/> UGLY DUCKLING AND THE BOTTOM LINE | Ear To The Track

UGLY DUCKLING AND THE BOTTOM LINE

Not long ago, a guy named Matthias contacted EARTOTHETRACK.NET and requested that I write a column about the difficult realities of surviving (I don’t use that word jokingly) as a small-time musical outfit like Ugly Duckling.  Normally, I would stay a mile away from a topic like this because, for me, it’s difficult to imagine that any reader would find a nominal

u.d. backstage

Ugly Duckling backstage in 2014. We, of course, demand gigantic guitar tuning pegs to be mounted in all of our dressing rooms

Hip-Hop group’s struggles compelling or entertaining.  In fact, I generally assume that most people take an interest in music with the intended purpose of escaping their own daily drudgery, not to empathize with the plight of working-class Rap acts who are, at the very least, chasing their dreams and avoiding 9-to-5’s.  Plus, it must be recognized that no authentic aspiring artists (with the possible exception of Gene Simmons) ever joined a band expecting to become wealthy.  We may have fantasized about the gratifying thrill of an audience’s approval and a bit of adventure, but any actual musician’s earliest hope and plea was to simply make a living doing music.  With that clearly stated, it would, in my opinion, be pathetic and condescending to write anything that came across as whiny or ungracious but, in this case, I’ll share some of my more challenging band experiences for, if nothing else, the sake of Matthias’s interest…

 

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He saw a million faces and rocked them all

Escena_de_Paradise_City

He faced a million rocks and saw them all

When I was a goofy teenager sitting in my family’s TV room imagining how it would be to perform in a traveling band, my ideas were simply, and literally, the stuff of Rock’n’Roll dreams.  Like any adolescent with cable in the late 1980’s, I’d seen music videos like Bon Jovi’s ‘Dead or Alive’ and Guns’n’Roses’ ‘Paradise City’ which led me to believe the touring lifestyle was all fancy backstage laminates, opulent, leather-cushioned tour buses and tawdry, young women passionately lip-syncing a band’s lyrics from the grandstands.  When, in the late 90’s, I actually hit the road with Ugly Duckling, the reality was quite a bit different.  In fact, with the possible exception of infrequent backstage passes, we experienced none of the aforementioned excitement.  Instead, we found ourselves on very, very long drives between U.S. cities earning $250-$500 per show (minus our booking agent and manager’s commission) which barely covered flights, rental vehicles, hotel rooms, fuel, food, tolls, big-city parking fees and whatever other travel costs we incurred.  After a few weeks of touring, I began to realize that I’d been earning more money at my previous bookstore job than in my new line of work as a professional rapper, but I also understood how extremely fortunate I was to be receiving any wage for the privilege of being in front of audiences across the country.

We manufactured cassettes in all colors

We manufactured cassettes in all colors but rarely made any green

In 1998, Dustin, Rodney and I signed with a Universal Music subsidiary label called ‘1500 Records’ which advanced us $15,000 (it would have been $30,000 but we were charged sample costs) for the rights to our newly completed ‘Fresh Mode’ EP.  While this was a thrilling moment and a much appreciated pay-day, quite a bit of that money was used to reimburse previous production debts we’d incurred while recording the EP and pursuing a good reputation.  Once upon a time, there were no inexpensive digital studios or free, internet promotional outlets so aspiring Hip-Hoppers like us had to scratch out sizable checks to get anywhere near the music scene.  Before inking our deal with 1500, Rodney and I spent thousands of dollars on, among other things, studio hours, 2-inch tape reels (look it up), engineering, mastering, vinyl pressing, cover printing and cassette manufacturing, all of which had promoted the band and, arguably, put us on the map; faintly.  Still, we were, in reality, three nobodies in desperate need of a label partner because no single band was, in those days, capable of financing itself.  So with a small portion of Universal’s resources behind Ugly Duckling, ‘Fresh Mode’ was released and we, with the help of a booking agent, went on the road to spread the word.  Every now and again, 1500 would wire us some cash (tour support) to help the endeavor, all of which we would be required to pay back to the company but while we might have been in the red, at least we were in the game.

