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Start a Label and Build and Empire
Part Two.

by Mike Grebb.

This article first appeared in The Musician's Atlas' January 2006 Atlas Plugged Newsletter and is used by permission. The Musician's Atlas is a fantastic resource for musicians, containing over 30,000 music business contacts.

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Songwriter. Performer. Marketing Whiz. Distribution Guru. Entrepreneur. Success in the 21st century music marketplace requires multiple talents and demands. The reward of course, is more control of your career. And, if you've mastered all of those skill sets, why not be emperor? Last month in part 1 of our ongoing series, "Building Your Label Empire", we offered up brief case studies of bona fide artist-run indie label moguls (Ani DiFranco) as well as potential up & comers. What they share is a passion for music, artists and the belief that they can build the better mousetrap. This month our own Mike Grebb offers up his personal experience as part owner of indie label, BOS Music.

There’s nothing more difficult, time-consuming, frustrating and masochistic than starting your own record label. Believe me, I know. In addition to my job as resident mouthpiece here at Atlas Plugged, I’m also a partner in BOS Music, a label that I started with a few buddies about five years ago. Keeping BOS in the game hasn’t been easy. But having all walked over hot coals together at this point, we’ve become kindred survivors in the small-business battlefield. The key is to avoid friendly fire in the process—and sometimes that’s not easy when things get tough.

So why have we kept at it? We just love music. Plain and simple. And as battle-scarred artists ourselves, we know that artists need labels that will treat them with the respect they deserve.

It all started in the fall of 2000 when my friend Skip Daly was helping his longtime pal Todd Sheaffer start a solo music career after the untimely demise of Todd’s band, From Good Homes. Todd had created a label called Bag O’ Seeds and, after much discussion, Skip agreed to help run it. Skip then invited me and mutual friend Ben Dickinson, to come onboard. So we all traveled to New Jersey to meet with Todd and discuss our potential venture.

We arrived at Todd’s house and immediately clicked (the homemade chili and endless supply of beer didn't hurt). Our first official "meeting" took place around a bonfire in Todd’s backyard where we talked about music and how the business was changing. Back then, Napster and all of the related Internet madness was really starting to shake things up. We were excited about the possibilities for a small label. It seemed like the perfect time to take on the "old guard" in the music business and do our part to knock those walls down. As Skip recalls, "we were full of piss and vinegar, and ready to change the music industry." That about sums it up.  We drank some more beer. The fire grew higher. At some point, we decided to condense the Bag O’ Seeds name into the acronym BOS… and BOS Music was born.

The next few months involved plenty of planning and carving out roles for each other. I was supposed to work on the technology stuff. Skip was going to work on strategy and business development. And Ben was going to be the numbers guy, figuring out the finances. As the full-time touring musician, Todd focused on A&R with a mission to spread the word about BOS and scout new talent while on the road.

Things started coming together. Our first release was Todd’s incredible live album, Dream of Love. After much legwork, we started with a plan to get Todd's CD into stores in key markets (and, of course, to sell CDs at Todd’s shows). We also worked press for the record, scoring a number of positive reviews.

Then came a curve ball. Todd had been jamming out with a group of guys in the Jersey area, an effort that soon became "newgrass" sensation Railroad Earth. We were a bit worried because we had already distributed Dream of Love to some stores, and now there wouldn't be much tour support behind it. But when we heard the Railroad Earth demos, all of us knew we had to put out the record. So after some negotiation, BOS Music released The Black Bear Sessions, which is still considered a classic among the Railroad Earth faithful. It continues to sell well even to this day.

Eventually, we started actively scouting out other acts, and let me tell ya: A&R is unbelievably time-consuming. I can’t even count the number of artists who we have courted, going to show after show, having meeting after meeting after meeting… only to realize after hours of work that it just wasn’t going to happen. On a few occasions, we were glad things didn’t work out. The meet-and-greet and negotiation process often reveals many things, including whether there’s chemistry between the artist and the label. Sometimes there’s not. Often it’s just for the best for both sides when nothing happens—even when the artist is incredibly talented.

