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Record labels: The pros and cons of signing a deal

Samantha Fish is trying to decide if she wants to sign another deal with a record label or strike out on her own.
Samantha Fish is trying to decide if she wants to sign another deal with a record label or strike out on her own.

Samantha Fish has finished her next album. It doesn’t have a name yet, and she’s not certain when it will come out. But it will be released by Ruf Records, the German label that released Fish’s three previous solo albums, including “Wild Heart,” which came out in May.

However, Fish’s new record may be her last with Ruf (pronounced “roof”). Her contract with the label is up. She is now a free agent and is considering her options, including re-signing with Ruf.

“They really have a good team over there,” she said. “They’re why we get good distribution over there and why we play so much in Europe. All the relationships they have over there have really done a lot of good for us.”

Fish is one of a few Kansas City bands who have signed deals with well-known independent labels. Beautiful Bodies are with Epitaph Records. Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear are on the roster of Glassnote Records, home of Mumford and Sons, Chvrches and Phoenix. Ward said the benefits of being on a label outweigh the potential benefits of being independent and calling all the shots.

“A record label provides you with the means and the strategy: the means to develop your work, and the strategy to share it,” he said. “They will help you connect with a much larger audience. A good label like Glassnote will not only do those things, they’ll proudly represent you and believe in what you love to do. They’ll help turn your art into a career without it feeling too much like a ‘career.’ 

Fish said the temptation is there to do it on her own, but a sound label deal gives her more time to focus on her music.

“I’m kind of a control freak,” she said. “So there are times I think, ‘I could do this or that on my own,’ but it’s a time issue. Putting out an album on your own takes up so much time.”

In 2016, musicians have the means to do much of the work on their own, from recording to promoting and distributing their music online. A label isn’t always a necessity, and relinquishing control to a label is a decision that requires much deliberation, some artists say.

In August, after he announced he was releasing his latest album exclusively through Tidal, the music-streaming service started by Jay Z, Prince explained why he was ignoring the major labels: “Record contracts are just like — I’m gonna say the word — slavery. I would tell any young artist … don’t sign.”

He’s not alone.

Brandon Phillips of the veteran Kansas City band the Architects has plenty of label experience. His pre-Architects band the Gadjits released an album on Hellcat Records and signed with RCA but was eventually dropped. He also worked for the now-defunct Kansas City label Anodyne Records. Phillips said he would consider a label deal but only under the best conditions.

“I believe in labels deeply,” he said. “More specifically, I believe that there is a need for some kind of organization to make investments in developing and distributing popular music. Musicians and composers and performers function at their best when they have a partner watching the blind spots that occur on the business side of the ‘record business’ and acting in a supportive role.”

However, he is not pursuing a label deal, he said, because labels no longer provide adequate financial help, distribution and “expertise about the music market itself.”

“Almost no one outside the major-label system or big indies can get the costs of production covered by a label, and far too many indie labels insist that artists contribute to the cost of manufacturing out of pocket and then provide nothing in terms of access to (distribution) beyond a TuneCore account,” he said. “To further salt my bile, both major and indie labels alike seem to be wedded to a form of magical thinking that says that the artist’s own social media presence will drive all the marketing/sales/growth. Which is to say that the label has no unique expertise in the music market.

“If the label is so impotent to bring any value to the partnership, then why on earth would any artist agree to split their net with them? … If you’re not adding value to an artist, then you’re not a label, you’re an anchor.”

Several labels have arisen in Kansas City over the past few years, among them the Record Machine, MudStomp Records, Haymaker Records and Little Class Records.

Nathan Reusch, founder of the Record Machine, said his label signs only artists whose music it likes.

“We try to find bands that are akin to us, bands that we genuinely love and are passionate about,” he said. “It makes putting out records that much easier. It becomes passion over work.”

Jody Hendrix, founder of Little Class, said his label’s deals are friendly to its artists.

“We provide recordings free of cost to our acts,” he said. “We then split all royalties 50/50. With our in-house CD factory at Electric Cat Studios, we are able to front small runs of CDs for touring bands. We don’t ask for publishing rights or any creative control.”

Little Class also provides merchandising services, and its artists get preference at the Westport Saloon, which is affiliated with the label, and at the Westport Roots Festival.

All those chores and duties are necessities for any artist, but most can be accomplished with the help of a good manager and a good booking agent without submitting to a label deal. That’s what Elisabeth Maurus — the singer/songwriter known as Lissie — discovered after she was dropped by her label, Columbia, in early 2014, right after releasing her second album. Making her first record was a “pretty positive” experience, but things changed after that.

“It took me three years to put out my second album,” said Maurus, who visited Kansas City in mid-January to promote her new, self-released album on the Bridge (90.9 FM). “I was so busy touring and kind of battling with my (artist and repertoire) guy to let me go into the studio with the people I wanted and the songs I wanted.

“I’m proud of the record and had a great time making it, but honestly, I’d stopped caring a little bit by then. Then I got dropped, thank goodness. I owed them three albums, and if the second had done well, I would have been picked up and had to do it all over again. Now I’m free.”

Shortly after she got dropped, two lucrative opportunities came her way. A video-game company asked her to record a version of Danzig’s “Mother” for the game Evolve.

“It paid really well,” she said. “I guess someone at the company had heard my cover of Metallica (‘Nothing Else Matters’) and said, ‘Let’s get that girl to do a Danzig cover.’ 

She was also hired by Coca-Cola to write a song for a campaign for its biodegradable plastic bottle.

“I don’t know if it will ever come out,” she said, “but I’m kind of political and it was an environmental issue so it was a really cool thing to do.”

The song she wrote for the Coke commercial, “Go for a Walk,” is on her third album, “My Wild West,” which she released this month on her own label, Lionboy.

“This was the first record since my first EP where I felt like I was really involved in everything,” she said. “It was a joy to make.”

Since getting dropped, Maurus has moved from Los Angeles to the 10-acre farm she bought in northeast Iowa. She is enjoying her independence and taking charge of her career.

“I’m way more in control,” she said. “Unless you think you’re going to be Iggy Azalea, I don’t know if there’s a point in being on a label. It’s an exciting time to be independent. You just can’t get discouraged. And you have to do it because you love it, not because you want to get famous.”

Fish is weighing the pros and cons of both.

“It will have to be the right label and the right opportunity,” she said. “I don’t want to be bogged down with a 10-year, seven-album contract. But it’s kind of a crap shoot. You never know for sure how things will work out. It boils down to chemistry.

“Some great artists have gotten into messed-up deals where they put their heart and soul into an album and it gets shelved and sat on for years, and they can’t do anything about it,” she said. “That’s what scares people off. But I’ve been lucky. I’ve had good people around me, and our relationships have been mutually beneficial.”

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain