Originally posted on MadeLoud, November 3, 2008.
In the not-so-distant past, getting signed by a label was a primary goal for most up and coming bands. Like so many aspects of the music business, that ambition has changed in this internet age.
Not only are unsigned bands finding more and more non-label routes to distribution, now even some established artists are stepping away from the traditional label system.
Crooked Fingers front man Eric Bachmann is one of these artists. Bachmann has recorded with some of the most recognizable indie labels around. Earlier Crooked Fingers albums have been released by Merge and WARM, and Bachmann’s 2006 solo album To the Races was handled by Saddle Creek. His previous group, the seminal alt-rock band Archers of Loaf, once turned down a potentially lucrative contract with Warner Brothers-owned Maverick Records to remain one of the flagship artists on the much smaller Alias label.
Two decades on the indie rock circuit have earned Bachmann a devoted cult following and strong working relationships with some of the most respected small labels in the business. Still, he opted to self-releaseCrooked Fingers’ new album Forfeit/Fortune, distributing CDs online, at shows, and in a select few record stores around the country. What inspired Bachmann to take the road less traveled? “It certainly wasn’t the behavior of the labels I’ve been on,” he explains. “They’re great.” But when his manager suggested recording the album without a contract and then shopping it to labels, Bachmann had another thought. “I just hinted at him, ‘Well, I’ve never done this before. I would kind of like to do our own label.’”
After crunching some numbers, the self-release was deemed feasible, but with a few catches. “He says, ‘If we do that, print advertising, old formats, that’s out the window. We can’t afford to do that shit.” The band’s initial decision was to release Forfeit/Fortune as a download-only album, with a short run of vinyl pressings for hardcore fans. Bachmann soon decided he didn’t like the idea of not having a physical CD available, so the plan was modified to include limited distribution at select, independent record stores, with downloads available at iTunes and the Crooked Fingers website.
This unorthodox model has worked reasonably well for Crooked Fingers thus far, especially in the online department. “At this point we’ve sold way more downloads on our website than on iTunes,” Bachmann says. “The whole point is to get all of the 10,000 or so people who buy the record to our website, versus having to find it all over the place.” To that end, they also pressed a deluxe edition CD featuring a concert DVD and a bonus track guest-starring Neko Case to be sold only at shows and via the website.
The record store situation has been a bit more delicate, largely due to the laws of supply and demand. The group hired a marketing company to assist in getting Forfeit/Fortune onto shelves, But Bachmann says there have still been some bumps in the road. “What you inevitably, unintentionally do is, you give your record to this record store, but there’s another cool one in town that you don’t give it to and they get pissed off. We’ll sell it to them, but it’s more of an effort than receiving it from ADA or Red Eye or some distributor… but we’re doing it exclusively with independents. We don’t touch the big stores like Best Buy. Best Buy and those places don’t give a shit about selling our records.”
Bachmann does worry that this new approach and its attendant lack of publicity is making it tougher for fans to find the new release. “If you’re Radiohead and you say, ‘We’re gonna do it online,’ everybody knows about it. If you’re a small little pissant like me, nobody gives a shit. Even the 10,000 fans we have, a significant number of them don’t know it’s out yet… The toughest part is not having a label to help you promote it, especially something like Merge or Saddle Creek, where they sort of have a built-in audience. I’m sure everybody that likes Merge Records doesn’t like Crooked Fingers, but they at least know there’s a new Crooked Fingersrecord out… That’s why I tour and do press. I’m going out in January; I’m going out in April with Neko Case, just touring like crazy. Sort of doing it real old-fashioned.”
Crooked Fingers’ current tour schedule keeps the band on the road for nearly seven months straight, variously opening for Okkervil River and Neko Case and headlining sets with The Ugly Jacket and Black Joe Louis and the Honeybears. Bachmann says he would like to have booked even more live sets, but the realities of the road wouldn’t allow it. “We were gonna do a bunch of in-store [performances]. It’s designed well for this type of situation, where we’re dealing with specific independent retailers. They would love to have me come in and do in-stores, but we can’t do it when the drive is six hours or more. If we want to do an in-store at three or four in the afternoon, but we have to leave from a city that’s seven hours away after going to bed at five in the morning, we won’t sleep.” He’s currently thinking of setting up yet another small tour that will focus mainly on those in-store appearances.
Bachmann is the first to admit that this tenuous attempt at self-sufficiency might not be sustainable in the long run, but he’s taking a wait-and-see approach for the time being. “It’s an experiment. It may not work, and if it doesn’t work, we still have the label we just started. We can maybe get a distribution deal.” Nonetheless, it’s a fairly risky proposition for a well-established band. But in music as in life, Bachmann has never been keen on settling into a rut.
“People’s expectations are wrong,” he says. “They want you to be something consistently. They want to go cracker barrel. Not necessarily my fans, but people in general. So when you make an album that’s weird or unfamiliar, if it’s produced differently or you sing differently, you lose people. And maybe you should, I don’t know. I’m not saying that I know how to do it. But I do know that I don’t want to repeat myself.”