Time to Develop
Record company does things the old-fashioned way
By Bill Friskics-Warren
SEPTEMBER 14, 1998: These days, the notion of "artist development," like that of "congressional ethics" or "military intelligence," is little more than an oxymoron. Record companies once invested in performers' lives and careers, but now most take the shotgun approach, signing scores of acts in hopes that one of them will hit the label's target demographic.
"That's been the case at major labels for some time now," says Steve Wilkison, the Nashville-based manager of A&R and artist development for Koch Records. "But lately the trend has filtered down to independent labels as well. A lot of indies used to pride themselves on developing artists and building careers."
Which is exactly what Wilkison is trying to do at Koch--despite the current trend. Since he started working at the label in March, he has signed a nucleus of strong performers, including left-of-center Nashville singer-songwriters Bill Lloyd and Greg Trooper--artists, he contends, who need time and nurture to find an audience.
Wilkison comes by his record-business experience honestly. Prior to accepting a position with Koch, he worked for the Nashville-based indie Compass Records. Before that, he ran his own label, Deja Disc. Based in San Marcos, Texas, the small but well-regarded imprint issued 30 titles between 1992 and 1996, including the debut albums by alt-country favorites Richard Buckner and Wayne Hancock.
"Artists need good homes," Wilkison says. "They need to feel like the people they're working with understand their music and view the artist-label relationship as a team effort. If a label gets the word out, gets artists out there touring, gets people to hear the record, and builds a story, then I think it has a good shot at having at least modest commercial success. I believe you have just as good a chance of success sticking with one or two bands than if you make eight records with eight different bands."
Koch affords Wilkison the luxury of such an approach because the company doesn't expect its new releases to do much for the corporate bottom line. Amy Rigby's Diary of a Mod Housewife has sold 15,000 copies, a big success by Koch's standards. The label can operate with relatively small expectations because its bread and butter comes from its parent company, Koch International USA, a New York-based independent record distributor--the largest in the States right now.
Koch Records also does well with its reissues, a scattershot series of folk and country titles by such artists as Arlo Guthrie, Merle Haggard, and Lucinda Williams. The label's reissue of Williams' self-titled third album--a project coordinated by Wilkison--has sold 35,000 copies since it came out in mid-June.
These programs, explains Wilkison, underwrite the cost of putting out records such as Trooper's Buddy Miller-produced Koch debut, due Sept. 15. "Greg's new record is great," he enthuses. "I'll be happy if we just make our money back and get the ball rolling with it. I look at it as a long-term thing. I'd like to make three or four records with Greg and take each one a little further than the last."
As his efforts with Trooper, Lloyd, and Williams suggest, Wilkison's work with Koch has a strong Nashville emphasis. "Next to New York and Los Angeles, Nashville has the biggest music community, so it makes sense for me to be here," says Wilkison, who estimates that he spends an average of three nights a week scouting talent in the city's clubs. "I travel a lot, checking out bands in other places, but...there's a lot of really good stuff happening in Nashville these days."
In addition to Koch's Nashville-based acts, Wilkison has also brought honky-tonk singer Dale Watson, British songbird Christine Collister, singer-songwriter Eric Taylor, and folky pop-rocker Peter Himmelman (Bob Dylan's son-in-law) to the label. He believes that working with artists who find themselves between labels might prove a niche for Koch.
"We're looking to bring in established artists who are looking for something new," he says, "acts that have been through the major-label wringer, [that haven't] had the kind of success their labels were looking for, but that we feel are still viable." Wilkison cites Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Kelly Willis as examples, though both artists, it turns out, are currently working with Rykodisc.
Unlike a lot of people in the music business, Wilkison doesn't approach his day gig as just another job. As his collection of 300-plus bootleg albums attests, he has a deep and abiding passion for music. Back when he was managing a Houston record store in the late '70s, though, he was afraid that working for a record label might diminish that.
"Most of the people I met who worked at major labels weren't interested in music," he says. "Most of them were doing it for the parties and other perks. It sounds kind of naíve now, but I lived music, and it was disillusioning to find people who didn't care about it. It was at that point that I started envisioning myself working for Warner Bros. and having to pretend that the new Van Halen record was the best thing I'd ever heard. After awhile, though, I realized that the only thing I could see myself working in was the music business."
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