The Elusive Label Deal

February 1st, 2007

So Glenn sends me a link to this fellow Scott Andrew’s blog in which he calls for some kind of musical deathmatch involving me. Once and for all, I don’t do deathmatches – I don’t even do painmatches. A minordiscomfortmatch is as far as I’ll go.

But the point is, Andrew links to this NPR story about Dresden Dolls. They tour full time, probably work pretty hard, and apparently make $1500 a month. Wha? Of course their label deal gives them only about a dollar per CD, and I guess when they tour they spend money on a road crew and a bus and stuff like that, because they’re an actual band. But how depressing is that? They’re like, a real band with a label and everything. I make more than that, and I have no idea what I’m doing. How can this be?

32 Responses to “The Elusive Label Deal”

  1. Glenn says:

    Do the Dresden Dolls sell robots, monkeys, and bananas? I think not.

    I suspect it’s a cost/revenue thing, where your costs are comparatively low.

  2. Brett says:

    See the perennially crazy Courtney Love’s very sane article on this very topic: http://archive.salon.com/tech/feature/2000/06/14/love/print.html

  3. Ben says:

    It’s CLEARLY the internet.

    While I had read the Courtney Love article in the past, but JC isn’t thinking about playing sold out stadiums (if you are you’ll probably want to switch to electric guitar JC LOL), because that’s different.

    JC’s model should be more like the independant-type folky singer-songwriter types that (to roughly categorize) he is. Lots of these folks have a lot less overhead, because their tours are smaller, and don’t require quite as much support costs. Granted, I’m sure JC would love not to have to worry about who is staffing the Merch table at each show, he also doesn’t need 18 roadies.

    I think whats really helping you out is the approach. You’re not trying to act like you know what you’re doing, you’re just doing it. Making your fans more like your friends works for all kinds of industries, including the Country Music industry, which todays “folk” music is kind of the love child of (with Pop music as the father). Country wouldnt nearly be as popular if it werent for all the fan friendly things they do. Heck look at nascar. Anyways Im digressing a bit.

    The site, the approach to marketing, and most importantly, involving your fans in your music instead of looking at them as people with targets on their backs is why youre doing better than many “real” bands.

    Having a contest to see who will provide the solo for a song, not just allowing but encouraging us to make videos of your songs, and allowing us to submit our ideas that you can take and run with for maerch, etc. that’s what makes someone fan friendly, and leads to word of mouth.

    And word of mouth is far stronger than any marketing machine.

  4. minimo says:

    Ben makes many excellent points.
    Years ago, a friend of mine made a niche album (jazz brass ensemble or something) and after 3 years, his band still owed the record company money.
    At this point, I don’t know what signing with a label could do for JC that he hasn’t already done for himself.
    One day, JC will be called “The Father of Internet Indy Music Marketing” or something like that. And we can say we knew him when he would exclaim, “I made $60 online today! Yess!”

  5. Rob Balder says:

    Well, they also got $40,000 to license a song to sell peanut butter. I would call that a notable piece of the puzzle.

    It’s also not a given that the Dresden Dolls are handling “Dresden Dolls: the brand/concept/intellectual property/business” in anything close to an optimal way. They’re getting reamed by their label on the CDs, for instance (though that might be worth it if the label is arranging the pairing with NIN).

    It’s complicated, but my bet would be that thre Dresden Dolls in 15 years will be saying, “Boy were we stupid about the money stuff back then.”

  6. Randal C. says:

    I might note that the Dresden Dolls have none of my money, whereas you do have some of it.

    Courtney Love’s aforementioned article has a couple of your answers, of course: material enough for six albums at her rates would cost you $3 million dollars, plus a dozen machinima or flickr videos for another $6 million, which cost you considerably less (I’m guessing here).

    And I don’t think you’ve begun to tap into the income potential of your work, yet. With the distribution systems you have in place, and greater exposure, and a touring schedule that gets the plane tickets covered by Random House, you stand to make a killing when your next album, “Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows,” comes out.

    The only thing I see missing in the equation is royalties and licensing for when your work is used in a manner that violates creative commons–but I’d wager you’ve got that covered, too.

  7. JC says:

    I’m sure their records sound a lot better than mine too – but you pay a lot of money for that extra 10% (or whatever) of sonic excellence. I even skimped on the packaging, everything is cardboard sleeves. Who uses jewel cases anymore?

    By the way, where the hell is MY peanut butter money?

  8. minimo says:

    Did the Code Monkey cartoon people actually not contact you, for real? I find that so hard to believe.

  9. Randal C. says:

    I’m curious as to what Courtney Love would sound like without that extra 10%.

  10. scottandrew says:

    Aww, c’mon. JoCo and Platt! To the pain!

