Casey Stratton Talks Music Industry Survival

The music industry is fickle and not for the faint of heart. Physical CD sales are dropping precipitously as consumers’ listening and purchasing habits change. The retail landscape has shifted drastically, with industry cornerstones like Tower Records and other formerly rock-solid chains now closed.  Major labels are consolidating and downsizing. Independent music retailers – the few that remain – are struggling to survive. The internet age has changed everything, and everyone involved in bringing music to the masses has felt the impact. In this climate, the constant struggle of art vs. commerce that has always existed in the music industry has been exacerbated, and everyone from fledgling artists to top record company executives search to find ways forward in uncertain times.

A certain friction between the artistic and business considerations is par for the course when making records.  Mainstays like Prince, Neil Young, Michael Jackson, George Michael and many others have had well-publicized wars with their record companies.   Industry titans like Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead, artists with huge and loyal fan-bases, are now shunning the major labels entirely and are delivering their product directly to fans. As contracts expire, more artists are realizing that the playing field has changed, and the labels might not hold all the cards; and those choosing to remain affiliated with the major labels often arrange deals that might involve a partnership for a specific project rather than a traditional long-term deal.
But what might be possible for the likes of Radiohead isn’t necessarily so for most bands.  It’s hard to reach the point where an artist can build a large enough fan-base to thrive without the publicity muscle that a major record company provides, but diving into those waters is fraught with peril as well as opportunity. There are countless stories of artists being swept up and spit out by the major label machinery. Former Semisonic drummer Jacob Slichter detailed in his terrific book “So You Wanna Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” how his group was propelled to success in the mid-90s on the back of their classic single “Closing Time,” only to be unceremoniously dumped by their label shortly thereafter. This scenario has been repeated endlessly.  Especially in this current era of economic uncertainty and dwindling sales, the record companies are interested primarily in moving units, and artistry and talent are not always a necessary component in that equation. 
It’s easy to see that initially the major labels would seem to have all the leverage. Aspiring musicians are so hungry to sign a deal with a major label that it’s no wonder the company would try to have everything slanted in their favor.  If you don’t like the contract, they’ll point out, there are endless others out there watching American Idol and dreaming of stardom who would be more than eager to hand over whatever rights the record company requires for the mere chance to be the next Britney Spears or Chris Daughtry. So the solution is to record on your own and build a fan-base through hard work and touring, right?  Easier said than done.  It’s not cheap to record and tour, and how do you break through without the publicity and visibility that a major label can provide?  A quick browse on the major social networking sites and you’ll see thousands of singers, songwriters and bands all vying for attention, all trying to find their niche and emerge from the clutter to find a national audience. The vast majority never succeed, regardless of how talented they might be.   

But while music fans typically like to paint the big labels as a purely greed-driven enemy (and suing the very fans they should be trying to woo has only heightened this perception,) one has to see things from their perspective as well.  It is, after all, a business.   Record companies are trying to survive in a difficult marketplace where illegal downloading is rampant, and it is expensive to adequately promote an album. If it flops, the label takes a financial drubbing. On either side of the ledger, there are difficult choices and stark realities.   

One artist who has experienced first-hand the ups and downs of the music industry is Casey Stratton (, a gifted musician, singer and songwriter who has drawn comparisons to the likes of Sarah McLachlan, Peter Gabriel, Tori Amos and others.  Formerly signed to Sony Records and now an independent artist recording on his own and distributing his music directly to fans, he has experienced both sides of the spectrum.  He’s seen his name at #1 on the Billboard charts, and his album acclaimed in major national publications, and he’s also seen the other reality of working with a major label, as well as how difficult it is to make a career as an independent artist.

Stratton was something of a prodigy, writing songs at age 11, and attending the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy as a teen.   He honed his skill and wrote songs prolifically, eventually signing an independent record deal and issuing several recordings. His emotive, melodic piano-based tunes and striking voice caught the attention of the record industry big wigs, and Stratton signed with Sony Records in 2002. Sony thought so highly of Stratton’s potential that A-list producer Patrick Leonard, who has worked with such luminaries as Madonna, Rod Stewart, Elton John and Jody Watley, was brought in to work on his Sony debut.  The result was 2004’s “Standing at the Edge,” which was well-received by critics and fans alike. The material was strong and evocative, and the record received accolades from the likes of People Magazine which called Stratton one of the “most remarkable male voices to emerge in some time” and Billboard Magazine, which called it a “breathtaking debut.” A Junior Vazquez remix of album track “House of Jupiter” lodged at #1 on the Billboard Dance Chart.  Despite all of this promise and hints of possible success, “Standing at the Edge” failed to make a chart impact, and Stratton quickly found that all the attention lavished on him by the label could be turned off as quickly as it was turned on.   

