Falling off an escalator, Brian Herb says, was the best thing that ever happened to him. "It was a freak accident," explains Herb, 26. At 1:30 a.m., May 31, 1996, Herb, the designated driver, was sober as he and his friends left a club and took the escalator to a third-story parking lot. Herb only dimly recalls leaning over the railing. Falling, he remembers more vividly. He plunged 30 feet, landing on a layer of tile-covered cement. During the 11 months of physical therapy that followed, as his broken knee and arms healed, Herb quit smoking, stopped drinking and started his own record label.
The escalator-plunge-to-near-death was the easy part. Creating your own record label means finding a band, a recording studio, an engineer, a producer and a distributor. It also means investing your money or searching for somebody else crazy--er, insightful--enough to believe in your band's music. It means long hours, sleepless nights and sketchy profits.
Iara Lee knows this well. She's a 33-year-old filmmaker and music-label entrepreneur in New York City who has produced 22 CDs, with more to come, including a series of CDs featuring music inspired by works of architecture.
So what if there isn't a demand for architectural albums? "I'm not swimming in profits," admits Lee, shrugging off the suggestion that she's an impoverished entrepreneur. "Success should be monitored not just by profit, [but by] the cultural relevance and impact that you have." And there's good reason to go into the record industry for more than a burning desire to make a buck, says Lee. She observes that her business is "1 percent glamour and 99 percent hassle, bureaucracy and things that are pretty nonrelated to what you were expecting. One has to understand that in order to be cool and interesting, one has to work very hard behind the scenes."
But is it possible to be cool, interesting and rich? Sure. Just talk to Owen Sloane, an entertainment attorney whose client list over the years has included everyone from Elton John to Olivia Newton-John: "If you're trying to compete with the Sonys, Capitols and Warner Bros. of the world, you can pretty much forget about it--unless you have multimillions of dollars of capitalization and distribution through one of them. Even then, it's a crapshoot as to whether you find the right talent."
This is supposed to be uplifting?
Well, yes, because the major labels now resemble "major league baseball," says Sloane, who likens the independents to farm teams. "The majors are not much into artist development or to selling to niche markets, because the expenses are too high. They have to go in for the big kill."
But you don't. You can go for the niche markets, says Sloane, who recommends starting a label with no less than $50,000 in the bank--and preferably $100,000. If you're still trying to pay off that JC Penny charge card, take heart: Pat Bradley, executive director of the Association for Independent Music (http://www.afim.org), says it's possible to start with as little as $5,000.
Mother of All Music began its humble existence in Minneapolis in October 1997, and while Herb's one-man/two-unpaid-intern-operation hasn't exactly made Virgin Record executives tremble, he isn't eating Alpo out of a can, either. "I'm certainly not a wealthy man, in terms of money," admits Herb, who toils 70 hours a week and won't disclose profits. "But I'm extremely lucky because I do what I love, I do it every day, and I actually manage to make a living from it." And, of course, he's very cool.
Geoff Williams (email@example.com) is a freelance writer and a self-proclaimed music connoisseur. But since his personal CD collection includes The Beverly Hillbillies movie soundtrack, we seriously doubt that.
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.