As the saying goes, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."
It's an age-old adage that eluded Atlanta rock band Morning State when the group opened itself to a deal with the now-defunct Alpharetta-based Livewire Recordings in 2007. The label boasted distribution through Ryko, which is owned by Warner Bros. For a local band that had previously released only one EP on its own dime, signing to Livewire was an enticing business move. The label offered tour support, a substantial recording budget and the deep pockets of the major league, while operating under the auspices of an independent label.
Morning State's polished and yearning sound, which hearkens back to the alt-rock moods of the late '90s, seemed a good fit for Livewire's roster of various fledgling indie rock locals, such as Warm in the Wake and the Winter Sounds. But according to guitarist/vocalist Russell Ledford, he was less interested in Livewire's past than he was in what it could offer Morning State's future. "We wanted to make a record and not have to worry about the money," Ledford says.
But when Livewire's funding was "delayed" the label went on hiatus, and ultimately closed down for good. As much as this sounds like the beginning of a tragic tale where contractual obligations and legalese bring about the death of the indie underdog, Morning State lucked out. The deal with Livewire was never finalized, and when the label folded the only thing the group was out of were a lot of empty promises.
At the time of Livewire's collapse, Ledford, guitarist Dave Williams, drummer Zachary Sharenko and bassist Joel Stevens – who has been replaced by Aaron Stephenson – had spent three months recording songs for the group's first full-length, I Know People, You Know People.
The label's president/producer Colin Cobb offered a producer deal if they wanted to sell the record to another label, but Morning State balked. "We couldn't afford it, and we didn't know what the future held in store," Ledford says. "Plus being free of a contract was a lot more appealing."
After re-recording the songs, the group entered into a handshake deal with its manager Ian Wheeler's label, Indie Outlaw. The CD hits the streets May 6.
Wheeler describes Indie Outlaw as an "artist advocacy firm" that offers digital distribution through online channels, such as iTunes and Amazon.com, but nothing yet for the physical CD. "We printed CDs so the group could sell them at shows and in stores, and that's kind of the way indies are doing it these days," Wheeler says. "I don't want to give it to a [distributor] who knows less about the band and where they will sell than we do; so it's a custom [distribution] system for Morning State's CD."
With all the talk of major labels being in jeopardy, and the Internet leveling the playing field, the question arises: Do bands still need labels?
In recent years, acts as varied as Nine Inch Nails, Bright Eyes and Radiohead have challenged the lines of disseminating music by their own means. But Morning State is nowhere near as established as these groups. For a burgeoning group, the publicity and financial support of a label would carry the group far.
"A band of our status needs the publicity push and tour support," Williams says. "If you've never played a show on the West Coast, you can't call a venue in San Francisco and say this is what we need for a guarantee. As an independent artist, it's hard to land a distribution deal. A good label could give you what you need to step up."
Just so long as the label stays true to its promise and doesn't fold.
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