The 7 Key Lessons I Learned Running an Independent Record Label 30 Oct 2017
We are the music makers, we are the dreamers of dreams.
Arthur O'Shaughnessy's poem referencing the loneliness and struggle of building something great knowing that one day it will all be forgotten as new ideas take hold, is entirely relevant to running a record label. It's a glory-less job at the end of the day, but being one of the music makers comes with its own sense of pride; and also a lot of lessons.
Running an independent record label was something I was meant to do. It wasn't easy, but for someone who has always sucked at networking and often making friends, I managed to make it work. Throughout my teens, music consumed my life and once I finished school, I began to discover a fascination in the strategic side of music and Mirador Records was inevitably, eventually, technically born in 2011 and has been a huge part of my life since.
Through Mirador Records, I've been lucky enough to be a part of releases from some of my favourite artists in Australia. I never discovered anyone, the artists I've worked with were always doing something special, I was just one of the first to actually do something about it.
Being that person who doesn't just support a band by buying their release or going to shows, but actually invests in the band and their music, can be a tough gig at times. But the world needs more people like that, so I condensed what I learned from Mirador Records into 7 key lessons.
Now that my label won';t be releasing any new music, hopefully these lessons can provide some insight and help the next batch of dreamers in their quest to make their dreams a reality, whether music related or not.
1. No one gives a fuck about your brand
The most important lesson you can possibly learn.
Throughout the duration of Mirador Records, the one question I was consistently asked was "Who do you release?”. My answer not only foretold the next questions I was asked, but sometimes even whether they spoke to me again at all.
I learned my spiel, the way that other players that I met introduced the name of their business with their list of most notable artists. Don't lose sight of the fact that your business is only as strong as your greatest achievement. As I began to watch labels born from management companies, record stores and popular indie nights begin to fall around me, it was a conversation with an artist manager at industry conference BIGSOUND 2014 that really drove the importance of this home for me.
At the time in Adelaide, the other main record label operating locally went by the name of Pilot Records. Pilot Records had been popping up in my blog feeds with articles and interviews about who they are and their story since their inception, I had also seen that they had won multiple grants and also a development opportunity from AIR; but I had seen very little about their artists. I discovered at BIGSOUND that year that people had actually heard of my label, and if not, they had heard of Bad//Dreems. Discussing some of the other artists I was working with and their achievements, the comment was made "I guess there isn't really any other labels in Adelaide are there? Upon mentioning Pilot Records I got nothing but blanks. I mentioned one artist of theirs, Oisima, still drawing blanks, I mentioned that they'd been awarded a couple of grants and had been getting some press lately, the response was "Grants don't mean anything unless you're doing something with them."
Unless you have an endless budget, don't spend it all on marketing your own brand, spend it on your artists and their releases and let them carry your brand. Because no one gives a fuck about you without them.
2. There is no right way to do things, only a way that’s been done before
Aside from infamous record labels born from arms of other businesses (promoters, record stores, management companies or the artists themselves), there isn't much documented around that awkward stage between inception of the label and first release.
My first release came into the world with such little fanfare that I didn't feel it was worth mentioning. Feeling the pressure to have a discography like other labels, I knew that I needed more releases, but I also needed releases worth mentioning. So I drew up a plan to attract interest from artists I liked through a blog concept with the intention to turn some into Mirador releases. It began to gain momentum after a few months and for the first time I began to speak to artists I had no prior connection to about their music and their plans.
I also began to realise, that Mirador Records as a blog had not only had the intended effect on the label, but had grown into its own beast. Despite having a title that referenced records, the hundreds, sometimes thousands of visitors per month viewed it as a blog rather than a record label. This showed me that there was no structure that was needed to follow to fulfil the legitimacy of my label and that Mirador Records could be whatever I wanted it to be.
Knowing the fact that there was no right way to do things, I took my little brothers art, which was gaining momentum at the time, and released a line of t-shirts and sweaters. For those who hadn't yet wrapped their heads around this lesson, it must have seemed a little strange for a record company to focus on releasing a t-shirt line instead of music, but it ended up being one of the best things I could have done. PR went well, touring musicians I'd given tees to were bringing the label attention (I got a few hundred Facebook likes overnight thanks to a shout out from the burgeoning Flume) and for the first time, some income started flowing through.
There is no right way to do things, only a way that's been done before.
3. Keep your objectives in sight every step you take
Knowing your objectives and keeping them at the forefront will make it so much easier to make decisions. Your objectives don’t have to be financial (in music it's probably better that they're not), but that means you should be extra vigilant in ensuring that your decisions do not stray from those objectives.
My goal with Mirador Records was always to learn as much as I could and to be a "stepping-stone" label. I feel as though I succeeded, obviously so in regards to learning, including finding that it's all too easy to lose focus.
There were times that I agreed to release digital singles that weren't leading to a physical release. I wanted the track to be heard and wanted to be a part of it, but I let that overshadow my objective to learn. Battlehounds' second single for example, an awesome track called Visions, which after releasing I wondered what I'd learned. I realised I hadn't learnt a thing from that release, apart from the fact that I could have spent that budget either on another strategy that might have yielded different results.
