Staring an independent record label used to be the exotic preserve of the privileged, the driven and the Machiavellian (ideally all three at once). Today, with the internet having revolutionised the way music is disseminated and consumed, the pre-eminence of the indie label as trusted repository of thrilling new music is under severe threat. What better time to start a brand new one, then, reckoned ex-tompaulin frontman turned proprietor of Winterbird Records, Blackburn’s own Jamie Holman. Here, in the first part of an instructive diary series, he documents the epiphanies and nadirs inherent in being a wannabe 21st century record mogul.
A random list of thins that no one tells you when you are trying to set up a record label (in no particular order):
- You will need barcodes so your releases can go in the shops- they’re expensive and difficult to get.
- The shops don’t want your releases.
- Every band becomes U2 soon as their CD is ready for release.
- Everybody lies about what the costs will be (whatever they tell you, double it).
I am outside a recording studio, about to listen to a playback of the first release on my new record label, Winterbird. I am excited, worried and wondering how I got to this point in two short months. I am now the label, not the artist.
Recording studios are not the places you might think they are. Musicians (pop stars) speak of them in the most romantic way. The phrase “in the studio” conjures up images of a sophisticated, creative, nurturing womb to which the professional musician returns to make the magic happen. It is here that alchemy occurs; it is where the winners go after the race is won. You are now signed, you drink Red Stripe for breakfast and get to play guitar all day and take drugs all nigh. Bags are packed, telephones are switched off and anyone trying to reach you will be told in hushed tones: “He’s unavailable at the moment. He’s in the studio…”
Once studio status is achieved, it is discussed with a casual nonchalance that indicates this huge change in fortune. “…Noel was hanging out in the studio, so he played guitar on the single… Johnny popped in while we were recording and joined the band. Patti was working next door and finished the second verse…”
Lucky fuckers, you think as you get the bus to your day job and try to look forward to you next gig at the Witch’s Tit in Bath (if you’d just got that booking in Bristol you could’ve called it a tour, but they haven’t rung back). If was in the studio, Noel would be hanging out and playing on my record and Patti Smith could finish my lyrics, or so you think. In the event, you get to work, log onto your MySpace and count your profile views.
The phrase “in the studio”, suggests that there is just one studio where they all go. There isn’t. And if you’re picturing the cathedral arches of Abbey Road, a grand piano and a man in a lab coat re-writing your guitar while Kate Moss cleans your pipes, then you are wrong (unless it is Abbey Road, in which case you are spending money you can’t recoup and are going to get dropped before the second single. Oh and don’t let Kate sing).
Mono studio in Blackburn is certainly not Abbey Road. It’s hidden behind a bar in the town centre and built into an old barn. There is no Kate, no lab coats, pianos or even toilets. This is what I am referring to when I tell people that I am going to “the studio”. It is functional, not romantic. But it is a studio. Still double doors protect a control room with a huge desk and massive speakers set into the wall. Upstairs is a lounge no one uses and a room suspended in another room, where the musicians play. It is dimly lit, the cups are dirty and everyone smokes. It helps to bring milk/crisps/bacon sandwiches/cigarettes if one is a guest. I love it here. The studio (any studio) is actually the home of the saxophone folly, the girlfriend sat on an amp, the piano in a sandpit, demands for sixties’ dust in the mixing desk and countless other ways to disappear you money money more efficiently than Northern Rock. It is also the reason that I have set up a record label.
A random list of things that no one tells you when you are trying to set up a record label, continued….
5. No one knows what press agents actually do, but whatever it is you pay a lot for it.
6. Radio pluggers will tell you that a spot play on Toss FM constitutes a commercial breakthrough.
7. Both the above are responsible if the record does well. If not, it’s the label’s fault.
8. No one knows what an indie label is anymore. It basically means no money. NONE. 5 and 6 have forgotten this and have already snaffled whatever pounds were available.
The label started with me wanting to write some songs in the hope that other (more successful) people might record them. I booked some studio time and asked the singer from (my previous band) tompaulin, Stacey McKenna, to demo them for me. I negotiated a rate with Joe Fossard who runs Mono Studio, borrowed some money and paid upfront. I gave Stacey the songs and started fishing for artists. And that’s the point where everything changed.
