“We never made a penny off of our own recordings until we started our own label.”
That’s what Tim Sult, guitarist of Clutch, the legendary Maryland band, had to say when we interviewed him at a recent show in New Jersey about the success of the band’s personal label, Weathermaker Music. Established after eighteen years in the industry with two major labels and three independents, Weathermaker Music was formed after a falling out with their last label, DRT. A settlement awarded the rights to the three albums that Clutch had recorded for DRT to the band thus launching a new chapter in the history of what may be one of the lesser known, greatest rock bands of all time.
One reason for Clutch’s relative obscurity lies in their refusal to adhere to what’s expected from any one genre. Often clumsily described as hard rock or hard core, much of their music is infused with a heavy groove that could just as easily be funk if the guitar were accompanied by horns. In later years, a distinct blues influence has steadily grown more present in their recordings. At times heavy, I personally consider Clutch’s music best described as roots Americana of the rock and roll variety. Guitarist Tim Sult could very well have set the new for standard pentatonic architecture while drummer Jean-Paul Gastner and Dan Maines comprise a rhythm section that could give John Bonham and John Paul Jones or Billy Cox and Buddy Miles a run for their money.
The vocals driving the music are piloted by a lyricist who practices a curious manipulation of the English language and a stage presence not unlike an animated gospel preacher. In the tradition of grand storytelling, Neil Fallon uses language and narrative in such a way as to grant the listener a reprieve from the everyday. The music is full of seemingly profound proclamations, philosophical conundrums, classical mythology, historical fiction, pop culture oddities, old testament vernacular and imagery, science fiction, ruminations on conspiracy theories, and surrealism. It’s not uncommon to laugh out loud while listening.
Clutch isn’t the first band to establish their own label but, rather, they are a part of a growing trend of musicians who are realizing the ability to better represent themselves than to rely upon someone else. The central reason being that the major labels, and other monolithic media models, cannot sustain themselves when the media, upon which they rely for revenue, is relieved from their control. This is one of the core tenets of the digital revolution. All attempts to effectively maintain majority control over the distribution of media have failed. In a famous example Sony, which owns Sony Music, and was also the world’s leading consumer electronics manufacturer throughout the nineties, fought to protect revenue generated by recorded music while ignoring the opportunity to capitalize on the impending shift in media distribution dynamics. Meanwhile, Apple developed and released the iPod and iTunes, not only eclipsing Sony as the leading manufacturer of consumer electronics, but also fundamentally and forever changing the music industry.
“They talk about the collapse of the industry; I don’t really think it’s the collapse of the music industry as much as it is the collapse of the labels themselves. The bands on major labels in the nineties weren’t making any money. It was the same deal back then, the labels were taking all of the money and not paying the bands,” remarked Clutch guitarist Sult when asked to share his thoughts on the current state of the music industry.
Granted, Clutch built their fan base by steadily touring over the past seventeen years before starting their own label. They were first signed when grunge took off and music biz speculators were betting on viable bands sans hairspray and leather chaps. Early in their career they benefited from tour support and a video that helped introduce them to a population of young music fans invigorated by, what felt like, a musical revolution at the time. But after their second album, Clutch (self-titled), it was clear they were somewhat peculiar in that there was nothing else to directly compare them to thus making them hard to categorize and hard for a populace brought up in an age of uniformity to grasp.
Other albums followed as well as various labels. But the reason why they sell out every venue these days has less to do with products and salesmen and more to do with live performances, an appreciation for their fans, and a sincere love for what they do.
“I think the whole thing sort of separates the men for the boys, so to speak. If you’re in a band and you truly love your music and you want to do it you’re not going to depend on a label to do it for you,” said Sult backstage during an interview with What Weekly.
What’s interesting about this point in their career is that it helps to illustrate the decline of 20th Century media business models. Clutch isn’t completely dependent upon the internet to determine their path but bands today are empowered by it. The reason I’m writing this is because one random night I was reminded of their self-titled album and felt compelled to download it to my phone and share it with all those in the car at that moment. My enthusiasm made an impression on my fiancee who later tracked down the band via the internet, emailed their PR rep who provided a photo pass and tickets to their last show before leaving for Europe. That’s what was under my tree on Christmas morning. I then got online, found out about Weathermaker Music, watched dozens of videos I’d never seen, downloaded the albums I didn’t own (for which most of the proceeds went directly to the band) and became a fan all over again.
By now, hopefully I’ve introduced them to some of you who may have yet to experience their music. It’s not for everyone but I’m certain some will find it infectious. Clutch is an example of the difference between industry pop idols and artists who live and breathe what they do. One is dependent upon consumerism, are disposable, and a product of insincere marketing. The other, thrives on creating authentic experiences that are embedded into the lives of their audience consistently and is dependent upon patronage, a concept that was all but abandoned in the latter half of the 20th Century. Patronage requires the audience to take responsibility in the art by consciously supporting it. It could be as simple as sharing a link to a video over social media, paying to see a live show, or writing an article in a local zine that has an audience. This may very well be the model that will support artists who forge a truly representative and inclusive culture rather than a manufactured one.
The show we went to see at Starland Ballroom in New Jersey was completely sold out. For over ninety minutes the entire venue was filled with the voices of hundreds of fans who knew nearly every word to music spanning twenty years. It was the first time I’d seen the band in nearly fifteen. It was one of the best shows I’ve been to in the past decade.