ud laundry

Me and Rodney doing our laundry

As ‘Fresh Mode’ hit the market and the group performed more regularly, U.D. experienced a small degree of success and, eventually, we were able to supplement our fledgling tour income with occasional recording and publishing advances, licensing payments and the odd royalty check; I write ”odd” because they weren’t normal.  We also began to merchandise our band brand, selling T-shirts, hoodies, hats, CD’s and even aprons (‘Meatshake’ tour) and this helped make travelling more cost-effective and, sometimes, profitable.  As our standing improved, the show fees increased (slightly) and we began to work new markets (Europe, Asia, Australia) plus festivals and university events which sometimes offered lucrative pay-days.  With only three members and limited equipment needs, Ugly Duckling had the advantage of being a pretty simple operation which allowed us to keep our costs low and our headaches minimal.  We didn’t even need to employ tour managers who are, for the most part, over-paid baby-sitters for bands that want to party excessively and need to be told what to do by a glorified camp-counselor who’s simply staying one page ahead of the talent on a tour itinerary (sorry, that sounded bitter).  Eventually, we figured out how to book our own travel and hotel arrangements which simplified the operation and, monetarily, kept our heads above water.  As U.D.’s designated driver, I began to enjoy reading road signs in German and driving on the other side of the road in Great Britain while Rodney and Dustin caught up on their sleep.  Looking after ourselves and working directly with the concert venues, we developed nice relationships with regional promoters, club owners and local personalities and all of these connections would prove invaluable because, in the long term, we’d need all the help we could get.

INDEPENDENCE

bang for the buck

A ‘Bang for the Buck’ store display in Tokyo

In 2005, the boys and I decided to split with our helpful but unnecessary manager and, around the same time, we willfully stepped away from working with record companies, thus seizing complete control of band affairs.  We began financing our own studio costs and album expenses with the intention of commercially licensing a completed, Ugly Duckling-controlled project to interested independent partners in various, global territories.  Now, while the last sentence may have read like U.D. developed an acumen for international business, we, in reality, were simply tired of dealing with record companies that were either overly opinionated about our artistic output (Interscope), unsure about renewing our option (XL Recordings) or, in most cases, going out of business (1500, Emperor Norton, Riffage, Handcuts…) in a spectacular ball of flames and unpaid royalties.  In 2006, after we completed the mastering for our album ‘Bang for the Buck’, financed a video for the single ‘Smack!’ and commissioned the artwork, photography and layout design for the LP, we basically sold the rights to companies in the U.S. (Fatbeats), Europe (All-City), Asia (Handcuts/Sony) and Australia (Earshot) which earned U.D. a relatively handsome sum despite the fact that our European partner All-City and its owner Dan ‘Large’ Gregory, who we mistakenly thought was a buddy, robbed us silly while offering comically pathetic excuses for not paying any of the contractually promised 50% share in profits; with friend’s like this…

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The boys and I crammed into an Easy Jet economy journey to anywhere

That year, despite Dan’s treachery, I felt as though we’d become a full-fledged, professional group and, as the band’s inept, de facto manager, I actually began to believe I understood the music biz, or at least the small-time cottage industry of Underground Hip-Hop.  We, like any successful small company, had established a modest customer base, taken control of our overhead and sold product as directly as possible to our clientele, continually cutting out meddlesome middle-men.  Despite our new-found confidence, the success we experienced with ‘Bang for the Buck’ was short-lived and fleeting as digital music arrived as the new standard market format, a development we didn’t grasp.  After a year or two, we were forced to realize that the internet allowed fans to download songs without paying so, of course, selling albums was far less profitable because customers don’t tend to buy things they can have for free.  Very quickly, the Ugly Duckling game-plan was uselessly antiquated and while our next album ‘Audacity’ attracted a couple of international partners, none of them were willing to put up advance money or take any financial risks to promote the album which essentially guaranteed failure.  At the same time, our touring income suffered tremendously as the Western world tightened their collective belt due to the the severe economic downturn of 2008.  Sales revenue dried up while concert fees dropped dramatically and, quite frankly, U.D. was one of the few, fortunate independent acts who were able to tour at all so our complaining rights were extremely limited.  From that point right up to this moment, the business of Ugly Duckling has been a complete struggle and is currently operating on life-support.  These days, whenever the band set out on the road, I’m aware that it could be our last run.

