In a single-room Cypress Park office, comedians Al Madrigal and Bill Burr spearhead the efforts of the six dozen comics who make up the collective All Things Comedy. Their enterprise, which began in October 2012, emphasizes DIY over decor — concrete, brick, single corner computer, a green-felt poker table holding six Shure microphones.
What began as a podcast network offering artists full ownership and 100 percent of net profits expanded in March to include All Things Records. Its first release was Jackie Kashian's instant-download special, This Will Make an Excellent Horcrux, followed in May by Sam Tripoli's album, Believe in Yourself, and in June by Brian Scolaro's Live at the Comedy Castle. Both appeared on iTunes' Top Comedy Albums chart thanks to collaborative tweeting from fellow ATC talent.
Madrigal, whose Why Is the Rabbit Crying? was released last year by the more established label Comedy Central Records, explains: "We can reach everyone directly thanks to social media."
With traditional album deals, Burr says, "You get in business with someone else, all the money goes to that other party, and then that other party tells you how much you've made. And they call you up every quarter and they're like, 'Nah, didn't make any money.' And somehow they're all driving nice cars, in this nice building, and everything stays afloat. Then if you turn around and go to audit them, you get labeled as difficult."
The once-dominant Warner Bros. Records (label of Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby and Steve Martin) today distributes the likes of Jeff Foxworthy, Adam Sandler and even Jimmy Fallon, and indies such as Los Angeles' Laff Records (Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx) and George Carlin's Eardrum Records once challenged the majors.
But technological advancements now enable an increasing number of independent labels to produce and distribute an equally increasing amount of artists' work. Alongside New York's BSeen Media and San Francisco's Rooftop Comedy, L.A. has contributed the lion's share, with ATC, ASpecialThing Records, Comedy Dynamics and Conan O'Brien's Team Coco Records, which formed in May and on June 10 released Ian Edwards' digital album, 100% Half-Assed.
Some performers simply avoid labels altogether, instead self-releasing their work — or, in the case of New York's Louis C.K., championing the output of peers Tig Notaro and Todd Barry. But as self-releasers such as C.K., Jim Gaffigan and Aziz Ansari can attest, logistics and payoff remain far from uniform, and eliminating middlemen might not be ideal for everyone.
The new wave of indie labels can be a middle ground between big-time conglomerates and setting out alone.
Jack Vaughn created Comedy Central Records but in 2012 left the Viacom company for New Wave Dynamics; recently renamed Comedy Dynamics, it's the label arm of Burbank production company New Wave Entertainment. He has since produced about 50 releases and netted 2014 Grammy nominations for Bob Saget's That's What I'm Talkin' About and Craig Ferguson's I'm Here to Help.
"Comics can absolutely release albums and specials themselves, and some are very good," Vaughn says. "But to quote Mitch Hedberg, 'It's like asking a chef if he can farm.' The problem is there is a ton of material in the market, and the question becomes, Who is going to get you the best deal, exposure and promotion to make you stand out?"
"The more options available to comics, the better," agrees ASpecialThing Records co-founder Ryan McManemin, who with Matt Belknap turned message board aspecialthing.com into a working label with the 2007 release of Jen Kirkman's Self Help. "Self-releasing can be a good idea if you already have a built-in fanbase, but chances are comics will still have to hire people to record, edit, wrangle the artwork, print, etc. There's also the issue of distribution — record stores still exist and are a viable revenue stream. A lot of people would rather have somebody else worry about all of this stuff and just focus on the comedy."
If All Things Comedy represents community collaboration to get the word out and Comedy Dynamics is professional marketing push, the 7-year-old ASpecialThing built its reputation on supporting emerging talent (Kyle Kinane, Brent Weinbach) and alternative comedy mainstays (Paul F. Tompkins, Doug Benson) across its three dozen–plus releases.
Of course, the question of whether to go with a major label, an indie or self-releasing ultimately comes down to the opportunities offered.
As Edwards, who co-hosts ATC podcast Soccer Comic Rant, puts it, "When an established comedy entity says, 'We want to do your album,' and they have an audience that they can reach for you, and they have the technical capabilities and they're good people and they want to make you some money for it, and you can be first? You can't turn that down! I'm pretty stupid sometimes, but I could figure this one out."
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