For all the hand-wringing lately about the music industry's being in trouble, the times are arguably better for indie labels than they've ever been. Because an indie needs to sell only a few thousand copies to turn a profit, and because there's so much good music out there that the majors don't care about, the time seems right for anyone with some savings, some savvy, and some contacts to move in.
The latest of those folks is Darren Hill, the Providence-based journeyman bass player who's lately made the jump from musician to entrepreneur. His Soundproof label was launched this year, and it's off to a flying start. The first CD, by the punkabilly band Amazing Royal Crowns, has already passed the break-even point of 2000 copies. The next release, by Grandpa Boy, will do far better, since the artist is really a major alterna-rock figure in disguise.
Hill moved to this area from New Orleans 10 years ago, when his band Red Rockers were scoring commercially with the hit single "China." And he's seen his share of industry pitfalls since then, having played in no fewer than four major-label bands: the Red Rockers on Columbia, the Raindogs on Atco, Paul Westerberg on Sire, and Klover on Mercury. (He was also in Stardarts, the unsigned band led by ex-Neighborhood David Minehan.)
"I was in the belly of the beast enough times to see how the labels would take tremendous talent and flush it down the toilet," Hill recalls. "One time our label took the Red Rockers to dinner after we'd made the GOOD AS GOLD album, and I swear that the tab came to more than we'd spent making the album. I saw a lot of my friends' bands get sucked up into that kind of thing."
Hill's final straw came after Klover released an album at the tail end of the punk-revival trend, then got dumped afterward. "I'd been through four labels as a musician and didn't want to start again, so what could I do? Music is all I know, so I could either go into management or start a label. I did both." At the moment he specializes in the A&R side of the label while Monolyth Entertainment's Jeff Marshall handles some of the business side. The only catch is that Hill also manages the Royal Crowns, which might seem fishy to anyone who's read the music-industry exposé The Mansion on the Hill (which took David Geffen to task for managing his label's first signing, the Eagles).
"Right, and that was a great book. But the Crowns will be the only band I do that with, and I put all the stipulations into the contract . . . that I won't commission any of the album sales. For the next album we'll try to get them on a bigger label; I still see us as more of a farm system."
But Soundproof's status will get a substantial boost from its link-up with Paul Westerberg . . . oops, we mean with Grandpa Boy, whose identity is being kept a badly guarded secret (his name won't appear on the CDs, but nobody minds if his fanbase finds out). Currently between major-label deals, Westerberg was knocking out demos in his basement; he and Hill had kept up a friendship and the deal proceeded from there. "You'll be surprised when you hear it; it sounds like something he would have done 10 years ago. It's totally out of character with what he's doing now."
In other words, it's the rock-and-roll album a lot of us were hoping he'd finally make?
The Grandpa Boy material is being released in stages. A single, "I Want My Money Back"/"Undone," comes out next week; two more singles will follow, and an album-length disc (with the singles and six more songs) is coming in the fall. By then Westerberg will probably be making more adult rock for another major, but Hill gets to keep the material he's got. "Paul's been totally into it, tipping off people in interviews -- telling people things like, `Don't even ask me about Grandpa Boy.' "
That album will likely give Hill access to the kind of artists he's looking for: those who've outgrown flavor-of-the-month status but still have good albums in them. To that end, he's looking to release the Velvet Crush CD (Heavy Changes) that Sony/Epic rejected. He's pulled vet producer Don Dixon in to produce North Carolina band the Pinetops. And he's hoping to entice ex-bandmate David Minehan back into the studio. Also forthcoming is a reissue of the Red Rockers' long-unavailable debut, Condition Red, along with recently unearthed tapes of that band in their pre-MTV, political-punk period.
"There's great bands being discarded right and left, and just as many that
can't get signed," Hill says. "Just because an artist may be a little bit
older, it doesn't mean that what they're doing isn't vital. A lot of people
might argue that there are already too many indie labels out there. I say
that there's only too many indies with bad records."