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Independent Record Labels: Building an empire from the ground up

The early 1900s was a time when what would be called “major record labels” were young and pushing to establish themselves and the artists they promoted in a new industry that would change the way the world consumed music. Back then, companies like Warner Brothers, Capitol, Atlantic, RCA and EMI Records were busy establishing themselves in the marketplace as powerhouses. By the ‘40s, they had a stranglehold that prevented movement for artists wanting to expand new ideas in music.

Independent record label Black River Entertainment COURTESY OF DAWN DELVO OF BLACK RIVER ENTERTAINMENT

Independent record label Black River Entertainment

When disputes arose with major labels over publishing, this fueled the fire for a new kind of record company – one that gave artists much more room for experimentation and more control over the music they created. The independent record label was born.

The impact of independent labels on the world of music was staggering. Some of the greatest artists were launched through independent record labels. Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins were artists launched through Sun Records, defining rock ‘n’ roll and pushing country music into mainstream America. The independent labels’ beauty was their aim at a small loyal audience, from which they have built their empires from the ground up.

Independent record labels have been a part of the American landscape for a long time, but only a few have succeeded. Nashville is home to a number of well-respected independent labels, including Black River Entertainment. CEO Gordon Kerr discussed his thoughts on the challenges facing independent labels. “I’m not sure I want to say we have succeeded yet,” explained Kerr honestly. ”When we think we have succeeded, we are in a dangerous position.”

Resting on your laurels is one thing independent labels cannot afford to do.

Black River’s CEO Gordon Kerr says the ability to make decisions fast is one of the keys to Black River’s success. COURTESY OF DAWN DELVO OF BLACK RIVER ENTERTAINMENT

“We are seeing some success now that we hadn’t seen in the past. Why others have failed? I can’t really comment on that. I can only speak on what we’ve done,” Kerr says matter-of-factly. “We have intentionally tried to surround ourselves with outstanding people, and we have built some great relationships through Nashville and outside of Nashville as well.”

It is true that relationships and hard work go hand in hand in the music business. “We never took the path that ‘we can do this alone,’” Kerr related frankly, “because the moment we think we can do this alone we are just not going to succeed.”

There are a lot of advantages with an independent label. “The decisions for this label rest right here in this office. As an independent label, we have the opportunity to move quickly. We don’t have to, but we can,” Kerr said. “Although we wouldn’t be in this business if it wasn’t for the success of the major labels, that’s the reality of any independent label.”

The smaller independent labels recognize the benefit from those who have come before them.

“It’s been the major labels that built the history of this stuff, because they started out as independent labels themselves,” Kerr relates honestly. “With some great decision making they’ve been able to grow into major labels.”

“We stand on the shoulders of those that come before us.”

Mike Curb, founder of Curb Records. COURTESY OF CURB RECORDS

Mike Curb, founder of Curb Records. COURTESY OF CURB RECORDS

Don’t think that being an independent company means it will be easy. As a matter of fact, it can be downright challenging at times. Just ask Mike Curb, founder of Curb Records, one of Nashville’s most respected and successful independent labels. Indeed, it is so successful that many outside of the music community don’t realize that Curb Records is an independent label. Yet they struggle with the same challenges as any other independent label.

“We’re competing with these majors, and they have a lot more clout – a lot more clout with radio – so it’s a big challenge for the independents to get their fair share of radio play and to get their fair share of the proceeds,” Curb explains. “In other words, to get your fair share and have parity with the majors – that is the No. 1 challenge for the independent companies is to get parity with the majors.”

“You don’t want to lose your artists to a major [label], and you want to be able to pay your artists as much as you can. And if you don’t have parity from your distributors, then you can’t do that. So it’s huge,” Curb describes frankly.

Independent labels “have the exact responsibilities to their artists” as the major labels have, which is why, Curb says, “it’s very important that they are paid and paid fairly.” Curb’s hope is that more agencies and government officials will embark on partnerships with independent labels to ensure that independent record labels are reimbursed fairly. “It’s very important that our elected representatives make sure that independents are paid the same – that we don’t get into issues where majors are paid one fee and independents are paid a second fee.

There should be one overall royalty. Each record company shouldn’t have to negotiate on their own, because that’s very complicated.” It is this business savvy combined with a creative mind and excellent work ethic that makes Curb Records one of the most recognized independent record labels in the country.

While there are many details that separate independent labels from major labels, one of the biggest differences would be ownership structure. According to Curb, an independent label is owned solely by independent individuals. “In my company, I’m the sole owner, and I’ve never had any partners. Now, I made a few mistakes along the way and entered into a few joint ventures and had to buy my way out a couple of times, but it’s a sole ownership,” explains Curb. This distinction can be found in many of the other independent labels in Nashville.

