Independent Label Interview Extravaganza
Our generation may well end up suffering from culture-based low self-esteem. It is constantly suggested that things arenât quite as good today as they used to be, and our main competitor is America, a country endlessly bigger than our own. When it comes to record labels, the ones that I imagine most people would mention as their favourites are ones that were started in the 70s â Rough Trade or Factory, for example â or American labels â Dischord and No Idea for the punks, ... (continued)
Our generation may well end up suffering from culture-based low self-esteem. It is constantly suggested that things arenât quite as good today as they used to be, and our main competitor is America, a country endlessly bigger than our own. When it comes to record labels, the ones that I imagine most people would mention as their favourites are ones that were started in the 70s â Rough Trade or Factory, for example â or American labels â Dischord and No Idea for the punks, Polyvinyl, Matador or maybe even Saddle Creek for the indie kids. Some attention is maybe deserved, then, for the handful of dedicated Indies working tirelessly within the UK sceneâs underground to put out some truly great records. I hassled a bunch of people involved in some of the UKâs best labels and found that they had quite a lot to say, so settle in. Perhaps the most important label to the UKs underground is Big Scary Monsters, or BSM for short. The one man operation of Kevin Douch has put out over 60 records in the seven or eight years that the label has been his only job.
Kevin (BSM): I run the website, sign the bands, plan the releases, help them choose who to record with, write their press releases, book the tours, press the CDs, sort out distribution, chase magazines to write about the music, send out all of the mailorders and sift through the millions of emails. We typically work with about 10 bands a year, so there's always a lot of work to do and the cycle never ends, but I can't think of another job I'd rather do.
Starting in 2001 with a handful of compilations and splits, one of which featured the first ever UK release of a Finch song (is this kind of cool or pretty awful? You decide!), BSM soon gave early breaks to My Awesome Compilation, Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly, Secondsmile, and This Town Needs Guns, among others, quickly establishing itself as a home of new talent, some of the best that the UK and the rest of the world has to offer, which continues with every release.
Gravity DIP , too, started out in 2001, but has roots going back much further, as a collective that promoted shows and managed bands since the early 90s. As a label, they released records by artists such as Capdown, Hundred Reasons and Spy Versus Spy, who all went on to be legends to various degrees, as well as newer, and still ongoing, bands like Tellison and Stapleton.
Jane (Gravity): I ran the label part of GDIP with Jon, Dave and Mark and we've done it in various forms for about ten years. The main label stuff changed to Banquet about 2 years ago and we now do occasional GDIP releases for bands we also manage, in collaboration with our friends' labels.
Banquet Records acted as the successor to Gravity, another side to the already well-known record store, and now a great label in its own right. As well as licensing records from established American punk acts like Daggermouth and Lemuria, they also have a strong UK roster that includes The Steal, The Don Ramos Players and Our Time Down Here, all under the watchful eye of Folk-Punk troubadour and responsible businessman, Dave House.
Dave (Banquet): I'm the port of call for anything from design, manufacture, advertising, distribution, scheduling and making sure all these things are done on time. I'm like a very active label manager. I've been doing this for the 2 / 3 years we've been running the Banquet Label. Occasionally the Banquet shop staff get dragged into some of the label stuff, but really the label is just me and Banquetâs owner, Jon Tolley. We both do A&R, although that tag isn't really appropriate for what we do.
And last, but most certainly not least, is Alcopop Records, a label co-owned by Kevin Douch (though it isnât a subsidiary of BSM) and Jack Clothier. The smallest of the four labels featured here, they also, naturally, work with the smallest bands, who represent some of the best âup-and-comingâ (for want of a better phrase) bands in the country, like My First Tooth, Wolf Am I, Sam Isaac and Stagecoach.
Jack (Alcopop): Between the two of us who run it, we do everything. From the very banal, like folding cardboard sleeves for hours on end, to the more exciting: A&R, scouting, putting on the nights and so on. The label was set up in September 2006 and I've been doing it since then. We have a permanent staff of two, with lots of other people who help us out on things, usually for minimal, if any, money, because they dig what weâre doing. Which is really gratifying.
