Exodus Stage Left: Country Stars Leaving the Majors

The dream of many of the aspiring country music artists moving to Nashville in droves every year is to become a big star signed to a major label. Of course the reality is this dream comes true for so few, and even fewer who actually do get signed attain superstar status. But the allure of the major label deal is what oils the Music Row system, and keeps thousands of performers and songwriters sweating and toiling to get their contract.

However for some artists, as soon as they get that major label deal, their next goal becomes to get out, or to go independent. It’s such a common theme, ABC’s drama Nashville has portrayed the show’s leading lady Rayna James as launching her own record label when her major label does her wrong. In 2014, we’re seeing a similar theme playing out for once high-flying Music Row talent—artists like Lee Ann Womack, Jamey Johnson, Sunny Sweeney, and Texas star Wade Bowen.

wade-bowenWade Bowen released his self-titled, self-released album on October 28th, and says a lot of what you hear is the result of what happened during his major label experience with BNA/Sony.

“I had just come out of that major label release I had with ‘The Given,’ so I think it was a little bit of venting, but also I just had this incredible urge to make a record that mattered,” Wade told Radio.com recently. “I’m very happy with my experience at Sony, they were very good to me, and I had a lot of people really concerned about my career and wanting me to succeed. [But] I think you get so caught up in so many different opinions of how to make that happen so it was nice to make a record without any of that. Just let loose and do it. I spent a lot of time over there [at Sony] writing songs, and only got to release one record. So I had a lot of songs stacked up that I really wanted to get out there.”

Similar sentiments have been echoed from Lee Ann Womack whose latest album The Way I’m Livin’ has been showing up on many end-of-year ‘Best Of’ lists. It’s her first album in six years after jumping ship from MCA Nashville. She’s now singed to indie label Sugar Hill Records. “I’ve wanted to do and try so many things musically for years,” she tells abqjournal.com. “But I was beholden to a major label and pursued their vision for my music. It’s been a little scary to be my own boss, but it’s also brought on this level of liberation that I’ve been longing for. The music feels more free and represents where I am in my life right now.”

sunny-sweeneySunny Sweeney is another 2014 major label deserter. Once contacted by Big Machine’s Scott Borchetta through MySpace, Sunny was one of Big Machine’s very first signees after Taylor Swift. Now she is one of the new artists to be counted as independent. “Everybody wants the dirt, but nothing really happened,” Sweeney says about her parting of ways with Big Machine. “Everything runs its course. I think we were both at that point. There was no hard feelings. They did exactly what they said they were going to do. I had two Top 40 songs on Billboard. I had a grand amount of exposure and made some amazing friends that I would have never met without the label.”

But being put in control of her own music was a big goal for Sweeney after two major label releases. “With this record I own all the masters. As an artist, that’s the ultimate goal.”

Possibly the biggest loss for Music Row’s major labels in 2014 has been songwriter and performer Jamey Johnson. A two-time CMA Song of the Year winner with Gold and Platinum-certified records, Johnson was an artist who seemed to have plenty of upside potential when a dispute with his publisher put him in a situation where he wasn’t writing or releasing any new music. He parted with his major label Mercury Records amicably with the idea that he might return. But Johnson instead decided to launch Big Gassed Records and go it alone.

jamey_johnson“I’ve kind of always wanted to do my own label,” says Jamey. “When we released ‘That Lonesome Song’ on the Internet, we turned around and got a label deal offered to us by one of the majors, and decided we’d do a deal with Mercury. I feel like I’ve worn out my welcome over there… might’ve stayed a little longer than I anticipated. But this is gonna be fun. It’s gonna be a lot of work, but it’s gonna be fun work…What I’m looking to do is supply my music to my fans. That way we don’t have to keep ’em waiting four years for another album. We don’t have to figure out where we can slide in, in the line. We just do it.” 

Of course, there’s many repercussions and compromises a former major label artist must go through to go independent. In ABC’s fictional Nashville world, Rayna James is still able to have a platinum-selling album and win big at the CMA Awards. But in reality, going independent regularly means less to no mainstream radio play, little to no industry recognition, playing clubs and theaters instead of arenas and stadiums, and a lot more headaches from having to wear multiple hats. A company like Thirty Tigers is set up to help facilitate some artists owning their own labels, yet still have the distribution muscle of the majors. Thirty Tigers released Sunny Sweeney’s Provoked. But the reason the major label deal is so hard to get is because it tends to be the fast track to becoming, and staying a superstar. Independent artists have to do everything from the ground up.

And not everyone is leaving major labels. Sunny Sweeney’s former label Big Machine continues to add imprints and sign artists. And even artists from the Texas scene like the Josh Abbott Band, and independent-minded performers like Brandy Clark, are still signing major label deals in 2014. Sometimes it takes years on a major to grow the name recognition and capital to be able to launch as successful independent career, and for others they’re quite happy on a major, whether it’s because they’re more willing to compromise, or they come to the table with enough value to where they can write more creative freedom into their contracts.

The other concern is with all this great talent going independent, who is going to help keep the mainstream honest? With so much top shelf talent leaving, the lack of talent in the mainstream begins to become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Mainstream fans deserve substantive music too.

Around 2010 when music was at the tail end of its lost decade from navigating the move to digital so poorly, there were widespread thoughts that the major music labels would all fold and become a casualty of the times. Though revenues from music sales continue to be an issue, country music’s major labels have arguably never been more flush from the increased popularity of the genre and huge lucrative tours from their top artists. But money and fame isn’t everything, especially when you’ve had a taste of it for a while. And more and more were seeing artists willing to compromise the spotlight glow and greenbacks for the piece of mind and and freedom of doing it their own way.