Notes From The Indie Label Front Lines

Fools-gold-teeSome aspects of running an indie record label weren't changed by the web. Everybody used to work really hard and had to adjust to changing realities that were often quite harsh. But these days there's more of a sense that everything's up for grabs and that there is no one right way forward. I've been checking out a number of interviews with indie label heads of varying size labels, mostly dj-centered and electronic music, to get a feeling for how the folks whose music seems most adaptable to current times are adapting.

The following quotes come from a series of recent articles that ask mostly well-established indie label heads about what's working for them and advice they wished to share with aspiring label founders. In general, an experimental approach, grounded in solid business practices and informed by an understanding that music is a special thing, seems to be the order of the day.

It May Be Music But It's Still A Business

The Vinyl Factory asked Tim Burgess of O Genesis: What’s the most frustrating thing about running an independent label?

Answer: "If you get frustrated about things then maybe a label is not the best idea for you."

Attack Magazine: Toolroom Records' Stuart Knight

"I’m doing less and less music and more and more running a business. We have a saying at Toolroom: ‘We could be selling washing machines.' We’re not, we’re selling music, so it’s very easy to get up in the morning and do something you’re passionate about, but we still have the same work ethic and business model as if we were selling washing machines."

"You’ve got to have that in place. If you don’t, it’s a hobby. If you want to give up your day job and make a career from it that work ethic has to be there from the word go."

Can't Make It Off Music Sales Alone

A common theme of interviews and panels was that of finding unique paths forward based on the needs of musicians, labels and fans rather than on a standardized approach. As is the case for most, no one's making it just off music sales.

Midem Blog: K7′s Horst Wiedenmuller

"We’re all successful and we all have different models. A few years ago, we were all doing the same thing. Then the market got disrupted, so we tried different things."

Midem Blog: Ninja Tune's Peter Quicke

"Ninja Tune…has been handling a great deal of its own technological innovation itself, said the label’s managing director, Peter Quicke: from beatdelete, a crowdfunding platform for getting vinyls reissued; to Ninja Jam, a remix app; and to microsubscriptions [using drip.fm]."

Attack Magazine: Toolroom Records' Stuart Knight

"We’ve got a five year plan as a label. We’ve got a ten year plan for what we want to do. For us it’s about moving out to become a bit more of a lifestyle brand. You get to a point with a record label where you can’t just live off record sales alone. I wish you could, but you can’t. There just isn’t enough margin in it."

"We have the events side of things, we have a publishing company as well, and the big thing for me that’s the emerging side of it is the new media: the YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Google Music, all these kind of things that are coming through. That’s going to be how the younger generation want to ingest music."

"They want it so quick that you’ve got to be in a position to deliver it. If you can’t deliver it quick enough they’ll find it and they’ll get it free and then you’re in a whole world of trouble because no one’s paying for your music."

Billboard: Fool's Gold Records' Nick Catchdubs

"The merch side of the business…now generates as much profit as does record sales. The Fool’s Gold web and retail stores are well stocked with t-shirts, hats and accessories priced between $25 and $50 each (the rubber ducks retail for $20). One of the company’s most successful products, a slim-cut leather jacket made in collaboration with Member’s Only, sold out at $775."

"Catchdubs says he doesn’t see the merch business as underwriting the music one, but rather looks at both as two sides of the same coin.'It’s not that we’re inoculated against dipping sales because we sell merch…For us it’s more like we sell sweatshirts and we also sell records.'"

Still Crazy Enough To Want To Start Your Own Label?

Attack Magazine: NRK Music's Nick Harris

"I think a label has to understand who they’re aiming the music at, and also have the inner confidence to deliver and dictate the formats to their audience. And nowadays, it’s very important to have a focused sound, and a focused image."

"In this digital age, it’s become a lot easier for any Joe Bloggs to set up a ‘digital label’ and get their music out on the digital platform. It’s common knowledge that the dance music scene is now awash with thousands of labels all pitching for a small slice of the market."

"So a new label should come focused and prepared, but should also be a bit bold, and deliver something that’s gonna get talked about – a dream pairing of original and remixer, or a curveball track or release, something to give your schedule the edge over the many other labels working in similar musical waters."

The Vinyl Factory: Swamp81's 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."

[Thumbnail image of a Fool's Gold Tee.]

Hypebot Senior Contributor Clyde Smith (@fluxresearch/@crowdfundingm) also blogs at Flux Research and Crowdfunding For Musicians. To suggest topics for Hypebot, contact: clyde(at)fluxresearch(dot)com.

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  1. Hear hear! As many challenges as we as indies face, it’s encouraging that we have the flexibility and speed of movement to experiment with a lot of different things with little consequence of failure. The innovation in terms of business models for record labels over the next few years will completely come from the indies, and not at all from the major labels (then again, hasn’t it been that way for the last 10 years?)

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