Curb Records staff “showing the love” for artist Lee Brice. COURTESY OF CURB RECORDS

Curb Records staff “showing the love” for artist Lee Brice. COURTESY OF CURB RECORDS

Being one’s own boss, even from the perspective of an independent label, can be both challenging and rewarding. The only decisions are yours and your chosen team. This is true for another successful independent label in town – Broken Bow Records, founded by music executive Benny Brown back in the late ‘90s. With independent labels, everything matters.

“We have to be passionate about the artists we represent,” says Jon Loba, Broken Bow’s executive vice president. “We have to be passionate about their music and the direction it is going. Benny always says, ‘If they can’t sit down with my wife, kids and grandkids and I know I don’t have to worry about what might come out of their mouths, I don’t want them.’ We spend a lot of time getting to know their hearts. If we’re comfortable with that and we are comfortable with their music, then we move forward.”

One similarity between independent and major labels is organizational structure. Each label, no matter its size, will all have their own executive positions and primary departments, such as legal, artist development, promotion and marketing. Peel back that layer, though, and that is where the difference lies. Independent labels still have the freedom and flexibility to foster internal camaraderie and an “all for one” attitude which can oftentimes provide an edge that becomes the independent label’s bread and butter.

“I remember when I started at Warner Brothers in 1996. They had just moved from a building on Division Street, which was basically a big house,” Loba describes. “Everybody would bring their dogs and cats and people had desks set up in the hallways. There was a lot of collaboration that went on there, and the year they moved into that building they had seven platinum records.

Broken Bow’s Jon Loba says one advantage to being an independent label is the flexibility to foster an “all for one” attitude. PHOTO BY GLENN STEITZE, COURTESY OF NATALIE KILGORE OF BBR.

Broken Bow’s Jon Loba says one advantage to being an independent label is the flexibility to foster an “all for one” attitude. PHOTO BY GLENN STEITZE, COURTESY OF NATALIE KILGORE OF BBR.

“From that point on, after they moved into the new building on Music Row there were several years of just a downward slide,” Loba says honestly. “There were more walls, and there was more separation. And when you talk to those who were there at the time they will say, ‘I think we lost a little magic going from that small house to a monoloft on Music Row.’”

Keeping the people and departments more integrated and fostering that “all for one” attitude is a tactic that Broken Bow uses to its advantage. “The biggest advantage we have is we don’t have quarterly profit pressure. We don’t have a bunch of internal politics. We can stay committed to an act until we decide it’s time to move on,” Loba explains. While profits are at the forefront of any small business owner’s’ mind, it’s not the only thing that drives independent labels, and it’s not what drives Benny Brown. “The thing that satisfies him the most is making others dreams come true, whether it be staff members or artists. And he wants to leave a musical legacy.”

While their size and structure can afford independent labels flexibility, some would consider that a smaller label has entered into the music business because they understand the struggles of musicians differently than the major labels do. Nashville is full of musicians, songwriters and performers who try to make it on their own, day after day.

It is conceivable that the work labels do could be mirrored by an individual artist. After all, labels promote their artists to papers, magazines and any media outlet that will listen. They set up performance venues, they set up recording sessions and they monitor profits from multiple revenue streams. A lone performer could try their hand at being “their own label,” and many do try.

For instance, they could create their own album and package it for sale. They could contact Donna Belote at the Palace Theater in Gallatin, Tennessee and set up a concert. They could send their information and concert dates to Cherish Matthews with the Gallatin News Examiner. They could promote their concert on WHIN Country Radio. They could sell tickets and collect the profits from their own concert. Is it feasible? Yes. But is it the same as being represented by a label, either an independent or a major? No. But it is that very desire for success and creativity that smaller labels can empathize with.

The team at Broken Bow Records. COURTESY OF NATALIE KILGORE OF BBR

The team at Broken Bow Records. COURTESY OF NATALIE KILGORE OF BBR

Even though independent labels have the same struggles as a major label and have even more challenges on top of that, it is that very fight that makes an independent label succeed. As the saying goes, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight. It’s the size of the fight in the dog.” While their smaller size can mean conducting large scale work with a small scale team, it also is an upside. It is because they are smaller that they can work more closely for the good of their artists.

Independent labels pride themselves on never watering down the creative side of their music. For that creativity is what the music business is built around in the first place. As long as a musician, songwriter or singer has something to say to the world, the independent record label will have a role to play in the music industry.

Perhaps that is the secret to building an empire from scratch.