Have you ever thought of starting up a label or wondered how small labels run by individuals work?
Well, WNYU has just the thing for you: The WNYU Indie Label Invitational! WNYU selected four independently-owned New York City labels, apestaartje, Catsup plate, Ba Da Bing!, and psych-o-path in order toshedsomelighton runningalabelasalabor of love. All of the label owners work full time with Igor and Koen working atrecord stores, Ben at arecord label, while Rob does something mysterieous connected to graphic design. We convened one Feboruary night in an instant message frenzy! To my surprise, almost everyone knew each other already!
And in the interests of full-disclosure, the interviewer not only knew each of the panelists but also has runs a small label himself. The purpose of this feature is to allow readers a glimpse at how this part of the music business works and tospotlight somelabels whom wehave frequently played onWNYU. Feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if thereareany questions related toany issues raised in the article. Likewise, if there are any topics you'd like to see addressed in future invitationals, drop us a line.
Daniel Blumin: Hi guys and welcome to the 1st WNYU Indie Label Invitational! Y'all want to introduce yourselves?
Rob Carmichael: Rob Carmichael, sole proprietor of Catsup plate Records.
Koen Holtkamp: Koen Holtkamp – apestaartje.
Ben Goldberg: Ba Da Bing! person and US label manager for The Leaf Label.
Igor Vlasov - psych-o-path records.
DB: OK, could everyone send in the stats? When was the label founded? How many releases do you have? Also first release and bands you work with...
IV: First release in 2000. 11 titles so far; Egypt is a magick #, Sightings, Mouthus, Axolotl, Terrestrial Tones and about 20 more on compilations… sette releases and some 27 tape-only things, most of which really don't need to be heard by anyone. The first release was a comp of home recordings entitled “Evading the Devil's Darts”. On the label: The Double, Campfire Songs, Simon Joyner/Dennis Callaci.
KH: apestaartje was founded in 1998 and we have done 14 releases up until this point. The first release was a 3” compilation titled small record (or wait). apestaartje is a collective as well as a label so we are generally focused on releasing work by members of the collective though we have worked with some other like-minded artists as well. On the label: fourcolor, aero, anderegg.
BG: Founded in 1994. Just passed 40 releases - mostly CDs. First release was my college band's 7” – Salteen; Albums by Comets on Fire, Sons & Daughters, Windy & Carl, Bright, Yume Bitsu, Greg Weeks, Adrian Crowley
DB: Talk about when you started thinking about starting a label. What made you want to start? How long did it take to get going (from germination of the idea to taking the plunge)?
IV: Happened pretty suddenly after we (my friend Simon Kopelnytsky and I) heard Egypt for the first time at the Hint House.
KH: Basically Brendon (Anderegg) and I had been trading cdr's for awhile, and I really liked a particular piece he had done and thought some more folks should hear it, so that led to our first release. As far as the question of how longit's taken to get going... it's been a very gradual learning process for us. Going from doing one release a year in the beginning to three or four now.
BG: I wanted to put out a record that I could play on my radio show, so I formed a band in order to make a 7”. The internet was a huge help - answered lots of my questions as to where to press and how to distribute (even in ʻ94!). But all it really took was some money to afford making them.
RC: Catsup plate was founded in 1995 for reasons that are kind of unclear. So far there have been 21 non- cas-DB: What resources did you find helpful in figuring out how to release a record? Did you have friends to ask? What was the pre-first-release learning process like?
KH: We used to work with a really cheap pressing plant in Australia, so that's how we were able to afford the first few releases. RC: I found a lot of help just by asking people who already had labels (Shrimper in particular was a huge help). I had gone to high school with some guys who were in a sadly forgotten band called Bugskull who made the whole... seem pretty easy. Since I was doing tapes, there weren't many pre-release worries, I was just dubbing shitty tapes in my bedroom!KH: personally I had no idea what I was getting into. It seemed like a pretty simple process, but I certainly made some mistakes along the way as far as how things are supposed to be done. After we started, I got to know some people at other labels, but I really should have done some more research beforehand rather than during the process of doing releases. BG: I emailed people who ran labels I liked and asked them for specific advice - it didn't matter that I didn't know them yet. DB: I'm sure there was some worry involved in putting a bunch of money down for the first release. Were any of the fears realized? Were any proven unfounded? IV: The first one was a nightmare. Just pressed it at the first plant we heard about - got ripped off. Learned the lesson the hard way. KH: The first release really exceeded my expectations. I was genuinely surprised when distributors actually sent me orders in the beginning. DB: What was some of the most useful advice you received? BG: Best advice I got when I started was: “say the band sounds like Superchunk.” That probably won't float the same these days. DB: probably not. You now have to say it sounds like Gang of Four! BG: But, saying you are in the style of some popular and respected bands will help indicate that you at least are operating in a certain style.
