Hardened Soul: Eli ‘Paperboy’ Reed details his breakup with a major label, unveils new song
When Eli “Paperboy” Reed showed up to Boston’s Lawn On D to perform the Sound Of Our Town party in October, he had a wide smile on his face. The Brookline-born soul and r&b singer didn’t let on that he parted with his label, Warner Bros, just a few months earlier, and it certainly didn’t seem like he had just undergone a contentious, drawn-out disagreement on how to promote his 2014 LP, Night Like This.
Reed showed up and did what he does best: he thrilled the crowd.
Now with a bit of freedom under his wings and an added bounce in his step, Reed yesterday chronicled in-depth his broken relationship with Warner Bros. In a message to his fans and friends, which you can read below, the musician took us back 10 years to the start of his professional career, and detailed the crazy decade that has unfolded since.
He also posted a new track, “My Way Home,” which he recorded in a basement, with just himself, his guitar, and a newfound ambition. “I know I will find my way home,” he sings.
Listen to it below while you read Reed’s recap.
Dear friends, fans and dedicated listeners,
I recently embarked on a short tour celebrating the 10th anniversary of the release of my first album, optimistically titled Eli “Paperboy” Reed Sings Walkin’ and Talkin’ (and other Smash Hits). When I recorded the songs that became that album, I had no idea that I was about to drop out of college and embark on a more than 10-year career as a singer, songwriter and musician. I’d like to give you all some insight in to what those ten years have been like and especially in to the difficulty of the last few. I want to clarify that, while this is my personal story, in some ways it represents the turmoil that the music industry as a whole has gone through over the last decade and more.
The strength of the music we recorded on that day in December of 2003 gave me the push to put together my first band and to start writing songs. That led to my signing with a local independent label in Boston, Q Division Records, and the recording of my first LP of all original music, Roll With You. That album sparked a whirlwind of national and international touring, culminating in my signing to Capitol records and my entry in to the world of the major record label system.
Many of my fans were concerned when I signed to a major label. They were worried that I would lose my “authenticity” in favor of slick pop production. I, however, was excited. My goal, then and now, was to make music that made people feel the way that I feel when I listen to the music that I love. I wanted to get my music in to the ears of as many people as possible and I felt that the best way to do that was through a large, international label. In many ways, I was naive.
Thankfully, Capitol was happy for me to continue to make the kind of music that I wanted to make with little bureaucratic interference and with producer Mike Elizondo at the helm, we did just that. The first single and title track of the album, Come and Get It, was released to strong international acclaim, but unfortunately, halfway through what’s called the “album cycle”, regime change took place at Capitol’s parent company, EMI. After that I lost my champions at the label and further singles fell by the wayside. I learned very quickly that this was not uncommon.
To add insult to injury, as I was preparing to record my second album for Capitol, the company was sold to Universal and my contract was not renewed. I was left with a batch of what I felt were great songs, a significant fan base, but no record contract.
Mike Elizondo had recently inked a deal with Warner Brothers records to become a combination producer and A&R person for the label and he expressed interest in signing me there. I jumped at the chance to work with Mike again and in 2012, I signed a new deal with a new major label. My hope remained the same: To bring my particular brand of Soul music to as many people as possible and to make people happy with my music.
At that point I had been enjoying my first period of time off from the road in a few years. Together with my writing and production partner Ryan Spraker, I had been working on new music in the studio that had more of a pop flavor while still retaining the soulful roots that, to be perfectly frank, I couldn’t get away from if I tried. I had just gotten married and was excited to be writing the kinds of positive, fun, energetic songs that reflected my mood. So, with Warner Brothers contract in hand, Ryan and I set to work whittling down close to 40 song demos and shells in to the 12 songs that became the album Nights Like This.
We were given the freedom to record and produce the album on our own, and to this day I am incredibly proud of what we handed in. I feel that we were able to maintain and even further hone the sonic identity that I had established on my previous records while at the same time opening up the possibility of reaching a much broader listening base. I was excited, Ryan was excited, my management was excited and it seemed that Warner Brothers was excited, too.
That’s not to say it wasn’t a scary proposition. I was kept up nights with the fear that I would alienate my fan base and, if the album didn’t succeed, I would never be able to go back to what I had been doing. In the end, I decided that it was worth the risk. I was given the assurance that I had a great record company backing me and the promise of a massive radio and PR push lay just ahead.
To this day, I am not sure what happened, but this much I know to be true: Regime change once again waylaid plans for a single release. New executives and a new marketing team came on board and our release date was pushed farther and farther back. Radio plans became more and more tentative until there was no plan to release a single to radio in the United States and little if anything planned internationally. The album somehow went from being a high priority release to one on the back burner, for seemingly no reason.
At the same time, songs from the album were starting to be used more and more frequently in films, television shows and commercials. For the unfamiliar, these sorts of uses can mean big dollars for record labels and Nights Like This had the kind of songs that movie producers and ad agencies loved.
The uses became so frequent and the flow of money to the label so substantial, that even before the actual release date in April of 2014, the costs of producing the album had already been recovered. This meant that any money that came in to the label after that point was 100% profit. The incentive to spend any monies promised on radio promotion or marketing was gone.
To be sure, Nights Like This was eventually released. The band and I toured hard in Europe and The UK through the spring of 2014, but the level of press engagement I had previously received was not there. It felt like were swimming against an ever stronger current. My manager and I’s calls and emails to the label more and more frequently went unreturned and in the summer of 2014, I was unceremoniously dropped from the label.
If you’re like me, this might leave you scratching your head. An artist with a significant multi-national fan base and an album that recovered its cost even before release is dropped? I wish it made sense, but I know that it doesn’t.
It’s been almost a year since the “release” of Nights Like This, and to be perfectly frank, I’m not sure what to take away from my experience with Warner Brothers. The album that I, in many ways, staked my career on, wasn’t even given the chance to be publicly judged and because of that, I don’t know what I’m left with. I can’t say that it was a success or a failure, it was a “didn’t try.”
While some people might feel bitter, and there have been times when I have, I actually feel remarkably excited. For the first time in a long time, I have no responsibility to make music for anyone else besides myself and my fans. There’s no bureaucracy of approvals, no stylist, no A&R, no marketing manager, just me, my guitar, and a waiting microphone.
So, I put my head down and make music. The song I’ve attached to this note is called My Way Home and it’s one that I wrote and recorded myself, in my basement, with just my instruments and my voice. I’m finding my way back to loving making music again, but it’s a hard road. I hope that you all will stick with me on it, but I won’t give up one way or another. Thanks to all the fans and friends who have come to the shows and who continue to enjoy and listen to the music I make, I promise I won’t let you down!
-Eli Reed, March 2015