by Steve Albini ................. Whenever I talk to a band who are about to sign with a major label, I always end up thinking of them in a particular context. I imagine a trench, about four feet wide and five feet deep, maybe sixty yards long, filled with runny, decaying shit. I imagine these people, some of them good friends, some of them barely acquaintances, at one end of this trench. I also imagine a faceless industry lackey at the other end holding a fountain pen and a contract waiting to be signed. Nobody can see what's printed on the contract. It's too far away, and besides, the shit stench is making everybody's eyes water. The lackey shouts to everybody that the first one to swim the trench gets to sign the contract. Everybody dives in the trench and they struggle furiously to get to the other end.
Two people arrive simultaneously and begin wrestling furiously, clawing each other and dunking each other under the shit. Eventually, one of them capitulates, and there's only one contestant left. He reaches for the pen, but the Lackey says "Actually, I think you need a little more development. Swim again, please. Backstroke". And he does of course. Every major label involved in the hunt for new bands now has on staff a high-profile point man, an "A&R" rep who can present a comfortable face to any prospective band. The initials stand for "Artist and Repertoire" because historically, the A&R staff would select artists to record music that they had also selected, out of an available pool of each. This is still the case, though not openly. These guys are universally young (about the same age as the bands being wooed), and nowadays they always have some obvious underground rock credibility flag they can wave.
There's this band. They're pretty ordinary, but they're also pretty good, so they've attracted some attention. They're signed to a moderate-sized "independent" label owned by a distribution company, and they have another two albums owed to the label. They're a little ambitious. They'd like to get signed by a major label so they can have some security: you know, get some good equipment, tour in a proper tour bus -- nothing fancy, just a little reward for all the hard work. To that end, they got a manager. He knows some of the label guys, and he can shop their next project to all the right people. He takes his cut, sure, but it's only 15%, and if he can get them signed then it's money well spent. Anyways, it doesn't cost them anything if it doesn't work. 15% of nothing isn't much! One day an A&R scout calls them, says he's "been following them for a while now," and when their manager mentioned them to him, it just "clicked." Would they like to meet with him about the possibility of working out a deal with his label? Wow. Big Break time. They meet the guy, and y'know what -- he's not what they expected from a label guy. He's young and dresses pretty much like the band does. He knows all their favorite bands. He's like one of them. He tells them he wants to go to bat for them, to try to get them everything they want. He says anything is possible with the right attitude.
They conclude the evening by taking home a copy of a deal memo they wrote out and signed on the spot. The A&R guy was full of great ideas, even talked about using a name producer. Butch Vig is out of the question — he wants 100 Gs and three points, but they can get Don Fleming for $30,000 plus three points. Even that's a little steep, so maybe they'll go with that guy who used to be in David Letterman's band. He only wants three points. Or they can have just anybody record it (like Warton Tiers, maybe-- cost you 5 or 7 grand) and have Andy Wallace remix it for 4 grand a track plus 2 points. It was a lot to think about. Well, they like this guy and they trust him. Besides, they already signed the deal memo. He must have been serious about wanting them to sign. They break the news to their current label, and the label manager says he wants them to succeed, so they have his blessing. He will need to be compensated, of course, for the remaining albums left on their contract, but he'll work it out with the label himself.
Sub Pop made millions from selling off Nirvana, and Twin Tone hasn't done bad either: 50 grand for the Babes and 60 grand for the Poster Children -- without having to sell a single additional record. It'll be something modest. The new label doesn't mind, so long as it's recoupable out of royalties. Well, they get the final contract, and it's not quite what they expected. They figure it's better to be safe than sorry and they turn it over to a lawyer--one who says he's experienced in entertainment law and he hammers out a few bugs. They're still not sure about it, but the lawyer says he's seen a lot of contracts, and theirs is pretty good. They'll be great royalty: 13% [less a 10% packaging deduction]. Wasn't it Buffalo Tom that were only getting 12% less 10? Whatever. The old label only wants 50 grand, and no points. Hell, Sub Pop got 3 points when they let Nirvana go. They're signed for four years, with options on each year, for a total of over a million dollars! That's a lot of money in any man's English. The first year's advance alone is $250,000. Just think about it, a quarter million, just for being in a rock band! Their manager thinks it's a great deal, especially the large advance. Besides, he knows a publishing company that will take the band on if they get signed, and even give them an advance of 20 grand, so they'll be making that money too. The manager says publishing is pretty mysterious, and nobody really knows where all the money comes from, but the lawyer can look that contract over, too. Hell, it's free money. Their booking agent is excited about the band signing to a major. He says they can maybe average $1,000 or $2,000 a night from now on. That's enough to justify a five week tour, and with tour support, they can use a proper crew, buy some good equipment and even get a tour bus! Buses are pretty expensive, but if you figure in the price of a hotel room for everybody In the band and crew, they're actually about the same cost. Some bands like Therapy? and Sloan and Stereolab use buses on their tours even when they're getting paid only a couple hundred bucks a night, and this tour should earn at least a grand or two every night. It'll be worth it. The band will be more comfortable and will play better.
