Bill Baird's Brief History of Major Label Blah

Post Author:
Bill Baird

I once told Megadeth's manager that they 'fucking sucked.' That's probably the highlight of my entire time on Capitol Records. I'd been invited to their show at the Hollywood Palladium by a potential manager. I will not name names, but this potential manager wore Uggs everywhere he went and, at our introductory dinner, ate two very large steaks right in a row. He was not a refined man, but he was related to a refined man, and so he had a position of power in the major label music world.

How did I end up dining with such a man? How did I end up his guest at a Megadeth concert? How did I end up with a pile of t-shirts from Megadeth's 'grunge' period?

I am still figuring all this out. I am still shuddering thinking about the piles of money that got passed around. More money than I will probably ever see again. And it seemed to vanish, like vapor. Like my 'music career' prospects.

I'd started just recording on the 4-track, making absurd songs. Comedy mostly. I hooked up with my friend Matt in Austin, TX and gradually the jokes receded to the background. We started a band called Sound Team.

'We can do this!' we told ourselves. So we packed our belongings and headed to the Pacific Northwest with dreams of a reel to reel spinning in a North Cascades log cabin, while we drank endless cups of coffee and smoked joints, crafting our log-cabin synthesizer music. But we ended up cold and alone and friendless in a Portland, OR rental house, writing songs on the 4-track and performing menial jobs. I myself worked stapling packets of tax returns. My co-workers hated me because on my first day I told my boss that Creed was 'fucking awful,' not realizing she was something of a Creed super-fan.

So we decided to move back to sunny Austin, TX and start a real band that existed outside the 4track. Things came together quickly. We ended up touring with the Arcade Fire and the Walkmen and Britt Daniel would pat us on the back, him being the Austin patriarch of sorts. I found an old warehouse in East Austin and named it Big Orange, in honor of The Band's 'Big Pink.' And also because orange was Sound Team's color.

We self-released cassettes and tour cd-rs and screen printed our own posters, and this intense DIY approach brought the labels to us. It was nice, for a time, being wined and dined. Not realizing that all this fancy food and drink softens your drive, makes you satiated. And this is a very bad feeling for a band attempting to lift off.

I have always been drawn to what I'm 'not supposed to do.' I have some weird urge to prove to others that their rules and barriers are artificial boundaries, that we are all much bigger than we can imagine. In this case, most everybody was telling us to sign with Sub Pop and move on to fame and fortune. Stay away from the major label stink. But it was precisely this urging that made me consider the major labels, and ultimately, Sound Team signed to Capitol. I wanted to show that we were above all this major vs. indie nonsense.

And so we became a fiercely DIY band on a major label. And, all of a sudden, the joy of craft became something else entirely. It was no longer as simple as making a good record and making sure it's available. I felt like I was stapling tax returns again. Capitol had a strange bureaucratic structure that made it quite difficult to know exactly how to get things done. Designs had to be approved over here, checks needed to be disbursed over there, and let's not forget the lawyers. Nobody wanted to offend anybody else, so making obvious and logical changes to a plan of action was almost impossible.

Nobody on a major label ever directly asks you to change the music; it happens naturally. The aggravation of fighting over every single detail, of having to explain every course of action, makes you tired. It demoralizes you. And by the time you actually hit the 'record' button, you find yourself a different person. Some part of yourself, the part of yourself that probably attracted attention in the first place, has been chipped away in a hardly noticeable way. But you're different, and the music is different too. You become tired of fighting. In one instance, we insisted the street team stop littering clubs with our band flyers. Well, this ruffled feathers. The executive at Capitol in charge of the street team was also in charge of signing tour support checks. So when it came time to receive our tour support money, it never arrived. I spent countless hours in the Capitol building, sleuthing why the money had dried up. Eventually, we had to apologize for something we were not sorry for, then had to apologize again and again, and eventually we were thrown a bone. Both maddening and demoralizing.

But I digress into depression. It wasn't all bad. We received a huge budget to make super8 promotional films. We built a 6 X 6 television grid and had Radiohead's photographer fly in to shoot it. We rode a limousine to an LA burrito stand. I could finally tell my parents what I was doing and they could nod like they understood.

But the music suffered and sales were bad, and our time was up. What did it? Was it the fight with the staff at Disneyland? That guy from the Dandy Warhols telling us about his personal chef? The fact that our album, when released, was the highest price album ever released on iTunes, for no apparent reason?

So now I'm self-releasing records in editions of 100, maybe 200, with little handwritten notes and bizarre bits of writing. The sort of stuff that's impossible to do on a major label. It's satisfying to deal directly with fans, but can also be quite sobering. I realized I have about 20 people who are serious lovers of my music and will follow me on my path. The other folks I guess I left behind awhile ago. Quality not quantity, right? I am putting that aphorism to the test in ways that stretch it beyond credulity, past the breaking point, into the realm of absurdity.

And so I have poured myself into making each album, each project, each creation a unique, one of a kind, hand numbered bit of myself. I mail out every package myself, usually months late, with a type-written note of apology, and maybe a copy of Sarah Palin's 'Going Rogue.'

And I'm back to being the weird uncle at family gatherings who seems to fritter away his time on a hobby. It's not a hobby dammit! I'm an artist!

External validation is a bitch. It comes and goes. Best to do without it, honestly. Ignore it. Listen to neither the good nor the bad reviews. Pay no mind to the people with normal lives. Make your art the best you can, for whatever size audience the universe sees fit for you. If it doesn't work out, there's always clown college. Or stapling tax returns.

Would I sign with a major label again? Would I be the trained monkey again? The artist on a leash? I think about that Kafka story, 'The Hunger Artist.' People line up and pay money to see an artist starving in a cage. I thought that story was brilliant. Except I find that, as I age, I'm not getting skinnier but actually getting a little paunch.

Yeah, I'd possibly sign to a major again, if they were dumb enough to sign me. I enjoyed taking the limo to the burrito stand. I enjoyed seeing the Les Paul echo chambers under the Capitol building. I enjoyed the $100 chocolate cakes. I enjoyed saying 'no' to Alan Moulder. I enjoyed being interviewed on MTV. Teen Vogue, not so much. I enjoyed how the major label gave shape to my outsider tendencies, probably most of all. I had something to push against. Though being on a major label was difficult, I perversely enjoyed the difficulty, and feeling like a fish out of water. I was far outside my comfort zone. It was a heavy learning experience. I wonder if I will ever get the chance to use what I've learned. Perhaps I'm using it already. My 20 fans are reaping the benefits.

It feels good to be alone again, with no label or support stuff, but it's a mixed blessing. I am an outsider in a vacuum. The only thing to push against is my own complacency, which is far more challenging and tricky than railing against a corporate exec who 'just doesn't get me.' The major label gave form to my antagonism.

But that antagonism was ultimately subsumed, the major label machine rubbing the edges off my personality just it had rubbed the edges off the music. By the end, I wanted my personality back, and my music along with it.

And now I have it, for better or worse. Nobody hears the music now before it's released. The committees and lawyers and obsequious sycophants are gone. The 'yes' men are gone. I have to trust my internal compass. It's leading me in strange directions, yes, but it always points in a direction. I can't say as much for 'strategy meetings' at an LA sushi joint.

I've seen the vicissitudes of the industry. But this whole question of major vs. indie vs. self-released is beside the point. The music, if you can find your way inside it, exists in a place untouched by all this bullshit.

Bill Baird will release a double album entitled Spring Break of the Soul on March 5 via Pau Wau Records.