TRIBECA, MANHATTAN: Quick quiz! Which NYC record label
• Has won three GRAMMY awards and been nominated for five more in the last five years,
• Has had 11 albums by five different artists certified RIAA Platinum or Gold since 2002,
• Signs its artists based on their talent, not the size of their YouTube following?
If you guessed Epic Records, well, you may be right — frankly, we haven’t done that much research for this article. What we’re actually talking about here is Comedy Central Records (CCR), the label arm of the Viacom/MTV Networks channel of the same name. And it turns out that by studying the evolution of this indie within a mega-major communications company, you can get a serious tutorial on record business success.
Before CCR’s Founder/Vice President in Charge Jack Vaughn, became a magnate responsible for signing elite funnypeeps like Mitch Hedberg, Daniel Tosh, Jim Gaffigan, Dane Cook, Lewis Black, Demetri Martin, Bo Burnham, Aziz Ansari, and Nick Swardson, he was overseeing another indie-label-on-the-rise story – one that quickly fell flat as a pancake. But he was blessed with resiliency, drive, and a genuine talent for niche marketing, and he would need all three to bring CCR into existence, and then deliver on the big promises he made to Viacom.
Run – don’t walk – to the sharp insights available as Vaughn deconstructs CCR’s rise, its adaptation from a physical to a digital market, what they really look for in an artist recording, the shockingly simply A&R philosophy employed by him and CCR Label Manager Ian Stearns, why specializing is a dual-edge sword, and more.
Comedy Central Records has an interesting story of how it came into being. How did you get the idea to start the label in the first place?
In the mid-to-late 1990s, I was running a label called Slimstyle that was the independent label of the modern swing movement. In many respects, swing at the time was a reaction to grunge and the tired alternative rock scene. It was a cool underground movement, with a distinct dance style and dress code and great music, and it happened to be so good that it was irresistible to the press.
The media got ahold of it and it exploded, then went supernova, and burned out in under three years. In fact, by the time it went mainstream, the burnout took less than 18 months. In mid-1999, the phone stopped ringing and we couldn’t sell another swing record. For the next couple of years I was at loose ends and couldn’t figure out what to do next.
I had been a huge fan of comedy for years, and as I was growing up, amassed a large collection of comedy albums that I played over and over. I had also been a fan of Comedy Central and had watched it basically since its inception. The clincher, though, was around 1998 when I saw a clip of Mitch Hedberg doing a few minutes on television. I was blown away and tracked down his self-released CD, Strategic Grill Locations.
After memorizing it, it hit me that it was crazy that something this good wasn’t being properly released and marketed. That was when the idea crystallized that it was time to start a comedy label, and instead of trying to raise funding for it, the obvious home would be Comedy Central.
That is what we call an A HA moment! So how did you get Comedy Central on board to back it from there?
It may seem like a no-brainer, but back at the time — 2001 — it was a little out there. Every so often you’d see a comedy album released by a big star, but there were almost no small-to-mid-level comics releasing CDs, there was no comedy section in record stores, and comedy albums really hadn’t sold since the late seventies or early eighties.
I had a friend who knew how to get in touch with the head of Comedy Central and I flew out and pitched them the idea for the label. They had already been in talks to license the Comedy Central brand to majors, but my take on it was to do it all internally- signing artists, producing the albums and handling all aspects of the label in-house. It was a tenuous uphill battle, and I flew to New York with improvements to the plan for about nine months until it was to a point where they decided to give it a shot.
The nice part about having so little competition was that the list of possible comics to sign was almost limitless. In the first year I signed Dave Attell, Jim Breuer, Lewis Black, Dane Cook, Bobcat Goldthawait, and Mitch Hedberg. We also released the audio from a new show on the network called “Crank Yankers”.
The downside was convincing artists that doing a comedy record was a good idea, convincing record stores to take them, and reintroducing the public to the idea of buying comedy records. To this day most people don’t walk into record stores looking for comedy albums. In fairness, most people don’t walk into record stores anymore period, but you get the point.
That sounds like a good way to start. As the label opened for business, what parts of your original business plan were confirmed? And on the flipside, what were the surprises that you discovered in the first few years?
I recently took a look back at the old plan I first pitched to Comedy Central and shockingly, it was about 80% on target, from the artists signed to the profit margins. The sales projections that I had which were largely blind guesswork and in my mind even a little ambitious, but they turned out to be way below where we netted out.
As far as surprises, there weren’t too many. Some artists I thought would do better didn’t and some I thought would take a very long time to develop turned into stars in relatively short order.
The really interesting part was how the industry as a whole changed from the start until now. For example, we did exactly zero digital sales in the beginning (2002), and today, I’d estimate we’re 85% digital. There’s a good chance we won’t be manufacturing physical CDs two years from now.
On that note, wow would you describe Comedy Central Records today? It is it an indie label? A major label? Or is it a hybrid of both? What are the advantages and disadvantages of having that mixed status?
It really defies description, because it’s not set up as a traditional label. In many ways it’s a perfect hybrid — backed by the marketing and financing, not to mention prestige, of Comedy Central, and the top-notch distribution of ADA, but still small enough to have a personal touch and everyone here is doing it for the love of comedy.
For example, unlike majors there is no constantly shifting bureaucracy and executive team- no one gets orphaned by a fired regime. And if any artist, manager, or agent has a problem that needs resolving or has an idea or a need, they can get me right on the phone and it gets taken care of if there’s a viable solution.