Spurred on by friendly technology, a hostile radio environment and a desire for greater artistic control, more and more country performers are establishing their own record labels. The results have been encouraging, both in sales and prestige.
Ricky Skaggs created Skaggs Family Records after leaving Atlantic Records in 1997. He says his first album, Bluegrass Rules!, released that same year, has sold more than 200,000 copies and that the followup, Ancient Tones, which debuted last year, is at around 180,000. The Mountain, released in 1999 on Steve Earle’s E-Squared Records and featuring Earle and the Del McCoury Band, has sold 250,000 copies.
These totals are phenomenal for bluegrass records. But they wouldn’t cover the costs a major label, with all its overhead, incurs in creating and launching a new album.
Bluegrass Rules! won a Grammy last year as best bluegrass album. Both Ancient Tones and The Mountain are competing for that prize this year. In fact, three of the five best-album nominees are from artist-owned labels. (The third contender is Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza on mandolinist David Grisman’s Acoustic Disc label.)
Other major-label emigres now commanding their own operations are Kenny Rogers (Dreamcatcher), the Bellamy Brothers (Bellamy Brothers), Paul Overstreet (Scarlet Moon), Doug Supernaw (Tack), Sylvia (Red Pony), Charlie Daniels (Blue Hat) and Kieran Kane and Kevin Welch (Dead Reckoning). Ricky Van Shelton and Dolly Parton also had their own labels briefly before moving on to corporately owned independents.
Most of these new labels now have more artists on their rosters than just the founding ones.
The declining cost of recording and manufacturing CDs, plus the ability to sell them through multiple Internet sites have been crucial factors in causing artists to strike out on their own. An added push comes from the fact that many important radio stations won’t play records by older performers. This refusal makes such acts unattractive to major record labels, which rely almost exclusively on airplay to promote their album sales.
Running his or her own label also allows the artist/owner final say on every aspect of quality control from song selection to the final mix to cover art.
Recalling his days as a country star when he did as many as 200 dates a year to promote his major-label albums, Skaggs says, “I thought I had a career back then, but I realize now that my career had me. That was not life. That was a terrible way to have to live.”