July 11, 2013
With the Independent Label Market only days away, we asked six label heads about the realities of running a label in the modern music industry.
The music industry is constantly changing, that much is undeniable, but with more and more column inches dedicated to the mythologisation of the independent side of things – whether labels, record stores or vinyl – sometimes the people who are actually involved can get lost in the shuffle. Unanimously popular among the sleep-deprived, anxiously greying, yet still (surprisingly) optimistic label heads, the Independent Label Market represents a rare moment of contact between the folks producing the records and those who buy them. With the market returning to London on Saturday 13th July, co-founder and head of Angular Records Joe Daniel described it as a “barrow boy, Only Fools and Horses thing” – a chance to get your hands dirty with an old-fashioned bit of trading in the “British fruit and veg market tradition”.
With that in mind, we got six label heads together for a bit of a chinwag to find out what the situation on the ground is really like. How has the role of the record label changed in the internet age? Has the unprecedented hype around Record Store Day this year translated into sales? What’s this obsession with shrinkwrap all about? The guys at Moshi Moshi Records, Swamp81, PIAS, Angular, O Genesis and Double Denim Records reveal all.
(In addition, all six labels, as well as four others, will each be releasing a limited edition single in collaboration with The Vinyl Factory to raise money for Oxfam’s Syria Relief. Click here for more info.)
What’s the most rewarding thing about running an independent label?
Peter Thompson, [PIAS] Recordings: I think anyone who is lucky enough to run a record label is in a great position. We all want to work with music and artists we love and at an independent we probably have a bigger say in who we choose to work with than at larger corporations.
Jack Thomas, Double Denim Records: So many things. Hearing one of your acts on the radio is amazing, or getting a song through in the early hours from an artist that is just solid gold. Opening a box of new vinyl is the ultimate reward. So much reward for a small slab of vinyl and some uncoated or glossy cardboard.
Loefah, Swamp81: The life of the music after it’s been put out… Where it goes, who plays it, how it’s played, how it’s received, all that kind of thing, the stuff you have no control over. You pick a tune, you think it’s dope, you master it and manufacture it as well as you can and you put it out there but then it’s up to the people who buy it and listen to it and dance to it. It’s an interesting journey.
What’s the most frustrating thing about running an independent label?
Peter: Surprisingly little at the moment. I think I’m blessed with a great team of people around me and a lovely set of talented artists.
Tim Burgess, O Genesis: If you get frustrated about things then maybe a label is not the best idea for you.
Jack: Dalston Post Office.
Loefah: The one most frustrating thing?! It’s being stuck in the middle – you’ve got a logistical problem on one side and then you’ve got a sort of public perception on the other. Everything else is pretty fun to be honest.
How do you see the role of the record label in 2013?
Michael McClatchey, Moshi Moshi Records: For us it’s whatever the artist needs. Sometimes that might be just someone with the mechanics to put out a record, other times it might be manager, or agent, or publisher or any combination of the above.
Tim: For me it’s about releasing records by people I like and with downloads it’s easier to do than ever before. It’s not surprising they were all like Richard Branson and Mickie Most in the past but nowadays it’s a bit less Rolls Roycey. If you chuck a stone in East London your bound to hit the back of the head of a label guy, but that’s no bad thing as we all need each other.
Jack: I still think labels have an important role but you have to be more creative than ever before because otherwise artists can do it themselves. In some ways the music industry and its release patterns are more rigid than ever before. Part of the challenge as a label in 2013 is to try and make that process of physically releasing music as exciting as possible. More and more I think that’s going to mean breaking free of those release patterns and rules.
Loefah: The thing that we’ve got at Swamp – we didn’t always have it, but we’ve evolved into it and it was definitely something I was looking to do – is where everyone has their own identity and you help them push it but you also have a combined identity under the Swamp umbrella. I think that’s where a label comes in handy; everyone works with each other, they bounce ideas of each other. It’s like-minded people, doing like-minded things but in their own way.
The Internet, streaming and downloads. Friend or foe?
Tim: Definitely in the big scheme of things at this moment in time, friend – things could change, you can steal loads of things from outside shops and things but people generally don’t. I always thought that people who steal music don’t really listen to it anyway, they’re more like hoarders.
Jack: Friend. The downside is there’s way too much music and people’s attention spans are shorter maybe. But in the end I think music will progress and get better more quickly – that’s a good thing right?
Joe Daniel, Angular Recordings Company: A friend, but one who’s not to be entirely trusted with your WAVs.
Loefah: It all depends on how you do your business I suppose. We’ve never really been about it, we’ve never really been about pushing any kind of press, no print media or anything. I think everyone should carve their own path and do what works for them.
A question of vinyl; Luxury product or loss leader?
