I know I’ve panned the last few records I’ve written about for the Talkhouse. No one wants to be the Negative Nuge in the room all the time, so after listening to Wasted on the Dream a few times and not really loving it, I was considering other records to write about instead. But then this truly confounding press release was forwarded my way:
“We, JEFF The Brotherhood, are SO FUCKING PLEASED to announce that we have been DROPPED from the clutches of the demented vulture that is Warner Bros!”
So it began. Pleased? To be dropped from a major-label record deal? For most bands this would be a death knell. Intrigued, and sensing the beginnings of pointless obsession gripping my brain, I read on:
“As for our album Wasted on the Dream, it is finally coming out March 24th on Infinity Cat Recordings — our spiritual as well as literal home.”
We’ve all heard some version of the old major-label horror story: band signs to major, band spends tons of money making its record, major label doesn’t like the record, major label shelves the record and drops band, band is left in a huge financial hole and legally barred from releasing its own record, band begins fighting, drugs, breakup, death, etc. The situation surrounding this JEFF the Brotherhood record seems to be the exact opposite, perhaps minus the drugs. How in the world did JtB’s Orrall brothers, who seem like your standard long-haired, easy-living, pay-you-Tuesday-for-a-PBR-today stoner party brothers, walk away from the Warner Brothers’ legal team with their asses still affixed to their bottoms? They left a major label and were allowed to keep their record and release it on their own label, Infinity Cat, with enough money left over to retain their publicist? How?
According to the band, their first record for Warner Bros. did well, and they were shaping up for a solid follow-up when the plug was suddenly pulled from way on high with very little explanation. The band chalked it up to belt-tightening by a major label in trouble, and they were simply one of a number of groups to get the ax. The band also said that the label had been dragging its feet on release dates, and expressed frustration at dealing with the major-label bureaucracy. This is all totally understandable, but does not explain why JtB was able to walk away with a record that Warner Bros had paid for. I mean, I’m assuming Warners paid for the record; it was produced by Joe Chiccarelli, and the man who recorded Frank Zappa’s Sheik Yerbouti could not possibly have come cheap.
I spent the next 30 minutes in a deep Wikipedia hole and learned a few things. Infinity Cat was founded in 2002 by Jake and Jamin Orrall (aka JEFF the Brotherhood) along with their dad, pop-country star Robert Ellis Orrall. The elder Orrall signed his first major-label deal with RCA back in 1980, and has since worn many hats within the major-label system as an artist, a producer and a songwriter. Suffice it to say, 35 years of major-label experience tends to lend a person some know-how regarding the ins and outs of the business.
In 2011, Infinity Cat Recordings and JEFF the Brotherhood signed a deal with Warner Brothers. Infinity Cat would gain distribution via the Warner Music Group’s distro arm, ADA, and the band’s records — starting with 2012’s Hypnotic Nights — eventually jumped from Infinity Cat via ADA Distribution to full-on split releases between Infinity Cat and Warners. This was a great deal for the Orralls, no doubt: they got to keep one foot in the underground while the other received deep-tissue massages on the silk pillows of the majors. Dan Auerbach, who plays guitar in the Black Keys, produced their first proper Warner Bros. record. The Brotherhood was aligning itself with the kind of mainstream success enjoyed by other duo bands like the Black Keys and the White Stripes, making a handful of recordings at both Jack White’s Third Man studios and his favorite record-pressing plant, United Record Pressing.
I don’t know what happened between Hypnotic Nights and now that led to the band being dropped, but I cannot find any information on whether this has changed Infinity Cat Recordings’ deal with ADA. My guess is that it has not, and that while Warner Music Group didn’t want to put its name on another JTB record, they’re still happy to distribute it and likely make more money on it than if they’d paid to release it themselves. So we wind up with a situation that has some similarities with Wilco’s label shuffle around the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album, wherein a band is signed to a major label (Warners again, via Reprise), makes a record that is rejected by the label, leaves the label, and winds up releasing the record through another Warner label. In Wilco’s case it was Nonesuch, in JTB’s case it is Infinity Cat. It’s a win-win for everybody, because the band gets some press for fighting with the evil major label (JTB’s press release about getting dropped calls Warners “a demented vulture”), which in turn sells a few more records, in which the major label still has a huge stake, so they make money either way. Funny.
This is all somewhat confusing, and ultimately not that important. Who cares if JEFF the Brotherhood is pulling the old label switcheroo/not really switcheroo? At the end of the day what really matters is the music. And to that end, I’d like to quote something the great Alex Coxen, from the absolutely stellar band Milk Music, said about Record Store Day:
“I think it’s absolute consumer bullshit put together by a bunch of boring narcs.”