was not a RICH company. In fact, it was a struggling company
with about three dozen truly talented, soulful individuals that collectively
didn't earn as much cash in ten years as Michael Jackson earns on one 10 day
Until Isaac's "Hot Buttered Soul" album, STAX never
actually had a genuine smash record.
STAX didn't start out with
huge funding and a roomful of investors.
BIG money was never in soul music. Rock artists of the 60s, such as
the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, etc. were big, BIG money acts.
Very, very few black artists in that era could even hope to approach that level
of record sales. Some Motown artists, for example, the Supremes, could
sell a lot of records, but never approached the sales level of white rock
and roll. These facts speak for themselves.
statements don't in any way reflect on or diminish the greatness of STAX, and
everyone connected to it.
STAX was THE GREATEST, and it
should be obvious how much I love STAX.
Instead, this story should shed
some light on the realities that existed back then.
as we consider various aspects of STAX, our perspective comes from right now,
In the 1960s, nobody at STAX had the vaguest notion that the
popularity of STAX music would increase to today's proportions.
more STAX music has sold in the last 15 years, than when the company was in
How could anyone know? If an artist wasn't selling a lot
of records, that artist was probably doomed - he would likely be dropped from
And today, many of these obscure records are in tremendous
Try and remember these two words: "who knew?"
interpretation of the STAX magic is not based on real time.
time, there were some major problems - the greatest being restricted funds
available, and that fact affected everything.
Let's Do It
Ourselves - Let's Build A Record Company
the very early days, STAX wasn't much different than a record company that YOU
could start in YOUR garage, right now, today.
Using that as an
example, let's do just that! There are only three basic
in your early thirties
your friends, musicians, singers, and writers, are either in their teens or
in this scenario has cut a hit record - yet
going to start a new record company with your own label, and build
your own studio to cut hit records in!
You have fifteen good
friends - musicians, singers, and writers, and all of them have unlimited faith
in this idea. Real, total commitment.
go out and buy whatever you could afford - recorders, microphones, amplifiers,
speakers. You'd borrow what you couldn't buy.
Your friends or family
might contribute, a few hundred here, a couple thousand there. Your
musician friends would bring whatever they happened to own, some of which might
be high quality equipment, probably most of it not very high quality. In
any case, the musical equipment (amplifiers, drums, etc.) would either have to
be constantly moved in and out of the studio whenever the players needed it, or
it would have to be "spare" equipment that they didn't need for their
Realistically, there aren't very many "spare" grand
pianos or Hammond organs around.
You've borrowed and scraped together what
you need to get started. You've talked to a lot of other guys, visited a
lot of studios, and you know you can record good, quality tracks.
You've learned a lot about maintaining a publishing company, so you start one
for your writers. It's almost all paperwork, so basically, all you need is
a typewriter in the beginning.
you've actually recorded a few tracks in the garage, and learned how to get the
most out of the equipment you have, it's apparent that you need a larger
building to do this. In getting this far, you realize you could do
so much better, if only you had this or that piece of equipment, or better
microphones, or a better mixer.
But first, you really need a large enough
space to work in - a place where you can work late into the night if
There's a vacant movie theater not too far away, so you rent it for
$100.00 a month. It's large enough to have several studios someday, plus
dozens of offices. That can come later, right now, all you need is
a studio and a control room. But it's going to need some construction work
inside - walls, partitions, some sound baffling, electrical work, lights, and so
on. So you borrow some more money and get started. Since you have
barely enough money to do the construction and electrical improvements, you
won't be buying $27.00 per yard carpeting for the studio yet - that will have
In the meantime, you, and everybody
else, are still working at your day jobs and/or playing in the clubs at night,
to earn some money. Two of the younger writers are still in high school,
and work part time at a grocery store.
Fortunately, all your friends,
the singers, musicians, and writers, believe and have total faith in this record
company and studio, and they all have construction and
electrical skills, too! So the work proceeds smoothly. Because
the work is being done by "the family", it isn't costing thousands and
dollars for a construction company to remodel the theater.
everything is in place, and you do some test recordings. You fix some
little problems, make a few minor adjustments, and you're ready to cut some RECORDS!
to this point, all the money is going out - nothing is coming IN.
None of your friends have been paid one dollar so far, all their work has been
done on faith.
You've written up an agreement with everyone, stating how
future profits will be shared between "the family". Now it's
time to cut some hits.
During the next
several months, you reach in your pocket and buy cartons of tape, a couple
of microphones, other odds and ends that the studio must have, and you cut
tracks. And more tracks. And more tracks. You send some tapes
of these tracks around to the local radio stations, hoping to get some
Copies also go to some of the larger record companies - New
York, Chicago, LA.
One or two of the songs are being played quite a bit on
a few local radio stations, and people seem to really like them. They call
in and request them, and ask the DJs about them.
Suddenly, one day, you
get a call from Pacific Records in Los Angeles! Someone from Pacific heard
one of these songs, and they're very interested in promoting and distributing
it. Basically, the agreement is - you will receive a $1,000.00 advance against
future record sales, you will provide them with a final mix tape, they will
master it, press it, package and label it, advertise it, promote it, and
distribute it through their established distribution channels.
is IT! This is what you've been waiting for!