    Anyway. It later occurred to me that $1500 might be what the Dolls pay themselves and not necessarily what they earn. In the audio interview, Amanda mentions that they live that way “by choice.” AFAIK they might be funneling all the cash from those DD-branded panties into an aggressive brokerage account.

    ps: saw you live at the 826 Valencia thing and your Jewelbox show in Seattle last summer.

    pps: I think my girlfriend likes your music better than mine. ::shakes fist::

  11. SK says:

    First heard the DD’s on Left of Centre (Sirius Sat. Radio), thought they were cool until I flipped over to local (mainstream) radio station and heard them. Something of curse to go mainstream- you get the fans who’ll jump on the bandwagon for the song-du-jour-earn a few bucks and then burn out. Most Indie fans are pretty loyal so long as they don’t see you as a sell-out. This is the reason I’m still a Ween fan (regardless of Honda swiping “Ocean Man” for a commercial). I paid 12 bucks three years ago to see the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s at Cats Cradle in Carborro, NC. Once they went mainstream I tossed their CD. C’est la vie.

  12. Colleenky says:

    SK, I don’t want to start a flame war here, but I have to say that I find your stance to be irrational and snobbish. Did the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s CD suddenly become worse because they went mainstream? If the music’s good, it’s good regardless of the musician’s financial decisions. And you shouldn’t begrudge musicians their choice to actually earn a living. The way you’ve phrased your comments makes it sound like you base your taste on “indie mystique” rather than the actual quality of the music. Maybe I’m misreading something.

  13. Paul says:

    I’ve done the semi-pro musician thing, been in a band signed to a label, and even toured twice. All of it was highly overrated, and a money losing proposition every step of the way. That’s not to say it wasn’t fun from time to time, but the money just isn’t there. The labels are out to squeeze every last penny for themselves, and even the venues will screw you if they think you’re screwable. “Oh, you want to sell merch? Yeah, we get 30% of every sale for allowing you to set up here.” As a result, I have a closet with 1100+ CDs in it, which will be used to line a nice reflective geodesic dome someday…

    Of the two or three full-time musicians I know, none of them “live well”, in any manner. They have nice places, but they’re living paycheck to paycheck, and often those paychecks are three to six months apart, when the label sends them royalties or advances, which are not huge.

    I think your success is due to 1) your talent, 2) your niche, and 3) the low overhead that internet marketing has, which happens to work well with your niche. The fact is, major labels can’t give you more than you have now, and wouldn’t even know how to do that. They don’t want to market intelligent songs to an internet-savvy crowd, that’s not their demographic. They can’t maximize profits on those people.

    That’s not to say there aren’t opportunities in licensing, or other “alternative income” routes for your music. Check out video game licensing, you’d be amazed at what acts get into all kinds of games, and usually at the whim of the designers and developers. Also look into ads, movie trailers, and so on.

    But mostly, just keep writing clever, funny, solid songs that appeal to the disaffected intellectuals. In a world full of label manufactured mediocrity, it’s refreshing to hear polished songs about crazy cyborgs and monorails for a change.

  14. Ben says:

    JC – As for your peanut butter money, I think you’d be better off pushing all the songs that have animals as the subjects (even code monkeys) as a single animal themed CD at Zoos. :D

    PS. You don’t need the extra 10%. Most people can’t tell the difference anyways.

    SK – I disagree with you. Mainstream isn’t a decision a band makes, no matter what they think. Mainstream is what happens when you become a commercial success and get played on Top 40 stations. Think about all the rap heard in Top 40 these days. Do these rappers lose their street cred when they’re played on Top 40? Heck no. It’s more bling for the babys momma, and they for shizzle aint worried about it. I like what I like and I dont care who plays it on the radio.

    Randall – I’ve got a friend in A&R who has heard her new album and says it’s really fantastic. Some singer-songwriter (4 non-blondes, or some other formerly well known female act) did a majority of the producing.

    I guess Im different. I dont care about their personal lives in terms of their music. Hell if Michael Jackson actually made good music again, I’d buy it.

  15. bill says:

    Hey JC. I don’t buy a lot of music or go to concerts much anymore — used to a lot. But I bought your full wad of mp3 downloads and bought three of your CDs at your concert in Dayton. I don’t like foul and offensive language in music because I feel it degrades society. However, I’ve bought all your music that I could, even the foul stuff — it’s funny stuff but I just can’t play it all in mixed company. (My fiancée *really* dislikes the potty mouth, but she digs your music. She thinks it’s smart and funny stuff. BTW, the incredibly-talented Sometymes Why took it too far; wasn’t funny and lost some CDs sales at that show.)

    I probably have 500 or more CDs covered with dust. Your CDs are among the very few I actually listen to anymore.

    Your friendly, funny, folksy approach is the best. You seem humble and generous, a normal kind of guy. You’re an anti-celebrity. If you change that approach, I think you’ll lose your appeal. So stay cool and I’ll keep buying your music and seeing your shows, my friend.

