Last week, The Band Perry announced they split from their label, Big Machine. For anybody who had been paying attention to the mysterious happenings with the band over the past several months, it was a sad but not particularly surprising development.
They released “Live Forever” on Aug. 14, 2015. It was supposed to be a big reintroduction of a new sound from their work with pop producer RedOne (Lady Gaga’s guy) and the first single off their third album Heart + Beat. For most people, it was a bit of a head scratcher.
For starters, it was the complete opposite of their 6-times platinum debut crossover hit “If I Die Young.” I mean, just comparing the titles “If I Die Young” versus “Live Forever” is enough to tell you how much of a 180 they pulled in the release. But even if it confused the casual critic, “The Fans Perry” were on board. It was still, after all, anchored by Kimberly Perry’s smoky vocals and an undeniable catchiness.
Then the song was pulled from radio. Then the song disappeared from the Internet for about 24 hours, an occurrence Kimberly Perry attributed to their team doing “a little housecleaning,” but also sent fans overboard wondering if the band was breaking up.
So they got together to assure their fans with a video posted to Facebook that they were indeed not going anywhere, and they wanted to cuddle every last one of them. It was pretty cute, but still carried some curious undertones.
Of course, now we know that the content was being re-uploaded with the band’s ownership instead of Big Machine’s. It’s why the single “Live Forever” has The Band Perry’s copyright while all of their prior chart-topping works have the Big Machine Label Group copyright.
But none of that really answers the simple question of “What happened?” The split may not be surprising in context, but it certainly is when you look at the band’s six-year career with Big Machine.
Sure, artists get dropped from labels all the time. But not artists like The Band Perry. Only two albums into their career, they had already amassed a huge following. Their debut record from 2010 has outsold Luke Bryan’s first two records combined. They’ve worked with some of the top producers in the game, including wunderkind Rick Rubin and Dann Huff.
They’ve had four No. 1 singles, another four land in the top 10, and in 2014 they won a GRAMMY for their rendition of Glen Campbell’s classic, “Gentle On My Mind.” They’re also consistently well-reviewed for their live show — and in the middle of a headlining tour.
So is one under-performing single really a reason to split with a band?
Some have speculated that Big Machine and The Band Perry weren’t on the same page when it came to their sonic direction — but Big Machine is certainly not opposed to a poppy sound, and The Band Perry, self-proclaimed “pop tarts,” were never far removed from pop in general (even “If I Die Young” was a crossover Adult Contemporary hit when they replaced the fiddle with guitar).
Big Machine has several pop artists and recently inked a deal with pop mega producer (and alleged rapist) Dr. Luke, and The Band Perry had all that time with aforementioned producer RedOne. There’s no doubt that both parties are on board with pop — if The Band Perry were a new band.
But they’re not. They’re an established band with an established sound, and Big Machine is not in the business of breaking a new sound for an established artist.
They are, however, in the business of breaking new young acts. That’s why more than one-third of Big Machine’s roster is young acts who have yet to have a radio hit. Now, that’s not to say the acts have a lot of time to get one — young artists get dropped quicker than the beat on a Sam Hunt single.
And that’s really what the big labels are interested in now. Just imagine the near desperation in Sony Nashville CEO Randy Goodman’s voice when he tells Billboard, “We [Sony] haven’t been able to break any acts through to help offset that decay [of aging artists]. That, to me, is the most urgent thing that needs to be done.”
And here’s Goodman talking about signing new act LANco on the spot at their label showcase: “When we show up, it needs to be, ‘Wow, the Sony guys are here tonight. They may sign this act tonight.’ So that’s what we did. I think I freaked my entire staff out, as well as the band, but for the staff, I wanted them to see that if they tell me they’re excited about this, and I’m excited about it, I’m willing to walk backstage and just throw down.”
That’s why Sony went so aggressively after Maren Morris, who was about to sign with a different label.
Morris tells Billboard, “It was a very aggressive offer. They promised a lot of amazing things to us, and luckily everything has pulled through. We’ve not been shelved or waited for a single release date. Everything has honestly been moved earlier, so I feel like everyone over there has been really great about holding up their end of the bargain.”
It’s a happy beginning for Morris, but she brings up extremely good points about the struggles that a lot of artists deal with: broken promises, shelved records, lapsed support. In The Band Perry’s case, the plug was pulled on their single and their album was delayed (and still is).
Again — labels are not interested in a new sound for an established act.
That’s why Big Machine Label Group’s collective roster largely consists of a few modern superstars, legacy artists (Reba, Tim McGraw, Ronnie Dunn, Hank Williams Jr., Steven Tyler and even Cheap Trick) and a bunch of people you’ve likely never heard of. And truth is, several of them you probably never will, because they’ll get dropped within the year.
But a group like The Band Perry has some weight they can throw around when it comes to negotiating contracts and their future. Their machine also requires a lot more money to activate — more money for recording, more money for marketing, more money for touring.
So if Big Machine wasn’t completely on board with the direction The Band Perry was heading, they’d be putting a lot of money towards something they don’t necessarily believe in — for, potentially, less reward.
Instead, Big Machine can just throw their name and preliminary radio support behind several new artists, all of whom are likely tied down to unfavorable contracts pending their success. Granted, only a few will break that radio barrier.
But it’s really not bad for The Band Perry. They were hustling for 10 years before inking a big deal, and much of their success came from the way Big Machine was able to put them on the top of the pile. Now, being free from label obligations, it’s just a matter of them and their team being calculated in their next steps to get on top of that pile again.
Heck, only a few hours after the label split announcement last week, they brought more than 50,000 screaming fans to their feet as they opened Rodeo Houston.
So many young artists seek label deals because they don’t have the resources to otherwise make their mark. The Band Perry get to be one of the cool independent kids again (should they choose to stay independent) while still operating with the big boys.
I spent some time with the band in late 2011, right after they were nominated for Best New Artist at the 54th Grammy Awards. We were at a party; they were surprise guests, and my job was to make sure they stayed relatively unperturbed before performing (though they were more than happy to speak with anyone who wanted a moment).
When it came time to introduce the band, the three of them casually walked up on stage in a tiny room filled with industry folks and gathered around one microphone. They proceeded to play “If I Die Young” family style, while 200 liquored up voters sat in amazement at the purity of their voices and the song. You could hear a pin drop for a good five seconds while everyone the last notes slowly escape the room.
As long as The Band Perry can still get up on a stage shut people up like that, they’ll be fine.