IS IT STILL WORTH STARTING A RECORD LABEL IN 2018? AN INVESTIGATION

Words: James Keith / Image: James Gould

Independence is the name of the game in music right now. It’s a point of pride to pretty much all your favourite artists, and an unsurprising effect of decades of exploitation at the hands of dispassionate major labels. This leaves us in an interesting period, especially for those running smaller independent labels. In 2018, the role of the record label has changed considerably as blogs rose and fall, and file-sharing was usurped by streaming. However, record labels do still serve a function, especially the smaller outfits.

To find out more about the shifting roles of a record label and whether or not it’s still a worthwhile endeavour, I caught up with Elijah (Butterz), Tom Lea (Local Action), Laura Lewis-Paul (Saffron Records), DJ Magic (No Hats No Hoods), Nightwave (Heka Trax), and Roska (Kicks & Snares) to talk through their experiences and try to give you an essential guide to setting up your own venture.

You have to really want it, though. “It is a thankless task,” Magic told me, “but when you go somewhere and a record you helped to A&R and release is playing in front of 10,000 people and they’re loving it, it’s really fucking awesome.”

No Hats No Hoods

Find A Distributor And Know Your Audience

First off, it’s crucial to know your audience. Every single genre and subgenre requires a bespoke approach. “Even to the point where an instrumental grime record and a normal vocal grime record will have to be marketed differently,” Magic explains. “It’s about knowing where do the people you’re trying to reach discover their music. It might be Spotify playlists or a YouTube channel or anything.”

This is where a distributor comes in. Magic continued to explain that “a good distributor does more than put your stuff on streaming platforms: they pitch for placements in playlists and get your music out there. With radio pluggers, there are relationships and friendships that can be used to get plays, whereas with those playlists it’s a lot more data-driven. They can put your track in a playlist and see very quickly the skip-rate and so on. So you can get found out very quickly if people aren’t responding to the track.”

A good distributor will also save you a lot of time. “Before I found a distributor,” Roska told me, “I was processing every release three or four times, sorting it for Boomkat, Juno, Beatport, etc. Then I found a distributor and it was just a case of going to them and processing it once. It takes four weeks to process and then it’s on all the stores. It’s even quicker now. I can get stuff online in four days.”

Build Relationships

There are some great distribution services out there that will get your music on to every streaming service going (Tunecore being the most obvious choice), but a good distributor will know just from listening to your record which journalists to speak to, which stockists to approach, which playlist curators to contact and so on. Once again, this is another time for open and frank discussions. You have to be upfront about what you want from them and you have to be proactive when things aren’t working out.

The key is also not to get too despondent either. Magic went on to say that “if you can’t get featured on a massive playlist or website, then start a bit smaller and think about what you can get yourself on. If you can’t get on the Grime Shutdown playlist, try a smaller one that someone’s put together. It may only get you 500 plays, but you’ve still added value to your artist. If you ever hit a blockage, you need to change tactics, find where your audience is and get there.”

Nightwave (Heka Trax)
Image: Sean Bell

Manage Expectations

Basically, you need to work with your artists. This, according to Magic, needs to happen in two ways. Firstly, you need to manage their expectations. “When you start out you’re probably not going to sell many records,” he said. “That’s okay, but you have to communicate it to the artist.” If this is your label’s first ever record and your artist’s third or fourth, chances are you won’t break the Top 40.

Secondly, you need to be able to have open and frank conversations with your artists about what it is you’re “bringing to the table,” as Magic puts it. You both need to agree on what your obligations are and what your expectations are too. How much social media coverage are you both going to put in, what press will you do, how will the money be divided and what is it being spent on. These are just some of the conversations you’ll need to have.

Be Prepared For The Behind-The-Scene Grind

One of the less glamorous sides of running a label is the legwork. Basically, you’re going to have to do a lot of it. A good distributor is essential and will take a lot of the weight off, but you’re still going to need to understand PRS, PPL, some basic accounting skills and a modest pile of cash to start you off. “Have a very good think about your objectives for starting a label,” Maya ‘Nightwave’ Medvesek told me. “Do you have the time, budget, patience, passion and drive for it? Yes, it’s rewarding, but it’s a lot of work and the framework is constantly evolving. If you’re a newbie, do you understand distribution, PR, marketing and the sacrifices that go into it? Do you expect to make lots of money from it? If so, it’s not for you!”

