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Greater Hartford's Business WeeklyTUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 7, 2010
JUNE 8, 2008  Vol 16,#32


Bands Favoring Web Over Major Labels

Technology helps musicians gain fans, produce CDs all on their own

Thousands of fans. A jam-packed tour schedule. A CD for sale. And no record label behemoth behind it all?

That's today's music business, according to Chris Bowes, the drummer for the Connecticut band Columbia Fields. And such independent success is fast becoming music industry standard for up-and-coming musical acts trying to build a brand, a following and a sound.

Columbia Fields, whose sound Bowes describes as a sort of Dave Matthews Band meets John Mayer, is among a growing number of musical groups making music independently, without a record label.

All on its own, Columbia Fields has amassed more than 14,000 fans on, booked shows in venues across the state and landed airtime on local radio stations WTIC 96.5 FM and KISS 95.7.

Over the past decade, the music industry has changed. It used to be that a band needed a record label to hit it big. Labels had the power to finance, distribute and promote new music.

New Opportunities

But starting with the days of Napster, technology has given emerging acts new opportunities. Now, artists can amass a substantial following through Internet music downloads, social networking sites like and individual artist Web sites. They can produce CDs in the comfort of home and sell them through online record stores like

"I'm one of those guys who, when I was a kid, always saw myself up on stage, playing in front of thousands of people," said Bowes, who's been with Columbia Fields for about two years. The band's first CD, "When the Night Falls," has sold about 750 copies at shows and through online distribution with

"The industry's a little different now," he added. "Bands don't necessarily need labels to get in front of large audiences."

"The heart of all the [industry] changes is definitely technology, bottom line," said Adam Gootkin, co-owner of the recording studio Onyx Soundlab in Manchester. Half of his studio's business is with major labels, artists and corporations, like Dell; the other half is with independent artists.

Gootkin's latest project is a new track for R&B artist Brandy.

Marketing Tools

The music industry is going all digital, said Gootkin. Album sales are down, he added, and that means less income for labels, which are set up to sell CDs. Without the need for distribution, record labels become little more than banks, he said. Large labels have yet to adjust their business model to fit the digital times.

Declining revenues from CD sales has had one immediate impact on the industry, namely that labels are becoming more selective in whom they choose to sign, Gootkin said. That means musicians who are looking for the financial backing of a major record label need to come to them prepared, pre-packaged with an image, a brand and a following, he said.

"The closer you are to helping them see the vision, the closer you are to getting a deal," Gootkin said.

Part of that challenge for young musicians is marketing, said Sheri Ziccardi, public relations manager for The Hartt School, the arts school at the University of Hartford. Ziccardi has spent years helping students in creative fields market themselves. The tools certainly have evolved, she said.

"Thinking about marketing and promoting themselves can be a challenge for creative types, who do not necessarily want to think about the ‘business' side of the industry they choose to enter," Ziccardi said in an e-mail. "Fortunately, today's students have been raised in a techno-heavy culture and are comfortable with utilizing technology for self-expression and communication, so marketing themselves may become easier for them in some ways than it was for their predecessors."

Staying Independent

If musicians can grasp the ins and outs of the industry, staying independent can be a viable option.

Music industry veteran and songwriting instructor Bill Pere maintains that it only takes a band about 10,000 fans to be able to make music full-time and remain independent of a label. He's seen it happen, when musicians are industry-savvy.

"A person is now able to get their material to a wide audience," said the Mystic-based Pere, who has put out 16 CDs but makes most of his royalties from digital downloads. "The trade-off is that in the old school … the record label basically does everything for you," he added. "And all you have to do is your music."

But artists attached to a label get a small piece of the pie, if anything at all, he said.

For example, a band signs a contract with a label and gets a $500,000 advance to make an album. Any royalties that come from the sale of the resulting album must first go to pay back that advance, Pere said.

"If you don't sell enough, you don't get anything," Pere said. "It takes a heck of a lot of sales to make any money."

Keeping Profits

The independent market doesn't offer the connections or the budget. "But you get to keep 100 percent of everything you make," said Pere, who has remained independent throughout his musical career. "You are the one issuing contracts to other people to do work the way you want it done."

Downloadable music has also created the need for a more strategic approach to songwriting, Pere said. Sometimes listeners only get to sample the first 30 seconds of a song before deciding whether or not to purchase it. Long intros won't get a song downloaded; those first 30 seconds have to rock.

"It's a totally transformed world, with its good sides and bad sides," he added. "It's not a matter or right or wrong. It's about having your eyes wide open."

Bill Pere:    Songwriter, Recording Artist and veteran of the music business

Photo/Aaron Griesdorn

Columbia Fields band members, drummer Chris Bowes, pianist/keyboardist Eric Heath, guitarist/lead vocalist Grayson Minney and bassist Jon Coates, are currently working on their second, independently produced album


Originally printed in the Hartford Business Journal, June 9, 2008,  and online at