RC: For me, it wasn't so much particular advice, but all the kind help that folks gave me. Everyone I approached was like, “You're starting a label? How can I help?”
IV: Yeah, a lot of help from everybody around…
BG: Follow the advice of what distributors to trust - don't send out copies to just everyone. You only get paid when you have Desirable Release #2 set to come out and can barter.
RC: True. Distro folks won't pay attention to you until you have something they want.
DB: How about the rest of you? What was some of the other advice you were glad to receive?
IV: “Even if they don't pay, they owe you.” The rest had to figure out on my own, more or less.
KH: For me, it was mostly kind of dry practical stuff like shipping methods, etc.
RC: Shipping is super important though--nobody likes bent corners or a broken case.
BG: Follow up with distributors -they won't necessarily contact you when they sell out of an item, especially if they only took a handful to begin with…
DB: What were some other problems you all encountered w/ the first release other than the pressing plant story Igor mentioned?
RC: Nobody cared about the first re-lease--the big problem was gettingpeople to listen.
IV: Getting first press at least 6 months after the release date, if at all…
KH : Figuring out how to write a one sheet [aka band bio + “selling points” – Ed.] and finding distributors were the biggest issues for me.
BG: production delays -someone telling you art will be ready at a certain date (Always double the time they tell you!).
IV: One sheet is still an issue for me…
RC: One sheets are rough. I hate ʻem.
BG: Distributors don't care about florid language, just give the details and what may be good selling points.
RC: The sad/funny thing about one sheets is that everyone uses them for everything (reviews, distributor email lists, store descriptions), so they've got to be good. You're essentially telling people what to think about the record.
KH: I think it's difficult because I try really hard not to think about the music in business terms, but the point of one sheets is to sell the album so you're forced to sort of marginalize the product.
RC: I totally agree with Koen. That's the problem I run into all the time.
IV: Magazines, radio stations, distributors - all looking for different info and all should be included in one one-sheet!
BG: I see it like a conversation with a friend. If you like this album, what interests you about it? The background of the people involved… What it reminds you of…
DB: Talking about business - When releasing a record, do you guys have a distinct goal in mind for it? How do you decide how many records you'll be making? Is it dependent on the given record?
RC: For me, it's a combination of how many records do I think will sell and how many I can produce. Since I usually hand-do most of the packaging there's a limit to how many copies I can produce before going insane. For a record with strange music and elaborate packaging, I may only do 300, for easier or more popular artists, it might be 1,000 or more.
KH: Rob, I'm consistently impressed at how many hand made albums you do. I've tried it in the past and after a couple of releases I just didn't have the time or patience anymore. We started out doing editions of 500, now we do 1000 because that's generally how many we can sell.
IV: I was happy to sell the minimum press of 500. One of them sold about 40.
RC: I've done pressings of 1000 that only sold 25 copies (still!), so I'm more cautious now…
BG: 1,000 is the price break for CD manufacturing, so I usually keep that as the minimum. That's usually enough to start unless the band is already kind of known.
IV: I started pressing a 1000 just recently, as the label and the bands received more recognition. I think in the beginning 100-300 cdr's is just about right.
DB: 1000 is more than enough to break even, right? Another question is how do you decide to put a record out? What's the criteria? Is it just what you like enough to sink your own money into?
IV: Criteria? Hopefully something new on the scene…
BG: I usually break even around 300 copies sold. If I think I'd be willing to buy the record based on its merits, then I feel it's worth releasing. Also, never do a record just because it's a friend! Then it becomes -“What's that new record you did like?” And you answer, “Oh it's my friend...” to which the person thinks, “They ain't MY friend - not interested...”
KH - That's a difficult thing to put into words. Basically it has to be something that really moves me and most of the artists we work with either already are or become good friends. I agree with Igor in that I am more interested in working with artists who may not have another outlet for their work.
RC: I decide to release something when I'm excited about the music. That's pretty much it. I run it by a small crew of quality control experts sometimes, but usually I'm just psyched. Doing a record with a friend because they're a friend is a bad idea. Yeah, working with someone who has a connection to you and isn't just looking for ANYONE to put out their music is a real plus.
KH: I agree that it's a bad idea to release something by someone simply because they are friend and I would not do it if I didn't feel strongly about what they are doing, but it's important to me to have a connection to the artist beyond simply releasing a CD by them. I don't want it to be completely anonymous.
