When an entrepreneur launches a business, he or she hopes to eventually make money. But starting a record label in 2017 is a different type of investment. Profits are a goal, sure, but there’s got to be more to it than that, claims Chris Messer, co-founder of the recently launched Dodgeball Records. “It’s hard to describe exactly, but there’s a big community aspect to what we’re doing.”
Messer and his wife, Dani, alongside Mike Felumlee (the Smoking Popes) founded the Chicago-based Dodgeball Records in 2017. Impressively, the label already has three bands on its young roster: Showoff, Messer’s own pop-rock group from the ‘90s which has recently reunited; Amuse, an Indianapolis-based trio whose love for pop-punk riffs and The X-Files won over this writer; and Decent Criminal, a San Francisco-based rock group offering gritty flavors of PUP and Green Day.
These three signings certainly mark a busy summer for the modest label, whose release calendar is consequentially already filling up. Amuse’s first EP comes out August 4. Showoff’s and Decent Criminal’s LPs release in September and October, respectively. While it’s good for a label to push out records, Messer remains fixed on building (or rebuilding) something long term.
“My wife and I talked about it for awhile,” Messer explains. “In the ‘90s, the punk rock scene—how we remember it—was a cool time. It was a fun time. Now, the scene is not as cohesive as it used to be. We thought it would be pretty cool to start up a label and bring [the community] back together as much as we could.”
On Messer’s blog, the passionate punker wrote that he didn’t want Dodgeball to fuel the “ME culture” running rampant in today’s society, that he is more interested in building an “US culture.” Asked to expand on the comment and Messer responds with a type of optimism that isn’t just refreshing, but almost unheard of in today’s music business.
“It’s really all about bettering the people around us. [We’re] community based, not just the punk community either. The actual people around us. We want to do food drives, clothing drives. Random acts of kindness. Promoting shows that benefit domestic violence programs. It’s about furthering everybody, not just ourselves. People look up to artists and what they support. We want to lead by example.”
It’s big talk from a man who now fronts a record label—one of the shadiest, most disliked, untrusted forms of business ventures the arts have. You know the cliches: convoluted business practices, unfriendly relations to artists, bottom-line above the art, devilish contracts. Generalizations, yes, but there is some truth to these broadly-drawn portraits.
Messer has experienced them firsthand.
In 1998, Messer’s band Showoff signed to Maverick, Madonna’s once-great but now-defunct record label. Goldfinger’s John Feldmann helped sign the band and eventually produced their record. (For some fun music industry trivia, look up Feldmann’s Wikipedia. His producing credits range from Ashlee Simpson to the Used to most recently Blink 182’s hit album, California. Feldmann’s first non-Goldfinger producer credit is Showoff’s S/T album.)
With Maverick, what started as promising ended in disappointment and disillusionment. Their album was fully funded and an expensive music video was made, but the label’s marketing strategy pushed the band in ways they didn’t understand nor align with. While today, a song placement on the Disney Channel would be a financial dream come true for many artists, in the late ‘90s, the Disney Channel was where all good rock bands went to die. Messer recalls seeing other Maverick bands, like Mest, getting pushed into mainstream radio, while Showoff was shipped off to smaller, younger demographics. “We just didn’t get it,” Messer laments.
Showoff had some success with their lead single “Falling Star,” which reached No. 36 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart. But Maverick’s marketing campaign proved fatal for the young band who could have prospered with better alignment to their label and a clearer vision.
The cold, calculated way Maverick treated Showoff is a tactic Messer hopes to avoid with Dodgeball. It’s fueled his earned perspective, one that prioritizes a Dodgeball artist’s hopes and dreams above his own. When Messer mentions anyone on his roster, Amuse, for instance, he lights up like a father bragging on his kids. “They’re super good guys. I feel like [working with them] gives me purpose. It’s cheesy, a lot of things I say are cheesy, but I do think of them as family. We’re going to do everything we can to help them succeed.”
But there’s more to being an “artist-friendly label” than just affirmation and praise of one’s artists. Record deal contracts remain a hot-button issue. When the internet obliterated the industry’s cash-cow distribution model, record labels had to shift to stay prosperous (many of them died). The industry instituted what’s now known as the 360 deal, which takes a portion out of every revenue stream possible.
As Digital Music News explained:
“In addition to sales of the artist’s recorded music, the label shares in other income streams such as touring and live performance, merchandise, endorsements, appearances in movies and TV, and if the artist also writes songs, publishing. In fact, most 360 deals have catch-all phases giving the label a financial interest in everything else that the artist does in the entertainment business.”
“Most artists I know are signing 360 deals,” Messer explains. “The landscape has changed and labels aren’t making money from album sales, so they’re getting it from other places. Anything that the artist does. As a touring musician, that sucks. That’s your livelihood. As a label owner, I understand where they’re coming from.”
Does that mean Dodgeball Records will offer 360 deals? “No way,” Messer explains. “There may be a day when we run out of money because of it, but I’m not interested in 360 deals. That’s not why we’re doing this. We’re in this to help people, you know?”
Call it naivety, but an artist-friendly label can be successful in today’s music industry. At least, that’s what Dodgeball is hoping to prove. A strong roster, a dedicated staff and a passion for community might be the secret sauce that proves the recipe. Let’s hope fans are hungry.