So you want to run a record label? Top tips from the music industry

In the first of RGM’s look behind the scenes in the music business we focus on what’s it actually like to run an indie label….  Music fans are often like armchair referees when it comes to their favourite unsigned bands, questioning why they aren’t top of the charts and don’t understand why labels aren’t lining the streets to sign them, but just like there is more to being in a band than just playing gigs… there is more to running a label than signing acts you like. So we rounded up some of our favourite indie labels to find out how it started, what makes their label different plus the high and lows of label life…. 

Roadkill Records Josh Cooper www.roadkillrecords.co.uk

Roadkill Records is London’s fastest growing DIY label with a focus on quality garage, surf and psych releases and events. Born from the monthly live music night ‘Roadkill’, hosted at Aces and Eights Saloon Bar between 2012 and 2015, the label was established with the release of a limited edition cassette compilation in 2016. Since then, Roadkill Records have earned a reputation for energetic, sell-out shows across the capital and various vinyl and cassette releases from the country’s most exciting new bands. Home to After London, Enemy of the People, Muertos. 

What is the main ethos behind your label? 

 “We started out in bands ourselves so we aim to be as artist focussed as possible, working with them collaboratively in whatever aspects they require help with. Essentially our service is all about putting the bands we think deserve it in front of as many people as possible. The benefit of a slightly DIY community is that we’re all constantly learning from each other and all able to benefit from that pool of experience. I wanted to do something that was specific to garage rock and surf, rather than a mix of random acts. I regularly booked the likes of The Sly Persuaders, Muertos and more so we built a long-standing relationship. When the night got busier we branched out to all-dayers and bigger venues, starting a label to release music for those involved seemed like a natural progression. We started with a cassette compilation of about a dozen friend’s bands, then we started on vinyl for the Slys and went from there”

What do you look for in bands for your roster / what do bands need to be doing?

“It varies but we certainly look for a level of proactiveness. Bands that’ve got themselves as far as they can before approaching us. We don’t tend to sign anyone who hasn’t already played shows with us and built a relationship first.”

How is the industry changing?

“People have always talked about how it was better in the past but it’s not something I buy into. Being a new band or DIY label has never been easy and the live music scene, in quality and diversity, is healthier than ever. In the last 10 years I’ve seen the industry change in a couple of dramatic ways; from investment in physical moving toward digital, streaming platforms and playlists becoming more relevant, radio and press becoming harder with fewer quality platforms. 

Where funding has been taken away from creatives at the ground level less people are able to justify doing it, which is a huge problem that needs addressing. However I continue to see these people thrive which shows how driven some of them are, with shows busier than ever and certain bands, writers, artists, photographers, promoters and venues doing exceptional work in spite of it all.” 

With so many ways that bands can DIY release music are indie labels still relevant?

“Something I ask myself while looking in the mirror in the mornings. The answer is not always. You should only look to sign to a label if it’s the right move for you personally. If so you can benefit from their advice and contacts as well as any money they can put towards your release. But it’s important to retain your rights and carefully consider if it’s the right fit for you. I would recommend sticking to DIY where possible.” 

What’s next for Roadkill? 

“We’re always looking to go bigger and we’re always on the lookout for our next signing. We’re also realistic about it working around our day jobs and that there’s only so far we can take this. It’d be nice to make enough from our physical releases to invest in more marketing, so really development needs to happen on the side of paying punters. We do a podcast and newsletter monthly so building those numbers as well as our gigs and artists is another focus.” 

Lloyd Bent @ Bingo Records bingorecords.bandcamp.com

Bingo Records is a DIY independent label founded in Lancaster in 2017 and is now Sheffield-based Sat in the boardroom/bedroom are: Lloyd, Zac and Ben. Their aim is to provide a platform for the stuff they love, that maybe doesn’t get the exposure they feel it deserves. Home to Dog Daisies, Family Selection Box, John Myrtle, Mr Ben & the Bens. 

How did the label come about and what’s the ethos behind it? 

“Lloyd was bored and thought lots of people living nearby made amazing music that needed committing to vinyl. Records have a very particular permanence, and the idea that someone might come across this music 20 years in the future with zero context feels very romantic to us! Putting something on a record feels like a real statement of belief in somebody’s music as well. It’s a great way to support an artist. We always want to make sure the process of putting records out is good fun for everybody, don’t take it too seriously and everything is done in house; it’s like a little cottage industry.

At Bingo we all work on each other’s projects. We record, create videos, design artwork and drive tour vans for each other. People contribute to each others work purely because they believe in it. A label like Bingo is essentially a stable of like minded artists working together for the benefit of everybody’s projects. It is a kind of collective identity.”

What do you look for in bands? 

“Bands that do their own thing! Autonomy is really important to acts on our roster. Though we do lots of work for our artists, we want them to have the freedom to make most of the decisions for themselves and to have as much creative control as possible. We find that is more fun for them and it always gets the most exciting results.”