When the first four tracks were laid down I couldn’t let them go. I was secretly pleased when interest went cold. I realised that we were making Stacey’s record. I started to get excited and sent some tracks to a few labels. But I’d already paid for the recordings and had enough money to finish the record without help. If I could press the record myself I wouldn’t need a label. I could do it all and retain control (and finances). It wouldn’t be a record label in the traditional sense, I told myself- just a vehicle for Stacey and our songs until a bigger label picked her up. I wasn’t looking to “sign” anyone else. Fuck that, labels are nothing but hassle.
For two weeks my record was called “Little Bird,” after diminutive Brazilian football genius Garrincha- he of the rickets-warped legs, drink problems, syphilis and ball skills beyond even those of Pele. And then I found it was taken, registered a few years ago by another label with no releases. So it became Winterbird. It sounded bleak but beautiful, melodic yet melancholy, and it made me think of Nico. Mostly it was because I’d already designed a logo and didn’t want to change it much. And with a name and a logo, I could have a MySpace and an email account and then it would exist. I could release records. Easy.
It is also at this point that “the studio” got me. I was mixing a song one morning when Joe played me some songs recorded there by a band called Fifth House. Their songs were sparse, melodic uplifting, melancholy and brave. I loved them. Joe said, “Why don’t you release them? It’s all finished and won’t cost you anything.” This is an important point and I will be returning to it later. It ALWAYS costs something.
That afternoon I sat with Danny Davidson (he who if Fifth House) and asked him to be on Winterbird. Without consulting anyone else (wife, bank manager, etc), I offered him 50/50 split deal after costs with him keeping full creative control. He agreed to sign a contract and I promised to do all I could to promote the record. This was all informed by a TV documentary I saw about Rough Trade Records (who went bust!) I also told him I wouldn’t be signing anyone else. It was just Stacey McKenna and Fifth House. Fuck that, labels are nothing but hassle.
A random list of things that no one tells you when you are trying to set up a record label, continued…
9. As soon as a band has finished their record, they want to go straight back in and record a follow-up.
10. HMV is rubbish. For the label to get a fiver back from a sale, HMV insist on selling your release for a whopping 13 quid. No one buys it so they send them back and YOU pay for it. This is called returns. I still don’t understand it. And no one can explain it.
11. Bands want their mums and girlfriends to see their CDs in HMV. This alone will bankrupt you.
Have you ever seen the X-Factor single pressed at midnight? When they push the big red button and cheer and some faceless/forgettable/useless ‘article’ cries and goes on about their “dream coming true”? Well, that happens in Blackburn, where I live. The biggest pressing plant in Europe is a twenty minute walk from Winterbird HQ (my house). The people at the pressing plant are lovely and I soon find myself with an account manager called Grant who runs Quick Discs. He sorts everything out (except bar codes, see number one on list) at a huge discount and Fifth House goes to press. My friend Chris has done all the design for a promise of a monthly payment instead of cash upfront. For this he will do all the Winterbird art working for print and web. I know I can manage it because I’m not looking to sign anyone else.
I am due back at the studio the next day and Joe plays me some acoustic live recordings of David Boon supporting Karima Francis. I know David really well and love his band Maupa. They are a band who have done everything right, had the press and the radio, and released two excellent CDs. It just hasn’t happened for them. David’s solo songs are amazing, and I know what I sound like saying this, but I really think he could be huge. Nick McCabe from The Verve has said that he is the best male vocalist in Britain and Albert Hammond from The Strokes is a fan. I think he’s a genius. Joe tells me that he just needs a few days to get an EP completed, or at least start an album. He plays everything himself and I won’t need to deal with a band or manager, just David. We work out a cost at a fixed rate and later David signs to Winterbird- 50/50 split, full creative control etc. I tell him I won’t be signing anyone else. It will be Stacey McKenna, Fifth House and him. I’m not looking to sign anyone else. Fuck that, labels are nothing but hassle..
At this point I have one record due back from the pressing plant and two in progress. I have borrowed a lot of money. I have a record label.
To be continued…