The Rise and fall of Dreamworks Records

by Pete Crigler http://www.furious.com 12/14

What started out as one of the most hyped, exciting record labels of the late ’90’s and early ’00’s wound up as a piece of meat torn to shreds before being sold to the highest bidder, in this case Interscope-Geffen-A&M. DreamWorks began as a film studio in 1994, thought of by three of the biggest names in the business: Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg (former head of Disney) and record company mogul David Geffen. Together, the three formed the company known as DreamWorks SKG and set about to make their own kind of films. Shortly after announcing the film studio, the idea of a record company was also broached and with enough capital behind them, the label was announced in 1995 with Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin, former heads of Warner Brothers and Reprise Records, placed in charge.
One of the first signings to the newly integrated record company was George Michael, fresh off of beating the corporate giant formerly in charge of his musical destiny: Sony Music. After suing the company for allegedly for not promoting his material and getting a release from his contract, he signed with the new company and began recording his first full-length album of original material in almost five years. In the meantime, the new label’s A&R reps went about signing a diverse batch of new and established artists including: eels, Powerman 5000, Morphine, Rufus Wainwright and the Rollins Band. The Rollins Band had just emerged from its own legal battle with its by-now bankrupt and near-defunct former label Imago. Morphine had been picked up from Rykodisc and eels, Powerman 5000 and Wainwright had been picked up on the strength of demos and indie releases.

The label at the time had distribution from Geffen Records which David Geffen, by this time, had no real control over, just his name stamped on the back cover. 1996 was the label’s first year of releases and they hit hard with George Michael’s Older, his first full record since 1990. Scoring two major pop hits in America, the album only managed to go platinum, quite a disappointment for the multi-platinum Michael but not a bad start for the label. The eels’ debut, Beautiful Freak came out next and launched a smash number one modern rock hit in “Novacaine for the Soul.” The new Morphine and Rollins Band records wouldn’t come out for another year but already it looked like things were going to be off on a roll for DreamWorks Records.

1997 brought the previously mentioned records as well as debuts by comedian Chris Rock, which became the label’s Grammy winning artist and Powerman 5000. The label also signed two of the most intriguing acts ever seen by a major label in the ’90’s: Dr. Octagon was an electronic supergroup comprised of Dan the Automator on beats and legendary/notorious rap icon Kool Keith on vocals. The duo’s first project, Dr. Octagonecologyst was released in 1997 and garnered instant critical acclaim and the group looked like they were going to ride the same wave of success as The Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers were at the time. But just as they were about to start touring, Keith bailed, citing various reasons and saying he would come back. As a result, the duo missed out on performing with Lollapalooza ’97 and by the end of the year, it was clear that Keith wasn’t coming back and Dr. Octagon ended up becoming the first artist let go from the label.

Forest for the Trees began as the brainchild of Karl Stephenson, who’d begun to make his name known for working with The Geto Boys and most famously for Beck. Unfortunately, he also suffered from mental illness which resulted in more than one breakdown. Starting work on his own album around 1993, Stephenson persevered in making his vision heard. By 1996, he was institutionalized after a breakdown when demos of the now finished record made their way to DreamWorks. Striking a deal with Stephenson’s family, the self-titled album was released in 1997 and launched a hit single in “Dream,” a trip-hop ’90s masterpiece complete with bagpipes. Stephenson’s mental health was bolstered by the great reviews and he began to work on new material. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be as he withdrew from the public eye and a second Forest for the Trees album was never heard or completed.

As the years wore on, Rufus Wainwright released his debut album to critical acclaim and the label signed one of its most important artists, Elliott Smith. Fresh off the disbanding of Heatmiser and a few critically worshipped solo albums, Smith signed with DreamWorks and released XO in 1998 to middling sales but rapturous critical response.

It was also around this time that the label began to break out and experiment, signing R&B and country acts. While some acts like Emerson Drive, Sole, Kina and Jessica Andrews managed to score a couple of hits and then disappear, the label struck pay dirt in 1999 with the signing of Toby Keith, who by sheer will of force became the label’s best-selling artist across any genre. After signing Floetry and resurrecting The Isley Brothers, the label began selling more R&B records and spinning off more hits than previous.

