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Country stars find second home with indies

Youth movement sending Parton, Nelson, others to small labels
/ Source: The Associated Press

Dolly Parton and Dwight Yoakam have sold more than 122 million albums between them. So when they make a new record, top labels line up, right?

The truth is, major record labels are looking for new Dollys and Dwights, not the old ones.

“I couldn’t get a decent deal with a good big label,” Parton said of her turn to the Durham, N.C.-based independent Sugar Hill Records a few years ago. “I’m past the age group where they thought I could sell records for them.”

Parton’s last four albums have been on independent labels, while Yoakam’s latest is distributed by the Nashville-based independent Audium Records.

The story is the same for many veteran country stars. With major labels hyping fresh young acts, artists past their commercial peak are looking for a second home.

Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Clint Black, Kathy Mattea, June Carter Cash, Suzy Bogguss, Joe Diffie, Robert Earl Keen and Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel all released albums on indie labels last year. They were preceded by Loretta Lynn, John Anderson, Rodney Crowell and Charlie Daniels.

Some artists, such as Yoakam, record on their own label then distribute the music through an indie; others take a more traditional approach and let the label handle everything.

Indies alive and kickin'
Either way, indies are thriving. Once a haven for struggling and offbeat artists, they have become an option for more traditional, established stars as the major labels consolidate, slash their rosters and focus on blockbuster acts.

Only five major music companies remain in the industry: Universal, Warner Bros. and EMI, plus Sony and BMG, which are planning to merge. Meanwhile, the number of independents in Nashville has grown — Rounder, Dualtone, Audium, Equity, Broken Bow and others.

“In the heyday of country, artists had eight or nine major labels to shop. It was like a baseball free agent,” said Nick Hunter, president of Audium Records. “Now, there are only three or four major labels out there and six, seven or 10 independents.”

Because the indies don’t have as much overhead as the majors, they can turn a profit selling far fewer albums.

“Most major artists don’t break even until they exceed 800,000 units or more,” said David Herrera, an instructor at the Belmont University Curb School of Music Business in Nashville. “For some independent artists, 20,000 units is a big deal.”

For the label, landing a veteran artist is a coup. The artist is already well-known, has a fan base and a core audience that will buy their records.

Greater freedom with indiesThe artists say the indies give them more freedom, which can lead to some of the best work of their career. Parton, for example, released a bluegrass album on Sugar Hill and won a Grammy award in 2001. She won another Grammy in 2002 for her rendition of the song “Shine,” a hit for the rock group Collective Soul.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do it” on a major label, Parton said. “You’re never able to do what you want to do on a major label. There are too many bosses, too many people with too many opinions. By the time you’re done with it, it’s so screwed up you don’t even recognize it.”

But there’s a tradeoff. With their smaller size, independents have fewer resources. Artists have a harder time getting airplay, videos are too costly for most and tours are on smaller scale.

“You have to change your whole focus,” said Bogguss, a successful act for Capitol Records in the 1990s who is now on the Houston-based indie Compadre Records. “You can’t do the same kind of big production for shows. You can’t have two tour buses and a truck and do this big thing — at least not me. You take an ego blow here and there.”

Shift in perceptionsIn the past, recording on an independent label was considered a step down for big-label artists, a sign that their career was on the skids. But most say that’s changed, and today the independents are seen as cutting edge.

“When I told them my idea about the record I wanted to make, Mercury thought it was a liability and Narada thought it was an asset,” said Mattea, who asked to be released from her Mercury contract a few years ago and signed with Milwaukee-based Narada.

“With independent labels, the whole motivation is different,” she said. “It’s not about trying to find a superstar. It’s, ’We’re going to create a home for good music.”’

Belmont’s Herrera sees the proliferation of indie labels as a healthy development for the music industry and part of a cycle. Typically, he said, major labels grow conservative over time and their rosters get stale. That creates a void for independents to flourish and break new, important artists.

“Most of the buzz on Music Row is that this is going to be the next golden age of indie labels,” he said.

That’s encouraging for veterans like Parton who want to keep working — but on their own terms.

“I know I’m always going to be doing this,” Parton said. “It’s not about the money. I could stop now if it was about that.”