The agent says a band on a major label can get a merchandising company to pay them an advance on T-shirt sales! ridiculous! There's a gold mine here! The lawyer Should look over the merchandising contract, just to be safe. They get drunk at the signing party. Polaroids are taken and everybody looks thrilled. The label picked them up in a limo. They decided to go with the producer who used to be in Letterman's band. He had these technicians come in and tune the drums for them and tweak their amps and guitars. He had a guy bring in a slew of expensive old "vintage" microphones. Boy, were they "warm." He even had a guy come in and check the phase of all the equipment in the control room! Boy, was he professional. He used a bunch of equipment on them and by the end of it, they all agreed that it sounded very "punchy," yet "warm." All that hard work paid off. With the help of a video, the album went like hotcakes! They sold a quarter million copies!
Here is the math that will explain just how fucked they are: These figures are representative of amounts that appear in record contracts daily. There's no need to skew the figures to make the scenario look bad, since real-life examples more than abound. income is bold and underlined, expenses are not.
|Drum Amp, Mic and Phase "Doctors":||3,000|
|Cartage and Transportation:||5,000|
|Lodgings while in studio:||10,000|
|Tape copies, reference CDs, shipping tapes, misc. expenses:||2,000|
|Processing and transfers:||3,000|
|Stage and construction:||3,000|
|Copies, couriers, transportation:||2,000|
|Promotional photo shoot and duplication:||2,000|
|New fancy professional drum kit:||5,000|
|New fancy professional guitars :||3,000|
|New fancy professional guitar amp rigs :||4,000|
|New fancy potato-shaped bass guitar:||1,000|
|New fancy rack of lights bass amp:||1,000|
|Rehearsal space rental:||500|
|Big blowout party for their friends:||500|
|Tour expense [5 weeks]:||50,875|
|Food and per diems:||7,875|
|Tour gross income:||50,000|
|Record sales:||250,000 @ $12 =
|Gross retail revenue Royalty:||[13% of 90% of retail]:
|Producer's points:||[3% less $50,000 advance]:
|Recoupable buyout from previous label:||50,000|
Record company income:
|Record wholesale price:||$6.50 x 250,000 =
$1,625,000 gross income
|Deficit from royalties:||14,000|
|Manufacturing, packaging and distribution:||@ $2.20 per record: 550,000|
The Balance Sheet: This is how much each player got paid at the end of the game.
|Band member net income each:||$4,031.25|
The band is now ¼th of the way through its contract, has made the music industry more than 3 million dollars richer, but is in the hole $14,000 on royalties. The band members have each earned about one third as much as they would working at a 7-11, but they got to ride in a tour bus for a month. The next album will be about the same, except that the record company will insist they spend more time and money on it. Since the previous one never "recouped," the band will have no leverage, and will oblige. The next tour will be about the same, except the merchandising advance will have already been paid, and the band, strangely enough, won't have earned any royalties from their T-shirts yet. Maybe the T-shirt guys have figured out how to count money like record company guys. Some of your friends are probably already this fucked.
Action Park: Questions I get asked every damn week, Steve, I'm looking to become a recording engineer. What should I do?
I am not Steve Albini.
Where can I write to the band? What's Steve's email address?
Steve, can I interview you for my zine?
I am not Steve Albini.
I was a fool. A short-sighted, crowd-hating fool. When I heard that Shellac was playing The Rave in Milwaukee on October 30th, the day before their Lounge Ax show, I figured I'd see 'em up in Cheeseland. Little did I know the night of tomfoolery they had in store: Shellac performing their set as the Sex Pistols, with David Yow of the Jesus Lizard as Johnny Rotten.
