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Nashville Scene Back in Business

By Beverly Keel

Refusing to accept a fate dealt to him by a youth-obsessed music industry, country-rocker Charlie Daniels has taken his career--and his music--into his own hands. In the process, he has become a record executive. This long-haired country boy is part of a growing trend in Tune Town of older, established acts forming their own record companies after major labels have lost interest in them. Performers such as the Bellamy Brothers, Sylvia, Ricky Van Shelton, and Baillie and the Boys have now added "label owner" to their rsums. Steve Earle and John Prine both run labels that allow them to nurture and promote music they feel passionate about. And Dead Reckoning, formed two years ago by a collective of artists including Kevin Welch, Kieran Kane, and Mike Henderson, has released a handful of LPs.

Not only do these artist-run labels serve as a means to get the acts' new music to the public, they're proving lucrative for the singers, many of whom are making money from record sales for the first time in years. (Major-label country acts generally don't see any royalties until 500,000 copies of a record are sold.)

Daniels recently released Blues Hat, the inaugural release on Blue Hat Records, which the singer co-owns with his manager, David Corlew. Daniels' previous deal with Capitol ended about two years ago. The album is only available through Wal-Mart, which sells about 35 percent of all country music.

"The reason is, I don't fit what is going on in country music right now," Daniels says of his new label venture. "I never completely fit it, but I'm clear out of earshot now in terms of radio. I don't like it, but there is nothing I can do about it. I like music, I don't like fads. I don't like hammering people into a mold they don't fit.

"[You] don't have to have Top 10 airplay to sell a lot of records. You don't have to have 85 percent of all possible stations playing it. That is why this business is headed toward a more incremental-type approach to recording. There are some niches that aren't being filled.

"If you aren't trying to support a big glass tower on 16th Avenue, you can sell considerably less records and make a whole lot more money. This could possibly be the wave of the future."

Corlew says his interest in launching a label was sparked when RCA dropped Lari White after her previous album had gone gold. "When we can distribute 500,000 copies and there's not a profit margin, something's wrong," he says.

"Viable artists...deserve to have a record deal, but maybe they shouldn't be selling 200,000 albums and have $100,000 videos. It's gotten so expensive to launch a new artist. There's not a profit margin there, and that's what we're in this thing to do, to expose artists and make a profit. We're off kilter."

For a case in point, compare the amounts of money spent on Daniels' last two releases. Capitol put about $200,000 into recording 1995's Same Ol' Me, and the label spent about $50,000 for a video. Blue Hat, meanwhile, spent about $30,000 to record Daniels' new album and $20,000 to make a video.

Airplay and marketing are also different for these maverick labels. Rather than focusing on the stations that make up the R&R and Billboard charts, Blue Hat targets the other 2,500 stations that play country. Daniels is also conducting in-store Wal-Mart appearances in tandem with many of his 140 concert dates this year. (What's more, a 1-800 number has been established for consumers who don't have access to the retail giant.) About 36,000 CDs were initially pressed, and they're selling about 2,000 weekly for a retail price of $8.99.

"I'm kind of defying the odds here, and I love it," Daniels says. "I feel like David with about 200 Goliaths. I don't know if I have enough rocks to kill them all, but I'm going to leave some scars on their heads."

Daniels, who will still be involved with major-label projects such as an upcoming children's CD for Sony, says he has no plans to reduce the number of concerts he plays every year. "I'm not [as] concerned with the health of my career as I am with the health of country music," he says. "I'm going to be here."

Without a doubt, artist-run labels tend to be headed by performers who've already had some experience in the business. Sylvia, who had several chart hits from 1981 to 1985, formed Red Pony Records last year after realizing that labels only wanted to sign twentysomethings. "One of the label executives said, `I'm sorry, we're only signing 23-year-olds today.' What happens to people in their 30s? They don't get a deal? I began feeling that I was at the mercy of [the label execs].

"It's all marketing," she continues. "In the early '80s, we were told that women can't sell records or tickets, and that's certainly not true. It's a matter of people in the industry seeing that people in their 30s and 40s can sell records."

Hat act Charlie Daniels, who recently launched his own label, Blue Hat. Photo by Jim McGuire.
Sylvia says advances in technology allowed her to make better records in her home than she did for RCA. What's more, the marketing potential is endless with the rise of the Internet, catalogs, cable television, and other media avenues. "When you are an independent artist, you can market yourself 100 different ways," she says. "You are not restricted by a big label."

The singer has established an Internet site and has hired a publicist; she also contracts with a company that markets to non-reporting radio stations. Sylvia orders CDs a thousand at a time (each CD costs about $1-$1.50 to press) and sells them at Ernest Tubb Record Stores, at Tower Records, and through mail order.

"This is my life," she says. "Of course, I would love to get this picked up for distribution or have a major label lease my product, but the first step was just making the record."

Perhaps the most successful artist-owned country label is Bellamy Brothers Records, which has released 10 albums in five years. The label is licensed in 20 countries and has experienced tremendous success in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and many other countries. One of its big sellers, Sons of Beaches, has sold about 250,000 copies, thanks to domestic distribution by Intersound and international distribution by BMG. "I just got a fax last week that in South Africa we just sold 14,500 pieces," says David Bellamy.

The Bellamy Brothers were already marketing their recordings overseas while they were signed to MCA, so they just expanded their operation when major labels began ignoring them. "It's been 10 times bigger than we thought it would be," Bellamy says. "We were really frustrated in the late '80s. I understand putting acts out to pasture if they are not still productive, if they don't keep up. I understand that the business passes you by...but there are plenty of acts that are productive. Essentially, I think it's age discrimination."

And yet this so-called discrimination may have been the best thing that could have happened to the Bellamy Brothers. The duo records at its Florida ranch with its own band; a guitar player serves as producer/engineer. The recording budget is about $50,000 per album, and videos cost about $25,000 each. "We made more profit the very first album we put out quicker than we ever had in the 20-year history of our being in the music business," Bellamy says.

"We're making money within the first 25,000 or 30,000 albums. We don't go in and say it's time to do an album and take two months off. We record constantly. When we're off the road, we cut tracks. I have tracks going now that probably won't be put out until next year."

Rumor of the week

Rumor: Waylon Jennings has been forced to cancel dates because of heart trouble.

Response: Jennings, a diabetic, checked himself into a hospital after he experienced difficulties breathing, says publicist Schatzi Hageman. Tests were run and he has no heart problems. "It is not life-threatening as we see it. Doctors told him he needed to rest, so he's taking five to six weeks off."

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