Archive for the ‘Indie Label’ Category

‘We sign music we love. We’re not sniffing around to find the new thing all the time’

February 7, 2017

Kenny Gates Pias.com 1/24/17

You can’t always derive much about a record label’s identity from its name.

Matador founder Chris Lombardi, for example, pinched his company’s brand from a Pedro Almodóvar movie in a snap decision spurred on by design deadlines.

Yet there are certainly characteristics of the bullfighter which rather suit the history of Matador, which turns 28 this year – particularly a penchant for the powerful and provocative, and a fearlessness in the face of peril.

Since Matador was created in Lombardi’s Tribeca apartment in 1989, it’s gone on to introduce audiences to the likes of Superchunk, Teenage Fanclub, Guided By Voices, Pavement, The New Pornographers, Yo La Tengo and Interpol.

More recent successful signings have included Kurt Vile, Savages, Cat Power and Queens Of The Stone Age – who scored their first ever US No.1 album in 2013 with Like Clockwork… on Matador after years signed to a major label.

Lombardi met his Matador colleagues Gerard Cosloy and Patrick Amory before the label existed, when the trio worked at indie Dutch East India Trading.

He says that he initially started his record company “as a hobby – to document some bands playing in New York at the time”.

[PIAS]’s Kenny Gates sat down with Lombardi to get the story of Matador’s origins – and gauge his view of the music industry today…

Am I right that the first record you put out on Matador was by an Austrian band?

Yes, a band called H.P Zinker. Gerard recommended I go see them. It was supposed to be a 7″ deal – just a song, but they recorded a mini-album, six tracks. That was more than I expected.

At the same time I was friends with some other bands in New York. I quickly had four or five albums coming out – including The Dustdevils, Railroad Jerk and Superchunk.

All of a sudden I had a number of releases to responsibly promote, press and distribute.

You had to pay bills, then?

Yeah – and it wasn’t easy to get paid in those days. A Lot of the indie distributors weren’t the quickest to write a cheque, especially if you didn’t have a hot record.

Did you have startup capital to get going?

I borrowed some money from my dad. Not very much. Probably $40,000 over two years. That helped keep the lights on.

The Railroad Jerk record did pretty well and the Superchunk record did pretty well, and Gerard had also gotten this cassette from the guys in a band called Teenage Fanclub. He had been shopping that around to a few different major labels at the time, but between [Cosloy’s label] Homestead and Matador we said: ‘Let’s put that out together.’

That’s when we started working together. We signed Teenage Fanclub and things really started to take off.

So that was your breakthrough record?

Yeah. It was also a time where things were starting to change with the mainstream for the indie music business. There were a number of different labels cropping up – Sup-Pop, Matador, Merge. And then in 1991, Nirvana really started to heat up.

During that frenzy of alternative rock, the major labels were trying to grab a piece of something they didn’t quite understand. At the time there was a lot of LA hair metal bands, Guns’N’Roses and Poison, and pop music.

The bands we were signing were starting to sell real records and we did a distribution deal with Atlantic at the start of 1993.

Why did you do that? You needed the cash?

One thing we’ve always been able to do, which is a pretty amazing luxury, is that somehow we found a way to put out whatever we wanted while never really having to concern ourselves with the commercial viability of it – because we’ve had partners who’ve allowed us to do what we wanted.

We’ve been able to do these joint venture deals, grow the company and hold onto our artists while not compromising on our artistic taste.

How does it work with you and Gerard?

We’re both the A&R guys. We sign the bands that we like and the music we want to hear. It’s really about the music that we love.

The thing that’s been great is for the past 27 years we’ve only worked with artists we like. We’re not sniffing around to find the ‘new’ thing all the time or meeting every band that comes to town.

Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur?

Probably in the pure sense that I work for myself and do what I want.

In terms of being a businessman, no. I never thought of myself as a businessman first.

How did you deal with the company expanding? Did you go to business school?

No I only went to college for three months, and Gerard also went to college for a few months. So… instinct!

We had business managers to deal with royalties and the more complicated aspects of a larger roster with 30 employees, but [the growth in the business] was mostly us just figuring it out.

