Unlocking the Truth’s major label fandango
The kids who caught our attention as heavy metal buskers have found that life in the major label world is not all sweetness and light
Unlocking the Truth were one of a gazillion acts on my slate of acts to see at SXSW 2015. Readers with long memories will remember them as a buzz band from two summers ago. In fact, the coverage of the three New York kids who were found shredding and riffing like beasts in Times Square led to one of those major label record deals with Sony Music with lots of zeros in the headline.
I was curious to see what they were like live and the show I caught was alright, though the band seemed very tired and out of sorts. But there were a lot better acts playing over the weekend so Unlocking the Truth were filed away and we moved on. However, there’s been a lot of coverage in the last few weeks about the band, as it turns out that the ballyhoo around that record deal was not all it was cracked up to be. There are many (many) acts who’ve had experience of the major label carousel who will nod sagely when they read Marlow Stern’s piece on the band and their major label hell from The Daily Beast or see Breaking a Monster, Luke Meyer’s documentary on the band.
It’s all there: the much touted $1.8 million advance which was actually not $1.8 million up front in advance, the pressure from Sony for the band to conform to what the label wanted, friction with their management over the direction of the band, the realisation that everything changed the day they signed that contract, the endless meetings about meetings and a skateboarding ban for the 13 year olds. News that the band are now seeking to get out of their contract due to “complications” will not come as a surprise to any observer.
It will also sadly not come as a suprise that yet another band who jumped into a relationship with a label now wants out after a relatively short period of time. Sometimes, it’s a case of the label getting cold feet – look at the whole Death Grips’ fandango, who went from love to hate with their label in a few months – but sometimes, the act quickly realise that they’re barking up the wrong tree and that the contract just does not fit.
When it comes to record contracts, though, there’s no such thing as a cooling off period. While there are some mitigating circumstances in the case of Unlocking the Truth (chiefly, their age), it has to be noted that the band obviously took expert advice and counsel, hired a manager and still went along with the dog and pony show. Youth may be an excuse in some circumstances, but when you’re a band signing a legally binding contract which might well tie up your life for up to a decade or more as you pay back the advances and release the albums listed in the contract (and it’s the label rather than the band who have the option to decide if the albums are recorded and released), it’s not something to be taken lightly.
In this case, the question has to be asked just why did the band and their advisors rush off and sign a big deal. The band’s 2013 viralability was down to the fact that they were kids playing with great skill and bite. They didn’t have much of a real fanbase beyond those who liked the video on Facebook and there wasn’t a huge clamour for a UTT album or tour. Any label getting involved with the band at that stage of the game would have to be patient and hope that the band would develop with time into something special. Yet major labels are not especially renowned for their developmental patience and largesse any more so Sony would have been working on getting a fairly immediate return of investment before another bunch of pesky guitar-slinging kids showed up in Times Square and queered the pitch.
It all adds up to another fine mess, but one which does not have to be a long-term disaster for all involved. The band are still young enough to put all of this behind them and move on with their lives and music. If they want to keep playing music, they’ve shown enough talent and spark already to demonstrate that there’s something there and that they could well make a living from their shredding skills in time. They’ll probably have to do a lot of the heavy lifting and promotion themselves for a while, unless they and another major label fancy getting together for a quick dance, though I’m sure all involved will be keen to avoid that for a spell. Sony will probably write this off, as they did with Death Grips, and move on. They probably have another bunch of pesky kids ready to roll anyway.
But it’s a salutary lesson for any other hot young band who may have record labels knocking on their door. It’s hugely attractive and ego-boosting to have all this attention so early in a band’s career. You hear all the right things from those label reps who want a piece of you and want you to sign to their company. There are promises of the sun, the moon and the stars as well as the constant plámásing that you’re the best thing since sliced bread. Yet as UTT discovered, the real problems begin when you sign that contract and realise you’ve got yourself into something you have not quite thought through. Hashtag caveat emptor.