Who needs a big record company? It's a question once asked only by do-it-yourself punks and indie entrepreneurs, but it can now be heard coming from many veteran artists. After years at Geffen and Elektra, the Eagles are releasing their new single, "Hole in the World," under their own Eagles Recording Company II label. Free from an eleven-year contract with Epic, Pearl Jam are considering striking out on their own as well. And Natalie Merchant turned down an offer to renew her major-label contract to start her own Myth America label.
Eagles manager Irving Azoff says that if the band's self-released single works as well as he anticipates, the group will also put out its next studio album, due in 2004, themselves, despite offers from several majors. "We're bucking the system," he says. "Some retailers are afraid to stock the single. They're waiting for a nod from a major label. Some radio is afraid to play it. But if we do this right, it may give hope to others. "We like it because of the flexibility," he adds. "We can release the record when we want, we can price it how we want, and we don't have a middleman taking eighty percent of the revenues."
This summer, Merchant will release a new solo album on her own, The House Carpenter's Daughter, after nearly two decades with Elektra. And Pearl Jam have built an Internet-based direct-distribution arrangement that allows fans to buy recordings of live performances following each show. "It's exciting to be able to work outside the usual industry trenches," says Eddie Vedder.
Younger acts may still need major-label promotion to get their careers off the ground. The majors are skilled image builders and possess the financial muscle to secure radio play and shelf space for their artists. But with sales slumping and turmoil shaking most of the majors, veteran artists are realizing that they can do just fine outside the label structure.
The economics work in their favor, too. The initial pressing of Merchant's The House Carpenter's Daughter will be about 30,000 discs, and her break-even point will be about 50,000, well below the half million threshold big labels generally require. "I have my own studio, and I know/ how to produce songs," says Merchant. "This is a chance to get back to the cottage-industry feel of making records."
There are models to follow. In the mid-1990's Prince broke away from Warner Bros, and turned to the Internet to help distribute records under his own NPG label. Jimmy Buffett exited MCA Records four years ago and formed his own Mailboat Records, a move that jump-started his career.
The satisfaction of calling your own shots is exactly what appeals to Boz Scaggs, whose album of jazz standards, But Beautiful, is out now on his own Gray Cat Records. "Big labels don't know what to do with guys like me," says Scaggs, who, after years of recording with majors, decided he had a fan base he could better serve directly on his own. He started the label specifically to release But Beautiful, which is distributed through Buffett's Mailboat Records. "It was frustrating to make a record and watch it go by because no fire got lit at radio," he says. "I have my own studio and I know my audience."
The sudden freedom can be dazzling. "I feel like I'm making music for myself, not for Time Warner shareholders," says Merchant. "But it's amazing how long its taken me to get out of the sharecropper's mentality. It finally really hit me the other day. If I want to put together an all-girl band, I can do it; if I want to out out a hardcore record, I can do it."
This story is from the June 26th, 2003 issue of Rolling Stone.