With the music industry less artist-friendly than it once was, many savvy musicians are starting their own record companies. We talked to five musician-CEOs about the challenges of being both management and labor.
Van Dyke Parks
Parks, best known for his masterpiece Song Cycle and writing lyrics for The Beach Boys’ Smile, can now add label head to his CV. This former Warner artist recently founded Bananastan Records, by necessity.
“I couldn’t find a reputable record label in the States to distribute my product,” says Parks. “So I created my own to release my records, like (May’s) Songs Cycled.”
He also got business-smart, knowing when to get professional help for certain tasks.
“I found myself a CPA, who does the books,” he says. “Plus, my wife, Sally, has her input. Ultimately, I decided to release and sell singles, because they’re less expensive. Remember, you must have a site! Regarding the people who work with me, I believe in ‘delicate strength.’ Surround yourself with people you admire. Then let them have their way. Without Bananastan, I wouldn’t be able to get my music out. But this stuff will come out and is actually selling. Because now I’m in charge.”
Loudon’s sister (and Rufus’s aunt) is one fine songwriter herself. She runs her own label, Derby Disc Music, and recently hired an assistant. She has previous business experience, which helps with making day-to-day decisions.
“I’m an entrepreneur,” Wainwright says. “I once owned a restaurant, The Baker’s Cafe, which was great business training. Being in charge, paradoxically, means I also rely on experts. I don’t know everything. So, I get help from people regarding itineraries, contracts. My assistant? He does my office and social media stuff. I make the decisions about recording and gigging. But a good boss should be willing to collaborate with someone who knows more.”
Wainwright also knows when to outsource.
“I recently signed with a PR firm, who’ll help with the re-release of a record. I make decisions about how to spend money. Most importantly, you have to remember this is a job. Work on it every day. You’ll definitely see results.”
Best known for his hit “Someday Someway,” Crenshaw’s done what any good CEO might do. He’s diversified. At his website, fans can either order individual EPs or join Crenshaw’s subscription service for one year. Which gets you three 10-inch vinyl EPs.
Plus, Crenshaw has some trustworthy employees: his family.
“The biggest change, compared to my major label days, is there’s labor involved now. Packing, shipping of the product. I’ve done it with my wife and two children. A real assembly line. Also, the orders have been so big, that people from my office are struggling. So I’ll volunteer to help out more.”
His advice to label owners starting out?
“As the boss, make sure you don’t run out of stock. I have, several times. Still, if you’re gonna have a problem? That’s not a bad one to have.”
Once hailed as “The New Dylan” (just like his friend Bruce Springsteen), Murphy “invented” being his own CEO. Based in Paris, selling lots of records, he loves being boss.
“In 1979, after recording for the majors, I found myself without a label,” Murphy recalls. “I started my own, overseeing everything from recording to pressing. One day, I dropped off an album re-order to a Manhattan store. The manager looked at me, confused. ‘You’re Elliott Murphy?’ he asked. ‘Right,’ I replied. ‘You deliver the records yourself?’ ‘Right again,’ I replied. ‘Why?’ he demanded. ‘Total artistic control!’ I said ‘Smart artist!’ he said.”
Aside from playing 100 dates a year and selling CDs — “My wife is my staff, although she’d kill me for saying so” — Murphy now manages his son’s band.
“I tell him to do what I do: Get involved in every decision that concerns your career, keep longevity in mind as your goal.”
After making acclaimed albums for Arista and Columbia, Willie Nile found success and happiness piloting his own ship. Here’s what this CEO says about running things.
“It’s never been better. With my River House Records, I can realize all my creative decisions, unencumbered. I answer to no one.”
Nile says being his own boss, he spends his bucks wisely. Hiring the right employee turned things around.
“In 2011, I got a publicist, Cary Baker. He got my record The Innocent Ones to USA Today. They wrote a great story about it. And because it hit the wire services, I got a ton of gigs out of it.”
Still, there are drawbacks to running one’s own business.
“Along with recording and touring, I’m always attending to details. There’s artwork to approve, booking issues, shipping. It’s exhausting. But for my upcoming album, American Ride, my fans raised my recording money in four days! That gives you the energy to go on. So you can justify your fans’ faith in you.”