Changes in the management structure at Sony resulted in a sharp shift in how the company viewed Stratton and his prospects for long-term sales. They were suddenly uninterested in promoting “Standing at the Edge,” and Stratton asked for his release from his contract. Freed from major label constraints, Stratton turned to writing and working on his own to build a career. The culmination of this freedom was the release of the monumental “Divide” in October 2005, which prompted a national tour. More independent releases quickly followed, sold in physical and electronic form via Stratton’s website and other major online retailers:  “The Crossing” in April 2007, “Orbit” in February 2008 and most recently, “Signs of Life” in September 2008.  In addition to the 4 main albums, Stratton has issued a steady stream of excellent material through his website, including holiday albums, b-sides, EPs, and an album of traditional folk songs called “The Sun is Burning.”  

Casey Stratton kindly agreed to speak with us to discuss his career, his superb new album “Signs of Life,” and his unique perspective on the state of the music industry and the significant challenges involved in recording as independent artist.

* * * *

Q:  You started writing songs and performing at a very young age. Was there a particular moment when you knew you wanted to be a musical artist, something that triggered the desire?

CS:  I was obsessed with music for as long as I can remember.  When people ask my Mom when I started singing she always says she can't remember me not singing. My father was a musician and a songwriter so that certainly rubbed off on me. I don't even know if I would have thought to write my own songs if I hadn't seen my Dad do it all my life.  My process is very different and always has been, but I'm sure it had a lot to do with it. Music was always my thing…  It was only when I started playing my own songs live when I was 16 that I really knew that songwriting was my real passion.

Q:  Your latest album “Signs of Life” has an interesting thematic concept, being divided into two parts:  “The Neutral Zone” and “The War Zone”.   How did that come about? Was that your idea from the beginning, or did you realize after recording that the songs fit into 2 distinct areas?  

CS:  I didn't start Signs of Life with any particular concept in mind.  What ended up happening was that I had more "Side B" songs than usual.  I still live in the "Side A / Side B" world in my head. I think of albums as having an arc, a structure.  I usually put the darker, heavier stuff on the second half of a record. It just feels right. It's my instinct and I always trust my instincts…  After I finished writing the record I had no title yet. I read through all the lyrics and the line "Signs of life might rescue me" from the song Hiding Place stuck out to me so that became the title.  I had also written the song Neutral Zone to be included on the record and that was what gave me the idea to separate it into two parts, the neutral zone and the war zone. It obviously fits with the title but can be taken more than one way, which is something I always aim for. 

Q: You were once with Sony Records, one of the giants of the music industry. What do you see as the benefits and negatives of recording for a major label vs. as an independent artist? Would you have been able to release as many and as varied projects while under a major-label deal as you have as an independent artist?

CS: There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to being under contract to a major label. The main advantage is that, if it works right, you can get some pretty serious mainstream exposure. The problem is that most of the time these days it doesn't work right.  In this climate it seems that one should only aspire to get a deal with a major if pop success under any circumstances is what you're after.  Even in the best of times singer/songwriters didn't have a gigantic value to the big labels. Even in the best of times you might see the people you work with get fired or your label could merge with another, which is what happened when I was with Sony.  Once they merged with BMG everything kind of fell apart for me. Restructuring happened and I fell between the cracks with the new regime. They decided I would not be profitable and they gave up. There was also a lot of focus on my image, my body and my face.  The pressure to be in the middle of the road with no real personality was also a reality for me.  Playing it safe seemed to be the only option.  I don't think that helps any artist. You should be who you are. That is why, for me, it is better to be independent.  I like to have full control of my work creatively and not have to hear about why the shirt I am wearing makes me look fat and will significantly curtail the profits. 
I would never have been able to release as much as I have if I had stayed with Sony.  Even the follow-up to Standing at the Edge, DIVIDE, would not have been what it was. There is no way they would have let me make that record in that way. Sometimes labels want to change things just because approving it "as it is when it walks through the door" doesn't satisfy their egos. It is a sad reality.  If you're smart you learn to manipulate executives into thinking your ideas are their own, because if they're yours they are instantly wrong.  It may sound jaded but that was my experience most of the time. 

