thank you very much, but no.’”