BG: Okay to BECOME friends, but never decide on doing something because you like them as people. Nobody is buying a record because they're “interesting, nice guys”.
DB: It's great that the magic number is 300 - it's not insurmountable... Makes it all seem less intimidating…
RC: Yeah, you can totally break even at selling 300 copies of a CD if youdo it right.
DB: What does doing it right mean?
RC: If you do the “press” yourself, work out a way for the band to pay for the recording costs (and therefore keep the rights to the record), and pay them based on sales instead of an advance, you can break even pretty easy.
BG: If you do all promotion, costs amount to manufacturing and mailing out copies to press and radio.
RC: Of course, if you only sell 300, you've got a bunch of big boxes of unsold CDs to contend with…
IV: Saving stuff for history is not fun. You have to pay for storage for whatever is left after you sell 300 - hoping for a revival in 20 years!
BG: But once you break even, you can start giving copies away more freely and feel good about doing it.
DB: Are you all distributed via distributors? Do you also self-distribute? Is there stuff going out to Europe?
RC: Yes to all three: I've got distributors in the States and Canada, have a little bit of distro in Europe, and people can also order via the website.
KH – I sell directly via our website as well as through distributors in the US, Europe and Japan.
RC: Koen's got me beat on Japan--how the hell does someone get stuff sold in Japan?
KH: We'll talk later.
RC: Thanks, Koen!
BG: I go through Revolver, which handles things worldwide for me, and I also sell some via my website. It would be more profitable to sell individually to each country/territory, but I don't have the time.
IV: I work with several distributors in the US; plus mail orders overseas…
RC: Dealing with European distributors can be a real pain, so Iminimize my contacts with them.
KH: Aside from shipping costs and a few particular cases, I've found working with European distributors to be ok.
IV: I'm still hoping to experience the pain of dealing with Europeans.
DB: What's your take on filesharing, and downloading? Have people been making your stuff available for free downloads (authorized or otherwise). Seems to be an issue that nobody has a solution to...
RC: I think downloading files is fine. people are doing it and anyone in the business has to deal with that reality. I offer a sample song or two from each release as an mp3 on my website.
KH: I have mixed feelings about file sharing. Basically, I'm happy if people get to hear the music.
IV: No problem with downloading…
RC: part of the reason that handmaking the Catsup plate packaging is important is that it keeps the object-ness of the music, which is getting lost as music is more and more just digital files.
KH: So long as nobody is making money off it, I don't think it's such a huge deal.
BG: I agree - best to get the music out as much as possible. It only helps the musicians build an audience.
KH: From a listeners perspective, I never download music as I like objects. (particularly records)
RC: Totally. Oops, that totally was to Ben. I download music.
IV: I'm too lazy to download…
DB: I find that to be the weirdest aspect of the whole burning /mp3 thing - no cover art, lyrics/ liner notes. Are people listening to music differently as a result? Then again there's so much stuff out there and it's not possible to buy everything...
IV: You can download all you want. Is there enough time to listen to it?
RC: I think songs are being taken out of the album context a lot more--song order, packaging, the process of getting up to take a disc out of the player (or better, flipping over a record) is gone.
BG: I think people are definitely listening differently, and I think it's the artists' responsibility to adjust to the new way people listen - that's just a new challenge.
KH - I'm curious how it effects the way people listen. part of the reason I really like records is the ritual of putting on the record and flipping it over. I think it forces you to be more attentive than you might otherwise be.
DB: How do you let people know your records are out there? Through the internet? Advertizing? Radio? press? Is word of mouth still the true old school way that things happen?
RC: I rely on word of mouth and newsletters from distributors (Midheaven, Scratch) and record stores (esp. Other Music's list and Aquarius'). Not so much for the sales they garner, but for the fact that a lot of people read those lists.
KH: Word of mouth is always the best and most direct. But I send stuff to radio, etc. and we work with a promotion company in Europe on a very small scale.
IV: Word of mouth and radio…
BG: I've hardly ever done ads - a review is an ad that cost the price of shipping the mag a copy! So it's worth sending out to more press and radio rather than getting ads - cheaper and more effective. IV: I agree with Ben. I was never really getting feedback from the ads, but sometimes I did in the form of reviews. KH: Ads just lead to more demos!RC: Tell me about it… DB: What's your most successful record to date? Do you have any idea why that is the case? Did you do anything differently in terms of getting the word out?
