Dead Reckoning – How to succeed in the music business
Somewhere along the deep green and brown back roads of North Dakota, where the country radio DJ regularly sent songs on out to the men down in the silos (not the kind that mark off space along the skyline), two voices came over the radio and sent some kind of hot light tickling down the small of the back. That was the O’Kanes, Kieran Kane and Jamie O’Hara. Later, in Telluride, their video came on TV in the trailer park; almost stars, the O’Kanes were, in the throes of a glorious kind of jump-bluegrass swing.
Almost stars, but not quite. It happens. Ask Kevin Welch, or Rosie Flores, or pretty much anybody who’s heard their voice on the radio once or twice, and rarely after that. That’s life in Nashville, and the rules ask you to accept that, write songs for somebody else to sing, wait your turn, shake hands.
Punk rock never had patience for that kind of gentility, so the landscape’s fairly littered with boot-strapped indie rock labels, and for every millionaire there’s a dozen rich uncles left poorer. That kind of self-reliance — oddly, a central feature of the characters who dominate country songs — and the do-it-yourself revolution seems, until recently, to have cut clear of the rolling hills of Tennessee.
But the times are changing, even in Music City.
In the end, the O’Kanes went their separate ways. Kieran recorded Find My Way Home for Atlantic (a pretty fair record, and good luck finding it), but nothing happened. Well, he got dropped, that’s what happened. Again.
When Kieran got all the way standing again, he had a No. 1 hit in England and his own record label in deepest Nashville.
“I was in Norway,” he says, only he’s on the phone from the Dead Reckoning offices in Nashville. “I had just been dropped from Atlantic, six months after my record was released. They spent $400,000 and then dropped me. They spent $150,000 on videos, probably $80,000 or so on production. They spent $15-20,000 doing some idiotic research. I would go into the office and they would have this hundred-page binder sitting on the desk, and ask, ‘Well, you wanna look at it, see what they say about this song?’ ‘No, it’s irrelevant.’
“Then we’re flying around the country and doing promotional stuff, driving around in limousines, staying in expensive hotels and everything else. I started looking at it one day and it’s got to be $350,000, easy. In six months on a record that they really did nothing with. I thought this was nuts. I mean, I could rule the world with $350,000 and a good record.”
So there Kieran was, playing a few dates in Norway, a new set of songs all dressed up with no particular place to go. “This guy asked me, ‘Are you putting a new record out?’ I said, ‘Well, no, not really.’ He said, ‘Well, if you put one out, I’ll buy it and sell ’em over here.’ And I said, ‘Well, I guess I’ll put a new record out.'” Simple as that. The record was called Dead Rekoning. So was the label (only spelled correctly), mostly because one thing led to another.
“So I made a record, this guy bought a gang of records and sold ’em. And pretty much paid off what it cost me to make the record. Just wham, bam, there it was, done,” Kane chuckles. “Right after that, I started talking to Kevin Welch. He was talking to some majors in Nashville, and some indies around about making a record, but he didn’t want to go back into that same pool again. So he and Harry [Stinson] and I were sitting around one night, and he decided that he would kind of join up with us, make his record on Dead Reckoning, and see what he could do.
“Then he said, ‘Well, let me go run it by my business people,’ and I thought, well, that’ll be the end of that. As soon as they hear what we’re talking about, they’ll say, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ Ironically, he called me the next day and he was really excited; they all said, ‘Wow, that sounds great.’ And so we were off and running. We started working on Kevin’s album, and Tammy had a record that she had just done that she was basically just going to, whenever she went out on a gig, take 20 copies and sell ’em. And it’s an absolutely brilliant record.”
Tammy Rogers may need some introduction, but In the Red should about convince you to skip the formalities. Rogers has played with everyone from Trisha Yearwood to Victoria Williams, and the only reasonable complaint about the instrumental virtuosity of In the Red is that Rogers sings but a tantalizing two tunes. (“I can’t tell you many people have said that,” Kieran laughs. “And the next record she will sing on, actually.”)
And so without really trying, Dead Reckoning quickly evolved. “It started off as three major partners: Kevin, Harry and myself,” Kane says. “Tammy and Mike Henderson are limited partners. There’s really not much left, so I think anybody that comes in now, our best shot is going to be to offer them a really good royalty rate — something better than they would get anywhere else — and an honest accounting. And knowing that people are going to the mat every day for the record.”
It helps that Kane and Welch are fairly well-known artists, even if they’re best known for writing great songs that never quite found a huge audience. So when Kieran called Bayside, who handle distribution for the Tower Records network, it took ten minutes to cut a deal. “Well, the thing just started taking off,” he says. “My record went to this Americana format and in the third week it was in the top ten, and it stayed in the top ten for fifteen weeks.” He called Rounder, found another O’Kanes fan, and had a national deal. Later, in Dublin, they set up European distribution. All with a happy ending: “I found out this morning that the first cut on my album, ‘This Dirty Little Town,’ is the number one country record in England.”
Mind, this has been accomplished without massive cash infusions, and never mind the $400,000 Atlantic spent on Find My Way Home. “Oh my god,” Kane laughs. “I mean, we haven’t spent anything. We’re paying phone bills, and the major investment for the record company has come from the fact that I financed my own album, Tammy financed her own album, Kevin financed his album, Mike Henderson is financing his album. That’s really the capitol investment. Harry actually put in some money, not a lot but enough to get us off the ground — and we’re talking a few thousand dollars, not tens or hundreds of thousands. And it’s really been us showing up in the office, and we’ve got a guy now who works for us, named J.D. May, who’s doing a great job. I realized early on that two or three people who actually care about what they’re doing can accomplish almost anything.”