    (Yeah, the website and lax attitude about merchandise and videos and all that is great, but it’s just a reflection of a pretty cool guy.)

  16. Average Jon says:

    JC is better.

    I don’t know much about the Dresden Dolls, but I doubt that they could write a song a week. They also don’t have enough songs about squids, curling, cyborgs, or mad scientists.

  17. —-Randal C. Says:—-
    February 1st, 2007 at 7:01 pm

    “I’m curious as to what Courtney Love would sound like without that extra 10%.”

    I think a little something like this.

    http://www.soundhunter.com/hunter/animals/large_cat.wav

  18. I saw the Dresden Dolls open up for the NIN. They were good; I won’t deny it. But they didn’t e-mail me back when I was trying to figure out a chord in September of ’04. They didn’t make time to come to my shitty little hole-in-the-wall cafe to speak to my friends about their music. They didn’t come to my town, introduce me to their mom (who was a delight, by the way – yours, not theirs) and make my kid feel special by signing his frisbee.

    You make much more than they do per CD sold, and per download. Your merchandise is pure profit. You sell a LOT more CDs, per person, at any event because you’re personable and your brand of entertainment is a cerebral one, which appeals to both people who love music and to people for whom music isn’t such a central focus. You play shows where you already know you have a demand, instead of going somewhere and demanding that the people start liking you. You built a following by giving us a reason to check back to your site CONSTANTLY, for an entire year. Stuff like that builds habbit. I know I’m not going to get any new songs this week, but I’ve gotten so used to seeing what you’re up to, and I’ve developed a vested interest in your adventure, as have many of us.

    Thank you, JoCo, for rocking. And seriously, pick a Friday in April and get back to me, ’cause I’m starting to jones.

    Thanks!
    Eric

  19. Gle3nn says:

    Yeah, What Eric said, times ten!

  20. Marysusan says:

    Did any of ya’ll hear JoCo’s DNA on Weekend Edition this Sunday (today)? It was used to follow up a story about using DNA to generate art by using electropheoresis banding as a pattern base.

    Someone at NPR loves them some JoCo. Which producer are you bribing Jon?

    I think this is the ultimate strategy for world domination.

  21. Randal C. says:

    FromtheAshesChris, you’re a nicer person than I am.

    Let’s just say Kurt Cobain’s fascination for Courtney might come from his being a fan of this band:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tC976ydqE3g

  22. [...] Coulton points out that he’s making more money that the Dresden Dolls. But how depressing is that? They’re like, a real band with a label and everything. I make more than that, and I have no idea what I’m doing. How can this be? [...]

  23. @Randal C.

    Oh…..oh………oh my………………..

    Something…compelling me…….to track down……………….this record :(

  24. Randal C. says:

    I don’t know whether I should mention that it’s available on iTunes or not. In some jurisdictions, just telling you that could be considered assault.

  25. What is this…eye toons…of which you speak?

  26. Lauren says:

    Because as much as I like the Dresden Dolls, I would not drive ten hours to see them play. I would not buy tshirts with their logos/designs/etc on it(as a matter of fact, JC, I believe you are the ONLY person I’ve seen in concert and bought t shirts from).

  27. JY says:

    I suspect that nobody FORCED them to sign their record deal. They likely don’t have families to feed yet either.

    Depending on who you believe, between 80% and 95% of major label releases result in a loss for the label. From reading the NPR article, it sounds like their recordings are barely getting above the breakeven point. I suppose that treading water in a major label means their albums are doing better than the other 80%-95% of releases that outright drown.

    JY

  28. thanbo says:

    Touring is advertising for the album. I thought that was pretty common knowledge. The Grateful Dead lost a lot of money on touring in the mid-1970s, when W. Stanley Owsley, III, was their sound guy – the cost of setting up the sound equipment repeatedly, keeping it in repair, etc. was more than they made in ticket sales.

    I see it in smaller acts too, e.g. Carla Ulbrich – she appears at various places in return for expenses, and the chance to sell albums. That’s the rule of thumb for, e.g., filk conventions – if someone is a guest of the convention, their room, board and transportation are covered, but they don’t get a wage for performing beyond that.

    And rapacious contracts for albums are also pretty common. I can’t say how many groups have appeared on MTV Behind the Music or whatever and talked about breaking up with their initial manager or record label because, in order to get exposure, they allowed themselves to be maneuvered into contracts that promised them almost nothing for record sales, performances, etc.

  29. [...] John Vanderslice isn’t doing print. Jonathan Coulton is making way more than $1500. Here’s some back story. [...]

  30. [...] John Vanderslice isn’t doing print. Jonathan Coulton is making way more than $1500. Here’s some back story. [...]

  31. Rafe says:

    You make more money, but I think you are a bit of an exception