Getting a label deal is important, but it's not the only route to success | Music Essay | Indy Week

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Getting a label deal is important, but it's not the only route to success



In early April, the Durham trio Hammer No More the Fingers released its second album, Black Shark, on Churchkey Records, the same local label that issued Hammer's debut record two years prior.

The day before the band threw its own party at Motorco Music Hall, The Daily Tar Heel ran two stories about Hammer—an extremely favorable review that described Black Shark as "a barrage of relentless hooks and breakdowns" and one of those seemingly innocuous, interview-based features that young rock bands tend to get during their dance through the record-release spotlight. Except this one had an unexpected twist.

On most every level, the piece's author, Joseph Chapman, seemed perhaps overly sympathetic to Hammer No More the Fingers' situation. He gave the members license and print inches to wax romantic about super-fans, to imitate particularly Southern members of the local music community and—most surprisingly—to not only lament that they were still on a local label but also to lambaste that local label's efforts, or apparent lack thereof.

"All of them said nothing to us at all," Hammer guitarist Joe Hall says near the start of the story, referencing a list of big-name independent labels to which they'd sent Black Shark with the help and advice of Churchkey. "I guess Dead Oceans at least acknowledged that we sent them stuff. Other than that, the majority of them ignored us."

Later in the piece, in describing the above-and-beyond actions of one particularly energetic fan, drummer Jeff Stickley says: "He's basically our record label, and he even wrote us that one time in an email. He was like, 'Look, I love doing all this stuff for you guys, but where the hell is your label at?'" Essentialy, he was dismissing the efforts Churchkey had made on the band's behalf.

Churchkey is a small Durham operation with about about a dozen titles to its credit. Run by best friends Steve Jones and Kyle Miller as a hobby, it's understandably not the label of Hammer's dreams or future. In fairness, it's worth noting the band has since contended that the comments about Churchkey Records were off the record, an assertion that Chapman and his editor have denied. Either way, the point stands: Over the past few years, I've heard the same woebegone tale from other area bands, all convinced that they'd never make it until they made it to a national label with a recognizable brand. And it's not only that, somehow, Hammer let Chapman get that on his tape recorder and in a newspaper; it's that they—and a lot of their peers, it seems—must believe it.

In 2011, blaming the local label that has tried to help you in any fashion for any lack of success—unless they're tyrannically holding you to a contract that won't let you try new approaches, which is not the case here—is not only the look of an ingrate but also that of an ignoramus. Hammer's complaints evince a false, Garden-of-Eden belief in a system that was never perfect while overlooking the currently uncertain, infinitely explorable landscape of the music industry. From an EP posted on Bandcamp and random bouts of blog love to relentless touring and the traditional label-discovery idea, multiple models have now proven successful for bands in search of fans. Sure, really good music goes overlooked by the masses all the time, but now, more than ever before, the avenues to new listeners are not only more abundant but more open. You don't need an agent or a suit with a Geffen A&R name tag to get your music into the world; you can actually do it yourself, but even that's not necessary.

The assumption that signing to any label—a local, a tiny indie, a prominent indie like Matador or Merge or Dead Oceans, or even a major like Sony—leads to a rise to fame has never been true. Hammer No More the Fingers has repeatedly disavowed bands like Archers of Loaf, Pavement and especially Superchunk as influences, but one way or another, Hammer writes and plays like a logical descendant of those bands—silly and serious, perfectly spirited, slack but skilled. For a band that trends toward the sounds of two-decade-old indie rock, though, they seemed to have missed the part of history where labels with expense accounts and lavish offices scooped dozens or hundreds of little local rock bands from everywhere, especially Hammer's backyard of Chapel Hill. Most of those bands never even made money, let alone got famous or fulfilled what Chapman says remains Hammer's five-year plan—to be "successful arena-rockers in the vein of Phish, playing extended jams on a stage in front of thousands with an unforgettable light show."

In the past several years, several locals have signed to the exact sort of labels that Hall mentions as Hammer's missed key to the masses—Bowerbirds to Dead Oceans, Valient Thorr and Birds of Avalon to Volcom, The Love Language to Merge, Megafaun to Hometapes, the never-resting I Was Totally Destroying It to Greyday. (Disclosure: Several years ago, I operated a start-up label that released the first Bowerbirds record. They moved on to a bigger imprint, and I no longer run a label.) At this point, though, it's safe to say that each of those six continues to put in more than they get out. Rich by no stretch, famous only in the micro-celebrity sense, some members of those bands still hold down day jobs when they return from the road. The "formula" for success has never been to sign with a label, finish a record, release a record and get famous; that's perhaps the ideal and most convenient path, but even in 2011, when blog buzz can quickly push your band toward the mainstream, it's not a common path at all. Just as every kid who can touch the rim by the ninth grade doesn't go to the NBA in the first round, every band that links up with a label doesn't become the amphitheater-filling Bon Iver.

Indeed, the passel of bands that have risen to national prominence during the last decade thanks initially to online-driven hype suggests that acts don't need a label at all in order to find their audience nationally and even internationally, or at least start finding it. The aforementioned Bon Iver, for instance, was well on its way to star status before signing to Jagjaguwar, simply because the songs on the band's debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, charmed the Internet. The New York Times and Pitchfork Media praised that album seven months before it was properly released. The California hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All signed a distribution deal with a wing of Sony last month, only after becoming the buzz-blood of the Internet over the last year. Examples of this are abundant; together, they serve notice that for bands to find fans, they don't need to rely on the trusted systems they've read about in rock 'n' roll biographies or daydreamed to during a VH1 special. They just need to keep making music and finding ways to let the world hear it. It's not foolproof, but it's an idea that's full of promise.

This isn't to say that labels—local or otherwise—are useless. Imprints like Churchkey, Hammer's benighted local outlet, often front production and promotion costs and then sell the record in hopes they'll eventually make that money back. It's generally an essential service for young bands without a lot of money. What's more, labels big and small are, at best, well-curated brands with a listener base that's developed a trust for their aesthetic. They are still capable of helping an unknown band locate and foster fans, the point I think Hammer No More the Fingers tried and failed to articulate. Hammer has more than saturated the Triangle market, so a local-label deal won't readily help them find new fans. A deal with a larger and more nationally prominent imprint like Merge or Dead Oceans might—and that uncertainty is an essential qualification. But that's not the only way to fame, riches or even a career in the current music industry. It never has been, and it certainly isn't now.

I don't mean to make a scapegoat of Hammer No More the Fingers; given off-the-record conversations with a lot of bands during the last several years, the same articles—Chapman's piece in The Daily Tar Heel, and this one, too—could have been written with different names and similar quotes. Hammer is a good band that's made its second good record in a row, and given the success of nostalgic indie rock acts like Yuck and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, you would actually expect that they would have found a bigger fanbase by now. They're self-releasing an EP this fall, and maybe that will be the big break they've sought. But music's never been about sure successes and all-inclusive trends; there will always be a certain combination of luck and whim in who gets famous, and when. Now, at least, there are more avenues for young bands to try to find the perfect combination.

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