New Model: Big Business On Life After Record Labels

L.A. heavies Big Business strike out on their own

"We want people to know about the record, but why do we have to give it away to everyone for free in order to make that happen?" Warren asks. "Our promo is going on tour. That's our responsibility."

Another step the band decided to eliminate was wholesale distribution. "If you talk about the effort that goes into making a record, the cost of manufacturing it, then selling it wholesale, shipping it, plus the amount a store has to mark it up to make a profit — just look at how many people there are in that chain who need to make a buck," Willis says. "How do you do that and still sell it at a price someone in their right mind would pay?"

Through their friends in the Portland band Red Fang, Big Business reached out to Isaac Edwards, an artist representative with a company called IndieMerch, headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio. As the name implies, IndieMerch licenses and prints T-shirts, posters, and other memorabilia, which is then sold to stores and distributors as well as through an online marketplace, But there's another side of IndieMerch, one devoted entirely to the operation of online retail channels for bands and labels.

In the case of Big Business, here's how that works: The band's "soft merch," as Edwards refers to it (T-shirts, posters, turntable slipmats), is manufactured by IndieMerch and sold to the band at a wholesale rate. Those items are then offered on the band's IndieMerch channel alongside CD and LP copies of Battlefields Forever, which the band manufactured independently. CDs are priced at $10, LPs at $18. For the service of handling those two items, IndieMerch collects a distribution fee of 10 to 15 percent to cover credit-card processing and warehousing fees. Compare that to the 20 to 40 percent a brick-and-mortar store would traditionally claim, not to mention the distributor's cut, the label's cut, and more.

And this is another crucial component: While a typical record label issues quarterly or semi-annual statements and royalty payments, IndieMerch's back-end software not only offers real-time sales reports, it pays on demand. If someone buys a Big Business LP through the online store tonight, the band can see the transaction and collect the money immediately. In other words, Big Business know exactly how much they're earning and exactly how much they've spent. At all times.

"It's completely transparent," Edwards says. "It's clean money; there's not a lot of hands in between."

Which isn't to say this model is one size fits all. The band's retail presence may exist entirely online, but their product takes up real physical space at the IndieMerch warehouse and requires real-life humans to pack and ship. Naturally, there's a limit to how many clients IndieMerch can take on. A brand-new, unheralded band would have a hard time getting in the door.

"It took us 10 years to get to this point," Warren says. "Any band can do what we're doing, just not necessarily at this scale."

Having proved to themselves that this current strategy is feasible, Big Business see little incentive in changing course. "In the music industry, every step of the way, as a band, you're being reminded that what you do has no value," Willis concludes. "You're constantly being reminded that you should drop on your knees and thank god that you're allowed to do this, because there's such a glut. If it's not said, it's implied. Fuck that. What we do is worth something. It is worthwhile. And we decide — not you — what it's worth."

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