Written by Jack Clothier - as part of Commission Mission.
Speaking truthfully, running an indie record label has never been the speedboats and platinum office furniture I dreamed it could be... But I’ve found, if you’re in it together, it can still be the most life affirming time EVER (music really does have that potential).
Now don’t get me wrong, the highs are exceptional (even 11 years on I still get a little buzz each and every time that order button goes), and the people who you’ll meet on the journey will make everything worthwhile, but there are tough times too. When the invoices are piling up, cashflow is looking tight, and nothing you’re trying to do is quite coming off. A watched inbox never fills with good news, and from the dull glare of an emotionless computer screen, things can seem pretty bleak looking in…
Now pleasingly, while the enduring sentiment of ‘old school’ indie music industry: ‘you have to be working 25 hours a day to be successful’ seems to have disappeared in favour of treating yourself and your team with a little bit of tender loving sympathy. Having genuinely good people around you is an absolute necessity to make your voyage through the choppy waters of pop hits bearable. A problem shared and all that…
It starts with your team. We’re lucky enough to have Wall of Sound PR and Believe Digital working with us in-house, and a dedicated squad of others on art, words and A&R who help shoulder the burden. It continues with the people you draft in to help on certain projects, those who just want to hang out and the people who care about what you do (presuming you might be just starting out, without the necessary funds to bring in a wider network of paid professionals to help). Even if you’re determined to save some cash and go it alone (not a bad idea) – community really does begin at home, and by building something that people can be part of… You’ll be making life much easier, and infinitely more wonderful, for yourself.
“IT ALL STARTS WITH LIVE” I might shout broadly in other, more stable, times – but here in the depths of 2020, even suggesting such a thing seems laughable. That said, although live can feel like the tender embrace that wraps everything together, there’s plenty more that can be done - even within a pandemic lockdown. From our experience, people really appreciate a little creativity, a reason to believe – and the feeling that not everything you’re doing is for a profit. It’s nice to give back sometimes, and be as inclusive as possible to the people you’re appealing to with the music you’re putting out.
“You can’t hug an MP3’ might be a phrase that’s wheeled out in every pro-physical media article ever put together since 2010, but it still holds weight. And you can be sure that what’s even more huggable than a CD is a limited edition pink vinyl edition of 500, or a magnificently designed shirt, sweater and badge and wooden record box hewn by Brian May’s own tree surgeon [see TIGERCUB’S mega bundle around their album Abstract Figures in the Dark’]. It’s all fun stuff yes, but more than that it gives people a chance to see what you’re about, get involved with something different – and have a bit of fun with the music that’s bringing them joy.
Building a community around your artists and label is all about tapping into people’s headspace, and using your knowledge and ideas to keep on creating things people want, and offering to them at the right price – and in the right way. Building in options so that people can dip in a little, or if it’s right for them, entirely submerge themselves in what you’re doing. Taking risks, putting time and effort into crafting cool ideas - and more than anything else - trying to do things inclusively, and for the right reasons. There’s the really simple stuff too. Talking to people. Or at least not ignoring them! It’s phenomenal how many label people see themselves as too cool to chat back to people who appreciate the work that they’re putting in. It’s not hard to just take that moment to step back and engage with them.
There are plenty of examples of people out there doing it right. As lockdown rumbled on, the good people at Dork Magazine transcended all of the scrappy ad-hoc Instagram story gigs, by putting together a genuinely industry leading online festival for fans to get involved with, with all profit going to charity. All weekend, artists big and small played exclusive [pre-recorded] content at set stage times, and people across the world got involved, checking in and discovering new artists – enjoying themselves as part of the Dork community.
Meanwhile, in Bristol – Specialist Records are always at it, running a shop dedicated and based around their excellent roster of morally progressive acts, putting on their own showcase festivals, all the while aiming to foster a positive community spirit around the records they release. The band Dream Nails as well have done an unbelievable amount to craft an ‘all friends here’ attitude amongst their fanbase, with huge community fundraisers for awesome projects, interactive social media initiatives and a general feeling of togetherness. Chip Advisor, the Banana Phone and playing specially crafted S(uitable)F(or)W(ork) shows for their fan’s kids just a few of the things they do to keep people entertained and onboard.
If there’s one thing to keep in mind, it’s that I’ve always disliked the term ‘fans’. People who get involved with Alcopop! are friends first and foremost, and like the pals from school you still see, or the good people you work with. It’s always better if you’re honest with them, and do nice things that don’t necessarily financially enable you. ‘Don’t go closing’ my pal Matt C always tells me, and it’s true. Building community isn’t about selling, selling, selling.
As a label that works with a lot of up and coming acts, it’s important for us to share those bands with everyone. Pay What You Want shirts and vinyl, with a compilation of everyone on your label might cost a few quid, but what better way to get everyone involved with your new acts. A recent campaign we rolled premiering a new single to folk at a show before the media had even heard it went down very well. We’re also experimenting with making our mailouts a little more ‘ziney’. Who wants to be told 6 times over to buy a new thing. By rolling some conversational pieces, things you like, or the odd little gift will no doubt generate more love.
Overall, the key is you! And spreading the positives you bring to your musical endeavours. If you’re positive, forward-thinking and passionate then I genuinely feel it’s full heart, clear eyes, can't lose. By considering those people who are interested in your records – and doing things that excite them… Who knows. You might even win!
Commission Mission was created by Young Guns Network and London In Stereo to commission 20 new and experienced freelance writers to create articles to inspire, inform and entertain young people in the music industry who are struggling during Covid-19.
The supporters who made this project possible were Association of Independent Music, London In Stereo, Musicians Union, Motive Unknown, PPL, Remi Harris Consulting, Small Green Shoots, Young Guns Network, Youth Music.