My first major label album, Carencro, was released in the Fall of 2004 by Island/Def Jam. It was a win by most measures. Unfortunately, for me, capitalizing quickly on that initial success was never in the stars. As so many music business stories go, after only a short time at I/DJ, I found myself working with an entirely new staff of people. Like dominos, everyone I knew and trusted was hired away or fired outright once Lyor Cohen left I/DJ for Atlantic Records, but not before giving me the green light for a second album. Furthermore, I was assured by all of the incoming people that we were still good to go and they were happy to be working on my behalf.
We spent something like $175,000 making a killer record called Must Be The Water that would never
see the light of day. (The Must Be The Water EP was a totally separate recording) According to my old A&R guy, when the new CEO heard the record, after tracking, mixing, and mastering, he said it was “too urban” and killed the project. I was crushed. It had already been 2 years since Carencro and we needed to get something new out fast. I asked Island to let me go and they said, “No problem, but you can’t have your record.”
I could’ve been angry, but honestly, I was just happy to be out of my deal. So much time had already passed that my attachment to some of the material on Must Be The Water had softened.
A solution to the problem came in the form of SOS: Save Our Soul, a soul covers record that was picked up by Vanguard Records. It was also the first time I had a record released overseas, which is where the rest of this story really begins, but I thought you might like the context to get a read on my frame of mind.
Go Entertainment, a Dutch indy label, licensed SOS in Holland and quickly went to work getting Come In From The Cold on the radio there. To my complete astonishment, Holland loved them some Bayou Bruce! Soon, I was traveling to Amsterdam for my first ever performance outside of the States. It was a sold out crowd in the small room at a legendary club called Paradiso right in the heart of the old city that gave me and my dad a chance to do our worst. (I brought my dad along because my dad is a badass) That was the first of 7 trips to Holland in just under 2 years. One of those trips provided me with an opportunity to play the big room at Paradiso with another rock and roll legend, Paul Carrack.
You may not know his name but you most certainly have heard his music. “How Long” was hit with
his band, Ace. He followed that up with “Tempted” with the band, Squeeze. Then there was a smash that still gets me every time titled “In The Living Years” with Mike and the Mechanics. He’s penned songs for a litany of artists like The Eagles, Tom Jones, Bobby Womack and Michael McDonald. He was in 3 different bands that had major hit records, for god’s sake!
The point of all this is that the guy is the real deal, and better yet, I had learned from my mistake with Jay-Z a few years earlier (See Part 1) and decided to listen if and when Paul and I got the chance to speak. I took my shot as we shared an hour long drive back to the hotel after the show in Rotterdam.
Me: Paul, do you have any advice for me. I got dropped from my first deal and the deal I have now is a one off, so... what should I do? Go chase another deal?
Paul: Marc, I’ve had some of the biggest deals in the history of the business. I’ve played to thousands at a time. Now, I play clubs to 600 people. I run my own label. My management team works in my building for my label. My booking agent works for my label. I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked, making more money than I’ve ever made, and I’m happier than I’ve ever been.
At this point, my head should’ve exploded from all that wisdom, but I think I just wasn’t quite ready to accept what his proposition entailed. (That or I was really high. We had just played Amsterdam, after all.) Regardless, his words stuck with me and I would come back to that conversation many times over the years.
What happens when an artist signs a record deal is that they really sign away a large amount of incentive for themselves. I’ll get into the details of record contracts in another post but trust that
there’s a reason for the saying, “The 2 best days of an artist’s career are the day he gets signed and the day he gets dropped.” Incentives matter, and it took me 4 record deals to realize just how much they matter. All of my major label releases ran up tabs into the 6-figure range with a couple of those records approaching a half-mil, and before I ever saw a dime from sales, that debt had to be paid back out of my cut, which was hovering somewhere around $0.65 per sale.
Needless to say, I knew I’d never recoup and it wasn’t a good feeling. Even if we sold enough to turn a profit on the label’s cut of sales, the way things are calculated by the bean counters, I was never gonna get out of the red, and that’s when the label loses incentive to work the record. So, with my profit incentive out the window and the label’s incentive tapped, can you guess what happened?
I would be let go by every label I worked with and my bankability was going to continue to be in question. I hadn’t quite fully learned my lesson after Atlantic, though, so I went back to Vanguard who graciously gave me a deal with a much more reasonable record budget. But even knocking a whole zero off of production expenditures can’t prevent that label math from getting in the way of honest dealing. When Vanguard blinked at the prospect of cutting another check for the next record, my manager’s and I agreed that it was finally time to go it alone.
Paul was not wrong about the workload. He wasn’t wrong about those other things either. What he didn’t mention is how incentive staying in house can be a huge boon for creativity. The idea that I can own my records makes me want to write and record more than ever! Don’t think that I’m some kind of baller now, but with every new record I release independently, I’m one step closer to making up for all that wasted time and energy.
Paul Carrack’s words that night let me know that this was possible. His delivery, so pointed and cool, gave me the courage to take that step, if maybe a few years late on the draw. I never got to say thanks so do me a favor and pass it on if you happen to run into him. His thoughtfulness in that moment was exactly what I needed to hear and I’ll forever be grateful.