Jack: We try to put everything out on vinyl. It’s the format we prefer, it sounds better, it looks better and I think if people really emotionally connect to a song or a band they are going to want to own something. If they are like us they will want to have it in their homes and lives and not just stuck inside a bit of code on a Macbook or iPhone. Otherwise we’re done for.
Joe: Vinyl is the most treasured format; it’s almost magical, especially now that people are becoming so innovative with it. I bought a square acetate recently and at last summer’s market O Genesis sold a record which was cast in a material that degraded over time so that the sound would change the more that you played it. You can’t do that with mp3s.
Loefah: I suppose I’m quite old school now so I work in an old school way. The tunes are heard in the clubs, people like what’s going on, word of mouth, it’s said on the radio, somebody says it on the mic at a rave, “this is coming out, it’s vinyl-only, Swamp81”, it hits the shops, people who buy records regularly know, those who don’t don’t, but it doesn’t really matter because there’s only so many records to buy.
There have been a lot of reports this year of vinyl sales surging dramatically – up 78% in Q1 in the UK – Have you noticed the difference?
Peter: It’s a big increase of a small market share. Commercially it’s not making much difference to us other than bringing some value back to a physical format. Creatively we all love it to bits.
Jack: I think that the surge probably has a lot to do with how many big releases there have been in the first half of 2013 – I can’t remember a year with so many huge acts coming out with new albums in such a short space of time. Plus all the majors now printing vinyl again…
Loefah: No, it hasn’t really registered. I mean we only do vinyl, but our vinyl sales have always been quite good – there’s been a bit of a steady increase but maybe it’s just a different crowd. It makes sense to me that vinyl is doing well though, because I feel like it’s the audio version of a book. I don’t think vinyl is going anywhere and I think people are realizing it.
Why do you reckon it is that younger people are buying vinyl again?
Peter: It’s probably a new format to them 😉
Tim: It’s a way of communication. Sharing a record is more personal than file sharing and you also get the conversation with the person you’re buying it from. Genius on iTunes doesn’t quite capture the superior tone of the guy behind the record store counter imparting his extensive knowledge.
Jack: I kind of feel like in this country at least the fact that shops like Drift Records, Rough Trade, Piccadilly (and many others) do such a good job of making you want to be in their shops, hanging out etc has really fostered a feeling of belonging for young people. Once you’re in a shop with vinyl lining the walls, having a good time, meeting cool people, you’re going to want to go home with some records. Wait until they discover Discogs, that’s the hard stuff.
Joe: I guess they want to have something to hold, something to cherish. Maybe people have been too quick to think that kids are so technology-oriented that they’re not interested in physical products. Records and record players are nice things to play with, why would young music fans not want to get involved in that?
Loefah: I’ve seen that definitely in the last three years really doing Swamp where kids, literally first year at university students, are coming up to me being like “yeah I bought a record player so I could play Swamp records”. I mean I love it, I’m a geek for that shit.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing independent labels in the future?
Michael: It’s a great time to be an indie label. I see the future as full of opportunities rather than challenges.
Peter: Developing artists on a global stage is a challenge to every record label but a particularly difficult one for independents. I’m blessed with access to a very strong international networks thanks to the [PIAS] offices around the world. Unfortunately this isn’t the case for all independents and without this global backing it can become increasingly difficult to attract new artists.
What do you dig about the Independent Label Market?
Michael: It’s nice to meet the people who buy the records. It’s genuinely life-affirming.
Tim: Like minded people being together, you know like in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Last year I bout a Pete Fowler Horrors print this year I will be manning a stall with Pete – I Imagine we’ll be like taking it in turns to go shopping on the other stalls.
Jack: It’s amazing completely cutting out everything that separates labels from record buyers. We’ve been at three now and getting to talk to people about records, meeting other labels or buying all sorts of rare vinyl makes it a really special event every time. Can’t wait for this one!
Loefah: I used to work in a record shop when I was a kid so it’s exciting. It’s gonna be fun. Get out, sell some records, have a giggle and try to get a stall next to Trilogy Tapes. Me and Will [Bankhead] might actually be doing a tape for this Swamp81 vs. Trilogy Tapes; me on one side, him on the other, so we’re trying to get that sorted.
Any parting words of wisdom?
Peter: Only fall out with people you never intend to see again in your life. It’s a surprisingly small industry.
Jack: If you’re starting a vinyl label learn everything you can about different types of cardboard. And shrinkwrap anything that moves.
Joe: If you go heavyweight, you gotta shrinkwrap.
Loefah: Know why you’re doing it. Ask yourself why. If you can answer that question, pow, do it, do it to death, love it, enjoy it. If you don’t know why you’re doing it, don’t do it.