Fortunately for you, gentle reader, a number of Chicago Shows List subscribers were kind enough to provide their recollections of that evening's activities.
Yep - I was there trying to bring the rock to the kids and I'll be telling my gradkids about this one some day. During sound check for the evening our bass player looked at me and asked how Steve got John Lydon to play with them to which I replied, "don'tcha know a David Yow when ya sees one?!"
So there ya go - Yow was looking and sounding more like Rotten than the man himself. It was great. The good reverend Weston was wearing his shiny plastic trousers, mesh shirt and a bloody arm bandage. Steve sported a white Les Paul (using a guitar strap as most God fearin' American's do), mesh shirt and red bandana on his head. Damn funniest thing I ever saw - watching Steve consult the chords to the songs on a legal pad in front of him while Yow taunted the crowd in a faux Brit accent. Where they good? Well hell yeah! They were so much fun I thought about clocking the kid who was walking around polling people as to whether or not they felt they'd been cheated. Idiot could see a regular Shellac show six or seven times a
year and he complains about getting somthing a little special for the holiday.
I feel I should also mention the wonderful Ms.Fits who also put on quite a show. Damn the John Forbes is something else...I don't know if I was jumping around more on stage or off. I know I sang along more off stage.
All in all it was a happening evening of rock.
What a show it was, too.
I mean, I would have been perfectly happy seeing Shellac proper play (I've only seen them one other time, and that was at a strip club in Atlanta, GA). But I knew something was up about fifteen minutes before the show, when the stage crew set up three microphone stands onstage. That's when the rumors started floating around the crowd; all sorts of speculation on guest appearances, even talk of a Big Black reunion. But I don't know if even that could have topped what happened next.
David Yow stalked onto the stage, in full 1970's-era Johnny Rotten attire to the letter. Bleached and spiked hair, psychotically glaring at the audience, the whole nine yards. He'd done his homework on this one. He was followed by the three Shellacs, with Steve Albini doing his best Steve Jones in vinyl pants (!) and a red doo-rag on his head. Bob Weston *was* Sid Vicious, in spiked black hair, mesh shirt (with scratches and scars visible underneath), glassy-eyed, and an impressively bloody IV bandage on his arm. Only Todd Trainer seemed to buck the whole Pistols image. I mean, he could have found one of those big sweaters or something. Paul Cook had style too.
Anyway, they ripped into "Holidays in the Sun", and that set the tone for the evening. Yow had Rotten's nasal Brit accent down pat, even in song. He pulled the whole thing off so well, I tell ya. Weston kept coughing up "blood" and running into things. Steve's guitar sounded kind of sloppy, but I don't think Jones could have done it any better. Between songs the band taunted the audience in mock cockney accents, Steve asking if there were "any PAA-ties about". The audience responded by throwing chunks of a dismembered jack-o-lantern at the band.
Shellac at Lounge Ax photosBraving the cold and snow, Action Park reporter Ron Carr set out from his homeland in Indiana, to the wild frozen tundra of North Lincoln Avenue, in the great city of Chicago. There, he captured photos of the mighty Shellac singing and playing their hits, before a backdrop of cherubs, recalling the joy of Valentine's Day. Join us, won't you, on a photographic tour of that magical evening? Please remember that all photos are the photos of Ron Carr, and have been given to Action Park exclusively. If you put them up elsewhere on the web, he'll be hurt and lose all faith in the basic goodness of Man.
Big Black Final Tour Diary
By Steve Albini
Split 7" with Caesar
Shellac Record #12
This is limited to 1200 to 1250 copies. It comes in a comic book called "Sex, Drugs, & Strips," by Barbara Stok. This was released in the Netherlands. The Shellac song is "Agostino".
"The Rude Gesture, A Pictoral History" 1993
EP (Touch & Go Records) TG127
(Shellac Record #1)
EP (Touch & Go Records) TG128
(Shellac Record #2)
"The Bird is the Most Popular Finger" 1994
EP Drag City Records DC34
(Shellac Record #3)
"Billiardspielerlied" / "Mantel" 7-inch single
(Shellac Record #6) 1995
at action park 1994
(Shellac Record #9) 1997
a/k/a the "Friends Of Shellac" record
An album of instrumental music for a dance troupe, given out to 779 of Shellac's closest friends. See The Futurist page for details.
Shellac Record #10 1998
Shellac Record #11 2000
excellent italian greyhound 2007