Brendan Benson and the Rise of Readymade Records

Music Features Brendan Benson
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The readymades of Marcel Duchamp elicit some pretty strong emotions. In the early 20th century, the French surrealist artist took ordinary objects—most notably, a urinal he entitled “Fountain”—modified them slightly and signed his initials on them, thereby deeming them Art. At their finest, the readymades embodied minimalism and exuded controversy.

“I wasn’t necessarily a huge fan of Marcel Duchamp or that movement,” admits guitarist, singer and Raconteurs co-founder Brendan Benson. “But,” he continues, “when I first learned about it, I just liked the name Readymade so I put it on my first record ever, which was a 12” vinyl EP that came out on Virgin Records.”

That album, Wellfed Boy, came out in the mid-’90s and now, almost 20 years later, Benson is laughing on the other end of the phone about how the label was “cool enough to let me put my imaginary record imprint on there.”

Benson, who releases his fifth solo album What Kind of World today, didn’t think much about making that imaginary entity into a real business until last summer when his manager Emily White suggested they create their own record label and publishing house. Thus began the rise of Readymade Records.

It’s common these days for artists to create their own record labels. They run the gamut from Merge Records (which began as a means for Superchunk to self-release albums and evolved into a widely recognized label, thanks to massive chart successes like Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs) to bands like OK Go, Cake and Prince that all recently left their former homes at major labels to build their own personal micro-labels.

Two key factors differentiate Readymade Records—its artist centrality and pay system. White fiercely believes in providing her clients with the best environment to hone their talents and support their creative endeavors, which is why she placed Benson at the center of Readymade and organized a team of people from publicity, promotions and label services in concentric circles around him.

She explains in a phone interview, “I basically reverse-engineered everything and instead of paying people in a trickle-down way, the whole team is built on a commission basis. And that’s actually how I work as a manager…we live and die by our artists. We only make money if they do and that just makes a lot of sense to me.”

White adds, “The team that we put together is cool…I was able to find huge Brendan fans instead of people that we were just kind of assigned.”

This team includes individuals from Big Hassle for public relations, Hard Boiled for commercial radio, Terrorbird Media for college radio placements, 30 Tigers for label services, Toolshed for digital strategies and Downtown Music for publishing. Those involved will receive a portion of the album sales revenue and a cut of any sync profits (fees collected by using artists’ songs in films, television and advertisements) that are dependent on the commercial success of What Kind of World.

“There’s no money up front,” says White, “so they don’t make money until the record comes out or we start landing things, so everybody’s kind of doing this in good faith.”

Ever the professional, White continues, “But again, based on Brendan’s sales and his sync revenue in the past, it’s a pretty safe bet that what they’re going to make is more than their fees. And hopefully, the harder everyone works and the more everybody works together for the greater good of what we’re doing, the more successful we are.”

By utilizing this commission-based model, Readymade launched with no debt or overhead, literally ready to make its vision of a sustainable venture into a music industry reality.

Readymade’s first client aside from Benson is an up-and-coming songwriter by the name of Young Hines whose debut album, Give Me My Change, dropped April 10. Hines, a shaggy-haired, cabbie-cap-wearing guitarist whose posture in press photos evokes Freedom-era Neil Young, crafts sometimes soft, sometimes scuzzy rock that’s sung with a slight Beatles-esque lilt.

And while the oft-told story of how Hines and Benson met seems almost out of a daydream—that the famed Benson was so impressed with Hines’ music that he emailed the newcomer unannounced—Hines explains that it wasn’t so straightforward.

Growing up south of Atlanta, Ga., Hines moved just north of Chattanooga, Tenn. to work in a former hydroelectric plant on the Tennessee River and then to Chicago, Ill. to be a full-time musician. In the Windy City, Hines played about 120 dates each year in numerous cover bands, as well as between 20-30 solo gigs, but found that he wanted to focus on his own music. At the time, Nashville seemed to provide those opportunities.

“It’s wasn’t like, ‘Hey, I want to move to Nashville and make a record with Brendan Benson,’” Hines starts, “It wasn’t like that. First of all, he’s not that easy to nail down. It definitely wasn’t that easy. But it was a leap of faith. It was like, I’d like to go down there, so I’m leaving a job and came down here and didn’t play cover music.”

Once he arrived in Nashville, Hines began performing with Wesley Flowers, a multi-instrumentalist in Butch Walker’s band, The Black Widows. But when Flowers got the call to return to his main gig in Los Angeles, Hines resolved to contact Benson again. The two did eventually collaborate, writing and recording songs, choosing the tracks to include on Give Me My Change and even scheduling tour dates together for an upcoming European jaunt. All of this coincided with the creation of Readymade, and Hines does not take his association with the label for granted.

“[Readymade is] kind of a new concept than what I’ve been used to in the past, which was like, ‘alright, sign on the dotted line’ and then you never hear from anybody,” says Hines. “It’s a singular vision. I think that’s kinda what art is. One person can have a singular vision and see it through. I just feel like Emily White, who is Brendan’s manager and Brendan and I and Chris [Vinyard] and everyone else who’s been involved, it seems like everybody’s on the same page, so it’s singular, you know. It’s heading in a direction. I like it. It’s groovy.”

As a new company with a new mentality and a new vision of the state of the music industry, the possibilities for Readymade Records seem endless.

Looking toward the future, White says, “I’d say my bigger picture goals are to be able to create a sustainable model that supports Brendan in continuing to create music when and how he wants and that, of course, includes the artists around him that he chooses to work with.”

The concept of expanding Readymade’s ideals and business tactics don’t even seem outlandish at this point. “I think it could be applied to other things,” she said, “but I always think that the team and the plan needs to be custom around each artist.” White steadfastly maintains that the present matters most, though, and April will be busy, as both artists’ albums will be released.

And Benson, around whom this entire venture circulates, is not only excited for his new LP, but also incredibly proud of the new company and the direction in which it’s heading. “I remember buying records sometimes based solely on the label,” he says. “I bought everything on Dischord records. In fact, collected it obsessively. It was cool because I found my label. I liked everything on it. It was my little scene and part of my identity. But that mentality is seems to be a thing of the past because everything now is intangible, digital. So [with] Readymade, I’m hoping to help bring that back a little bit the excitement and the fanaticism.

“Every record I’ve ever put out, I’ve had to find a new label,” Benson sighs, but “[Readymade] restores my faith in music business.”