Getting back to their main business, the end of the nineties saw the label start to have more success than ever in the rock department. In 1999, Powerman 5000’s second album Tonight!! the Stars Revolt went platinum and shortly thereafter, Buckcherry, signed right off the Sunset Strip, gave the label a smash debut album and enduring hit with “Lit Up.” The next year, rap rockers Papa Roach released their critically acclaimed major label debut Infest and then were given carte blanche to start their own label, New Noize which soon became known as El Tonal after lawsuits. The label’s first signing, Alien Ant Farm also garnered Grammy nominations after Buckcherry and Papa Roach and had a platinum album almost out of the box.

As the decades changed and the 2000’s began, the label had switched distributors, from Geffen, which no longer existed as a real label after the Seagrams merger of 1998, to Polydor which distributed the label until the end of the line. The early 2000’s, besides Papa Roach and Alien Ant Farm brought about some new successes including All-American Rejects, Lifehouse and Jimmy Eat World, each of whom went multiplatinum and spawned numerous hit singles. The label also released its fair share of failed records including Self, Blinker the Star, Pressure 4-5 and Ash.

Around 2002, Nelly Furtado who exploded into the spotlight with her debut record, 2000’s Whoa, Nelly! was preparing her sophomore record and the label was waiting for the next Elliott Smith. While waiting for these releases, the label released a few more interesting records to fill the void.

The Apex Theory, a rap rock band with one of the most unusual vocalists, a man who became known as Ontronik, were supposed to be DreamWorks’ answer to System of A Down, who’d just broke into the mainstream with 2001’s Toxicity. It just happened that the majority of Apex Theory also were Armenian and had a similar style, musically and lyrically to System. When the album, Topsy-Turvy was released in the spring ’02, it promptly laid a big fat egg because the music was so out there and Ontronik’s histrionics wore thin rather quickly. As a result, the album didn’t sell enough to justify DreamWorks’s spending on them. Add to that a horrible reception during that summer’s OZZFest where Ontronik’s ramblings alienated much of the audience and he was fired from the band that fall and not long afterwards, the band were dropped by DreamWorks.

By 2003, the label had shed some old skin and signed some new acts including Rise Against, AFI, Sparta and country singer Daryl Worley. That summer, the label started undergoing some internal shifts which resulted in less than stellar sales for the label’s previously established acts. Powerman 5000, finally releasing their follow-up to the 1999 smash had seen one album in 2001 shelved at the last minute by frontman Spider One in order to try something more creative. The new result, Transform, was dead on impact and the label threw no real promo power behind it. The same could be said for Alien Ant Farm’s sophomore album, TRUant which, despite some good material, didn’t even sell half of what 2001’s ANThology sold. Then in the midst of all this, Elliott Smith committed suicide, devastating the industry and leaving the label without one of its brightest talents.

By 2004, the walls were starting to crumble. The label’s biggest selling record that year was whatever piece of junk Toby Keith put out. The label itself had recently been bought by Universal Music Group for about $100 million. But DreamWorks was still trying to go about their daily routines. They had recently signed Brand New and were preparing upcoming releases by Sparta (a spin-off of At the Drive In).

By that summer, the merger had been completed and DreamWorks SKG Records ceased to exist. Every artist that had not been dropped, including All-American Rejects, AFI, Rise Against, Nelly Furtado, Papa Roach and others were moved to either Interscope or Geffen. Numerous other acts including Powerman 5000, Alien Ant Farm, comedian Jimmy Fallon and a couple dozen others were dropped outright. The only semblance of the label that was left was DreamWorks Nashville where Toby Keith still ruled the roost until the spring of 2005 when the label was absorbed into Universal Nashville. With that, Keith left the label and started his own label where he still records today.

Over the years, almost every artist signed to DreamWorks has left the Interscope-Geffen conglomerate. As of this writing, Rise Against, Nelly Furtado and All-American Rejects are the only acts still signed to the label formerly known as DreamWorks. Although DreamWorks has not existed since 2004, its legacy and spirit are still alive and the label will always be remembered as one of the most adventurous and daring labels of the last twenty-five years.

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