So what was the inspiration behind wanting to start a label?
Jane (Gravity): We wanted something the bands we were managing could sell on tour. At that time, the early days of the internet, it was way more difficult to get a CD or record pressed so starting a label seemed the best solution.
Dave (Banquet): Both Jon and I had been working with Gravity DIP Records for a few years previous (who we still work with on a few releases today) so we weren't totally new to it. I think we just wanted to start a professional small indie that would try and make an impact rather than hide in the shadows like so many other smaller labels seem to want to do, pro-diy if you like. We're not by any means huge but we think as labels our size go we think we offer more to the bands than most.
Jack (Alcopop): I started my first record label in 6th Form â it was called Gregory Pank and we released approximately no records. Ever since then though, Iâve had a desire to really get behind the âindustryâ and work with artists who I believe are absolutely superbâ¦ Iâve played in bands all my life and I know how hard it is to âget out thereâ. I also have quite an idealised way in that I think records should be lovingly produced and genuinely adored by the guys putting them out. I met Kev, he was a massive inspiration in himself â and lo, Alcopop was born.
Kevin (BSM): Money and glamour. Still waiting on both.
And what makes a record worth putting out?
Kevin (BSM): One of the biggest joys of running your own label is the fact that you only need to work with artists you really love, no compromises. I also have to trust the members of the band and get on with them. There's no fun in working with people you can't stand to be around, because you're going to be spending a LOT of time together over the next few months/years. It's also important to me that the bands get along together, as we have lots of label showcase tours and other ideas which bring them into contact fairly frequently.
Jane (Gravity): The stuff I wanted to put out was always from someone we already worked with in another capacity, so it was always something I loved and believed in.
Dave (Banquet): Initially it's always just about if we like or are excited about the band. We then have to evaluate the money situation, we've lost enough money in the past to know that you can't put out everything you like. If it looks like we won't lose money on it and it's still exciting us then we do it. Simple as that!
Jack (Alcopop): First and foremost that both myself and Kev bloody love it. Second and (also pretty) foremost is that the thing actually has a chance of selling. Itâs a sad reality that not everything I love is going to sell, so if a band approaches us with a classic EP but no touring plans, a disparate group who never practice because theyâre at universities across the country and no fanbase â weâll more than likely have to turn it down. Thatâs not to say we wonât work with very new bands who may not have much of a fanbase, but they need to have the belief, drive and potential to really drive themselves forward.
No surprises there, then. As any anarchist punk knows, major labels only exist to generate profit, whereas indies, particularly smaller ones, have a lot more choice in what they put out. Small operations like this have no bosses or board of directors or anyone else to answer to.
Well. More or less. They do still have to answer to their bank managers and landlords, so money is obviously going to be an issue. To quote Andrew Jackson Jihad: âI know thatâs not punk, but Iâd like to pay my rent.â Without any corporate backing which, again, as any anarchist punk will know, comes from the arms trade, these labels have to support themselves.
Kevin (BSM): This is my full-time job and it just about pays for itself these days. I'm lucky to have a large and varied back catalogue behind me so the sales from that really help to keep things ticking over whilst I focus on the new releases. In terms of an ultimate aim, I'm not sure. I'm under no illusions that I'll be lucky enough to retire from this job, possibly not even this industry as a whole, so will have to consider this question more seriously one day. I do enjoy the marketing side of music so perhaps that would lead somewhere? I certainly won't be playing music, I know that much!
Jane (Gravity): Aside from the first four releases we did, Jon put up every penny of the cash for the label from his own money, up until he took over the Banquet shop. At that point the label became part of the business. Early on, some of the releases funded themselves but any profit from them was always spent on other releases. It was my full time job for about a year, but it was never my aim to run a label.