It’s hard to become a ‘boss’ all of a sudden. We really just employed our friends for a long time. Our oldest employee, Rusty Clarke, is Director Of Sales at Beggars [US]. At the time, the only requirement of people we hired was to love the music we loved and be able to talk knowledgeably about it.

Previous history in the music business was actually considered a downside. If you’d worked for a record company, it probably meant you’d been influenced by someone else.

Rusty was a waitress, but she went to every show we were at. It was hand-to-mouth for quite a while.

How long did it take before you were able to actually make a salary out of the business?

Well, we didn’t really work like we had salaries. We’d just about pay our rent and buy pizza. We lived with the label.

I had thousands of H.P Zinker records at my loft. You kind of forget how much space that many boxes, 3,000 sleeves, inserts and pieces of vinyl fill up. They don’t come assembled!

We’d invite friends and the bands over, get some beers in and some drugs and stuff the records for a few hours. It was great. It felt home-made, which it was.

Let’s go back to your time with Atlantic Records – in hindsight, was it a good or bad era?

I won’t say those experiences were ideal relationship-wise. I don’t think we got much from it really. But we did get capital, and with their investment we were able to grow the company further.

We had a pretty liberal arrangement with them. We were a fairly in-demand company at the time. And we weren’t super-greedy; we weren’t trying to sell ourselves.

It ended at the end of 1995, which was kind of the beginning of our first-hand experience of the major label revolving door. We saw record company executives we’d begun our relationship with go away. The guys we did our deals with, first at Atlantic and then Capitol, they moved on.

These executives are really there for themselves, they’re dictated to by a corporation, sales goals and publicly-traded companies. They come and go, and they go to the next place that gives them the best deal.

The next guy wants to get rid of the other guy’s [ideas] as soon as he can. He doesn’t want someone else to get the credit, and certainly he doesn’t want someone else’s failure on his hands.

You signed to EMI/Capitol after Atlantic. Why?

Our guy from Atlantic, Danny Goldberg, moved on and so it was time for us to find someone else who was sympathetic to what we do.

That ended up being Gary Gersch at Capitol – the guy who signed Nirvana to Geffen. He was at Capitol for about two years, and then he left. And so we were getting used to this major label situation.

You sold 49% of your business to EMI? How do you get past that?

We did. The Capitol deal bought us out of the Atlantic deal, then when we finished up with the Capitol deal we did a distribution agreement with DNA, part of Valley, and we were fully an independent company again.

You got an advance for your distribution and paid back Capitol?

Yes. Then Valley/DNA went bankrupt. We were able to get our stock out. And, of course, we owed them money – but they were bankrupt. So we walked free and clear and did a deal with ADA.

And finally, you found the ideal suitor…

By 2001, we wanted a more engaged partner; a partner who was more established outside of the United States where we’d struggled for a long time.

We had various distribution deals [around the world] at that point. We contacted Martin Mills and talked to him about partnering up. And by the end of that year we sold 50% of Matador to the Beggars Group. And it’s been a tremendous period of stability and growth ever since.

Martin and the Beggars Group have really allowed Gerard, Patrick and I to do what we do best and not worry about…

All the shit.

Exactly. All the shit.

Being able to represent ourselves as a truly global company is remarkable. It’s been amazing.

Beggars has given us excellent stability as well as great insight – they’re a cutting edge entertainment company. They’re at the forefront of all the new media stuff.

You made a comment when Queens OF The Stone Age went to No.1 in the US that you felt “numb”. Why?

It’s hard to go up from No.1. When Queens went to No.1, I wasn’t looking for it – it wasn’t our goal. We’ve never felt competitive in that kind of way.

It’s never been about volume of sales or being a commercial market leader for us. It’s just been about putting out the best music. We want our records in as many people’s pockets as possible, but we’re not about having hit records.

So was it scary?

No. It didn’t feel like it wasn’t ‘us’ at any point; we’d been fans and friends of Queens since the very beginning. That didn’t feel weird.

We’ve gotten pretty good at what we do, and it’s not every day you get one of those achievements. But that’s not our focus.

Were you proud?

