Scott Hill never minded making substantial sacrifices for Fu Manchu, his iron-willed California stoner rock band for the last quarter-century. In the late '90s, after several popular albums for Chapel Hill label Mammoth Records put Fu Manchu on the path toward the radio and larger stages, Hill finally sold his successful car repossession business to fund the band's full-time touring commitment.
"It was the only company like that in Orange County, around where we lived," remembers Hill. "I did pretty well selling it, so I was able to invest the money."
Fu Manchu has been active ever since, releasing another album of loud, languid rock every few years and outlasting several sea changes in the recording industry itself.
In fact, in 2009, Hill and his bandmates made another deliberate decision to put the band's finances and future in front of their own personal priorities. This time, most of the profits they took in from touring and selling merchandise went directly into a savings account, meant not only to pay for the recording of their next album but also its release. Century Media, a large metal label with offices in California and across Europe, had offered to release Fu Manchu's latest album, but after two decades, 10 full-lengths and six labels, they finally decided to do it all themselves. Their own At The Dojo Records issued Gigantoid, the band's most vibrant and risky effort in years, in late April.
"A record label has done everything for us every time. We wanted to take a chance and do it ourselves, to see if we could do this," he says. "It takes a lot of work, but between the four of us and a manager, it's not that hard. We know what to do."
As the record industry continues to search for stability in an age of decreased sales and increased streaming, more veteran acts like Fu Manchu are turning to the notion of self-releasing their music. Without the substantial recording advances of previous decades but with the cheap duplication and distribution methods of cassettes, compact discs and the Internet, bands with established audiences can take control of their release schedule and take responsibility for letting people know they still exist.
"Is it a good way to do it? Yes," says Ken Green, Drivin' N' Cryin's manager and the former record label executive who helped that band build their own imprint, too. "Is it an easy way to do it? No. It's extremely labor-intensive to have some degree of success, which means being able to do it again and again and again."
There are, of course, dozens of ways to self-release music and still more reasons for doing it at all: Unknown bands can upload their tunes to websites such as Bandcamp and hope for an audience to materialize, whether by luck or touring or simple word of mouth. Bands can dub a few cassette tapes or burn a few CD-Rs and pass them to friends and promotional types. And from Radiohead to David Byrne, enormous acts, liberated from record contracts like free agents, can hire someone to handle the logistics while banking on built-in notoriety to power promotions.
But for seemingly perpetual mid-level rockers such as Drivin' N' Cryin' and Fu Manchu, starting an autonomous label seems to be a regenerative effort, giving them the power to reconsider the choices others have made for their careers and plot a personalized path forward. Both Drivin' N' Cryin' and Fu Manchu have been on major labels or at least very large indies, but as Drivin N' Cryin' founder Kevn Kinney puts it, they remain "a blue-collar band." This way, he can be both blue-collar and self-made.
"The few times I was on a major label, they were trying to make me into something. The music wasn't very honest. I didn't know what they wanted," says Kinney. "But right now, I feel extremely satisfied. I feel like I've given something super-honest, something I would actually listen to."
In 2009, a new label Green had helped launch, Vintage Earth Music, released the first new Drivin' N' Cryin' material in a dozen years. But the label quickly went belly-up, again leaving the group without a home. Kinney asked Green to not only manage them but to help them launch their own imprint. His plan, which involves a series of wealthy partners and independent distributors, has worked: During the last two years, Drivin' N' Cryin' have released four thematically and stylistically oriented EPs—one of pop-rock, college rock, psychedelic rock and a new disc that aims to synthesize those influences. It's been the most productive span of the band's three-decade existence.
The expense and constant activity of a new, miniature album so often might not have worked with a traditional label, Green admits. When Drivin' N' Cryin' was on Island Records, Kinney says they were often ordered around—or, worse, ignored. This time, he was happy to make the decisions himself. He's now talking of writing a rock opera about the search for cheap weed, producing his first electronic-based album and recording a solo set with only a piano. That is, his way.
"These EPs are 22 songs we would have given an A&R person back at Island Records, and they would have picked 11 of those songs and made us put a record together with them," Kinney explains. "Now you can buy these for $5 a piece and make your own Drivin' N' Cryin' record if you want to. You can be your own record company."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Autonomous age."