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How Dirty Honey Are Thriving Without a Record Label

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Dirty Honey aren’t just a new rock band on the rise — they were the first unsigned band in history to have a No. 1 rock song with their 2019 hit “When I’m Gone.” That isn’t to say that labels aren’t after the fledgling band, though.

Since the song peaked at the top of the chart, they’ve gone on tours around the U.S. with Slash, opened for Guns N’ Roses’ final two shows of their Not in This Lifetime tour in Las Vegas in the fall of 2019, embarked on their own North American headlining tour before the pandemic — which saw the group selling out venues in various cities — and now, they just wrapped up an extensive tour with another one of their heroes, The Black Crowes.

Oh, and they released their debut full-length album in April of this year, which spawned singles such as “California Dreamin'” and their latest, “The Wire.”

Dirty Honey, “The Wire”

Selling out venues and opening for legacy acts isn’t an easy feat for an unsigned band, so we wanted to know how the heck they’ve been doing it, and whether or not they’ll eventually sign with a record label as they grow larger.

We spoke with frontman Marc LaBelle and guitarist John Notto before one of their shows with The Black Crowes to discuss the methods to their madness, and just what it’ll take for them to sign a contract. Keep reading to find out.

So you guys kind of popped up out of nowhere in 2019 — you had this hit “When I’m Gone.” You guys were around for years before that, but when did you really get the ball rolling and when did the national exposure really start happening?

Marc: [John and I] were always kind of together, ever since a year into moving to L.A., and then everything really fell into place when Corey [Coverstone, drummer] joined in like 2017-2018, it started to get a real push into professional.

Even though we always wanted to do something, we just never had that fourth member to make it a real band. But in terms of national exposure, I don’t know, once “When I’m Gone” started climbing the charts and people were hearing about this unsigned band, it started to become a real thing, I think.

John: Yeah, if we had to pinpoint a specific moment, our first national gig would’ve been Aftershock 2018. It was our first real show as Dirty Honey. That was right before the Slash [tour] in October, and then we made the [Dirty Honey] EP.

So I guess that’s technically the first — boom, we’ve left L.A. and played somewhere. And it was pretty awesome, it was the main stage at 1 o’clock, and the way they’d structured the sets, they alternated, so everyone came over. So it was kind of an immediate you’re-doing-the-right-thing-with-your-life moment. It was full, there must’ve been thousands of people there going, “Who the hell is this?”

“When I’m Gone” made you the first band in history to have a No. 1 rock song, unsigned and without a label. What is the decision behind not having a label? Because I’m sure once that happened you guys started getting offers. 

John: I think in the beginning, the offers weren’t good enough for us. We turned down the bad offers. I remember Mark DiDia, our manager, we had this mantra where he was like, “That’s not gonna stop us. Screw it, let’s just do it, and we’ll figure out how to pay for it later — whatever it is we have to do.” So that mantra, I think, started to lead us and started to guide us into the decisions we’ve made to keep it going.

Marc: And like everybody we’ve gone on tour with since has not told us how much they love their label. We did a tour with a band this year and they were like, “We hope the label’s gonna release our single as a single.” And I’m like, “What do you fucking mean you hope? You have a single, go do it.” So every interaction I’ve had with other bands and artists about their label, it’s really never been good, and it just seems like more of a pain in the ass than anything.

And from a business perspective, they own you. They literally own you, they own your merch, they own your music, they own your touring. It’s really a fucked up system.

John: I want to know how the rich ones are getting rich. They’re on labels — how does Bieber have all this money? That’s what I’d love to actually know. Because we know he probably signed a deal where they got a piece of touring, they got a piece of merch. We’ve been on tour with people who are like, “Yeah we sold $1,000 worth of T-shirts tonight and we have to give $300 to the label.” So we’re so glad we don’t have to do that.

But at the same time, all the big people are on labels, so where are they getting the money for the Maseratis? Assuming that they’re spending within their limits. It’s a question that I can’t answer myself. Because the label says, “Okay, we’re taking a big piece of the pie, you’re not gonna get your masters for X amount of years.” But you make money where? Because they are making money, and they’re obviously successful.