Yes, but I was more happy for the staff and the band; they deserve to experience having a No.1 record. I was proud to say an independent label like Matador was able to give a giant rock band like Queens Of The Stone Age their first No.1 record – that was a satisfying moment for sure.

If the Chris Lombardi from 1989 could see the Chris Lombardi of today, what would he think?

He probably wouldn’t believe it. But with hindsight, I probably would have done a few less drugs. [Laughs].

I think we’ve done good. I love coming to work every day and working with the folks in this office. My days are spent having meals with unbelievably talented musicians – people who are musicians because they have to be. They’re not trying to score a hit record; they have to express themselves in a unique way.

I’m pretty emotional about my business. It’s all about caring about and believing in the people you’re working with – and convincing people to take the time to check out something you believe is truly special.

Did you ever get up in the morning, look in the mirror and think: ‘I’m not up to this. I can’t do this?’

No. I’m a fairly optimistic person. I’m certain there were some times where we were flying by the seat of our pants. But those are kind of the funnest times – when all of your senses are at their rawest and you’re just trying to figure it out.

What’s the worst moment in your career?

I don’t think I have one! I honestly haven’t really had any shitty moments.

I guess my worst moment was we had a much too large staff after our various major label partnerships. We had staffed up to resist their involvement.

When we became fully independent our cash was a lot tighter and we had to be more responsible with our overhead. We had to slim down and let go of some staff that weren’t necessary. [Getting too big] wasn’t the best decision my part, and that was hard.

Who are your mentors; people who inspired you to do what you do?

It’s the bands. They’re who inspire me. There’s no executive who inspires me.

Are you a romantic?

I’m a pretty romantic guy. But I’m romantic about now. I don’t romance the past. I like what I’m doing right now – I’m enjoying talking to you. I’m talking about myself, though, which is…

You’re a bit uncomfortable talking about yourself?

I don’t feel great about it.

Streaming. What do you think of it?

It’s great. I meet kids who are more knowledgeable about my artists than I am, and that’s because of streaming. They have entire catalogues at the tips of their fingers.

When we were growing up, it was like if they were out of stock, they were out of stock.

What about an industry that’s 90% streaming? You think we’ll still be able to break bands?

Yeah. If it’s good, it’ll float to the top. I don’t really beat the dead horse of physical. I actually always think there will be a physical aspect.

But the fact is, many, many more people will be able to listen to our music and we’ll get paid for it. That’s exiting for us and our artists.

Why do you still get up in the morning and do this? What’s your purpose?

To help support and spread the message of people I feel are hugely talented.

I have the best job in the world. I really do. And I’m very lucky it fell into place the way it did

Streams? What Streams? For Newvelle Records, Vinyl Is the Future

December 27, 2016

By GIOVANNI RUSSONELLO  NYTimes.com 12/26/16

PEEKSKILL, N.Y. — The jazz pianist Elan Mehler hovered over a vinyl-cutting lathe at Masterdisk studios as a mastering engineer laid a blank disc onto the plate and paused for a moment, listening for hints of interference as the blade sliced across the surface.

The men were here, an hour north of New York City, to cut master recordings for Newvelle Records, the small label that Mr. Mehler, 37, founded two years ago with his business partner, Jean-Christophe Morisseau. The discs will be sent to France to be replicated en masse and mailed to Newvelle’s subscribers.

Well, sort of en masse. Like everything at Newvelle, these records will be released only on vinyl, in small releases of 500. No CDs, no digital downloads, no streaming.

It’s all part of Mr. Mehler’s plan to produce first-rate jazz recordings in the digital age. That the music will reach only a small handful of listeners, at least initially, is a necessary downside, Mr. Mehler said

“It’s a model that sustains the music,” he said. “I came to this idea of how to record because of how difficult it is to make a record as a jazz musician.”

Jazz accounted for just 1 percent of all record sales in the United States in 2015, according to Nielsen’s year-end report. But jazz buyers do purchase actual albums: Almost half of those jazz records were bought in physical form. And across all genres, vinyl sales continue to rise; according to Nielsen’s midyear report, in the first half of 2016, vinyl accounted for 12 percent of physical album sales, up 3 percent over the same period a year ago.

