For ska-punk survivor Less Than Jake, self-sufficiency and longevity go hand in hand
"The music industry," declares Less than Jake drummer and lyricist Vinnie Fiorello, "is pointing toward bands becoming their own cottage industry. Which means bands being in charge of their own merch, distribution of records, and production of records."
Fiorello makes this claim of the power of independence with an assurance that carries a great deal of weight — he boasts a long history of being hands-on with the business of music. In 1996, he co-founded indie label Fueled by Ramen (famous for later launching the career of Fall Out Boy). These days, he runs Less than Jake's new Sleep It Off imprint; another indie label, Paper + Plastic; and a toy company to boot.
And, of course, there is the long history of Less than Jake itself, an act that has always taken a hands-on approach with its business affairs and merchandising. According to Fiorello, the Florida ska-punk sextet geared itself toward self-sufficiency right from its 1992 beginnings. Although the band has periodically entered into relationships with outside record labels — which have included a string of indies and majors such as Capitol, Sire, Warner Bros., and Fat Wreck Chords — Fiorello says it has done so with a mind toward maintaining as much leverage as possible.
He admits the extent of that leverage has varied over time, but he nonetheless makes music industry survival sound like a matter of simple common sense. It's not that Fiorello disputes the industry's rampant exploitation; he simply insists that bands must look out for themselves and not leap too readily at deals that cut corners. Cutting corners, he says, will cost you.
"Major labels are offering young bands 360 deals," Fiorello says, noting the increasing popularity of these contracts in the face of plummeting album sales. The structure gives the record label a cut from income streams such as publishing and merchandising, which traditionally have gone straight to the artist. "To me, that says labels are looking at themselves more as banks now," he notes. "And if they're bankrolling a band's project, then they're going to want more of a lion's share."
Less than Jake, however, didn't have that type of deal and didn't want it. And it's because of that attitude, Fiorello says, that the group was dispatched from Warner Bros., which released the band's 2006 album, In with the Out Crowd. (Sire, a Warners subsidiary, had released its two previous albums.) "There was only one way to point," he says, "which was to start our own label and release our own records, not only the new record, but previous material that we own."
In that regard, Less than Jake — along with its self-administered new home base, Sleep It Off — is staying true to the picture Fiorello paints. And then some. Earlier this year, the band re-issued deluxe expanded editions of three albums from its back catalog: its first two albums, Losers, Kings, and Things We Don't Understand and Pezcore, as well as the 2002 rarities compilation Goodbye Blue and White. It also released the documentary DVD The People's History of Less than Jake and put out a new album, GNV FLA, in June.
"We own all that stuff," Fiorello stresses. "If you were starting a business and you owned a certain amount of whatever it may be — lamps, for example — wouldn't you want to take those lamps back? So, if you look at where the state of the music industry is and the fact that we already owned a certain amount of the masters, paid for the recordings ourselves, paid for a lot of that side of things, why not start a company and sell those past things that we own, and not only that but also step into the future with doing something new? It's where the industry's going anyway, so why not step ahead of the curve?"
Fiorello is clearly excited at the prospect of having more autonomy over his own product. But doesn't working five releases at one time get overwhelming? In a word: yes. "You know what? It's a pain in my ass," he admits. "It's intensive. It's a full-time job. Less than Jake is taking up a large part of the day — and my thoughts."
And the work isn't letting up anytime soon — Less than Jake plans on re-releasing the rest of its back catalog, which means having to negotiate with former labels for the rights to some master tapes. But it sounds as though Fiorello, the quintessential career-driven entrepreneur, is right in his element. In music's changing business landscape, his band stands to take its DIY ethic to a new level altogether. Even though record sales are down, for Less than Jake, less can still mean more.
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