You guys, especially you two from what I’ve been told, are very hands-on with a lot of stuff like your social media and merch. What’s the decision behind that whereas other people will choose to outsource those tasks to somebody else?

Marc: It just happened organically, we didn’t have anybody to do anything. We don’t have a label, obviously, that’s like, “Hey this T-shirt company — we know this and that and can set you up with these other companies to handle this shit for you.” So I took it upon myself.

We were doing our first show with Slash and we didn’t have anything to sell — we didn’t have CDs, we didn’t have anything. We didn’t have music out. But I was like, “We should probably sell something to get the word out, let’s make some T-shirts.” Specifically, I remember I made about 150 T-shirts and our manager was like, “You know you’re only gonna sell like five of those at that show, right?” And I was like, “We’ll see.” Then my brother actually flew out for the gig and helped sell merch that night, and they were all gone. Everything was gone. And we were all kinda like, “This is crazy.”

John: We sold five before we even played! That’s when we knew. There were all these little like, pixie dusts, we call it. How do you explain that? You don’t. Somebody just walked in and was like, “That’s awesome, I’ll buy it.” His brother came back and said, “I already sold five T-shirts,” and we were like, “We haven’t even played. Literally, no one knows who we are. There is no way to know who we are.” And we sold five T-shirts!

It is a cool logo, it’s visually appealing. 

Marc: That was a lucky thing too, how that logo came to be. That just sort of happened, the guy just understood the thing so well and made such an iconic-looking logo from the outside. And then with the merch, I was just looking for wholesale T-shirts because I had to. And it was just obvious, I was like, “I don’t want to wear that piece of shit one, I want to wear a good one. Let’s spend $2 extra to get the good stuff.” And right away, that first gig people were like, “These are way nicer than those from the other band.”

John: We had one guy actually trade his in. He didn’t understand that we don’t work together. He had the headliner’s shirt and he’s like, “Can I trade one in?” And we’re like, “It doesn’t work that way, but here, we’ll eat the cost. We’ll work it out.” We were just so proud.

Marc: But yeah, we weren’t hands-on for any reason other than that we had to be. We didn’t have anybody to do it, so we just did it ourselves.

Would you eventually sign a deal, and what specific factors would you look for in that contract in order to sign it?

Marc: I think getting your masters back in some sort of timely fashion would be important. But I also think it’s more like, we obviously know at some point there’s gonna be a breaking point where when we want to go global, you have to have those people in Europe and South America and Australia and Japan that really know what they’re doing to help you create a buzz in those parts.

Our manager is a brash guy from New Jersey, he doesn’t know shit about breaking a band in Italy or Germany or Australia. So if you can help us make this work on a worldwide level, that would be the most appealing aspect of it for us.

John: Yeah, everybody needs a champion at the label. So that would be a big factor, because then that would sort of domino into the deal points being more favorable, to a certain degree. Really, Mark DiDia needs to find a best friend somewhere hiding under a rock who’s at a label — someone who would really work with us because my understanding is that a label can’t guarantee you success, but they can guarantee your career goes to sleep.

So to Marc’s point, we were on tour with certain bands who were like, “Yeah we hope they do this and we hope they do that. They didn’t do this. We don’t know.” They don’t send label people out to their gigs. If they don’t care about you, they can just really put you to sleep. So we’d have to get somebody like we got with Mark DiDia. On top of his connections, he takes our success personally.

Marc: And I will say too, connections don’t get you anywhere if the music isn’t good. Honestly, when it comes to the label thing, I don’t give a fuck about the money. You can offer us $2 million — I don’t care what kind of connections you have, it’s not gonna go anywhere if the music’s not good and if the band’s not good.

We’ve all felt already the importance of touring, because everywhere we’ve gone on this tour that we’ve been to previously, the shows have been way more fun. And for me, that is the most important thing is just simply having a good time and it feeling good for that hour or two hours, however your set is out there. If I could do that for the rest of my life, that’d be fun. I’d like to have money, that’d be nice, but I don’t care, $1 million right now isn’t really going to change my life that much.

John: I think it’s on us, if we have the banger in our hands — the global banger song — we could go to people and they’ll perk up.

Marc: You gotta have music.

John: Yeah. So we gotta write the banger, Marc.