Mr. Mehler first had the idea to start a label that would marshal the appeal of vinyl a few years ago, while living in Paris. He mentioned it to Mr. Morisseau, 48, a French businessman who was taking piano lessons from him. They started meeting regularly and sketched out a plan.

Musicians would receive a flat fee to record their albums, with Newvelle fronting the cost of production at a world-class studio in Lower Manhattan. The label would retain exclusive rights to the music for two years, offering it only on elegantly packaged vinyl and only to subscribers, who would pay $400 for a year’s worth of recordings: six in all, sent at two-month intervals.

After two years, the artists would have the right to release the music independently, as long as Newvelle retained exclusive vinyl-distribution privileges.

Mr. Mehler and Mr. Morisseau released their first season over the past year, reaching about 200 subscribers, and in November they completed a Kickstarter campaign to finance the second. That drive signed up about 50 subscribers and raised over $25,000.

Newvelle’s records adhere to the kind of gossamer, “chamber jazz” aesthetic that characterizes most of Mr. Mehler’s work as a pianist, but they feature a range of musicians, from jazz’s nobility to its rising stars.

For the first season, the pre-eminent drummer and sometime keyboardist Jack DeJohnette recorded his first solo piano album, “Return,” a collection of gentle but austere compositions, often in a plaintive minor key. Noah Preminger, a young tenor saxophonist with a dusted and blossoming tone, made a ballads record with an all-star quartet.

Each album in the first season featured images by the French photographer Bernard Plossu, and poems from the Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith were printed in the liner notes. This season, which is priced at $360, the albums will feature photos by the French collective Tendance Floue. The novelist Douglas Kennedy is writing a short story that will be serialized across the six records, with a different portion on each album cover.

Rufus Reid, an esteemed bassist, has recorded an album for the coming season, featuring his jazz trio alongside the Sirius String Quartet. He said he was grateful for the opportunity to produce a graceful product and to see his ambitions encouraged rather than resisted. “I think there’s been a longing for people to listen more intently, and the vinyl kind of makes you do that,” he said, adding, “Other labels aren’t really putting out any cash for the whole kit and caboodle of recording an album.”

In its focus on vinyl and its distinctive, brand-coherent album art, Newvelle is a kind of throwback to jazz’s midcentury glories. But it’s also timely. Vinyl is becoming the quintessential luxury item for a music business in transition. And across industries, small companies like Newvelle are using subscription services to market niche products.

“The vinyl form, for Elan, really represented this idea of a pure sound, something that’s very high-quality and that every artist is very keen on,” Mr. Morisseau said. “So my idea was to say, ‘O.K., let’s treat the vinyl and the music like a luxury good.’”

For Newvelle’s musicians, the studio does not serve as a conduit to a broad audience so much as a site for the celebration of their craft. It does little to emulate the bandstand, jazz’s onetime breeding ground, but it does suggest a survival technique for jazz in lean times. And it signals that when jazz becomes a luxury item, product may matter more than populism

Martin Mills: shaping global music tastes from an indie stronghold

May 21, 2015

Robert Cookson financialTimes.com  5/20/15

Martin Mills may have built one of the world’s largest independent record companies — launching artists from Adele to Vampire Weekend — but he still runs Beggars Group from a quiet residential street in Wandsworth, southwest London.

Boiling a kettle in a kitchen that doubles as the office reception, Mr Mills explains that he had no idea how big his business would grow when he acquired the property in 1984. So over the years, he bought four adjacent houses and connected them into a rabbit warren of rooms — including a basement overflowing with crates of vinyl, a boardroom where meetings take place around a ping-pong table, and two dormitory-style apartments for visiting artists.

“It’s nice when you have artists staying upstairs who come down for a beer at lunch time in their pyjamas,” he says.

That the Beggars headquarters is a series of houses rather than a conventional office suits the personality of the company well. Its business culture is starkly different to those of the world’s three major record companies — Universal, Sony and Warner — which all occupy flashy offices in Kensington.

“It sounds incredibly clichéd but we’re in it for the music. We’re not really in it for the money,” he says.

