Sunday, September 29, 2013

Life after major labels: The case of Sloan

Today on the blog, Part 1 of my interview with Jay Ferguson of Sloan. Two decades of satisfying the pop-rock cravings of fans the world over, and like Frankie said, or would have said, they did it their way.

L: Today's interviewee Jay in his formative musical years.  R: Jay, more recently

A quick band history in 100 words or less: They got their start in the early 90s, were signed to Geffen in fairly short order, and after a brief dalliance with label life decided it was not for them. I met the band during this time as I hosted a series of radio shows on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (1992-1999) so my years behind the mic synched up with their time as darlings of Much Music (Canada’s MTV) and alt-rock stations in Canada, the US, the UK, and Australia. 

They even appeared on Late Night with Conan O'Brien.


I remember when I learned of the band’s decision to de-major label themselves, in the mid 1990s, and I had great difficulty getting my head around it. Getting onto a label was what everyone was trying to do, because it was generally the only way you could do things such as get your albums in stores, get your songs on the radio, get your videos onto the music video channels, and get press and promotion; all of which, if the stars aligned, made it possible to tour the clubs, bars, and even stadiums, of lands near and far. And to sell albums. Lots and lots of albums.

Gold in Canada: Jay, Patrick, Label guy?, Andrew, and Chris
Don't forget that the Internet was still in its exersaucer back then, and we were several decades into a music industry powered by the movement of big wheels on a big rig. And yet, despite gold records and Junos (Canadian equivalent of Grammys), the guys in Sloan came to the consensus that operating as part of the major label system was not for them.

Okay, so that was more than 100 words, but my point is that the band’s decision to extricate themselves from their label deal (which to me at the time seemed like taking a step backwards, not forward) turned out to be the best thing they ever did, as it paved the way for them to be able to operate the way they do today. They have ownership of most of their masters and publishing (most label deals make those assets the property of the label, with percentages going to the band/songwriters) and as a result have revenue streams sufficient to keep the band running as a profitable small business. The coming of technologies that enable direct to fan communication was a happy accident in the Sloan story, as they could not have foreseen the massive shift that would take place when media and entertainment became self-serve and on demand.

I have kept in touch with the band over the years, and when a work project took me to Toronto this summer I contacted guitarist Jay Ferguson to see if he would be willing to do a sit down interview. The topic would be reflecting on the music business, then and now, and how things have changed in the interim. It was a typically hot August night when Jay invited me into the kitchen of his Toronto bungaloft, and I'll be bringing you the conversation in a series of posts, as quickly as I can get the transcribing done. For now, let's get things started with Part One.



LK: Your band is one of the few bands that been able to reap the benefits of both the old and new music business. In fact it’s kind of like a career in reverse…in the best possible way. You built the band from the ground up, which resulted in getting the Geffen deal, then you worked hard to get away from the industry structures and toward doing things your own way. And then, in the chapter in which we find ourselves now, technology has made it possible for you to operate largely autonomously. With these things in mind what would you say are the pros & cons of the different systems you’ve experienced?

JF: I would have to say, the pros and cons of being on a major, if they’re behind you, is marketing. I find, for example, they can get you on radio, because you can’t do that on your own. You can hire independent promoters that help you get on the radio or there are people at the label who can do that but generally it’s the independent promoters. Good music doesn’t just get on the radio.

LK: But hasn’t the importance of radio diminished?

JF: I don’t know…because I don’t listen to it. But I would say that marketing dollars help, if a record company is really behind you. We benefitted from when Geffen was enthusiastic in the early days.  When we were on Murder [the band's own label, which has operated with distribution partnerships with a variety of major labels over the years] we were still being distributed by Universal, and their marketing really helped us. They helped get us on Much Music, in record stores, on the radio. We did things this way [recording on own label and having partnerships with majors] because we asked ourselves, "how much could we sell on our own…10,000?" And if we’re on a major, promoting us, would that 10,000 be 80,000? Or more? Probably. And even though they take a cut this still works out better for us. Over the years, we've had the conventional major deal with Geffen, then we started releasing our own music, on our label Murder, and over the year have done distribution deals with Universal (then MCA), BMG, then Sony/BMG, and a now defunct label that was called the Enclave (US only) that was distributed by EMI. They collapsed after 9 months. Classic music business story: musical chairs at the label, funding was lost, and they had to close up shop.

LK: How do you distribution now?

JF: We license to a company called Yep Roc. Yep Roc has people like Paul Weller, Nick Lowe, and Robyn Hitchcock. They’re not a big company, and they probably won’t get us on radio, but they’re fans of our records and they seem to know how to sustain fan bases. In Canada we use a company called Outside. We use Outside for marketing & promotion in Canada.

We still own our own records. And we have the freedom to, for example, put out an EP online, tomorrow. It's not like having an agreement with a larger label, where it takes months to get the red tape sorted out. But maybe that’s changed, I mean look at hip hop artists and mixtapes. 

LK: Yes, they're always "leaking" those, aren't they?
JF: Leaking is the new marketing. They probably have meetings about leakages (laughs). But anyway...we’re autonomous and we have our own web store where we have the whole catalogue for sale, digitally, and also sell our own records. Like last year, we did the Twice Removed box set.

The box set took Chris (Murphy) and I five months to do. We curated all the audio. What’s going to go on, tracking it down. Chris did all the interviewing for the liner notes, he also edited all the audio, created the oral history, and then we designed the book. We sift through our favourite design books and say "hey, why don’t we use this as the template for the book". We do all the artwork, so we’re the graphics department, and then I laid out the whole thing. We’re heavily involved, and even if we were on a major label I think we might not want to give up those tasks, because we want to do this stuff. We like to control the way we’re presented, to control our history…I don’t know if it’s vanity. I was writing a song the other day about keeping track of our own history. How are we going to be remembered…is it vanity or history? Do we leave it up to history, or is our vanity going to create how we’re going to be remembered. Making box sets remind people that we have a history. (laughs) but it’s kind of vain. I’m not going to wait for history…we’re going to tell you it’s history (laughs). It’s fun, in a way, because we like our band…we save articles, and demos, and posters…it’s almost like we thought about it in the 90s.

LK: And did you?

JF: I was always a fan of reissues and I remember thinking ‘I can’t wait to do this for our own band’. And I know Chris loves beautiful things, like archival material. And me, just being a fan of records, I loved it when things were done nicely. I’m glad that we saved all that stuff because now we have the fodder.

LK: Which will secure you a place in capital H history.

JF: (laughs)

Read Part Two, in which LK & JF discuss how the band has adjusted to a music industry no longer based primarily on album sales and mass marketing. And Part Three in which we get down to business on how the band runs the business.