The Corporate No
I’m a normal job person at heart. The wild virus that infected me with a love for evil music was stopped from running its full course by a combination of upbringing and conservative schooling. This has left me in a twilight zone where I belong fully to neither area; normal corporate work is by itself a meaningless endeavor, yet I’m unable to embrace the romance of being a broke-ass musician. Not a day goes by that I wish that the Wheel of Fortune that defined my music tastes had landed on ‘house’ or ‘trance’ or something more lucrative.
I used to work in utilities around the time Berzerker started playing as a live band. I fell into the industry when it was deregulated and privatised in the late 1990s, and quickly found myself working some decent jobs for the first time ever. My university degree in Japanese, Marketing, and South East-Asian Politics seemed barely sufficient to get me work as a waiter for the first few years after graduation, so I was enjoying not being as destitute as usual. Ever want to have enough rage and hatred and misanthropy to write first-class death anthems? Work in hospitality. Trust me.
“I wish I could vomit blood on you people”
My dream at the time was to have my career in utilities and be able to balance that with the occasional Berzerker tour. It was my own version of work-life balance; I couldn’t commit to being a full-time company employee without a sideline creative endeavor, and I couldn’t commit to being a full-time homeless jobless bum musician. I like food and sleeping in beds too much. We planned to play only the occasional show or tour overseas. We were still very much into the idea of keeping our identities a mystery, and making rare appearances that would be big events. Shows were meant to deadly and rare, like ebola. The first time we saw the Dethklok ‘Duncan Hills Coffee’ episode we were like “somebody understands”.
I was happily working through an agency in wholesale electricity when we had a new manager come in. He’d barely put his bags down when he announced his edict: all the agency staff had to go. It took almost a week for the supervisors underneath him to explain how quickly the company would fall apart if he went ahead with this idea but it was too late for me by then. My hospitality life had been one arbitrary sacking after another, and like a refugee from a war zone I was in the habit of running before the executions started. I immediately found a job with another company and jumped ship. It was as a process mapper with one of Australia’s largest electricity companies, and they were agreeable to me taking time off to tour. I started there a week later.
Things fell apart almost immediately. I was supposed to process-map their billing and accounts department to ‘audit-proof’ them, but when I turned up the place was in absolute disarray. Billing was up to six months behind. Systems were broken. Staff morale was through the floor. People would burst into tears at meetings. I hadn’t done enough touring by then to properly enjoy people crying, so I found this uncomfortable. And they were taking me for a ride. I wouldn’t so much be mapping process, as trying to invent it on the fly in a lot of cases. There was no process, just a slow-burning dumpster-fire.
To add to that, a manager I had never met approached me on my first day and said hi, you’ll be managing a billing experiment for some LPG customers somewhere. I said, “who are you” and “what” and then a lady called Kate came and dumped a four-foot high stack of billing documents on my desk. She never did explain the documents, the project, or the applications I was supposed to use to process all this shit, and seemed actively annoyed when I’d ask. She was a British chick who apparently managed her workloads by moving from project to project and dumping them on other people before they were finished. I went to the manager who hired me and was like, what the hell is going on? The manager said don’t worry about that project, just focus on the process-mapping.
I tried to balance both. I tried a bunch more times to get Kate to explain this workload she’d dumped on me, but she’d get snooty whenever I asked questions. To add to the fuss, Berzerker had secured a US tour in a few month’s time and it suddenly seemed that work wasn’t amenable to me taking time off for it. I struggled with the process-mapping for another month when suddenly all these experimental LPG customers had their bills due. Of course they didn’t get them, and the shit hit the fan. I was dragged into a management meeting for a bout of blamestorming with Kate and our managers.
Kate threw me under the bus. She said I didn’t ask any questions about the workload, that I wouldn’t take direction, and that she’d been offering to help me but I’d refused. My jaw dropped at how brazen she was. Her manager backed her up and said, yes, Kate has been keeping me informed about this problem for the last month. And I said, well I’ve been keeping MY manager informed about how this workload hasn’t been properly transferred, there’s been no training, and no documentation, and Kate isn’t amenable to handing over any knowledge. I looked at my manager expectantly, shaking with fury and ready to fucking rumble.