Q: When did you realize that working with Sony wasn’t going to suit your needs as an artist? 

CS:  I was hesitant to pursue a major label deal all along.  I had been down that road for years when I lived in LA in the 90s. I was convinced I would prefer a good indie label, but my manager at the time (2002) persisted and in the end I gave it a go.  So in that respect I guess I was always a little afraid that it wasn't going to be good for me.  I don't think the reality that it wasn't going to work set in until we were putting the artwork for Standing at the Edge together and it started to get super image conscious. I tried to suck it up and keep going, and that worked for a while. When I really knew the major label world was not for me was when, after initially loving my record, the new regime cut the marketing budget and my label blamed it on me saying the record just wasn't good enough to spend a lot of money on.  I knew then that loyalty was never something I could rely on.  Instead of admitting that they were powerless against the new CEO they attacked me instead.  I distanced myself from them almost immediately.   

Q: It’s no secret that the music industry is changing rapidly.  CD sales have declined, and while online sales are rising they are not making up for the lost revenue.  Major chain stores like Tower Records have disappeared, independent retailers are struggling, and the major record labels are shrinking. Given your experience within the industry, what do you think are the main reasons for these changes? As an independent artist how have these changes impacted your career?

CS: I think the biggest problem with the industry is illegal downloading and the public's perception as to why it's acceptable.  Online sales are helping but the ratio of illegally downloaded to purchased music is still 20 to 1. That's not a good rate of theft for any industry. Many many people have somehow been made to feel entitled to recorded music.  n their minds somehow it should just belong to them without payment.  As someone who spends time and money making music I have a very different view. I don't really care that the girl at Burger King is getting paid to get me my combo either but I'll bet she does! I may be starving but if I can't afford it I don't get to eat it.

Q: An entire generation of tech-savvy young people have been indoctrinated that music is something you can download with a few mouse clicks, for free.  As an artist trying to make a living at your craft, how do you combat that? Do you think the notion that music has value will ever effectively be reestablished?

CS: I wish I knew what the future holds but I think about it and I just don't know. On my end I feel like I try to do my part to educate people as to what musician's lives are really like.  I do my best to be vocal when I feel the effects of downloading so that maybe someone else will think twice about it.  If I demand that my work has a value and then people steal it anyway that is really sad.  People love to talk about how the evil record labels are the only ones getting hurt but that couldn't be more wrong. I don't know the exact statistics but it is said that on average 8% of artists on a label make enough profit to pay for the 92% who aren't in the black. When people steal the big artists the loss in revenue trickles down.  I'll bet that if sales wouldn't have been down like they were I would have gotten more a push from Sony thinking that they could make me one of their mid-level acts since my work is not very Top 40 friendly. Unfortunately there is little room these days for anyone but the biggest sellers.

Plus, labels do make it very difficult to recoup what they spend on you.  Even big acts are lucky to get 18% of sales. I got 16 with Sony and that was considered a very big win on my end.  What people don't get is that I don't pay Sony back based on TOTAL sales but only my 16%.  Last I checked I owed them around $533,000.  That is 5 years after the release.  I would have to make that much out of my measly 16% to ever get a check.  When you do the math I'd have to sell about 478,000 records to even break even and start making money.  You make a record that has your name and face on it full of your songs and creations and you get 16% of the sale.  It's crazy. 

Q: What does the future hold for you as it comes to recording and touring?

CS: I have been working on a new record and have over 20 songs recorded as of now but I'm not sure of any concrete release date yet.  I am in the process of regrouping and looking at my options.  We'll see what happens.  I am going to try my very best to get out on the road for a good part of the spring.  It has been so long that I may just play really small venues like coffeehouses and such.  Back to basics it seems.  I love playing live and really miss touring so I am going to work really hard on getting back out there. 

Contact Us