Filling the Void
When Matt Eskey founded Freedom Records just over three years ago, he knew the music business was traditionally an easy place to lose money, dignity, and faith in humanity. But with just a few credit cards and a vow to sign only bands he genuinely liked, Eskey decided to try attacking the complicated indie record market with a relatively simple game plan.
"Whatever success I've had has come down to three things: low overhead, smart spending, and honesty," asserts Eskey. "If you can be the guy that people trust to do the things they say they're going to do, then you've filled in one of the recurring voids in the music industry."
And just how much do local musicians trust Eskey? So much that he's managed to build one of the hippest and most credible wholly independent labels in Texas almost solely on handshake deals. Already, folks like the Derailers, Asylum Street Spankers, Evan Johns, Libbi Bosworth, the Loose Diamonds, Rick Broussard, and the Hollisters have pressed flesh with Eskey, and it's little surprise that a pair of artists with a history of sketchy record deals -- Beaver Nelson and Prescott Curlywolf -- have recently chosen Freedom for their rebound.
"Even when somebody needs to see the deal on paper, it's still so straightforward that it's just four lines long," explains Eskey. "The standard Freedom deal is to split the money half and half after we pay back the money we spent -- which I do keep tightly controlled and well-accounted. That's the secret.
"After that, we split the profits. It's the best deal you could ever get. It's a lot more than a dollar a record based on some convoluted accounting system. And it all comes down to what's fair. We're all in this together. They have to do their side and I have to do mine. Only then can we expect to make money, and if it's half and half, nobody's going to hate each other."
Clearly, a lot of local musicians trust Eskey, because none of the dozen or so artists he's worked with have cried foul to each other or the press, and perhaps more importantly, he's also one of their own -- a musician.
After getting a business degree from Indiana University, Eskey played drums in Washington, D.C. with the Thangs, an alt.country forerunner featuring Tom Clifford and a pre-Ugly Americans Max Evans. By the time the Thangs disbanded in 1991, the bulk of Eskey's D.C. friends -- folks like Pete Gordon, Steve Watson, Kelly Willis, and Evan Johns -- had already packed up and headed for Austin. Eskey and Clifford followed.
"It was as if everybody good that played the music we liked had moved to Austin anyway," he says.
And while the pair's first Austin project, the Novenas, lasted only six months, Eskey quickly found himself the Continental Club scene's hot pick-up drummer -- playing for the Tailgators, Atlantics, Broussard, and Johns. In late 1993, Eskey learned how to play bass expressly to join Mojo Nixon's Toadliqors.
"One day, on the road with Mojo, I decided I was a label," says Eskey, who says he had been considering it for a while, but admits he didn't have much of a plan at the time. When he got back to Austin, a casual conversation with one of the Derailers led to the first handshake deal -- for the release of the Derailers' Live Tracks, a recording straight from KUT's "LiveSet" program. Eskey had no recording costs per se, but the start-up money seemed daunting for a working musician who wanted to start a label without outside investors.
"At the time, the Derailers had no fans and I had no distribution," explains Eskey. "So I did it all on credit cards, with serious trepidation."
Luckily, just a month or so after the album's release, the Derailers became one of South by Southwest '95's biggest buzz acts, just as Americana radio and No Depression magazine began gearing up.
"That was all kind of coincidental and fortunate," says Eskey. "I was still thinking it was a huge risk; they'd never toured and I didn't know if anybody would give a shit about them. Would 100 people buy it? Would 200? Even if they would, I'd still lose thousands of dollars. And obviously, nobody else had picked up on them as some next big thing at the time, because nobody else was there to sign them. And had the Derailers broken up a few weeks after release, there would no Freedom Records."
Instead of a big failure, Live Tracks ended up a moderate success. It was profitable within a few months and has now sold more than 5,000 units, a figure Eskey believes he could have doubled had it not been his label's inaugural release. Either way, the album helped establish Freedom's reputation as a source of fresh talent, while the Derailers' subsequent deal with Watermelon helped draw even more attention back to their first release.
Two releases later, however, Eskey wound up crossing Watermelon by compiling True Sounds of the New West, a local alt.country collection that came into direct competition with Watermelon's similar collection, Austin Country Nights. Although Eskey ultimately lined up tracks from local up-and-comers like Wayne Hancock, Bruce Robison, the Derailers, Libbi Bosworth, High Noon, and the Hollisters, several artists were clearly feeling pressure from Watermelon to pick a side.