My manager meekly began with, “well, we shouldn’t be pointing fingers at each other…” and it went further downhill from there. She didn’t back me up and I ended up taking the blame. For the rest of the meeting, my brain was stuck in a loop between “I must murder everyone in this room” and “I can’t because it’s illegal”. I asked my manager if she could stay behind afterwards, and asked if I was still in my three-month probationary period. She said yes, but that my job was still safe and I’d just have a disciplinary mark against my record.
I said, you misunderstand me. I’m allowed to give only a fortnight’s notice that I’m quitting while still in my probationary period, and I’m giving you that notice right now. I wrote a quick “I quit” message on a pad on the table, dated and signed it, and handed it over. Her manager called me half an hour later to talk me out of my decision. They were now exposed to any incoming audits with absolutely no plan, staff, or backup in place. Wasn’t there anything he could do to get me to stay? My answer was No.
I left work that afternoon, cried for about twenty minutes in a corner of Melbourne Central station from relief and stress, then made my way to the Punters Club in Brunswick street. I had a show to play. One month later, I started my first US tour. Six months later, the billing and accounts department of the utilities company was dissolved and outsourced to a location over six hundred kilometers away.
The Music Industry No
The Senseless signed to a small independent UK record label called Anticulture back in 2007. They had some juice back then. There were a bunch of solid UK bands on this label, and their European representative had approached me with the deal. I knew the UK label head from an incident a year or two beforehand. Some mad-keen Berzerker fan decided he was going to act as my representative (without telling me), and started approaching label heads trying to get them to sign my solo stuff. This particular label head contacted me to let me know what was happening, and I messaged this kid to tell him to cut it out. Now here I was a few years later, signing to this label for realsies.
I was relatively optimistic despite my experience with Earache Records. This smaller label promised total transparency both in communication and money. The contract stipulated that royalties would be be split 50/50 once the label’s costs were taken care of. They’d let me know what sales were needed to reach that break-even point. They’d even let me know where their promotional spend would be, in case I had contacts that could replicate the job for free or a discount. I was optimistic about hitting any break-even they could name. The European representative was enthusiastic and competent, my UK reputation was solid, and most importantly the label’s catalog was distributed in the US by The End records, so we’d be able to tap the large number of Berzerker fans in the States. For my part, all I had to do was provide them with an album, the artwork, and forgo ‘mechanicals’ (the publishing money a label owes the artist in exchange for printing their CDs regardless of how many are sold).
“And they’re going to give us royalties, and fresh air, and all the pudding we can eat!”
It all sounded pretty good. I flew back to Australia to mix and master the album with Luke. We took footage of recording, and sent it to the label for promotion. I made a flash website for the band. I instigated a bidding war between the world’s two most eminent surf photographers so I could use their shot of a monstrous wave on the artwork. I found a film student who made me the filmclip for ‘Vacation’ as a favour. He went on to win multiple awards for his later work. I got master mixer to the stars Russ Russell to master it, and star guitarists Ol Drake and Matt Wilcock to contribute a solo each.
I handed all of that work and star power to the label for free, and they completely fucking blew it. They lost their distro through The End before the album came out, and didn’t find a replacement in time for the release so I wasn’t distributed in the US. They organised a ‘press day’ in London, which consisted of one in-person blog interview, and two phone interviews (one of them with a mate of mine at Terrorizer). They paid the agency they engaged something like 400 quid for this without clearing it with me first. The agency was run by a mate of Berzerker’s. Then they gave exclusive rights to the filmclip to Play.com and paid them 200 quid to stock my CD, again without clearing it with me. Play.com carried eight copies of the CD, sold out on the first day, and didn’t re-stock. I chased it up again and again, but no more stock went out to them.
