Label of Love: Why 9:30 Records Isn’t Exactly a Label, and What That Says About the Industry
Justin Jones, left, and Seth Hurwitz
Ask Seth Hurwitz about how wise it is to start a record label, and his answer is surprising: “This has zero to do with making money,” says Hurwitz, the successful 9:30 Club co-owner, chairman of concert promoter I.M.P., legal adversary of the concert behemoth Live Nation, and now head of the nascent 9:30 Records, home to the Virginia alt-country singer-songwriter Justin Jones. “The goal of this has never been making money on the label,” Hurwitz says. “It’s about getting Justin’s music out there for people to hear. It’s about turning him into a live act.”
In that, Hurwitz may not be a typical label owner. And although he’s been Jones’ manager for several years, he’s really more his patron. “I don’t expect to make a dime on this,” Hurwitz says. “I’m not going to take a [manager’s] cut if he’s losing money. We’ll hopefully get to that someday.”
And 9:30 Records, which announced its existence last week, isn’t a typical label, or perhaps even one at all. It owns Jones’ music, and is fronting the capital to release his The Little Fox EP this month, and likely a full-length album next year. But many of the other typical label duties—sales, some of the marketing, radio promotion, new media—will fall on Thirty Tigers, a Nashville-based “aggregator” company that sells much of the infrastructure of record labels without their creative input, and other companies with which it works. The club's booking manager and the president of 9:30 Records, Lisa White, writes that she'll mostly coordinate logistics.
Thirty Tigers won’t manufacture or distribute the actual CDs—for the former, it put Hurwitz and his staff in touch with a handful of CD-manufacturing companies who competitively bid. And while Thirty Tigers is undoubtedly one alternative to the major-label model, it also relies on it: Thirty Tigers and companies like MRI and Rocket Science put their music in physical and online stores using RED, Sony’s independent music distributor.
Thirty Tigers boasts about 30 active labels under its umbrella—most of which have only one artist, who mostly fall somewhere along the spectrum of alt-country, Americana, and roots music. The most successful act is probably the Avett Brothers, the strained-voice alt-folk outfit from North Carolina that released several albums through the Thirty Tigers-affiliated Ramseur Records and are now signed to the Columbia Records imprint American Recordings. Ramseur has a roster of nine bands and is ostensibly a full-service label and management company—it’s hardly scandalous, but you wouldn’t notice that Ramseur outsources some of what it does. “[Thirty Tigers] is the kind of company that tends to fly under the radar,” says Glenn Peoples, senior editorial analyst at Billboard. “People in the industry might know about these, but they’re kind of invisible to consumers.”
Following a decade in which record sales plummeted, major labels shrank, and the sheer number of acts selling recorded music seems to have ballooned, aggregators may be the future. At the very least, says Thirty Tigers President David Macias, they’re well-positioned in the current landscape: The company is far leaner than a major—it has nine employees—and is likely as adept at selling and promoting music as a successful indie label.
Here’s how it works. Hurwitz and Macias wouldn’t share specifics of the deal, but Macias says arrangements usually involve the label paying Thirty Tigers about 20 percent of its gross—the cost of a typical distribution deal—plus an additional 10 percent or less for the other services. “You’re keeping 70-75 percent of revenue,” Macias says. “If you’re selling 20,000, you’re grossing 160,000 probably, so all of a sudden, after they pay us and they pay [for other expenses], then all of a sudden they’ve got money and they keep ownership over their assets...It gives them infrastructure that I think allows them to earn a living at 10 or 20 thousand units.” Macias says a band can break even selling around 7,500 albums.
Jones won’t have to worry about many other expenses yet. His manager works gratis, and he currently self-books, although Hurwitz says they’re looking for a booking agent.
Undoubtedly, having the 9:30 stamp on his music is beneficial to Jones, who is well-known in the area’s alt-country scene and is also a bartender at the club. Do you know any other bartender-musicians who were the subject of a half-dozen news articles last week trumpeting their forthcoming record? Jones got the press via 9:30’s announcement about its record label.
The success of Thirty Tigers and its one-act labels suggests a musical landscape in which consumers’ attentions are more fickle, labels’ curatorship matters less, and whatever manages to quickly catch enough ears wins.
Thirty Tigers has been around for nine years, and Peoples says other similar companies existed earlier. Macias says business is good, and that the company is adding acts at a fast clip: He says about a quarter of Thirty Tigers’ 2010 releases are from artists that are new to the company. In some cases, a band’s music will convince Thirty Tigers to work with an act; other times it’s the involvement of a third party, like Hurwitz, although Macias says he’s a fan of Jones’ music. But even if Jones tanks, Macias says, Thirty Tigers would still put out more music from 9:30 Records. (Hurwitz told TBD.com last week that he had no immediate plans to sign more acts.)
There’s an almost democratic potential in aggregators: They make what’s effectively self-releasing more efficient. But in some cases they could dilute, for better or for worse, the layer of filtration provided by labels. Hurwitz says he brought Jones’ music to a number of labels and grew frustrated. “‘No’ to me means try harder,” he says. “The more I got turned down—‘we like it, we don’t love it’—that drives you crazy.” I asked him if that means Jones’ music—a ragged, melodic roots pop—doesn’t have much mileage. “I think after 30 years, I know talent,” he says. “I don’t like bullshit—as a promoter I put on plenty of bullshit, but that doesn’t mean I like it. But when I recognize a genuine talent, I always believe that’s going to go somewhere.”
Jones says all he can do is hope for the best. “There’s no real model that works,” he says. “If there was, everyone would do it. I’ve been talking to Seth about starting a label for a couple years. Now I feel like no matter what, at least you’re in control of what happens. To me that is a better model.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery