This is the final installment in a series (the first featured guitarist Brooks Betts, the second manager Josh Terry, the third agent Mike Marquis) where I provide an inside look at various aspects of the business of Mayday Parade, a rock band that over its 13-year career has sold more than 1 million albums, produced 60 videos that each have been viewed over 1 million times on YouTube, and are a hugely successful live act just coming off a sold-out U.S. tour. 

And their new album, Sunnyland, was just released.

The band got their start selling homemade CDs in a Warped Tour parking lot over a decade ago -- and this summer they're headlining the final edition of the tour.

This time it's Matthew Gordner, V.P. and General Manager of Rise Records, the band's record label.

Pretend I'm a musician and I've been doing it on my own. What's your pitch for why I should sign with your label?

That's a conversation we have with lots of bands and artists. It's natural to say, "Why don't I do it myself?"

I always tell bands they can. You can tap into the DSPs (digital service providers) with a third-party company, can get in on the digital side... you absolutely can if you want.

But the glass financial ceiling in that world is really low. In my experience, even the artists who do it well tend to cap out at about $40k a year. If you want to exceed that amount... you're going to need the help of a larger, experienced company.

It's tough for a band to go out-of-pocket, when you add up the recording costs, the costs of making a music video, hiring video promotion, radio promotion, hiring a publicist, manufacturing a physical component... it adds up pretty quickly. Not to mention to cost of touring. All of that can be a huge financial burden. 

You come to a place like ours because we can shatter that glass ceiling, cover the costs, and you can immediately tap into our network. 

The difference is in the degree. I can self-publish a book, but the right publisher can do what I do at a much larger scale.

Exactly. Like most businesses, relationships are everything. We've been developing our relationships for decades, and when you work with us you can instantly get to tap into that. Those relationships extend from retail to press, from play listing to promotion, from branding to touring.  

We have the ability to make your music more accessible and help you find success much more quickly. The Rise Records YouTube channel has 2.3 million subscribers. Even if only 10 percent are interested... that's over 200,000 people.

Our goal is to deliver major label results but in a more boutique environment. 

When I was choosing a publisher for my book, I focused on who would help me write a better book... and then who would be able to do things for me that I couldn't do.

That's the primary focus for most artists. If we didn't genuinely feel like we could improve your business, we wouldn't be talking to you. We wouldn't waste your time. Or our time.

Mark Cuban says the two hardest businesses are 1) the music business and 2) trying to sell cool, and we're trying to do both. (Laughs.)

I have the same conversation with every member of our team: Your value is based on your ability to deliver something the artist doesn't "deserve." 

I love that concept. I had PR folks pitch me and they would list what they provide and in most cases I thought, "Okay... but I can land that myself. What can you get me that I can't get?"

No one is impressed by picking low hanging fruit. (Laughs.) Whether it's a press piece, a retail look, a tour... we have to push the rock farther up the hill than anyone thinks is possible.  

Of course that means working hard every day, and knowing it may take years to break an artist.

There's no elevator to the top. We all take the stairs.

Beyond knowing you can help an artist in terms of business, what do you look for when you thinking about signing a band?

The main thing we look for -- the main thing that that people respond to -- is art. You have to appeal to people on multiple levels.

Maybe that's a band like Ghost, where it's not just great music but there is also a great visual element. People buy into the art of what they do. PVRIS, one of our artists, also does that really well. 

That's what people are looking for. More than anything else, people want authenticity. That's what "works." 

Authentic art cuts through the clutter. Authentic art has lasting power.

We only want to work with bands that can have careers -- and that means what they do has to be special.

Granted what is special to me might not be to someone else. So we have to be right more often than we're wrong -- because you'll never be 100 percent right. It's art, not science. 

We don't listen message boards. We don't listen to industry chatter. We listen to music. That's still the most important thing. We look for art that connects.

More specifically, what mae you interested in signing Mayday Parade?

They first caught my attention ten years ago. it was clear they were connecting with people in a very real way. There wasn't a gimmick; it was just honest music for real people.

At a time when everyone most artists in their genre were trying to be overly clever with their lyrics, Mayday Parade were just being honest. They were relatable. That connects with people. They're a band that knows who their audience is, they know how to write a phenomenal song... even early on I felt this was a band that could be around for 20 or 30 years if they keep doing what comes natural to them. 

You also have to understand they have been rehearsing every day for almost 15 years. That's why they're so good. Everyone talks about the rule of 10,000 hours; with Mayday it's the rule of 20,000 hours. They know each other's strengths, they play to those strengths, and they write very honest music. And the numbers back it up. They have more than 60 videos on YouTube that have more than 1 million plays each.

That's the kind of artist I want to build a relationship with.

One thing I also focused on when choosing a publisher was control. How do you create a relationship that provides the right balance for the artist and the label?

Basically, you earn the right to not be told what to do. (Laughs.)

If we sign an unknown act, we have to help create a fan base for that artist. That means we need to be more heavily involved in a variety of the developmental decisions.

