Sounding Out Are you one of those people who like to feed jukeboxes five bucks at a time, hoping to manipulate the aural environment of your favorite bar for the next, oh, several hours? A frustrated deejay, perhaps? Maybe you have what it takes to be an indie label owner.
M.K. O'Connell launched his label, Anisette Records, in September 1997 and is celebrating its fourth release, a still-untitled oeuvre by a Los Angeles guitar-pop quintet, the Lassie Foundation. A financial analyst by trade, O'Connell stressed that this type of recording entrepreneurship is, at least initially, strictly a labor of love.
"It's a lot of heartache," he said. "The albums you think should really make it, they just don't get an audience."
A self-proclaimed music junky, O'Connell decided to start his own label when Jeremy Steckler, who founded the Now Sound as a sophomore at Duke University, turned to him for advice. "Jeremy was trying to sort out his finances and I noticed how big the profits were. Because the markup of CDs is so great, the break-even points are fairly low," he said. "I had been interested in music all through college. I worked at the college radio station, that sort of thing. I just figured it would be a brilliant way to start a business."
Here's how it works: get yourself a P.O. box, a catchy label name, and an office phone line in your apartment. Oh yeah, and find some talent. "The first band is always the hardest because you have to convince them you're going to make it happen," said O'Connell, 27. "This is their baby so they want to make sure whoever they partner up with is going to do them justice." Just taking a shine to a local act is not good enough. They need a reason to trust you, which means you need promotional and distribution capabilities - and getting those is no mean feat.
The Devil is in the Distribution Once you've convinced your favorite garage band that you're the next David Geffen, you have to prove to distributors that the product is going to sell. Send your proteges' home recording out to all the local college radio stations, badger them to play it, and alert your potential distributors as soon as the band charts locally. Send the album to every independent magazine and newspaper you can think of and hope they write a few favorable reviews. Start a clip file and send promotional kits to distributors. If you're lucky, they'll agree to take it on.
Once your first release sticks, you'll start paying to have the recordings mastered and manufactured, which O'Connell said can cost between $1,500 and $2,000 a pop. Unlike the first band he worked with, O'Connell said the Lassie Foundation "has had some success in that market already, so instead of having to shop it around to radio stations, first you send it to the distributor so people can buy it once they hear it. So you're sort of working the reverse" once your label gets going.
Don't Quit Your Day Job Anisette Records' third release, an EP by the Lassie Foundation, cost O'Connell $5,000. A year later, he is still about $1,000 shy of breaking even. He said he's hoping that with this latest release, interest will spark in the burgeoning band and fans will begin to snatch up their earlier releases.
But don't expect to quit your day job once your second album hits the shelves. With the latest in music flooding the Internet and a proliferation of newfangled genres cropping up yearly, finding one's niche in the mainstream industry is nigh on impossible. "It's hard to compete," said O'Connell. "It's a fractured playing field and if you're just starting off, it's hard to find your space. At the end of the day, I couldn't release another record by my first band because they just weren't successful enough."
So if you're that frustrated deejay feeding quarters into the machine, consider finding yourself an unsigned local band, pooling some cash, and starting your own indie record label. . . and dream on!