Dave (Banquet): The label as I mentioned earlier is a sideline of our record shop. The shop finances the label but a lot of the label work is done in personal / out of shop hours too. I think we are in a position to adjust as we need to, if it makes enough money that we need to make the label more full time then we will...as it is now we don't have enough hours in the day.
Jack (Alcopop): The label funds itself yeah, although as with most indie labels weâre only ever a couple of disastrous releases from wipeout, such is the financial state of the industry. Kev is full time with BSM and Alcopop â but I have a 9-5 as well, which often gives me âworking hoursâ of 9am-3am, depending on the release schedule. Lucky I fucking love it really!
So how do they go about suckering cash out of unsuspecting bands? Turns out they donât â the emphasis is heavily on a fair deal for everyone involved
Jack (Alcopop): As of yet, all of our contracts have been short term 1 EP, album or single deals â but as the label has progressed weâre keen to start moving into slightly longer term deals. While I never see us thrusting imposing 3 album deals on the table with a frightening list of clauses and demands â it would be great to work with some of our bands more long term, and really build the Alcopop family.
Jane (Gravity): GDIP don't have contracts with anyone for anything - if someone decides they don't want to work with you, they shouldn't have to continue to do so just because of a piece of paper. This has bitten us on the bum a couple of times, but with the right people, when everyone is communicating honestly, it's absolutely the best way.
Dave (Banquet): At the moment we have no long term contracts at all (apart from the odd US Licencing agreement). We tend to get involved with bands through the shop / our club nights / gigs etc before we talk about releasing their record. By this time we're probably friends with them and are totally happy to enter into things on a one release at a time basis, sometimes even one pressing at a time! We figure if we do our job right and it's still appropriate for that band to be on a label like ours then we'll carry on with that band while we're both still happy about it. If and when we get involved with a bigger artist or band where we feel a solid contract is appropriate then it's not something we're scared of either.
However, when labels get bigger and start working with bigger bands, thatâs where problems start coming in.
Kevin (BSM): We have different agreements with different bands based upon their individual circumstances. Some are simply handshake deals with friends for a one-off single, others go back and forth between lawyers and involve a number of releases over a few years.
The issue of master recordings is one that occasionally seems to crop up and cause hell for someone on a major label, but is one that doesnât seem to affect these Indies. Still, as they continue to grow, itâs an issue they may have to face eventually.
Jane (Gravity): Like many things in the music industry, it's a bit of an outdated idea because there's so much less money in music now. Loads of labels, including majors, are just licensing recordings which bands have already paid for / finished before the label even gets involved. That said, most label contracts for either Indies or Majors I've seen don't exactly pull the wool over your eyes - they're giving a band a chunk of money and want some sort of collateral against losing it. That usually means they get to keep your music for X amount of years in order to try and cover what they're spending on you. Which is kind of fair enough - they're paying for something, why shouldn't they own it? The main thing is, I don't think it's always necessary to enter into that sort of deal.
Dave (Banquet): I for one always prefer the band / songwriter to own (essentially pay for) the the recordings and licence them to us. I think it's the only way for small to medium size labels and bands to operate nowadays. It's good for us because we don't have that extra expense and it's good for the band because nowadays there's huge benefits to indie artists owning 100% of their material. We also give a very healthy % break back to our bands in this scenario. On the occasion where we have paid for the recording and own the material the artist gets a worse % break and don't get as many benefits from licencing elsewhere - but then that's balanced out with not having to front the money for the recording. Overall though related to the roster we have now a simple licence is the most appropriate method of "ownership".
Kevin (BSM): It's up to the bands really, and what they're hoping for/how much they understand of the situation. So far we've only worked on license deals so all of our bands retain their master rights.
Jack (Alcopop): As it stands we tend to stick with holding the digital rights as our bands sort out their own recording time at this stage, but I certainly can see a point in the future, when working with a band in the longer term, that, if it suits them, we could pay for their master recordings and hold a certain ownership over them. Depending on the band it could certainly be a mutually beneficial relationship.
