Signing a deal with a record label is often thought of as not just a major step in an artist's career, but a signifier that all the hard work that's been put in has paid off. To put it another way, it's a heck of a high. That high, however, can be short lived if the label you sign to folds. No one ever wants to think about the proverbial walls crashing down, but it's a very real possibility. And when it happens, it can leave an artist in an extremely difficult place.
I caught up with four artists who were on record labels that folded: Lacey-Lee Brass of Lillix (who were signed to Maverick); Ace Ha (2KSounds); Michael McKnight of Soulidium (Adrenaline Music Group); and Patrick Keenan of The Winter Sounds (Livewire Recordings) to find out about their experiences and how long it took them to get back on their feet.
How did you find out the label you were on folded?
Lacey-Lee Brass: We knew Maverick was folding for about a year or more, as there were some major firings at the company, then they moved out of their office building and into Warner Brothers. It was a transitioning phase, but we were aware that eventually Warner would either take us or not. This was all occurring while we were recording our second album [in 2005]. We just carried on recording, and the album eventually came out in August of 2006. We released one single, went on a Canadian tour that September/October, and before the show on the last concert date, our manager called us and let us know that Warner did not pick us up.
Ace Ha: The checks stopped coming. When they brought us out to Los Angeles from Indiana, they were paying for everything: rent, bills, a little spending money, whatever. We were basically just required to do the artist thing, record, do shows, appearances, things like that. That went on for a year or so. A couple months after our album dropped, the label was forced to reorganize or some shit, and there we were, stuck in LA with nothing. It was a little dark.
Michael McKnight: We were really shocked because there were no warning signs. The label manager, Bob, called me, and was like, "Hey Michael, we're unfortunately closing our doors here at Adrenaline Music Group and are going to send you back all your merch and CDs before we do. Sorry about that. It's just out of our hands. You have a great project, and we’re sure you'll do just fine. Good luck." It felt like coming home to find all your partner's stuff gone with barely a note to explain. Brutal.
Patrick Keenan: I found out by a phone call. There was a major investor that pulled out. The label was still developing the artists and signing new acts in the middle of that. It was unknown if the label could continue without the investor, and it kind of fell apart pretty quickly after that.
When you heard the news, what were your initial thoughts about what was going to happen to your career, and in retrospect, how accurate were those thoughts?
Lacey-Lee Brass: It was scary. I was 23 at the time, and Lillix had been my life and identity since I was 13. [We] three original members had never done any other job, nor any post-secondary [school]. We thought this was going to be our lives forever – at least I did – so I didn't have a backup plan. It was traumatic. I thought our manager would've had some ideas, a plan, but he didn't. Then a couple band members quit, and that was that.
Ace Ha: Well, it was more or less clear to me that my partner, Sammy B, wasn't interested in continuing the grind. He went back home pretty soon after all that and got on with his life. As for me, it was no question at all that I was going to stay in LA and keep it moving. One thing's for sure, though: my initial confidence about getting down with another artist the way I was down with Sammy was a little unfounded. I had known Sam at that point for like 12 years, and all of that time we were getting down with hip-hop. There is something to be said about growing up with a crew that informs the art. When you share many aspects of your daily life and experiences with the people you work with, there is a bond created that is difficult to replicate with an online relationship. Most of the artists that I work with these days I have never met.
Michael McKnight: I was a musician busy performing to support a new album. The business part I understood, but the thought of taking that over was the mental equivalent of cleaning up vomit for me. We were in the middle of our rise with a single on the radio and a song on the Saw IV soundtrack, and in a single moment, bam, the carpet gets pulled, and you face plant realizing that you're really on your own.
It was an eye-opening lesson on trusting any company, or person, unconditionally, to run it all. In retrospect, even though it really hurt our forward momentum, and the overall success of the album, it taught me the most valuable lesson of all: learn everything you can, and do it yourself. Nobody is going to be more reliable or a better representative of your music career than you. That's why this time around, we've launched our own imprint, Soulidium Records. Everything a label requires can be learned or outsourced. There are a lot of ex-label people out there looking for a job.
Patrick Keenan: I was very new to everything at this point. Almost immediately after becoming a band, the Winter Sounds were picked up by Livewire. We were a working band who was actively touring, but this elevated things very quickly for us. We shot a video, debuted a single, got some airplay, some MTV love, a ton of press, and crisscrossed the US on tour, and it all happened in the span of a year.
A lot of people felt burned by their experience with Livewire, but not me. Granted, the Winter Sounds may have been lucky – there were other groups that had albums in limbo – and we might have gotten the best out of the label, but if nothing else, it opened up my eyes to the world of the music business and how much investment and effort takes place behind the scenes, so I was grateful that people enjoyed our music enough to put in the effort. A band simply cannot do it [all] on their own. DIY is a beautiful concept that I love and feel like I embody in many ways, but DIY is even better when you are teamed up with other DIY-ers. The right label is essentially that.
What was your first step in moving on and continuing your career?