Mayday already had a fan base. They're a band that just recently did a full U.S. tour with 96 percent sellout business and 36 sold-out shows. It's not like they needed us to tell them what to do. They were bringing an audience to us.

Every act is different. Some deserve greater creative license than others. If you're doing that kind of business, and you've been a band for this long... you clearly are doing something right. So it's like being in a true partnership where we each bring equal value.

And the band has the final say.  There are songs that didn't make Sunnyland that I loved. It was hard to have to be okay with that. (Laughs.)

The one thing we never forgot is that they don't work for us. The label works for the artist. That differentiates independent labels from major labels: A lot of majors treat the artist like the artist works for the label.

Our livelihood exists because of the artist.

It's important to remember that the band has to play these songs every night for the rest of their career. They need to love these songs more than anyone else. It's our job to try and make them better, without making them feel compromised.

But more than that, it all comes down to the fact they have earned the right to control their careers.

Let's talk about changes in the music business. The revenue model has changed dramatically.

You think? (Laughs.)

Here's a tough reality. It used to be that if you went to a physical retailer and bought a CD and listened to it 10 times, you still paid $8.99. Now if someone streams it ten times... that's maybe 20 cents.

That's the hardest pill to swallow right now for a lot of record companies.

The average American listener was spending an average of $12 a year on music, which was maybe one full record a year. Everyone on the recorded side bought into the streaming model because if we offered everyone everything for $10 a month, all of a sudden that meant people would spend 10x more a year on music than they used to... and that would eventually trickle down to everyone.

The problem is we're in the "trickle down" era now, and we're all starting to see what it really means for our bottom lines. Say you have a Spotify premium account and the only thing you listen to all month is one Mayday Parade song. Shouldn't Mayday get your $10 this month? Why can't it be that simple?

I know it would make a lot of us smaller companies feel better if it could be segmented that way. Sadly, the major record companies and distributors dictate what these deals look like for everyone -- and they've made sure that they see the lion's share of that money. 

In fairness to them, they have the artists that the majority of America are consuming, so they deserve to be in the room.

Still, there are definitely benefits to streaming. We don't have to manufacture physical product. We don't have to deal with returns. And with streaming you can see instantly if a song is connecting and where it's connecting.

Those back-end analytics are very helpful when going to radio or routing a tour. It's much easier to market to your audience when you know exactly where they are.

Talk to me about your YouTube channel. How did you get 2 million subscribers?

We were one of the first record companies to put our entire catalog on YouTube. We wanted to make our music accessible, to let the audience test drive it... and we trusted that they would still want to buy it because they would want that level of quality. 

And it worked.

Even though all of our friends in the industry told us we were devaluing music, that we were the problem and not the solution. We saw the way things were heading and wanted to be in front of it.

In fact we were so far ahead that YouTube wasn't really ready for it. (Laughs.)  They were paying a higher monetization rate for a music video than for an audio version and we said, "Shouldn't it be the same? THe user still sees the ads or whatever you're serving..."

And they agreed. But we were able to have those conversations because we were there so soon.

And now we have a stronger monetization rate and we're in higher level ad packages because of our subscriber numbers. And that means unknown band will make more money on our channel because of our ad packages.

That goes back to our earlier conversation about whether you should do it on your own or sign with a label.  In our case, we've gone through all the trial and error and now have an elevated platform. So it's that old conversation of whether you want 50 percent of a watermelon or 100 percent of a grape. 

From the outside looking in, direct-to-consumer seems to be a bigger slice of an artist's revenue pie. 

No matter how the business changes, the direct-to-consumer component will continue to be significant. There will always be fans who want more than just the music.  They'll want a vinyl record. They'll want 100 pages of liner notes and pictures. They're willing to spend more to get a premium product.

And because you sell directly to them, the margin is better and the profit contribution is stronger, which is a win for the artist and for us.

That's why vinyl has started to come back so strong. People want the artwork, the tangible product they can touch and feel... which is why we sell vinyl records with digital download codes. That way we allow the fan to exist in both worlds.

You'll also see a lot more strategic partnerships on the physical retail side, whether it's buying a country album at a Tractor Supply store, or a pop record at Urban Outfitters, or a punk album at skate shops...... distribution will be more surgical.

Of course that means doing more legwork to know where your audience lives and where they shop. 

"Premium" can also go to surprising places.

Smart artists appreciate their super fans. But that starts with being a band that creates art, because true art lend itself to the premium experience. Otherwise you're just trying to sell people "stuff."

And you're right. That can take you to surprising places. Jake (drummer) is an artist artist: You can buy his paintings or merch designs. That creates a greater connection, which fans love.

In general terms, limited runs are something the public responds to. Only make 100 copies of one vinyl color and people will definitely respond. 

But that starts with what we talked about in the beginning. If you aren't authentic, if you aren't genuine, if you aren't creating art... no one cares about "limited" or "premium." Everything starts with the connection fans have to your music, and to you.

Our job is to help artists make that authentic connection with fans.

Published on: Jun 19, 2018
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