Marc: But that goes without saying, that’s why you’re doing it. You wanna write great songs, you want to sing them well, you want to play them well, you want to have a good time onstage. That’s what it’s all about. If you do all those things, hopefully the rest will take care of itself. It’s just gotta be authentic and for the right reasons. You can’t worry about the money.

You guys kind of remind me of Guns N’ Roses when they were starting out. They were just playing up and down the Sunset Strip, getting taken out to dinner and just getting completely spoiled by all these label executives. But they were like, “We’re not signing until we get what we want.” And they eventually did — and now you’ve opened for Guns N’ Roses. You’ve opened for Slash, and you’re now opening for The Black Crowes. How are you making all of that happen without a label?

John: I think it’s the music, I think it’s our package that we put together, and Mark DiDia has the reputation that he will at least be heard. And then when he brings this, people are like, “Alright.” We make his job easier, he has the connections, but to Marc’s point, they’re nothing if what he comes with is shit. Everyone has felt that what we’re doing is awesome, which is great, and it makes Mark DiDia’s job easier, and he’s been in the labels for 30+ years, so he has the phone numbers and they’ll answer his call. So he can get a lot done outside of the label.

Marc: It helps obviously that he’s a great manager, and we have the same booking agent as Guns. We don’t have the same booking agent as The Black Crowes, but ultimately, it comes down to the music. Slash has told me, “I love your music. I love what you guys are doing.” He had his manager send us a note when he heard “California Dreamin'” on the radio, he’s like, “I just heard Dirty Honey’s new song on KLOS, I love it, please tell them that.”

John: Actually [the relationship with Slash] came down to the music too, because what Mark DiDia did, when we were still at zero, he was very clever. He wasn’t even a working associate with Slash’s manager, but they’re two rooms down the hall from each other in a big open office. Once we had the demo done, he just blasted in it his office. So the music did it. He came over and was like, “What the fuck is that?” And Mark was like, “This is my new band.” And he sent it around, that’s how he got Aftershock. He did all the heavy lifting in the beginning simply by playing the song for people. That’s all he had to do.

Marc: Same with these guys, though. The Black Crowes listened to the music maybe two years ago or more, and we were supposed to be doing some shows and I flew out to New York to see their reunion show. The first thing Chris [Robinson] said was, “I listened to your record, I think it’s really great, I love what you guys are doing and I hope you’re ready to do some shows.” And then it turned into this whole tour with COVID.

But fucking Chris and Rich Robinson aren’t gonna have us on here if they don’t like the music. I was talking to Chris last night, he was like, “I’m not fucking endorsing anybody for any amount of money if I don’t actually like them.” He does not give a shit. So it’s really nice that they had us out [with them].

Who else is on your bucket list to tour with?

Marc: I’d love to do a show with Aerosmith, obviously. AC/DC would be sweet, The [Rolling] Stones would be awesome.

If you can define it yourselves, what do you think it is about your music that is connecting with people? 

Marc: It’s authentic, for sure. [John] and I have listened to and loved rock ‘n’ roll for our entire lives. I’ve heard there was this very famous other band that was just like this contrived pop-rock thing, and it sounds that way to me. They’re immensely successful, but I’m not running to the music. It’s definitely coming from a real place from all of us, and I think people can tell, they have a pretty good ear on that.

John: Who knows where anyone’s gonna end up — I want to do another great record. I want to make great records my whole life, but I think we still have that to do. I think what sticks to people about us is I think we have two fronts that people like: it’s greasy and it’s not too polished — I’m not that polished as a guitar player on purpose — and then it’s also catchy and it’s simple. If you don’t understand or appreciate how awesome we are at our instruments or not, you can still sing the song, and I think that’s a great combination. If it was just the catchy thing — those people have great success too — but I think we’re filling that void.

That’s what Guns N’ Roses had, that’s what Aerosmith had, that’s what The Black Crowes had in their peak. It’s dirty, but it’s catchy. We just love that stuff, and we finally figured out how to do it. Someone told me once, “Play your covers like originals and write your originals like covers.” I don’t think we ever did the first thing, we play the covers how they go, but we’ve finally figured out how to write our originals as good as the covers.

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