Music industry PR circa 2007
It got worse. The CD was being carried in HMV records, but haphazardly – I was getting contacted from people all around the UK complaining that it wasn’t in their local shop. Sounds so quaint these days, doesn’t it? People actually using the internet to tell you that they walked into an actual retail store to buy your physical CD, complaining that it’s not there. The album was sent out for review without any sort of promo or follow-up. Normally, a label releasing an album will follow up with the relevant magazine, talk about the music, work out who would be most suitable to review it. These guys just scatter-gunned it, and as luck had it I received reviews like the ‘2K review’ from Kerrang where they did things like accusing the drummer of being out of time (I used a drum-machine), and complaining about every track being too fast. This is the album that finishes with a straight-up 120bpm chillout tune . The review was straight bullshit in other words, a hatchet job done by some hack had hadn’t made it past track 2.
In the meantime, the label reassured me that all was well and over one thousand units had been sold, which was all good but I hadn’t received an official sales breakdown sheet OR their break-even figure. They seemed to keep forgetting. Shit, they even forgot to invite me to the annual Christmas party. Something like six months later after much hassle, I received my first sales sheet showing about six hundred sales but only for a few territories and a three month period. Where were the full figures? I tried getting some email responses but by then the label had gone ‘Full English’ and weren’t responding.
And while I was starting to froth, there was something called ‘returns’. The deal with PHD, the distributor, meant that any albums not sold in stores were returned to the label and they were charged for it. They passed that charge on to me. The charge amount was larger per CD than what I would have received had I sold it. And the absolute best thing ever was that when I dug into it, the stores returning unsold CDs were the locations where fans were complaining of being unable to find the album. I wasn’t a fun person to be around during this time.
It wasn’t all bad. The reception outside of the UK was great, especially in Europe where the territory representative had done an amazing job. The label had given me something like 100 CDs for me to sell on my own, which I never paid them back for. So there was that to consider. However, I decided things would have to be different with the next album especially as I was using a real drummer (this is the album that became ‘The Floating World’). A half-assed unpaid label effort wouldn’t cut it for me, let alone both of us.
How’s it going? I remember you were cooking up some year-end figures back in December, are those available? All the figures I’ve heard so far have been incomplete, so I’d be after something that covers all territories, CD sales and iTunes (and any other point-of-sale I’ve missed). Additionally, I’m still chasing you for the break-even sales figure so I know if we’re ahead and making profit or still in the red.
Which brings me to this year-
I’ve written enough material for 1.5 albums, so now I’m looking ahead to doing the next album. Contract-wise, the main differences I’d be looking at are:
a) I want to claim mechanicals for album 2.
b) I’m after an advance for album 2.
and c) I want to hear your plans on promoting the future release in the US and the UK (I can’t fault the Europe promotion)
In return, I deliver the red-hot album of the decade full of raging-unadulterated genius, complete with a couple of solos from the usual suspects, and a drum performance on it that will not only drop jaws but convert the hordes of knuckleheads who cannot enjoy music which features a drum machine.”
They wanted to know what became of our three-album licensing deal. I told them straight-up that I wasn’t going to give them another album for free. There was a bit of back-and-forth, including them pointedly wanting to know when I was going to tour to support the album, and me pointedly replying that I wasn’t – just as I told them before they signed me. The point of The Senseless was to do metal music which was impossible to reproduce live, something I felt restricted most extreme bands.
This is what’s known as “a shot across the bows”. It might strike some as being rather bold. I saw it as nothing of the sort. The label had been talking about ditching CD releases and going all-digital, and between that and their slipshod release, I believed they weren’t doing anything as a label I couldn’t do myself. I just wanted to see if they were going to stop taking the piss and come to the table with an actual real offer and not these ephemeral in-the-future promises of support.
The answer was no, as it turned out. We had the following emailed exchange:
Label: you haven’t been chasing sales figures for a year, it was only released in May last year. We agreed that we wouldn’t report in June last year as none of the returns had been taken into account. The latest report is due by March 30th, and it’s only March 19th so I’m not sure what your beef is here.
Me: You are right – I haven’t been chasing sales for a year, I have been chasing the break-even amount for roughly that time. We have both invested time, money, and effort in the initial release. The contract is set up so that royalties only come back once your expenses have been taken care of, then we receive a royalty split. By asking for a break-even (ie; what your expenses are and what their sum total is), I have been asking so that I know how far away I am to getting my expenses taken care of.
