Failing Labels Put Rock Band in Limbo

Every time I find myself in the dingy basement of the Middle East rock club, I think to myself, “Wow, the acoustics are horrible, but this is actually a respectable venue.” The room is characteristically half-full of the same thirty-somethings and sixteen-year-olds, clutching Stella Artois in their sweaty, underage hands. You can meet the headlining band at the merchandise table while the openers screech their way to an agonizing and glorious halt. The acts are not always well known, but they’re often surprisingly good. This underground scene seems an appropriate sanctuary for the last dying breaths of rock-n-roll creativity.

It was no different when Ambulance LTD recently took the stage. Except that I was about to find out how truly scary the music industry is from the artist’s perspective.

When I heard the New York band’s eponymous 2004 LP in the summer of 2006, it sounded positively Californian, except edgier than the Beach Boys and possibly more harmonic than The Mamas and the Papas. I was ashamed to be two years late in my discovery, yet at the same time, excited—I figured that their second album was imminent.

After their website announced a fall 2007 release which never happened, I went to the Middle East show not just to sing along, but also to get some answers.

What made this concert unique was that Ambulance LTD wasn’t plugging a new album; they took the stage with a four-year-old debut, without a follow-up sitting out on the merch stand. Nonetheless, at the end of their first song, lead singer Marcus Congleton announced that the following was one of their new ones and that the rest of the night they would play a smattering of the old and the new.

From the first chord of that song, it was obvious to everyone in the room that Ambulance was still on its wheels and had pushed its sound to a whole new level. The crowd began to loosen up, and it’s arguable that there was a greater response to the new, funkier songs than to the tried and true.

As the crowd reluctantly shuffled out, my curiosity was piqued. I wondered how a band with such a good sound as evidenced through admirable new material could be floating around in indie purgatory. I decided to investigate, and what I found didn’t exactly surprise me.

I was able to interview lead singer Congleton, who quickly set the record straight. When I asked why a new album had yet to be released, he briefly cited creative issues and then quickly cut to the root of the problem.

“At this point our label is bankrupt and can’t put us in the studio, can’t release records,” he claims. “We also can’t sign to a different label.”

He went on to discuss the “legal limbo” in which Ambulance LTD is stuck.

“[Our label] filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy, which basically means you can’t sue them for money owed and they don’t have to really fulfill any of their obligations—but you can’t leave the label or anything.”

Congleton doesn’t see the problems of TVT Records, the band's label, as unique. “I don’t think [my label] is really different than any of the other labels that are going under; they are all hurt by the internet, by file sharing,” says Congleton. And he’s right: music sales are continually dropping, illegal downloading is a persistent problem, and government crackdowns only seem to add to the problems.

But for Congleton, maybe the illegality of sharing is not a huge threat.

When I asked him if he downloaded he said, “No, but I would if I knew how. I just don’t have that kind of savvy, and I don’t mind when people do.” He went on to add, “People thought radio was stealing music when that came out.”

For indie bands like Ambulance LTD that make the majority of their income from “touring and publishing,” as Congeleton says, free music is ironically the best way to make money. If someone who hears free songs buys a $20 concert ticket because the downloads were appealing, then the artist only stands to benefit from having their music readily available.

Aside from concerts, bands like Ambulance LTD have been forced to get inventive with making a living, licensing their music for commercials and TV shows. When I noted that 20 years ago, this would have been considered “selling out,” Congleton interjected: “Shit was completely different [back then]. They had expensive and ridiculous writers, or they had cocaine and filet mignon as part of a recording budget.”

I asked Congleton if the “pay-what-you-want” schemes of Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails are the future of music.

“If you have the kind of status and resume that those bands do, you can do shit like that because your fans already love you and are already going to buy your album,” he said.

The reality, even for these bands, is that the real money comes from selling out arena concerts and getting their songs in the next Sofia Coppola movie. The answer becomes, simply, exposure. If they hear it, they will come.

For this reason, the potential merger between satellite radio services XM and Sirius is exciting because of their ability to play a broader selection of indie and unsigned artists. And although moves like Radiohead’s may not be perfect, I like seeing bands go over the heads of labels and government regulations to give music straight to their listeners.

It’s also important for fans to open their ears and fill venues like the Middle East. Find absolution from your music stealing by seeing the band in person rather than watching grainy music videos on YouTube.

When Congleton talked about the band’s upcoming prospects, he said, “If we can do some shows and festivals this summer that’d be great, but without a release that’s hard to do. It might be nothing.”

The thought of “nothing” sent shivers down my spine. Up and coming bands used to complain that record labels wanted too many records too quickly, thus stifling the creative process. Ironically, this is something that Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor grappled with during his tenure at TVT years ago. Now labels can’t release records, period, even if those records boast more creativity in a single song than the entire top twenty combined. Rock isn’t dead; it’s in need of revival. But it’s hard to run the ambulance if you won’t pay for the gas.

—­­­Staff writer Andrew F. Nunnelly can be reached at nunnelly@fas.harvard.edu.