"I can see them being stressed about it if it were now, but I had no distribution then," says Eskey. "Mine was a local record and the Watermelon record had international aspirations I couldn't approach. It was stupid that it was a problem. I think they ultimately helped each other and it certainly didn't hurt Watermelon."
Rather than follow True Sounds with another country record, Eskey released Rick Broussard's Shadowman, a reissue of Kevin Carrol's European-only Redemption Day, Libbi Bosworth's Outskirts of You, and an EP from the Loose Diamonds, Fresco Fiasco. And while the Loose Diamonds' overseas following helped Eskey establish a series of European distributors, finally having more than a handful of records in his catalogue also secured several key domestic distributors.
"All the new distributors were great, but tough on the cashflow," says Eskey. "It means you're manufacturing more records and fronting more money. I was buried in credit card debt."
Jon Dee Graham didn't make things any easier. Eskey fell in love with a tape of the former True Believers' "LiveSet" and agreed to release Graham's new album. Unlike the bulk of Freedom's catalogue -- which Eskey picked up as finished albums -- Eskey had to pay for a new recording. For his end of the deal, Graham finished the record in six days for under $5,000, big money by Freedom's standards, but a genuine bargain in the end.
"I thought I was going to get an acoustic record," recalls Eskey. "And I'm not sure if Jon Dee didn't tell me what he was going to do because he thought he'd scare me, but when I got back from the road with Mojo he handed me this incredible full-band record he'd made in line with the budget. It was amazing."
With local radio and press attention and a growing national interest, Escape From Monster Island became what Eskey calls his label's "cornerstone recording." Meanwhile, an album from Houston's Hollisters, The Land of Rhythm and Pleasure, sold better than projected, and along with Graham and the Derailers, helped push Freedom into the black.
"The great thing about a label this size is that if a record is ahead enough, I can cut checks straight to the artist without waiting for a quarterly statement," explains Eskey. "Still, every record and every decision has been incredibly stressful, because it's all been based on money that doesn't exist ... until now.
"The debt is gone, but that's three years and some good picks later. It could have gone way different. It's a shitty business and a very difficult way to make money."
The primary piece of the puzzle that makes the business so difficult for small indies, says Eskey, is distribution.
"It takes people a while to recognize that you're there -- that you're going to stay there and that you have a catalogue worth ordering from or giving distribution to," says Eskey. "Labels that have one or a few records out have their hands tied."
To that end, Eskey created the Texas Music Round-Up, a mail-order company that places ads in national magazines and sells Texas records straight to the consumers. Now, Lazy SOB does the accounting, Cold Spring does the shipping, and Eskey does the ad layout and ordering. And not only does the Round-Up offer the full catalogues of all three labels, it also handles Bohemia Beat, Doolittle, Bloodshot, Vireo, Luck, and dozens of self-releasing artists on a consignment basis.
"As important as distribution is, the more you can do without traditional distributors the better," says Eskey. "You always want to be closer to your money, and the more you take a hands-on approach the better. I love talking to retailers. I love selling five copies to a mom 'n' pop store in Minnesota. I know the money is coming and I can make sure he gets the records. If they can take the time to order, I can certainly take the time to follow through."
Ironically, Round-Up's growth and Freedom's quickly expanding catalogue -- including a new Beaver Nelson album next month -- actually threatens Freedom's overall growth. More albums means more overhead expenses and man-hours. Recently, Eskey began asking artists to commit to a two-album deal, a protocol shift he's cautious but optimistic about.
"Being small allows me to pick up on bands before they have any proven commercial value and sign them based on only their talent," says Eskey. "That's cool, but it's a risk, too. Two-record deals where both records are guaranteed to come out is not a bad deal. And if they get a better offer after the first, they can buy me out cheap. But if I'm going to labor and spend $20,000 on somebody, I want the option to do another record or get something.
"It's all based on fairness. It wasn't fair to ask for that three years ago. I wouldn't have done a record deal with me three years ago. I hadn't done anything for anyone. Now, I have something to offer. I've proven I do what I say I'm going to do; it's a viable business, and you're going to be appreciated. I don't want to become the 'sleazy record guy.' I just want to keep putting out records I love and make this work as a business. That's the challenge."