“With the arrival of Bandcamp,” Nightwave added, “streaming and even just dropping tunes on SoundCloud, you really do wonder if the labels are needed. Sure, there is the kudos of being on an established label with lots of power behind it, but really, every artist is a sort of label in their own way right now. I do think the A&R and personal input is important and very valuable—you know who to trust, look forward to what they find next. There are still some people out there who just want to listen to music and not DJ or produce, believe it or not.”

Tom Lea (Local Action)

Add Value

It seems the ideal way to found your label is to have it as an extension or addition to something else. Whether you’re a DJ or producer in your own right, promoter or manager, these all can and should be used in tandem with each other. You need to ask yourself what else you can provide. As Magic put it, “What are you bringing to the table? What are you adding?” You have to bring value to your artists. Tom Lea adds that the role of the record label is somewhat diminished. Independence has become a badge of honour among artists in recent years and it’s now up to labels to prove their value.

“It could be booking your artists for parties,” Lea continued, “it could be great artwork, creative marketing, it could simply be that you’re a trusted DJ with a great ear for music and a network of people who buy your shit on sight. It can be anything in theory but you need to offer something beyond a SoundCloud page and basic distribution. That’s not good enough anymore.”

When Butterz was founded, Elijah explains, “there wasn’t as much access to the music that there is now; this was pre-Boiler Room, pre-SoundCloud, pre-NTS, etc. The radio show on Rinse helped promote talent that we later ended up working with long-term, like Swindle, Royal-T and Flava D, so the names became familiar for people that listened.”

Roska also cites his years on Rinse as a particularly crucial time for him: “I wasn’t running a label back then but I was still watching very closely how the release process goes, what techniques they use and the way they release. I always do that.”

Elijah (Butterz)
Image: Xavier Clarke

Build A Community With Your Artists

“We’ve got a big cohort of women that we’re working with so we know who we’re going to release through the label,” Laura Lewis-Paul, founder of women-focused, Bristol-based label Saffron Records, told me. “It’s a question of getting to know that community. They want to learn what they feel they’re not able to engage in areas where they don’t feel confident and it becomes a community. I see labels now as communities. That community can be based around anything, even something niche. And I think that’s a really nice way to engage with people.”

Another shining example of this wider-reaching approach is Butterz label. The label, started in 2010, operates more like a tight-knit management roster. Besides releasing their music, Butterz works closely with all their artists to secure bookings, arrange opportunities and tailor their approach to them all.

“This term [labels] probably doesn’t fit Butterz anymore,” Elijah says. “It's recognisable and easy for people to understand, but the relationship I have with our core artists is the most important thing. The core function of a label have been simplified, in terms of getting music out there. But now, for DIY operations, i.e. people with no employees, our role is to build a sustainable way for people to release their art, pay them, and try and make more.”

Costs

Though a healthy profit is unlikely and a living wage basically a pipe dream (“to set up a label, you can’t be doing it for money,” Magic laughed), as Tom Lea explains, that cash reserve doesn’t need to be as big as it once did. As we keep saying, things have changed at a bewildering rate in recent years, but that has brought down some of your potential costs. When Local Action started, vinyl was enjoying a huge resurgence and in certain quarters of electronic music, it was an essential part of releases.

“Back when we started, you had to do vinyl to be taken seriously,” Lea explains, “which means you’re starting every release £1,000 down. It definitely stopped me taking risks on artists that I knew were really good but wouldn’t sell 300 12”s—so yeah, vinyl ties your hands a lot in terms of taking risks. As things changed and vinyl became less and less necessary, I found that really freeing and a positive development.”

“In terms of your infrastructure, you can start a label with no money now,” he continues. “You can cut mastering costs, distro has never been easier, you don’t need to do physical and paid press is less important than it was too. So instantly you’ve got a bunch of costs that would’ve been seen as more-or-less necessities in 2010 cut out the equation. It’s much easier than it was then, which is a great equaliser.”