RC: Biggest seller is Campfire Songsby Animal Collective. I'm sure this has a lot more to do with the general publicity push from Fat Cat and the success ofSung T
ongsmore than anything…BG: Comets on Fire, and it's all because the band played lots of shows and worked extremely hard. I actually pressed fewer copies than usual for that one, initially! KH: The most successful record that we've released is minamo's beautiful.I'm not really sure why, but it also happens to be my favorite CD we've done. playing live makes a big difference!
IV: Terrestrial Tones for the reason that it involves such names as Animal Collective and Black Dice.
BG: The same people that are all excited about one of your releases easily ignore you on the next one if they're not interested. There's no magic way to garner attention.
RC: Totally true. The label name carries very little weight in the end.
BG: Even Matador, Domino, Drag City, Touch & Go... All of them have records that are duds.
DB: Are unsolicited demos ever considered? Have you ever been surprised?KH: Very rarely.
RC: I actually put out the Double based on an unsolicited demo. (Though they were one in hundreds that was actually good.)
BG: I've never released something that was completely unsolicited and not connected to someone I knew, or knew of somehow, but I'm still hopeful.
KH: A lot of the cdr's I get are quite competent, but they tend to be somewhat derivative. That said. one of the compilations we did object setandmotion was the result of unsolicited demos.
IV: Never released one so far but have no objections to do so in the future.
DB: Do you ever think, this is a great set of recordings, but it's not for this label? What makes you make that call?
KH: All the time! That's the biggest issue for me. Is it right for the label? And sometimes you get fantastic stuff, but it just doesn't fit.
IV: If I think it's really great, it's good enough for me to release it.
RC: Yeah, a couple of times. I'm sure the band thought it was a brush off, but there's a particular thing that I'm going for with Catsup plate even though I love a much wider array of music.
BG: My label has no singular aesthetic whatsoever. If I like it, I'll put it out. Still looking for a great metal band to work with...
IV: A metal band? What a coincidence! Me, too. It's like playing records for your friends -you'll never stay in one genre.BG: I'd release a Slayer rip-off in a second!
DB: Rob, is that particular thing you're going for with the label definable, or is it like pornography - you know it when you see it?
RC: Oh, I know pornography when I see it, I'll tell you that much. Umm, it's just sort of a gut feeling, I guess. There's hundreds of records out there waiting to be put out. The good ones that I pass on are usually put out by someone else. I've seen a lot of stuff get put out elsewhere after I passed on it.
DB: Was there something specific you wanted to release as a label? Did you get the sense that the first record was one in a series of records that would define the label?
KH: apestaartje is a collective as well as label and was initially set up to release sound work by the members of the collective, so it basically expanded from there.
RC: I feel like a little of both. I think all the releases fit together in a way I'm happy about, but I also feel like the Catsup plate aesthetic has grown as time passed.
IV: Once I get the feeling a particular record can define the label, I try to change direction. Just as my taste changes.
BG: Very few people would like everything I've done. A different type of record is a new challenge to figure out how to reach potential fans.
IV: A nearly exhausting challenge!
KH: apestaartje is pretty specific, but I try to push itin new directions.
DB: How's this for a change in direction? Ben mentioned Slayer... Name an artist (one living, one dead) that you'd love to work with.
BG: Slayer are Live Undead, so they qualify for both. But, let's call them living. Dead: Raymond Scott.
KH: living - Tape from Sweden. Dead - I'm not interested in working with dead people…
IV: King Crimson (for the dead); Deathprod (for the living).
RC: Living: Van Dyke parks (circa Discovers America); dead: Bryan Maclean (of Love, the better part of Love?)
KH: Good choice, Rob!
DB: Do you guys usually do vinyl on all releases?
RC: It's up to the artist usually. I do one format or the other. Vinyl is a much smaller seller, but is so much more personal as far as I'm concerned. CDs are the crowd pleasers, but they aren't as interactive (as Koen pointed out).
KH: No. I wish we could, but it just doesn't makesense for us financially.
IV: Psych-o-path is a mostly CD label, but I'm thinking of making it all vinyl in the near future. I-tunes anybody?
DB: There are tons of great reissues coming out these days - real obscure stuff that never got heard much (Notekillers, Primitive Calculators, etc.). Any plans in that regard?
KH: I've been considering doing a reissue in the near future, but it's not totally worked out, so I can'tdiscuss it in detail.
RC: I guess I wouldn't be against it, but I think Catsup plate's mission is to look forward more than back. Everyone is always talking about how there isn't good music being made today, which is a pretty nearsighted thing to say.
KH: For a long time, it was important for me to workwith people who are currently active, but it's nice to do something different now and then.