Yet a focus on nurturing original artists rather than chasing pop hits has not stopped Beggars becoming the largest and most influential independent record label network in Europe. Through its five labels — XL, 4AD, Matador, Rough Trade and Young Turks — the company has consistently been at the forefront of the global music scene. Its past and present artists include The Pixies, The Prodigy, The White Stripes and The xx, and in recent years it has struck gold with Adele, who has sold more than 35m copies of her two albums and is currently working on her third.

Mugs of tea in hand, Mr Mills leads the way up a small spiral staircase to a meeting room known as the Green Room. His green T-shirt blends into the sofa and wallpaper.

This is going to be a “big, big summer” for the record industry, he says. Apple is set to launch its new music subscription service, he explains, while YouTube is rolling out its own paid-for music offering and Spotify is locked in crucial licensing negotiations with the majors.

“All of those big digital players and their relationship with the industry are in play at the moment,” he says.

When Mr Mills founded Beggars in 1976, recorded music was all about vinyl. He was running a small chain of record stores in west London when an English punk band called The Lurkers, who had been rehearsing in the basement of the Fulham shop, asked for help putting out their music.
We’re big supporters of what Spotify has brought to the market

“It just grew from there,” says Mr Mills, an Oxford graduate with closely-cropped white hair and stubble. “For many, many years we were just putting one foot in front of the other without any kind of idea of where we were heading to. There was never any grand plan or grand ambition, it just happened.”

Yet the fact that Beggars has survived for four decades, even as hundreds of other indies folded or were snapped up by the majors, is not the result of sheer luck and blind wandering. It has grown even as spending on recorded music halved since 2000 and as the majors came to control about three-quarters of the sector’s $15bn annual sales.

One reason for survival is strict financial management. Even now, the 66-year-old still reviews every single payment made by the business and says he makes it very clear to employees when they have made a mistake.

“There’s a level of financial micromanagement that I think works really well, allied with a general very, very loose-touch management,” he says.

Though the Bob Dylan fan visits several live gigs a week, he leaves decisions about which artists to bring into the Beggars “family” to specialists in each of the group’s five labels.

The other big part of his job is making broad, strategic decisions for the future of the business. One of the most prescient of these was to set up offices in a dozen of the world’s major music markets, from New York to Tokyo. That gave Beggars control of its own global distribution network and differentiated it from most indie labels, which must rely on third parties.

“We work in a global market these days and you have to set up records globally,” he says.

Though rooted in vinyl and CDs, the company has skilfully navigated the consumer shift to digital and is consistently profitable. In an average year Beggars chalks up sales of £50m, generating about two-thirds from downloads and streaming, and the remainder from CDs and vinyl. Half of the money that flows in relates to its extensive back catalogue, and half to new releases.

Mr Mills is broadly confident that the rise of streaming will be good for the future of the music sector, though he cautions that “it’s hard to get perspective when you’re in the eye of the storm”.

“We’re big supporters of what Spotify has brought to the market,” he says, referring to its model of giving people access to millions of songs for $10 a month, in parallel with a free version of its service that includes advertising. Spotify is doing a good job of converting its rapidly growing base of free users into paying subscribers, he argues, and so rights owners should give it a “substantial degree of freedom” to develop in the way that it thinks will work.

But he warns that this “freemium” model is now under threat. Universal, the world’s largest record company, has this year become resistant towards free streaming and is putting pressure on Spotify to change the nature of its
service as it negotiates a new licensing agreement.

“They’ve swung 180 degrees in a short period of time and that’s proving disruptive,” Mr Mills says. “The problem is that we live in an oligopolistic world, and Universal very much drives the market.”

Yet, while Beggars is only a fraction of the size of even the smallest major, Mr Mills does wield power. He played an instrumental role in setting up the trade body Aim in 1999, which for the first time brought together hundreds of independent labels to speak with a single voice. He is also chairman of Merlin, a rights licensing body, which last year forced YouTube to back down in a bruising fight over the terms that it offered small record companies.

Mostly, however, Mr Mills operates out of the limelight. “I’m doing my best when I’m invisible,” he says. “People sometimes ask me what I do all day for a job these days, and my answer is I maintain the balance. There’s an awful lot of seesawing going on in this modern cottage industry that I preside over, and maintaining the balance is what I do.”