Takin' Care of Business
All That Remains frontman and bandleader Phil Labonte has no worries about how recent changes in the music industry have made it increasingly difficult for bands to remain economically viable. As a self-proclaimed conservative, Ronald Reagan enthusiast, and "fan of commerce," Labonte takes a hands-on approach to his band's career by handling the business administration himself. From his perspective, bands and labels must simply roll with the realities of economics — and, as for all the griping about record labels that musicians typically engage in, he's at the opposite end of that spectrum.
All That Remains comes to Fort Lauderdale just a week before releasing its aptly titled fourth album, Overcome, which captures the Massachusetts five-piece expanding upon its melodic, European-influenced brand of death metal. As usual, the music is awash in a near-constant flurry of frantic double-bass drumming, while other band members accommodate one another across sudden stylistic shifts running the gamut between all-out blast beats and power-metal thrash.
Overcome hits the streets as All That Remains is still enjoying its biggest commercial success to date, 2006's The Fall of Ideals, which sold more than 175,000 copies, according to the band's website. But Labonte stresses the importance of looking beyond the numbers.
"If you say that someone sold 150,000 records in 2006," he says, "that means significantly more than if they sold 150,000 in 2002 — even though the number is the same."
For Labonte, who embraces downloading as a reality, success all boils down to one basic, fundamental, capitalist principle: Put out a quality product. If you do that, he insists, the rest will all fall into place — even as no one can yet predict exactly what kind of business landscape will exist in the foreseeable future. For now, Labonte simply asserts that "you have to give people a reason to buy a CD." As far as he is concerned, quality has become synonymous with extra content — and making a connection with your fans by establishing an online presence.
"I think the days of big rock stars that are completely unavailable are going to be over pretty soon," Labonte offers. "Celebrity is kind of going away in the way that we used to know it in the '80s and '90s. It's going to be about bands creating a community. It's not about just music anymore. If you take the time to say 'thanks' to the people who are buying your records, I think they'll continue to buy your records. It becomes not just about the songs but a connection with a band that you feel personal about.
"When I was a kid," he continues, "and looking for information on Iron Maiden or backstage pictures of Metallica, I ate that stuff up because it was so rare. Nowadays, that kind of stuff is all over the place, so you have to give people quality content, just like you have to give them quality music."
In Labonte's eyes, the widespread availability of free digital music will ultimately just push bands to strive harder to put out better-quality releases. And the consumer, he says, will benefit from the competition.
"I have faith in the free market," he says. "I don't know what's going to happen in the future, but I don't concern myself with it, because I know that if me and the band write good songs that people care about, they'll come to see our shows, they'll buy our T-shirts, and they'll tell their friends. And maybe, if their friend likes our record, the friend will go out and buy one instead of just burning it. It's not a whole lot different than tapes."
Besides, he laughs, the band has "never seen a dime from any of the records we sold anyway. For us, it's a lot like functioning in the old system, where it's like 'Put your record out and now you're not going to make any money.' We'll still go into debt to a record label, so why am I going to sweat that someone's downloading?"
Interestingly, being hands-on with business has not made Labonte feel antagonistic toward record labels.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with the situation that bands get into with labels if they're not paying attention to what's going on with the contracts they're signing," he says. "You've got to be responsible. I understand that's it's really hard to understand contracts. I still hand them off to people I know and trust so I can ask, 'What do you think of this?' Labels are definitely out to make money, but I don't believe labels are out to kill bands. It's business, and that's just the way it is."
Still, he doesn't extend any extra sympathy toward labels either and applies the same survival-of-the-fittest mentality to them as he does to bands themselves.
"The labels are the ones that are spending more money than the band is when it comes to promotion and things like that. I don't begrudge them for going out and making their buck. At the same time, on the same exact note, I don't feel bad that 50 percent of teenagers didn't buy a record last year. Guess what — the market's changing. Figure it out, or someone's going to figure it out for you."
Though Labonte insists that he doesn't really consider himself business-minded, he says he inherited his be-your-own-boss work ethic from his father, who owned a small business. Labonte's father stressed the traditional working-class virtues of self-reliance and putting in long hours, which have clearly rubbed off in Labonte's leadership approach. He is the go-to guy for all issues big and small. Whether it's a drunken band member who refuses to get on the bus or a vehicle breakdown, Labonte is the person who gets awakened to deal with the issue. And he's the one who gets paid last, after everyone else. At the same time, he "chases down" the other members to get their input on all decisions.
"I don't spend money without their input," he says. "I don't do anything without their input. When you're in a position of leadership, you're a servant to the people you lead. It's your job to take care of them, because they won't follow you if you don't. It's the right thing to do.
"But," he adds with a laugh, "we have an agreement: Should the money start coming in, everything will be taken care of, I promise, but don't get mad when I get a big old check just 'cuz."
So how does he intend to steer All That Remains' financial growth from here?
"I'd love to move out of my mom's house and get a car," he says. "Those would be great places to start."
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