IV: We did Zippo Zetterlink - still waiting to hear from them and do “the unreleased stuff”…
BG: This summer, I'm putting out three Yummy Fur albums from the late 90's, which never came out in America. They were this amazing, catchy Fall/Fire Engines inspired rock band with some Franz Ferdinand connections.
DB: What's your take on getting help - what aspect of the label do you get help with? Do you have any interest at all in expanding and making it a “job”?
BG: When it becomes a job, you start financially relying upon it and having considerations beyond what moves you emotionally.
RC: This all means too much to me to put the extra pressure of making a living off of it. I've nothing against people who want to do that; I just know that I'd go crazy and the label would deteriorate. plus, I like the idea of putting out something that I love that might tank.
KH: Even though I do run the label alone, there is a specific group of people whom I work with regularly. I collaborate with Chi Hyun Kim in all the design aspects of the label and, as of recently, Collin Olan does most of the website related stuff. For me, it's really about getting people to hear the artists. If a CD does well financially, that's just a bonus.
RC: I'm a control freak though I sometimes have my girlfriend help with CD assembly.
BG: I've always been on the search for interns. Sometimes it's hard to track interested and reliable parties down.
IV: Getting help with web-design, artwork. I would not mind doing just the label work. The label would only benefit from it. The bands would, too. I'd always find work for an intern. I wish I could pay for permanent help.
KH: I've had a couple of interns, but it ends up being more work because they tend to have a regular schedule related to school or whatever, and we're very busy sometimes and kinda slow sometimes, so it doesn't really work.
DB: Rob, you're the odd man out here since you don't even tangentially work in the music biz, but has working in the biz been a benefit?
KH: Working in a record store helps for obvious reasons.
BG: Working at a label presents a resource of databases and experts in each field for you to get any info you need!
DB: What do you guys have planned fer spring/ summer?
RC: Upcoming: big super secret release that I can't talk about right now.
BG: Oh yeah...um...me too! BIG! Not really... Yummy Fur records, Th' Faith Healers peel Sessions, Colossal Yes (Utrillo of Comets' solo work), and stealing whatever Rob's big release is and putting it out first.
KH: We will release the debut album by mountains which is Brendon Anderegg and myself at the end of this month. After that, some ideas but nothing definite as of now.
IV: I just got it in, so it's still upcoming: Brendon Anderegg's Falling Air - a pretty different affair from his albums on apestaartje and a hot metal band for the summer!
DB: Do you feel anything's changed in the music business (for the better or for the worse) since you've been plying your trade?
RC: Internet. Big change. I used to have to wait two weeks for someone to answer a letter pre internet.
KH: I find it difficult to imagine doing this before the internet. It really speeds up the process.
BG: What hasn't changed: music has stayed just as exciting and innovative - it's always just a matter of finding it... Boards of Canada once said a great line amounting to, imagine all the great music that will come out for years and years after we're all dead.
DB: Ben, you can always be counted on to cheer up a fella!
IV: I have to call it a night. It was a pleasure. Bye folks.
DB: Thanks for your input, Igor! Good luck!
Everyone: Good night, Igor!
DB: We should all probably wrap up! Give me two conditions under which you'd stop releasing records!
RC: There is really only one: when it becomes stressful/not fun.
KH: If there wasn't any music I felt strongly about, which I find difficult to imagine.
BG: If I went broke, and if I got too cynical.
DB: And two key things that'll keep you going for good measure!
RC: Getting nice notes from folks who really love a record keeps me going. and finishing putting together a release--when you can look at the finished product--is super satisfying!
BG: Chicks. And by that, I mean delicious chicken dinners that I charge back to the label.
KH: Yeah, it takes so many steps to get to the final product. When it's finally fully realized, you know why you keep doing this.DB: Thanks for participating in this our First Indie Label Invitational! Best of luck to you with your releases -without labels like yours, we'd have slim pickins to play! Any parting words of wisdom?
RC: I'm psyched to get to participate with these other three label owners. I'm a big fan of everyone's records and am happy to be included.
BG: Never hold your nose and dive in with a release. If something doesn't feel right (the personalities involved, the way it's being made, your feelings on the music), don't do it.
KH: It's a lot of work, so only start a label if you have some projects you really believe in. Thanks for the invitation, Daniel.
BG: Thanks, Daniel! And great talking with all the other three of you!
RC: Thanks, Daniel. I've no real wisdom to impart other than to echo the, “you've gotta love the music” thing.
KH: Nice to talk to you guys. Enjoy the rest of your evening.
DB: This hereby concludes our invitational! G'night gentlemen!
Everyone: Good night!
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