The main issue is, instead, getting the product in to your hands. Many indie labels rest in a tricky grey area regarding who distributes their records, which means they arenât fully independent, and it can be hard for labels who go it alone.
Kevin (BSM): Distribution is difficult at the moment. We spent the first 3 or 4 years working hard on finding ways to sell directly to fans, mostly through necessity as we couldn't get a distro deal, but I'm really glad of that now as it helped us get things in place ready for these troubled times, where independent shops are struggling and HMV, the only remaining chain, doesn't take much interest in independent music any more. I love selling music directly to fans and getting to interact with them, either at a gig or via the internet, but completely understand that some people still love to buy their music from shops, so we need to be able to provide that service wherever possible.
Jane (Gravity): Because of the record shop links, distribution for us was fairly easy. We can get and have got our stuff in HMV and so on - once your stock's with a distributor, it's out of your hands where it ends up and you're at the mercy of buyers as to whether or not they order it. The best situation for us was selling loads of CDs on tours and as much as possible through mail order.
Dave (Banquet): We have a distribution deal with [PIAS] who are the biggest independent distributor in Europe. However the thing about distribution is, shops have to want to take it - whether that's the indie buyer in a dusty record shop or a head buyer in an HMV office. We find the sales of our releases varies quite a lot and there are so many factors involved in this that it's hard to answer. Potentially though we're in a very good position distribution wise and it suits us whether we're selling 100 7"s or thousands of CDs.
Jack (Alcopop): Weâre signed up to a great distributor, Shellshock, who get our releases all over the place. With the way the music industry is going though, I consider HMV as good as dead to refreshing new music, and the indie stores as the future of music buying, as long as the punters take to themâ¦
But what about labels who move increasingly to digital distribution? Is this something that may be unavoidable for smaller labels such as these?
Kevin (BSM): I can't see us becomming a digital-only label. We sell a lot of MP3s these days, which is great because it's very easy and is obviously satisfying peoples requirements, but I think there'll always be an audience for physical releases. I expect to see iPods die out before CDs. Over the next few years streaming music services will become more and more common, and Spotify appearing on mobile phones is a huge step towards that. When that happens, there'll be little need for people to download MP3s to a separate device. However, there will always be a crowd of people who take pride in their music collection, and as such, they'll be looking to buy physical products. Vinyl will satisfy some, but others will still want CDs. I just can't see the day of nobody at all wanting them coming anytime soon. There's no personal joy, sense of completition or social status in handing someone a handheld device and telling them to scroll through your collection. Dusty shelves and interesting packaging forever!
Jane (Gravity): Digital makes sense because the costs are so much lower. When you've got supposedly serious music fans downloading thousands of tracks and thinking it's okay because they'll buy a tshirt or a gig ticket, it makes it harder to cover the costs involved in producing something physical. I think there'll always be a section of people who want something physical, but fewer and fewer bands who can afford to produce it. Might mean we're moving to a scenario where the indie bands who are successful are the ones who can afford to throw the most money at themselves, kind of replicating the advantage major labels always had over indies.
Dave (Banquet): I think digital distribution is essential but think digital only labels are fairly pointless. As a label the challenge is to make your physical product either a lot more appealing than a simple download, like good packaging, t shirt combos and vinyl, or simply make the physical product the same price or lower than the download. I think if labels stopped producing physical there would be no need for labels... bands can do that shit on their own.
Jack (Alcopop): No doubt digital has its place in the market, but I couldnât relinquish the draw of physical releases. I feel really lucky that we have a core of Alcopoppers, genuine music fans, who really dig physical releases. I think as long as we release genuinely awesome music with a twist, weâll have people purchasing. I heart physical.
With that in mind, then, what do they make of filesharing?