You will still need a little money in your pocket, though. Roska broke down a basic cost list for your average digital release: “Before the track’s even out, I’ve spent £90 on one track. That goes on mastering, artwork and a promo system to send the record out to press and DJs. If I wanted to do some more press that could be as high as £200.”

Roska (Roska Kicks & Snares)

Stay Ahead Of The Curve

Though most of the people I spoke to have been running their operations for 10 years or less, the musical landscape has changed at an astonishing rate since then. Very little about the industry structure from back then even exists anymore. With grime, for example, consumption has changed massively: Channel U is no more, dubplate culture is nowhere near as popular as it was, MySpace is long gone. The means of sharing the music has changed completely too. Where it Limewire and Bluetooth were once the main conduits for music, now it’s Snapchat, Instagram and Spotify links in the bio. Mostly, they admit, they would probably still found a label today if they were just starting out—it’s just the tools that would be different.

“It's all about streaming now,” Nightwave added. “It’s much harder to make any investment back because digital is so ridiculous now; not to mention the oversaturation of the market and the way press works too. I have only done a couple of physical releases, which are very rewarding, but the amount of work that goes in is exhausting. Plus, the pressing plants are all over the place right now as the major labels are cashing in on vinyl being ‘trendy.’”

Spotify, as Tom Lea explains, is a particularly vital part of the independent label’s business model. Getting one of your tracks added to a major playlist can be a huge win for your label, extending the lifespan of the track’s revenue by as much as 100%. “I’m pro Spotify,” he tells me, “in the sense that their playlists can give a real second life to releases. The first Yamaneko album’s a great example of this—it actually sold very well upon release, but traditionally a record will sell for the first few months and then grind to a halt. Then you’ve either made a profit or a loss and what you make on top of that is negligible.”

Lea does, however, warn against the over-reliance on a single platform. “Relying too much on one single platform that dominates the marketplace is dangerous—look at how Facebook pulled the rug out from under brands when they monetised. Spotify earns us and our artists money but it’s never been more important for us to build, develop and maintain genuine links with our fans that don’t rely on third party platforms we can’t control the direction of.”

Laura Lewis-Paul (Saffron Records)

Funding

Funding is out there, however. Laura Lewis-Paul told me Saffron has a relationship with the PRS Foundation. Principally, Saffron’s funding comes to support the artist development side of their business (they closely develop three artists every year). However, she was quick to point out that such funding is rare and warned against building your business model around it.

“What I would suggest,” Lewis-Paul tells me, “and this would be my advice on most fronts, is don’t set anything up that’s solely dependent on funding. I would strongly advise you have a business model that you can set up with the funding being additional to what it is that you’re doing. I also think that if you’re setting up—in the beginning, you don’t really have that evidence to show what it is. We only got our funding after the first year of being established. We didn’t get that straight away.”

In any case, funding like that should be a supplement, not the backbone. You may need to have a brutal conversation with yourself. “Just question why you are doing it,” Elijah urges. “Is this fair? What are the artists gaining from associating with you? What is the long-term viability of the venture? Think about how you can bring something new; not just musically, because repeating tropes that the music business is doing doesn’t add that much, culturally. There’s no rule book for a reason. But be on the fair side of that. If someone is committing their art to your vision and vice versa, don’t underestimate that bond, and treat it with respect.”

Finally...

So, in summary, you need to understand the mechanics of distribution (Spotify, Tunecore, PRS), build strong relationships throughout the industry, give your artists realistic and honest expectations, provide a service or skill that the artist doesn’t already have, make sure you completely understand the very finest parts of the music you’re putting out, and, finally, make sure your intentions are pure and you’re expectations are realistic.

“Every label runs differently,” Elijah concluded, “and Butterz—the record label—isn’t a business to me in that way where I’m just trying to maximise profits for myself to live off. It is really about just finding ways to make the best projects possible, and having stupid, linear, inflexible music industry practices won’t allow that to happen. But this is based on the relationships we have with the artists. That’s why we don’t release everyone and anyone. We are very careful who we work with on music.”


Posted on June 14, 2018