Help-Wanted

Wack M.C.’s need not apply

To be clear, I am not sharing any of this information to make someone feel sorry for Ugly Duckling or myself, I have no interest in sympathy, charity or a ‘Kick-Starter’ fund.  We were EXTREMELY lucky to have earned a living while recording songs, traveling the globe and getting told how cool we were over and over again by friendly audiences.  In the end, I’ve written this article because I assume our story might be interesting and somewhat enlightening to thoughtful and curious fans of underground music, not to make some weepy statement about society or evil corporations not caring enough about artists.  Any person who establishes a business (furniture shop, burger stand, clothing boutique…) is taking a difficult chance and, in the end, there are no guarantees of prosperity for those who step out on their own nor, in my opinion, should there be.  Self-owned proprietors risk huge sums of money, time and personal spirit with the impassioned hope of seizing their own destinies and breaking free from unwanted authority.  Success on one’s own terms is, for folks with an entrepreneurial itch, the Promised Land, and reaching El Dorado is rarely accomplished without peril and difficulty.  I don’t see my desire to create music as an entitled right and I am fairly convinced that great artists from all time periods were unstoppable inventive forces who would have churned out material with or without public support and pocketbook padding.  In fact, one could argue that, talent notwithstanding, the naive insistence and bull-headed determination of any true artist to follow their vision is a necessary ingredient for good art.

With all that down, Is anybody hiring?

Posted on by andycooper in ANDY'S ANGLE, RAP RELATED, THE UGLY (DUCKLING) TRUTH

41 Responses to UGLY DUCKLING AND THE BOTTOM LINE

  1. Brian

    So glad I found Ear To The Track. This is a great read and insight into UD. I have loved your music since I first heard Journey To Anywhere. Keep up the great work and I will keep spreading the message.

    • andycooper

      i’m glad you enjoy the site, thanks so much for your time

  2. Jason

    I’m very happy that we got to experience Ugly Duckling in Sioux City. It was a very enlightening experience for me and talking with Andy, Dustin and Rodney was the highlight. It’s obvious you guys have the right kind of love for music and I’m happy to se you still being able to do it regularly. Thanks UD. I appreciate you.

    • andycooper

      wow, you are one of the few people who can claim they saw us in iowa! thanks, we appreciate the support.

  3. Kevin Temple

    Long time ud fan, I was upfront early before j5 at Brixton academy shaking my stuff to you guys. I remember buying bang for the buck in the UK after hearing it was self financed, sucks you got siuffed?!? I’ve got just about every album and seen you live like 3 times so hopefully will have made a contribution! Did you get anything from the Usain bolt barclaycard advert using just a little samba?

    • andycooper

      thanks so much, you’ve done more than your share. we haven’t been paid for that ad because there’s a copyright issue with the song (typical u.d. luck) but we should see something when it’s settled.

      thanks again,
      ac

  4. Chris

    Andy,
    You have just answered a question I’ve had for the last decade or so… I saw you in Manchester on the last tour and luckily Diz sold me his hoody as I’m pretty big an nothing fitted me 😉
    Also congratulations getting married your wife is very lovely, my girlfriend and I both thought so.
    I’ve seen you guys 11 times now and each time worry it could be the last… I try and buy some merch each gig and have bought your discs myself and for my missis. Glad your now selling kids t shirts too…
    My point is I hope you three can keep touring and recording and I hope that your true fan base stay with you as I have… Ugly Duckling have been one of my favourite top 5 bands since I first heard Journey when it came out and I’m always stoked to put new people on to you guys…
    Looking forward to seeing you three again in the UK soon
    Chris 😉

    • andycooper

      thanks for reading the column and all of the years of support! 11 times?! that seems about 8 too many. thanks again, tina says hello!

  5. Tzaddi Morey

    This is a great peek into the realities of chasing your dreams:) Thank you for the honesty and humility. UD is pure Hiphop and still on heavy rotation for me.

    Keep your ear to the ground to hear the train leaving town//you gotta have the bait to get the bite//
    In the land of the blind the man with one eye is king//before you get me wrong get me right

    still love that line!! nothing but Respect and Love for you all!

    • andycooper

      thanks, i never realized that dizzy mentioned my website 15 years before its inception. he’s a lyrical visionary!

  6. Greg

    Great read.

    Always been interested in the business side and how it works. A very honest insight.

    I wouldn’t knock kickstarter projects. It pays up front and you only start when profitable. Preventing the issues mentioned above. Blakalicious are currently doing the same. With your fan base, its a viable option

    Thanks

    Greg

    • andycooper

      forgive me if the kickstarter remrk came across as a criticism, it’s a great company. i, personally, don’t feel comfortable with the concept because i would want fans to buy my product because they truly love the music and it’s in their interest to do so. i wouldn’t ever ask for charity or expect someone else to take financial risks on my account.

      that said, i can see why it’s such an attractive for many bands and their supporters.

      thanks for reading the column

      • Scott

        One of the ways we looked at our crowd-funding campaign was as a new and exciting extension of the fan – artist relationship.