For each copy
sold, a certain amount of money will be paid to your record company, after
Pacific recovers its costs.
The whole "family" hears the great
news, and there's an OFFICIAL CELEBRATION PARTY at the studio that
30 days, $1,000.00 has been deposited into the studio account. Checks have
been written to your musicians, singers, and writers, and more checks will be
coming in the next few months, as the record sells. The more the record
sells, the bigger the checks.
You're in touch with Pacific every few days,
keeping up with how many records they shipped, where they're going, and if
they're selling. Everyone in "the family" is excited, the
enthusiasm is visible - and more songs are being written every day.
cut more tracks, and spend more time in the studio. You borrow more money
to buy a few more pieces of recording equipment. You rent a piano, and
borrow an unused Hammond organ from a local church.
new songs have been cut and mixed, and you send the tapes to California to see
about distribution for those songs.
Unfortunately, Pacific is only
interested in one of them, though, and agrees to the same terms as the first
You feel these records are really good, and desperately wish you
could find a way to get them into the market, or press and distribute them
If you had a few good people for a promotion department, like
the bigger record companies, you could get these great songs out in the public yourself.
first record is selling, it seems to have peaked. It made it into the Top
100, but never got above 91 on the list. A record on the charts is nothing
to be ashamed of, so you go to the bank to see about a business loan. If
you had the resources to do it, you could put everyone in "the family"
on a weekly salary, and, hopefully, expand record sales by pressing, promoting,
and distributing them yourself.
The bank needs documents to see how much
actual income resulted from that first record, and even though you're excited about
it, you're a little ashamed to say that the total payments have only been $2,370.00
so far. That includes the $1,000.00 advance, and another $1,370.00 from record
sales, after Pacific deducted its expenses.
After some negotiation, the
bank agrees to loan you about one fifth of the amount you applied for, but that
doesn't diminish your enthusiasm at all. In your mind, you've already
spent every dollar.
just a moment, let's consider the above. You have a record out that peaked
at 91 in the Top 100, and the gross income for that record is, to date,
$2,370.00 At this point, you know sales for that record have basically ended,
as the record is no longer being played very much in the markets it sold in.
From this total, you have paid the players, writers, singers, bought tape, paid
the rent and electric bills, and cut several more tracks. You threw a
great celebration party, too.
And you've learned some very important
lessons - only a little of the money from record sales trickles back down
to the artists and producers and players and writers. Actually, you
haven't paid yourself anything at all from this record!
above? Nobody involved in this adventure is over 30 years old.)
the weeks go by, more and more tracks are cut, and a few more are picked up by
Pacific for distribution. Pacific has become very interested in an
exclusive agreement to distribute your records, and ultimately, a contract is
negotiated, which contains slightly better terms than the original agreements
major problem you see with this agreement is that you're paying a very high
price for the services of Pacific. Much more of the profits could be
channeled into your record company, if you could perform these services yourself,
You also realize that Pacific has its own artists, and
you wonder if the promotion and distribution of your tracks are aggressive
Or are Pacific's promotion people pushing their own artists and
making less effort with yours?
These thoughts weigh very heavily in your
months go by. Checks, although not in very large amounts, are coming in,
and you've signed three new writers and three artists. You finally put
enough money on the side to buy carpeting for the studio, and, while you were at
it, you built six offices in some of that spare space.
this point in the story, we come to a kind of crossroad. In about one
year, you've reached an excellent level of success, with several records selling
and charting. But it's not like the kind of success that a real HIT
RECORD will bring. You need a record at the TOP of the
charts. And you need artists that can do it again and again.
possibility is that your record company will continue to cut records that are
distributed and promoted by "non family" people in California,
thousands of miles away.
possibility is for you to bring new people into "the family", and
develop your own teams for promotion and advertising. That will require a
yet another possibility is that you will sell part of your company, taking in
partners, to fund the growth requirements.
It's a huge decision.
your company grows, so do the responsibilities. Just about a year ago, you
were stapling burlap, and building a soundproof wall.
Today, you face
decisions that could literally put you back in the garage you started
How far do you go? Do you believe enough to go into debt
forever? How will your decisions affect everyone else in "the
Off On A
Completely Different Tangent
people talk a lot about the really great, vintage musical equipment used at
STAX. But it wasn't really great vintage equipment back THEN.
It was just average, typical stuff that you'd find in any music store. And
most all of it was fairly inexpensive, as some research will prove. The
old Fender amps and early Telecasters were a lot cheaper then - today you see
them selling on Ebay for astronomical amounts.
to early STAX records shows how marginal the recording equipment really
In many tracks, the distortion levels are unusually high, and some
serious tape problems can be heard occasionally, if you're listening
Those recordings were crude - but they weren't intentionally
In those early days, STAX - like any other young, starting company
- simply couldn't afford to buy the very best equipment available.
problems weren't restricted to STAX, all the smaller labels and studios were in
exactly the same situation.
The huge, major corporations, such as ABC,
Capitol, Columbia, etc., had the resources to maintain state of the art
I believe STAX wanted to buy the best, and
eventually, they did.
But like any other independent record company, they
had to wait until cash flow allowed that.