Another thing we learned: Many artists simply assume that a label is out to screw them. That’s understandable considering the history of the music business. But in our effort to prove that we were artist-friendly in the early days, we gave a few acts some really sweet deals that ended up being terrible for us. In one case, we gave an artist considerably more free goods than we should have and never really recouped our costs. In another case, we laid out a bunch of money to record an album, partly because the band had just gotten signed to a major booking agency. But when the booking deal disintegrated, a recoup we thought would take a few months took years. These are the lessons you learn as a young indie label. They’re painful but necessary. Because of these lessons, BOS Music is a much smarter label today.

In fact, we often walk away from deals when artists ask for more than we can give—even when we’re all huge fans of the music. One request that we sometimes get from artists and managers is for a "spec" deal. Here’s how it works: The label spends a bunch of time and money promoting the record, but the artist can walk away in a few months for really any reason at all. As an artist, I understand the reluctance to tie oneself down to a multi-album or "right of first refusal" deal with an indie for fear that it might complicate any future deal with a bigger label (which is always just right around the corner, right?). But no label can devote resources to an act that’s simply going to bolt when something better comes along. If you want an indie label's help getting you to the next level, the label needs to get something in return.

An artist-label relationship is really a partnership (or at least it should be). Both sides need to pull their weight and create a "win-win" that benefits everyone. My partner Skip puts it this way: "Do artists sometimes end up getting shafted? Sure. Are labels in business to make money? Definitely. But a lot of times the ‘horror stories’ you hear about are only one side of the story.  It goes back to the old adage about walking a mile in another’s shoes before passing judgement.  I think anyone quick to sling arrows at labels should first try running a label (and generating sufficient profit to keep it afloat) for a couple years. A lot of the black and whites quickly turn to gray." Okay. `Nuff said about that.

I don’t have space to get into every trial, tribulation and triumph of BOS Music over the years. But one thing is true: We’re still standing. And it’s because of our willingness to be flexible. When the situation changes (which happens all the time), you need to be ready to forget what you thought you knew and start over again. And you have to be prepared to do that every single day. I give so much credit to Skip, who has always been the CEO of sorts—doing the brunt of strategizing, phone work and other necessary relationship building. And Ben has been a wiz with the accounting stuff, keeping track of numbers that would probably give Skip and myself violent seizures. Meanwhile, Todd continues to tell us about some of the most incredible artists on the scene. And we all just try to have great ears for music.

Over the years, we have signed deals with some unbelievably talented folks, including Boston-based singer/songwriter Jess Klein, the San Francisco-based legendary duo The Rowan Brothers and several others. And we try to help talented artists whenever we can—even if there’s really nothing in it for us. At the end of the day, you’ve got to love music and the process of "discovering" it if you want to run your own label. Passion is the most important thing. After that, it’s all about being flexible and smart.

Yeah, I’m proud of what we have achieved. BOS Music will even be the primary sponsor of a showcase at the influential South By Southwest music festival in March! And it won’t be at some dinky bar on the outskirts of town. We're showcasing artists at the fabulous Maggie Mae’s right in the middle of the action on Sixth Street! (From 11 am to 5 pm on Saturday, March 18… write it down). We’ll have some co-sponsors and acts ranging from The Rowan Brothers to Rock band Oneside. Can you tell I’m excited? Passion, baby. Gotta keep that dream alive. Running your own label ain’t easy, but man… sometimes it can be pretty cool.


(Mike Grebb is a writer, journalist and singer/songwriter based in Washington, D.C. He just completed his debut solo record, Resolution, which is available at www.mikegrebb.com, as well as digitally on iTunes, MSN Music, Musicmatch, Yahoo! Music Unlimited and other sites. You can also be his friend on MySpace! www.myspace.com/mikegrebb).

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