        Our group completed a successful Pledge Music campaign and offered perks from Skype sessions to Mover memorabilia to autographed lyric sheets, etc. I don’t think we ever saw it as receiving charity but as a way to finance our record and offer incentives for fans to engage with us in ways not previously available to them. We also allowed them into the process whereby they named the album as well as the opportunity to view the recording process, give feedback on graphics, etc.

        In short, our audience become our label. It was less of our fans taking a risk on our account and more of our fans investing in a brand they’ve come to appreciate and love.

  7. Dan

    I think this again sums up the modern expectations of music, it seems to have become more disposable and people need it instantly- the time taken to craft a track or album seems to be forgotten by most of those who want music for a few minutes only to move on to the next new thing or track.

    Record companies often fall into this category as its all about the next money making act (not all I know)

    We saw you support J5 in the UK and we saw your own recent UK tour too- I hope you realise there are some people still out there who value integrity and hard work.

    I’ve still not downloaded your EP Andy as I would like to buy it to reward your hard work.

    • andycooper

      thanks for all of your support, now download that ep!

  8. Dirty Merlin

    Thank you for this article and for all of the tunes.
    <333 It was a pleasurable and enlightening read.
    Cheers!

    • andycooper

      thanks for your time and support

  9. Ryan

    The first time I heard UD was on a demo cassette I got at skatejam concert around 2000 in the OC. Ive been a fan ever since and have purchased every album but only been to a few shows. My daughter is 6 and was raised on UD. You guys are in my top three with pharcyde and tribe. Thanks for years of dope and original music.

    • andycooper

      thanks for supporting u.d. and forcing your children to listen to our songs!

      i hope we’re coming in at #3 on that list:)

      all the best,
      ac

  10. John

    Andy, you are the man, and YouDee, you are awesome. keep doing what you are doing until you are 90 years old. I’ll still be buying.

    • andycooper

      90?! i’ll be yelling turn it up because i’m deaf.

      thanks for the kind words,
      ac

  11. Brendan B-Dub Wbite

    Hey Andy, cool read man. I been there more than a few times myself, feeling the pain of dodgy promoters, label bosses, all that. I just dug it as a valuable insight to share with others. And here comes the fanboy shit… I have 3 12″s, Bang For The Buck on wax, Meatshake and Audacity on CD. I still drop Just A Little Samba and Turn It Up when I can. Dope tunes, brother. Keep on keeping on. Glad you guys are still doing it. Fanboy rant over. 😀

    • andycooper

      thanks for the kind words and support!

      • Brendan B-Dub Wbite

        De nada, hombre. 😀 Thanks for the read, checked out some more articles while I was at it. Good insights, man. You pace the story just so, which is a good thing. And it is nice to get some insights from the inside. And that’s my story about that.

        • andycooper

          thanks brendan, that pace compliment means a lot, i’m really trying to be a respectable writer. please keep your ear to the track!
          ac

  12. Nate

    Hi Andy, Nate from Perth, West Australia.
    Thanks for the great read!

    • andycooper

      great to hear from you nate, how’s the b-ball squad this year?

  13. cornishpete

    Like lots here I’m a long time fan since I saw a show back in 2001 2002 and seen you a few times after that too in various English cities. Loved the piece that you have written which has made me sad not only in hearing your struggles but also clicking on your website and realising that I have missed your 2015 European tour.
    any chance of a reprint of your when laces where fat t shirt mines got a few too many holes in to wear in public so a festival shirt only now 🙂
    sending love to the whole UD crew

    • andycooper

      thanks man, sorry we missed you. i don’t know about a michael jackson reprint, we retired it when he died. don’t be sad for us, we’ve had an incredible career that we hardly deserved and, concerning the difficulties, financial risk is part of the game.

      thanks again,
      ac

  14. Josh

    Hi Andy, thank you for sharing your experiences as an artist in the music business. I’ve seen UD live many times, including here in Japan a few times in the mid ’00s. It was great as I got to kick it with you guys as I was probably the only foreigner at your shows. However, I haven’t see you guys since ’06, and I always wondered why, and if you would tour Japan again some day.
    I figured the economic crisis of ’08, together with Handcuts folding, and the changes in the music industry must have been big factors.
    I talked to Thes One a couple years ago at a show in Canada, and asked him why they don’t tour Japan anymore, and he basically said there’s not enough of a scene anymore. There are niche markets for all kinds of music here, but I guess it’s just not economical to come here.
    Anyway, I hope I can see UD live again some day, somewhere.
    I enjoyed your EP, and your essays are great! Keep ’em coming~
    Peace

    • andycooper

      thanks for the kind words and support. we did perform at a festival in tokyo in 2012 but it was a struggle. from what i was told, the people from our scene grew up and got jobs so the whole thing slowly faded which is a shame because it’s such a cool place to visit. that said, even when we did go to japan a lot and had some big shows, i never felt that we had an sizable audience that really understood our group, it felt more like a momentary trend so i wasn’t shocked when we fell off.

      thanks again,
      ac

  15. Mark

    Very interesting read. I am from London and remember picking up your Fresh Mode EP when it first came out . I have a lot of your 12″ and 45s that I have picked up over the years and always glad to see that you are still going and your quality is still there. Numerous rap outfits don’t tend to last and to be honest you guys have succeeded in that respect where many have failed.