Obviously, I may have looked at this situation differently if my objective had been different, to create longevity of income from my artists for example. The point is that if you're not achieving what you set out to, you need to revisit what you're trying to achieve or you're just spending money for no reason.
Never lose sight of what each action will achieve in the bigger picture.
4. Always step up with each thing you do
Lesson number four feeds from my objective mentioned in number three, I can't imagine what a vanilla label Mirador might have been if I didn’t constantly try to improve my processes and strategies.
Even when it wasn't obvious from the outside, I was trying out different stakeholders or processes which all played a part in expansion of the artist's fan base. Different PR firms, record pressers, printers, media relationships or offers all factored into stepping things up with each project I worked on for Mirador Records.
There are constantly new players joining the market and new trends forming, if you're not exploring those you'll be left behind. As a label with small budgets moving small amounts of units as is, you can't afford to get left behind. The changes in the competitive landscape of CDs vs streaming is one example.
Another example is the Adelaide music themed arcade-style game I made around Mirador artists.
Upon the conception of the idea years ago, I would have been one of the first to do something like that. By the time I had built my skills to program the game, mapped and designed the story, cleared out the bugs that had delayed it a few times and then actually released it, there were a handful of others in the market that had done a similar thing. My game was no longer different or out there.
If you’re not progressing you're as good as dead
5. Music is always subjective, sometimes the critics are just critics
Remember that music is always subjective, critics and the gatekeepers of media are making a judgement call that doesn’t necessarily mean you're sitting on something that's not worth your time.
At first glance, it can seem as though gatekeepers such as Triple J can make or break you; while they can definitely make you, if your entire success plan is hinged on their approval then you really need a better plan.
Problems and Jimmy & The Mirrors are two (very different) case studies that taught me the importance of seeking out other avenues when you get turned down in one area.
Let's start with Problems, the whole time I've known them there has been something special about the music they make. I definitely wasn’t alone in feeling this, however we couldn't get any of their tracks out from the everlasting Triple J “maybe” pile to really get any solid traction on Australian radio (including most community stations), even with their most popular single. What they did end up with however, was tens of thousands of listeners online.
The fans that Problems pulled in came from other critics who count. The blogging world internationally took hold of the sound that the guys had crafted and carried every single they released. This has translated directly into revenue through streaming sources. While not the most well-known artist I have released, I count them as one of my most successful.
Jimmy & The Mirrors are another example of a release that was turned down by key critics but still became a success story. The band's key track from their 2014 Where's Ben? EP was Hailstorm.
Initially, even I wasn't convinced that it had what it took to be the primary single from the EP, but after a few more listens it became clear that it was easily the strongest track.
It initially gained a bit of traction with a whole range of critics in community radio, making the independent charts and receiving some low level airplay at both Triple J and Xfm in the UK. From there it all kind of stalled though, as the blogging community weren't very receptive. No one was writing about the song, and if there was no one writing about it then there was no one talking about it.
Up until this point, I'd completely disregarded the most important critics of all, the audience. Some months after the release, I noticed that the number of listens on soundcloud for Hailstorm was increasing faster than it ever had. It wasn’t blog posts or features that had driven this increase but listeners themselves, they had shared it on soundcloud, facebook and twitter creating more listeners and shares on social media. All on the strength of the song itself, a snowball effect had seemingly taken off, which only escalated when a YouTube blogger finally picked it up.
It's easy to get caught up in others opinions and it's crucial we don’t ignore them, but when we're talking about subjectivity, it's valuable to remember that it's just an opinion. Sometimes it's just a matter of finding the right spot for a good thing to flourish.
6. Write every strategy discussion in an email
This one is theoretically blindingly obvious. But there's a temptation when dealing with friends and good people to let conversations be binding, I seem to fall into this trap time and time again.
The reality is that I have used the same model for some time now, so my agreements don't usually change and even when they do I feel like everyone walks away with a mutual understanding. However, people hear what they want to hear, they misinterpret things or take away certain components of a conversation and forget other key parts.
I’ve also learned that writing down a conversation isn’t enough either, it needs to be in an email. The time stamps and proof of receipt are irrefutable, whereas a word document on your computer doesn't prove much.
Be clear and send an email to who you have your discussion with, it’s hard to keep up with sometimes but you’ll kick yourself if you don’t.
7. Always budget as though you’ll lose it all
Don’t bet money that you don’t have. Some things can never be predicted.
A huge point of value a record label has to indie artists is that they don’t have to beg for Kickstarter donations or delay things incredibly while they build up cash reserves to “do it right”. Because of this, a record label needs to be injecting a lot of money straight up into the cause and has to be prepared to receive the return on investment in dribs and drabs.
Sometimes borrowing a bit of money is all that’s needed to keep things going or make a particular project a realisation. Just make sure that if things go belly up, your day job income will be able to pay it all back in the time needed or that you can balance the books and operate in severe debt for a while. I've learned this lesson on both sides of the fence when there are big projects or multiple releases in a short space of time. I've come out alright the other end at times, but I've also almost gone bankrupt.
If you bet on something that isn’t a 100% done deal it can always fall through, things don't always play out the same way that they have in the past and there are always circumstances beyond your control that can well and truly fuck you up. When dealing with record or ticket sales, you will never be able to count your chickens so to speak.
It's better to wait until you can manage a complete disaster than run yourself into ruin.