In 2006, folk-rocker Joshua James had finished recording his debut album, “The Sun is Always Brighter,” and was thinking about signing with major record label American Recordings. James said at the time he was as excited as any young musician would be to have gained the attention of a major label.
“Like most other musicians, I loved the idea of being signed to a label,” James said. “I thought it indicated that you’d made it.”
In fact, James said he was ready to sign on with the label, but their interest cooled off before such a deal could be made. At that moment, James said he decided he could take things into his own hands.
“I realized that there’s very little that an artist has to rely upon a label to do,” he said. “A label is basically a bank. So if you can fund your recording and get your own publicist and radio team, then you can do a lot of that stuff on your own.”
As a result, James founded Northplatte Records with friend and local musician McKay Stevens. Since 2006, Northplatte has put out albums by James, Isaac Russell, Desert Noises and more.
The digital age of music has opened the door for James and other local musicians to gain the attention of major record labels. Like James, some of the best local bands are coming to understand the positive and negative aspects of the recording industry and are approaching the quandary of making money with music from a variety of angles.
It’s still possible for pop bands to find success crafting catchy singles — take Neon Trees, for example, whose 2010 single, “Animal,” sold over 2 million copies worldwide — but it isn’t easy. Even then, many local bands simply lack the commercial appeal of a traditional pop group and choose instead to market themselves to niche audiences or through alternative channels.
Local art rock group The Moth & The Flame self-released their debut album last year. Although it was lauded as one of the best Provo releases of 2011, the band remains independent of any major label.
Mark Garbett, who plays keys and sings backing vocals in the band, said they wouldn’t necessarily jump at the opportunity to ink a deal with a label either — partly for artistic reasons.
“If a label wanted us to pump out a nice little pop song, I don’t even know if I could do it, let alone want to,” Garbett said. “It’s just not what we do. If I was getting paid to make music I don’t like, I might as well get another boring job.”
Garbett and lead singer/guitarist Brandon Robbins understand their sound might not be tailored for the masses, and having that understanding has helped them realize alternative ways to monetize their music. Robbins said lately he and Garbett have been focusing on writing music for short films and radio shows — like the award-winning public radio program, RadioWest — whose aesthetic matches their sound better than a Top 40 radio station.
“We’ve been focusing on publishing and building our knowledge of engineering and writing songs for films,” Robbins said. “You don’t necessarily have to hit the jackpot starting out, and we’ve been focusing on making decisions that feel good in how we represent our music.”
Although they’re content with their current situation, The Moth & The Flame have definitely not ruled out signing with a major label if the opportunity arises. However, Nate Pyfer, a local producer and member of the group, said it’s important for bands like his to understand what a label can do for them and what they can do for themselves.
“When bands are looking at the idea of a label they have to look at that balance,” Pyfer said. “Labels have bands like Coldplay and Katy Perry, so if you’re not doing anything important to them, you’ll just get sidelined.”
For local and independent bands who have little or no hope of selling millions of singles, Pyfer said it’s become increasingly important to make an outstanding record.
“People can sample your whole album on iTunes before they buy it,” he said. “If you only have one good song on there, they might buy that one. But if you have a high quality record … that’s what people want to hear, and they’ll spend money on that.”
While people like Pyfer are looking at what artists can do to improve their chances of making a living in music, others are trying to change the way the industry works as a whole.
John Buckner is the former tour manager for Neon Trees and current head of Artist Relations at ZAZZ Digital, a company that looks to make fundamental changes to the music business.
According to Buckner, the current way record labels work is by providing incentives for producers to make as many records for as little cost as possible. In such a system, the music suffers. Buckner’s goal is to give both producers and bands the incentive to make high quality albums and reduce the common stresses of running out of time or money.
“There’s just a huge paradigm shift that needs to take place to where there’s fair trade going on,” Buckner said. “There’s not fair trade anymore in the music business.”
Until that balance of give and take between artists and labels can be reached however, bands might be well served to follow the do-it-yourself route of Joshua James, or pursue alternative channels like The Moth & The Flame.