Lacey-Lee Brass: At the time, I was living in the US with my ex-boyfriend. I became extremely depressed and decided it would be best to move back in with my parents [in Cranbrook, BC, Canada] to try to figure out who I am and what I want to do. The next 16 months were the worst of my life. At first, my thoughts were that I was done with music, so I decided to go to the local college for business marketing. I did a semester. Halfway through the semester, my boyfriend broke up with me. I then found out I had a large debt to Lillix with no income to pay it off, so I decided I needed to work rather than go to school. I got on at a local real estate company, where my mom worked, making $10 an hour. I thought that was good money back then. I had no concept of living a "normal" life.
While this was going on, my sister Tasha (who was/is also in the band) moved to LA with her now ex-boyfriend and started to pursue acting. That boyfriend then broke up with her, and she ended up moving back home. She did not have a debt nor any bills, so she didn't work and would just stay at home every day going stir-crazy. We then had to start the process of dismantling Lillix with the ex-member and ex-manager, which cost us thousands of dollars, and to this day never got finalized.
During this time, we got offered a festival gig we always wanted to play, so we said yes, found some local people to join the band, and started playing again. About two months after that, our nana was dying so I had to go to Vancouver to say goodbye. Tasha had already moved to Vancouver at this point. Some other stressful things happened, so I started talking to a counselor. The counselor helped me through those times, getting me to set some goals.
Some money came in from Warner Brothers, so I was able to accomplish some of those goals, pay off my debt to Lillix, buy a car, and move to Vancouver. I got a job with a home builder, as did Tasha, then Tasha and I started writing and playing local shows again in 2009/2010. In August 2010, we released our third album independently in Canada and Japan. We hired a radio tracker, which got us some radio play, and our three music videos got rotation on MuchMusic. The album didn't sell much since we didn't have any money to market it properly, nor could we tour because we had jobs, so it just fizzled out and our new careers took priority.
Ace Ha: Getting myself situated financially was the first thing. Not being from here and not really knowing anyone made that a challenge initially. I ended up meeting some really good people that helped me get on my feet in that regard. Very soon after that, my dear ol' pops died, so that was real blow I had to deal with, too. After those things were behind me, it was about building up confidence, and a catalog. I spent years getting thousands and thousands of beats under my belt and then started making those calls. Jobs beget jobs, and soon I started making my living with the music again.
Michael McKnight: Learning how to do it yourself. We started learning things like social media, webmaster skills, video production, media creation, tour management, promotion, etc. For our new album, Awaken, we have a great team assembled and a much better command of things than we did in the beginning when we were inexperienced and unconnected. It's an empowering feeling when your fate is finally in your own hands. Who else could be more trusted with your music career than you?
Patrick Keenan: At the time, I think I was most excited about recording the new record, so we pretty much dove in to Church of the Haunted South without thinking much of it.
How long did it take to get completely back on your feet?
Lacey-Lee Brass: It wasn't an easy process. There's much more to recover from than just "my band got dropped." It may have taken myself longer than the other members but, I think in 2012, when I bought my first house and I felt secure with my career, is when I can honestly say that I got back on my feet. That would be six years.
Ace Ha: I'd say it took about four years to really start looking at the music industry as a possible source of income again. It kinda shakes your confidence to be in and have shit happening your way and then suddenly be back to square one again. It's mad, mad cliche to say, but that's really where you find out who you are, through hard times. My growth both as an artist and as a man really started after that dark shit. I don't know if I woulda been worth a shit if I hadn't gone through those times. I certainly wouldn't be as accomplished a producer. Having your neck on the line has a way of making you look really hard at your art and what you're going to do with it.
Michael McKnight: Years. When we found out that we were on our own, we were still a relatively new band. We were green as hell and ignorant to the ways of the dark side of the force. We were still figuring out things as a band. We couldn't just "be the band" anymore and focus on music. Mixing music and business can destroy a band if most of your other members lack that kind of business-driven spirit.
When you have to become your own shark, sometimes everything starts to look like a fish. It's a tough balancing act to maintain. I had already come from a strong business background when I formed Soulidium, but the guys had not. Having to manage your own band? Not the best recipe for a harmonious band life. Prudence demands that you lead from an unbiased position and make tough decisions to succeed. You have to see things as they are and not how you would have them to be. Musicians don't always understand that. Many of them don't want to see past their "perfect scenario," and focus in on the reality of things.
Patrick Keenan: For the most part, the Winter Sounds was just in the right place at the right time. I'm very happy with our current label, New Granada.
The overarching sentiment all of these artists is that no matter how fantastic the present may be, never stop preparing for the future and the possibility that you aren't on a rocket ship that goes straight up, but rather a roller coaster that has its rises and descents. Enjoy the rise, but gather knowledge, learn skills, and save some money; that holy trinity will be the seatbelt that will go a long way in protecting you in the event of a bumpy ride.
Adam Bernard is a music industry veteran who has been working in media since 2000. If you live in the NYC area, you've probably seen him at a show. He prefers his venues intimate, his whiskey on the rocks, and his baseball played without the DH. Follow him at @adamsworldblog.