    • andycooper

      thanks for the kind words and support. it is fairly amazing that we’ve managed to keep our gold chain and giggles show going for so long, it’s a testament to working cheap!

      thanks again,
      ac

  16. Enorme Nuez

    Great read. I remember stumbling upon a UD show in Blackpool, England. I was over for my cousins wedding. And we, 12 of us, packed into a van in London heading north for the weekend. Best of luck with all future endeavours.

    • andycooper

      12 guys in a van to blackpool, i’m shocked you remember anything! thanks for visiting ear to the track.

      ac

  17. Matthew O'Brien

    I wish there was a way to thank you for your years of hard work and dedication to real music. Obviously you’re storing up your treasure in heaven, and if anything the struggle has kept you guys honest and real. “The dopest rappers are always the brokest”, and it’s certainly true. I first heard you guys on DJ YODA back in the day and have been a fan ever since. THANK YOU. Your work means so much to me and my family and friends. Please, as a veteran graphic artist I would do album art for you in a heartbeat! The offer stands.

    • andycooper

      no need to thank me, having the opportunity to make music for people is a joy and privilege so i’m the one who should express gratitude. i might take you up on your design offer, i always have things i’m trying to make better so i’ll keep you posted.

      thanks for the kind words and support,
      ac

  18. ryborg

    I’ve been a UD fan since 99, and as much as it sucks, I would have never found about yall if it wasn’t for Napster. Hard to find new music when you’re 16 in a small South Carolina town. Anyway, I just hope you guys tour some more and put out new tunes. I will make you free artwork and layouts for any project you ever do, and can promote a show in Charleston! I’m super serious. Check out my small and modest portfolio. Ryanstaus.com all services free for life for UD!

  19. John Douglas

    Great article Andy. Good to hear there’s still people doin it for the love – coz you sure ain’t doin it for the money right 😉
    Been to see you every time you’ve been in Scotland since you played Fat Sam’s in Dundee on your 10 yr Scottish anniversary. I’m in Edinburgh so it was good to see you playing the Voodoo Rooms the last time (no disrespect to Sneaky Pete)
    Liquid Room next time?
    Hoping for some new UD soon.
    Never lose the Audacity…

  20. Matt Bartek

    I just gotta say that this article answered a lot of my questions about the struggles UD faced. When I first found out about UD it was from a hiphop head who worked at a record store in Wisconsin who saw me buying People Under The Stairs. I was immediately hooked to the hella unique sound and flow that is impossible to find anywhere else. Your music kept me alive when I was struggling and really validated my hiphop beliefs. I remember listening to Taste The Secret on the train home and everyone looking at me cause I was laughing my ass off. I was homeless for 3 years living out of shelters and saw every San Francisco show you guys did for a 5 year stretch. No matter what was going on in my life at that moment, it all got dropped at the door as soon as I got in the venue. It was like church being front row shouting the lyrics and watching you guys rock the mic. When you and PUTS teamed up for shows I thought my head was gonna explode. Best nights of my life. My heart is racing just thinking about it again. You guys achieved something incredible those shows were borderline spiritual for me. I just wanted to say thank you for giving me that push I needed and providing quality music despite the struggles you guys were facing. It helped me get where I am now and gave me an outlet and a space to feel validated. You all are my number one top group hands down. You got my respect, appreciation, and loyalty forever.

  21. mike anello

    You guys are by far THE most under rated hip hop group out there, I had to stop listing to the radio in the late 90’s, and start buying stuff that wasen’t on the radio. I found groups like Sound Providers, Jurassic 5, People under the Stairs, and my #1 UD, talet is getting real hard to recognize in rap and hip hop today. If you guys ever tour the Midwest. I drove 400 miles to see Flobots perform at a skate park, so I’d drive farther… Jefferson City, MO, (Columbia MO, look up “the blue note” or anywhere close I’ll be there, I got a coupe couches, if you play close to me…

    Thanks for doing what you do.

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