It’s not a ‘beef’, it’s something that I’ve been promised on a number of occasions and am yet to receive – as recently as December. My obsession with the break-even is knowing if I’ll be a) able to cover the expenses of making an album, and b) if I’ll make profit by making another album.
Label: UK promo hasn’t been reattempted, as you’ve been busy with the Berzerker and other stuff.
Me: I’ve only been out of the country on Berzerker business for two weeks , and I spent the majority of that time promoting Senseless. Trust me, I’m happy to get involved in any promotion for the Senseless, anytime, and I’ve always said as much.
Label: As soon as you’re ready to do something worth promoting in the UK then we will do something. Same for Europe. We can’t make people interested in something that has been out a year though. We’ve now invested a substantial amount of time and effort establishing an unknown artist, with no live promotion.
Me: I’m not an unknown artist – this album has been promoted as being done by Sam from the Berzerker. With performances from Evile and Akercocke, production from the Berzerker, and mastering from Russ Russell, rah rah rah rah rah. That is pretty far from establishing an unknown. The next album comes with one Leon Macey playing drums, there’s another ‘unknown’ name for you. Additionally, I’ve made the ‘no live shows’ part known from the beginning.
Label: And now you’re basically saying either we pay for the album or you’re not going to record it. Which leaves a pretty bad taste in my mouth personally – I can’t speak for the others.
Me: Without a break-even and full sales figures, and a label manager getting shirty when I broach those topics, my sum total of music industry/label experience indicates if I record another album under the same conditions then I’ll be short of a break-even and royalties, and will receive no money. I’d be making a leap of faith without any evidence to hand to show that anything would be coming back from the effort.
I’m sorry discussing this leaves a bad taste in your mouth – the object of this communication is not to offend, but to negotiate an outcome.
Label: Which is fair enough i guess – we’ve given you an ultra fair, open contract and there is no stipulation for you to actually make another album.
Me: I’ve given you one free album, with the option for you to licence further albums I make. Your glass is half-full.
Label: I must say though, it’s a vastly different outlook from when you came to us for the second time to ask us to licence the record after I turned you down the first time, and I’m disappointed you’re trying to change the terms of the deal now that we’ve invested our part.
Me: As said, we’ve both invested time and effort and up until now your investment is being realised by sales while I have no idea how far away any return on my effort is.
As for that “turned you down the first time” line, what the fuck?! Are you serious?! You are talking about that random kid on the Berzerker forum who started mailing labels searching for a deal for me, where the first I knew about it was you emailing me going what’s this about? And as for the second time, <European representative> approached me. I don’t know what you’re playing at saying stuff like this, but that’s the kind of talk I’d expect from someone like Dig.
Ding ding ding! Everyone went back to their corners. I was simmering. I wanted to go back to past-me who had given them all this work for free and beat the shit out of me. I had decided to leave already and was meditating on how to do it when I received one more email from the label. It was slightly more conciliatory, but finished with the following:
“If its not financially viable to record another Senseless record, then…that’s that. If you’re not confident to risk your own money, don’t ask us to.”
What is a label for, if not to bankroll recordings? I was thinking to myself what the fuck are you guys for. I sent a final mail on April 1st 2008 which opened with “Rest assured, this is not an April Fool’s joke” and notified them that I was leaving the label and the legal basis on which I was dissolving my contract. If they wanted to make any fuss I’d dissolve the band and release the next album as ‘The Less Sense”.
A counteroffer was made for a thousand-pound advance on the next album, but my answer was “no”. By then I’d had it. We managed to get it together enough to amicably dissolve the contract. Within a year, the label and its catalog had gone digital. Within two years, the label was no more.
What’s an article if it’s not wrapped up with some little homily or a cartoon character going “I learned something today”? Much is made about the power of saying yes and trying everything that comes your way. But the older I get, the less energy I have, and I get choosy where I spend it and I’ve learned the power of saying NO. Both the job and label wasted my energy and foreshadowed wasting more of it. I often wonder about what might have happened with some situations in life, how things may have turned out if I made different decisions. I never wonder about that job and label though.