Indie + Canuck + jazz = profit

Brian Watson has rejigged the music business model

Maclean's, July 19, 2004 

Brian Watson doesn’t understand the fear and fury of the major music companies. They decry downloading, saying it means doom for the industry, and if music companies are forced out of business, how will musicians get their work to the audience? Watson’s response: they will use companies like his. Vancouver-based Maximum Jazz just launched its 46th release, Jazz Thing by Randy Bachman, formerly of the Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive. Watson says it’s sold about 6,000 copies and it’s profitable — just like the 45 releases that preceded it on the Maximum Jazz label and its partners, Cellar Live and Black Hen Music.


Watson thinks he knows why Big Music is going broke. Major companies, because of their immense scale, have to sell almost all albums using the same limited number of pre-determined, inflexible marketing plans. Watson, on the other hand, treats every album as unique, positioning it in terms of the artist, the stage in that artist’s development, the audience and the musical landscape. “In some ways, that’s like starting all over again with every release,” he says. Unlike many small labels that do business the same way as the majors, only with less of everything, Maximum has completely rethought how to record, market and distribute music in the digital age. It’s time large companies did the same. “The big labels have to relearn how to make money on a few thousand CDs,” says Watson. “They have to relearn how to develop artists’ careers over three, four or five albums, not just sell millions of copies of one.”


Initially, Watson seems like a new kind of label owner, but to some he’s a throwback. “When I first met him, he reminded me of the labels in the ‘60s,” Bachman says. “You met the guy who started the label, and he signed you because he liked your music. He knew it would sell eventually.”


Watson started out “wanting to be Ringo Starr,” but a back injury cut short his career as a drummer and steered him instead toward music management and marketing. His tenure as a label boss has coincided with the rise of file-sharing and downloading. In the late ‘90s, Watson started working with a company called Maximum Music on marketing and management. He bought out its founders in 2000.


Running a label as minimal as Maximum means Watson customizes everything. Rather than presenting prospective performers with a standard contract, he negotiates every deal personally. “We wanted to work together, but when our lawyers got involved — stalemate,” Bachman recalls. “So we talked directly to each other.” The resulting contract takes up only a few pages.” Watson defies convention in other ways. If an artist wants to retain control of the master recordings, he will find a way to make that work (big labels have historically insisted on owning the masters). And while record companies bankroll tours but charge the expense against a record’s earnings, Watson often refuses to pay touring costs, instead helping artists figure how much to charge for each stop so the show covers the outlay. In place of tour support, performers get several hundred copies of their albums at cost to sell from the stage, and keep the profits.


Watson’s strategies are also unique for every release. While 14-page marketing plans are common at big labels, Watson will sometimes rejig a two-page plan several times. And he knows that getting the record into the hands of two key critics in a particular market will mean more exposure than hundreds of dollars worth of ads in local alternative weeklies. “A lot of companies put out a record, buy $100,000 worth of advertising and hope it sells,” Watson says. “We’ll have a marketing budget of $1,500 for an album, but we’re flexible. We can change instantly when we need to.”