Kevin (BSM): I used to hate it. My first, naÃ¯ve thought was that each illegal download translated to one lost sale, but soon realised that was a stupid way of looking at things. If anything, itâs been a big help for some of our bands. This Town Needs Guns, for example, now have a large worldwide fanbase, which never would've happened had people not spent the past three years sharing their music over the internet. I guess it's more of a benefit to bands, as it helps with their gig audiences and merch sales, but I can't really complain too much about anything which helps our artists on their way to success. So long as enough people continue to buy the music from us - no matter how they come across it - so that we can continue to sign and promote the bands in the first place, I'm happy.
Jane (Gravity): If someone makes something and decides to give you it for free, take it. However, if they produce something and decide to sell it, and then you decide not to pay for it, that's stealing. Quite how people think bands / labels can continue to produce music if all music is free, I'm not sure, unless people are happy to have wealthy bands be the only ones who can afford to record. Tshirts and live income will not fund bands, unless you're, say, Iron Maiden or Radiohead.
I'd love there to be a change in mindset so that illegal downloading becomes a completely uncool, socially unacceptable practice. Not because kids aren't clever enough to take tracks for free, but because they can do those things but choose not to because they want to support bands. That's 'support' as in give some money towards recording, or touring, rather than the usual accusations that the money bands get from CD sales lets them drive solid gold rocket cars and have guitar-shaped swimming pools...
Dave (Banquet): I'm personally against it but that doesn't mean it's all bad. I think people should be more respectful and treat music with more worth than a simple illegal download. For someone like me as an artist having my new album leaked by careless journalists months before it was released had a major impact on sales or at least how I promoted the release. What's the point of releasing one track a week when you can download the whole thing now? I don't think people really realise the long term effect this will have on musicians and the future of what records are and aren't made.
On the other side of the coin we released an album by Bomb The Music Industry who's whole thing is giving away music for free and encouraging sharing, though Jeff from BTMI has toured the world several times and his shows are always packed as hell. What I'm saying is it's different for everybody but I just wish people cared a bit more in general about the possible consequences it has on the artist, label and scene they're into.
Jack (Alcopop): Although thereâs definitely a strong argument that filesharing benefits the artist, and helps bands get their music out there, I canât help be frustrated by the amount of âfree downloadâ links to stuff we put out before itâs released. Still, filesharing is there â Iâve used it in the past so weâre going to have to cope with it. All Iâd ask is if you fileshare, go and see the bands you like live, maybe buy a single or tell your pals to buy the single... Indie acts and labels thrive on your support â without you weâd be nothing!
Digital distribution and filesharing are arguably the biggest change and challenge to the industry since the CD, and Indies such as these seem to be handling things better than the majors. While the bigger labels turn to 360 Deals to squeeze as much money as possible from a band, smaller labels are coming up with interesting ideas and working together to get as far as possible.
Dave (Banquet): We have pretty good relationships with other labels through the shop so that extends to our label too. We still work with Gravity DIP on some releases and occasionally licence new releases from Asian Man Records in the US.
Kevin (BSM): We've just released a 10" called 'Holy Monsters', which is a 4 band split with Holy Roar Records. A couple of years ago we put out a split sampler CD with Xtra Mile Records, and are currently working together with Hassle Records on the new Blakfish album, Richter Collective (based in Ireland) on Adebisi Shank, and later on this year we'll be working with Smalltown America Records on two releases and a few gigs. I'd love to keep this trend going as there are still more awesome labels I'd like to work with. It's exciting to get creative and join forces, pooling resources and such.
So does this mean thereâs a strong community amongst labels within the UK?
Jane (Gravity): There's definitely competition, but in my experience not much foul play. There's so little people can offer aside from their reputations, distribution or any kind of marketing that I think bands usually just end up going with labels they like.
Dave (Banquet): We think we offer something other label's can't - financially beneficial to the bands, a great retail and touring perspective and an understanding of what it's like to be in a band. If bands want us to fight for them or get in a bidding war then they've come to the wrong place. We'll always throw our offer in if we're interested but we're not gonna cry if they get a better one!
