New Model: Big Business On Life After Record Labels
Three-way sect:The religion of Big Business
R Amal Serena
It's nothing new, but it is typically true: Any band that wants press coverage pays for press coverage. They hire publicists, buy ads, send out promos, hand out guest-list spots. Nothing nefarious. But it does explain why lately, unless you're a dedicated fan, you probably haven't heard much about Big Business.
On Halloween 2013, the decade-old L.A.-based trio put out their fourth full-length, Battlefields Forever. While their three previous albums were released on Hydra Head, the genre-defying metal/hardcore label run by Aaron Turner of the band Isis, this one was self-released on Gold Metal Records, an imprint Big Business launched two years ago, and which has only released music by Big Business.
The label, which is to say the band, has not hired a publicist. It has not bought ads. It has not sent out promos. More radically, it isn't dealing to distributors wholesale, nor is it consigning to stores. Sales have been exclusive to an official Big Business online store. As a result, the release of Battlefields Forever has been, by most music-industry barometers, a non-event.
One of the few pieces of press Battlefields Forever has received, and easily the highest-profile, is an unsolicited review published on Pitchfork early this year, calling the record as "likable and unpredictable" as anything Big Business has ever done. But Pitchfork also describes it as "a phantom, a rumor that Big Business is still busy," and laments that the band's inability to weather the industry's "cycles of buzz" without the aid of an outside publicist or label is a "fundamental bummer."
"To be clear, we have absolutely no problem with that review," says Big Business guitarist Scott Martin. "It was actually very nice, almost like [the reviewer] was fighting for us. We just don't need him to."
That said, there is a misconception in the Pitchfork review that Big Business wound up self-releasing Battlefields Forever out of necessity following the collapse of Hydra Head, which in 2012 announced it would no longer be releasing new music. "One has nothing to do with the other," says bassist and singer Jared Warren.
In fact, by the time Hydra Head pulled the ripcord, Big Business had already put out two EPs on Gold Metal Records as a warm-up for Battlefields. "This isn't something we decided to do six months ago," Warren adds. "Those two EPs, that was us learning how the process worked."
The results so far? Granted, Big Business are only now going on tour to promote Battlefields Forever, but counting digital downloads and physical sales of CDs and LPs, they say they've moved in the neighborhood of 2,000 copies. If that doesn't sound like a lot, well, it isn't, by the band's own admission. Comparatively, Warren estimates that the three Hydra Head releases sold an average of 10,000 copies each.
And yet, after just three months of online-only sales, Big Business have already recouped their recording and manufacturing costs. Whether the public is talking about the record or not, Battlefields Forever is in the black.
"Traditionally, bands at our level don't make money from a record being released," Warren says. "You make money from going on tour. Well, we're about to go on tour and we have a stock of music we can sell that we already own. It's not like we're buying it from a label and now we have a debt to the label, where we owe them for stock. We just eliminated that person altogether. We own it; it's all ours."
Battlefields was recorded on a tight budget, but not on the cheap. The session took place over the course of two weeks at Entourage Studios in North Hollywood, with Unsane bassist Dave Curran at the helm, and was later mixed at Seaside Lounge in Brooklyn by Curran and producer Andrew Schneider. Both the recording and the mixing took longer than expected, but the band was willing to cover the added expense. "To be like, 'That's gonna cost us X amount of dollars; let's just be satisfied with what we have,' was not the point of this record," Warren says. "The point was to have a record that was self-financed and that we were 100 percent happy with."
And the way they saw it, they could save money elsewhere. For instance, publicity. "Initially it was like, we can't afford to hire a publicist because we don't have the money," Warren says. "But then it became this experiment: What if we promote in a cheap, easy way that's fun for us to do, and see what happens?"
The cheap, easy solution was to call on friends and family to help film two homemade promotional videos: one, a ridiculous mock-press conference about the album's release that features Warren's actor-comedian brother, Dusty, as every speaking member of the press corps; the other, a cheesy parody of late-night "not available in stores" TV ads that, given the album's distribution model, is actually pretty appropriate. (Disclosure: I've known Warren and Willis since the late '90s, and was an extra in one of the videos.)
So far, each video has garnered around 9,000 views on YouTube — a little fewer than the 10,000 followers Big Business have on Facebook. Hiring a publicist to reach those same 10,000 followers (and, at least theoretically, bring in a few more) would have set the band back thousands of dollars; apart from pizza and beer, the videos didn't cost them a cent.
"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, indiemerchstore.com. 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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