Jack (Alcopop): In fairness, weâve never had anything but sweetness and light from other labels. We missed out on Johnny Foreigner because they signed to a bigger lot, but you know, âtis the way of the world and we were just happy to see them do well. I think that labels, on the whole, are really great to each other, in the indie fraternity at least. Weâre all similarly minded people, working for the good of us and our bands, so on the whole, all is super. Occasionally when the bigger labels get involved there can be a bit of a difference of a opinion, but generally weâre all very amiable chaps!
Kevin (BSM): I think it's all very friendly. You occasionally hear stories about people squabbling over rights to releases, mostly when bands move on to new labels and their past is a little uncertain, but thankfully I haven't experienced anything like that myself. Right now a lot of bands seem to come through with a fair idea of which indie label - if any - they'd like to work with. Whether this is down to admiration of their previous work, current roster or friends bands already being associated. On top of this, a lot of labels are good friends, so try not to step on one anothers toes. I think everyone gets the fact that we're all going through the same stresses and strains, so it's very much a case of pulling together and helping out rather than competing.
BSM, however, have arguably done more for âscene unityâ within the UK than anyone else, thanks to the BSM 5-a-Side, an event that gets a good deal of the UKs indie community a little overexcited every year:
Kevin (BSM): I think it first started after Sam from Get Cape Wear Cape Fly and I had a drunken arguement about who would win at at a game of football. Others entered into the debate and before I knew it, we had 16 teams taking each other on over the course of an afternoon in West London. This summer was our third year and it's always a lot of fun. I've got some big plans for 2010 which will completely overshadow the World Cup. Well, maybe...
At the end of the day, though, itâs all about the records. But what would they rank as their personal favourites, their most successful, and the releases they are the most proud of?
Kevin (BSM): 'Variations On Swing' by Meet Me In St Louis comes close to ticking all of those boxes. We worked so hard on that release, it was an incredible record, and it sold really well. Such a shame the band split up but in a way, it almost cemented the fact that the album would be regarded as one of the best ever from a UK underground indie/hardcore band, and I'm so proud to have the labels name attached to it.
Jane (Gravity): Iâm most proud of the Jetpak 7" and my favourite is the Spy Versus Spy discography, but our most successful is Kingstonâs Current by Dave House.
Dave (Banquet): I think the record I've listened to the most is Lemuria's - "Get Better". We licenced that from Asian Man in the US and have since promoted their recent UK tour, that band is special. A record being a success isn't straight forward, we've sold more copies of Tellisonâs "Contact! Contact!" than anything else and for that reason it's one of the best known releases. Financially however we've been most successful on underground punk stuff as there's a lot less overheads for stuff like PR, singles and advertising. It's just straight up sell the records, give the band their cut and repeat. The records I'm most proud of is also a hard question to answer as I've release 2 solo albums and 1 band album on the banquet label so I'm proud of being involved in the whole process if you know what I mean. I think the last Steal album and my last solo album are the two records that stand out for me as an artist and a label.
Jack (Alcopop): Bearing in mind we wouldnât release anything we didnât think was ace, I just canât give you a favouriteâ¦ I love them all, which is a cop out. The record that was most successful was arguably âWe Moveâ by This City, which generated loads of press, including a full page in NME and Kerrang and partly led to them being signed by Epitath, and as it stands my âmost proud ofâ moment was probably Alcopopular 3, the message in a bottle compilation, which has been so widely loved for the creative idea behind it, and the magnificent list of tracks we put together - itâs humbling really.
Just a note: I would also honestly and heartily reccomend each of these records.
So there you have it. At the end of the day, weâre left with wonderful people making wonderful records who Iâd like to thank both for their time on this feature, and on providing so much great music. Remember to support the UKâs hardworking independent record labels â they need you as much as we need them!
Big Scary MonstersGravity DipBanquet RecordsAlcopopIndieRecord LabelInterviewDownloadTellisonMeet Me In St LouisDave HouseKevin Douch