What would you change about the industry?

“It needs to be less London-centric. We realise that is such a common gripe but it’s too relevant today. It’s not coming from a place of feeling left out, either. We’ve experienced both sides of it. Even within our own roster we’ve found the bands based in London get much more exposure from the majority of blogs/press/radio stations.”

What’re the advantages of signing with an indie rather than a major? 

“Indies can afford time, sincerity, and tend to know the bands very personally. We love all the bands we put out and decide if they are right for our label based purely on the art they put out. We are not-for-profit, investing money the label makes back into supporting more artists and making more records. So we are not profit-driven and who we choose to put out is never influenced by financial incentives”

GAS Music – Gary Hilton http://gasismusic.co.uk/

A slight variation to the rest of our list we have GAS Music. They have an eclectic cross-genre catalogue of quality independent music and is an artist run label with label head Hilton also being the front man Modern Family Unit. What makes Gas different is they are also a sound design label and compose music for commercials, television, film, radio, gaming and B2B.  Everything from songwriting, producing, recording and mixing, as well as bespoke edits and alternative versions tailored, are managed in-house at their Media City Studios facility. 

What made you start the label?

“Twofold, firstly to support our core business of music composition and sound production across TV, film, gaming and advertising whereby we can own all the rights and licensing making it easy to deal with third party partners. Secondly, as no-one else would sign Modern Family Unit! As musicians ourselves we have been lived on both sides and understand how difficult it can be. Having said that, there is still an unhealthy balance of ignorance & grounding of both the industry and a band / act’s own ability and output. As a Manchester business it’s hard to ignore the legacy of the city, and to this we like to aspire to be a Factory that actually makes money.”

What would you change about the industry?

“I’d like to stop the perennial moaning, it is a business and it follows the basics of all businesses: the music is a product. The industry will always be a huge attraction and offer great rewards – but they come with hard work – and the constant changes mean more opportunities, the constant being the challenge of writing ‘that great track’!”

How has the industry changed in the last 10 years? 

“The one major change is digitisation – some good, some bad. The opportunities and ease of creating & publishing has never been easier. One different reflection on the question is that nothing has really changed as ‘major labels’ are still the major labels with 99.9% of all music owned by UMG, Sony & Warners and the brave new digitized world following suit with streaming being gobbled up by Spotify 48%, Apple 25%, YT & Amazon 15% and the rest with the crumbs, the poor artist, the maker of the product having to generate one million streams per month for £3k. Hardly a workable salary, £36k – if your good enough to generate 1M every month, noting that if you’re a 4 piece band that’s a miserable £9k per annum!”

With so many ways that bands can DIY release music are indie labels still relevant?

“Yes, if they can be nimble, control costs and have a good grip on other revenue streams like syncronisation across tv, film, gaming and advertising. A cool indie will then attract the ‘cool indie, unknown’ bands. If these bands can then work in partnership with the label, there’s a good chance of success – sync and then licensing.”

Screwdriver Records – Tom Simcox screwdriverrecords.com

Founded in London just last year with  Screwdriver Records began life when founder Simcox decided that after a few years working for other independent record labels trying to absorb as much possible,  he was ready to go it alone. Then all he needed was the right artist….. along came the signing of Harrison Whitford and Screwdriver was born. 

What do you look for in bands for your roster and what do bands need to be doing?

“I personally appreciate a good hustle. Make yourself stand out. Send us your LP or EP, but not just a Soundcloud link that gets lost in the inbox. If you don’t have a physical copy of your music, come find me at one of our shows and talk to me about it instead. THEN send me your Soundcloud link. You have to show you want it, and that you’re humble and ready to work for it.”

What would you change about the industry?

“Before Screwdriver I worked in the live side of the industry a lot. I worked with hundreds of bands on the underground scene, and unfortunately, a big chunk of the general public just don’t want to pay for an artist they don’t know or take a risk on finding someone new. So I wish people would get out there a bit more, and be willing to pay for it. I held a show about a year ago in East London, and some guy who was coming to see it said ‘people like you are killing the music industry’ when he heard the ticket price. It was £5, and there were 3 bands on! People don’t get it – There are musicians to pay, and venue costs to cover. It’s hard for everyone.”

With so many ways that bands can DIY release music are indie labels still relevant?

“Definitely. I would say that, but they 100% are! A label is important as it can just open up so many more avenues. It will probably get your music on a physical format, for one, and it also opens you up to distribution deals, publishing deals, getting a booking agent. Regardless of DIY releases, you still need to get your foot in the door somehow, and being signed to a label does that. 

More than anything, it validates a musician’s work too. If you’re plugging away, trying to get your music out there by playing to 5 people in your local boozer, that validation is really important I think. It’s like writing a book. You can write it yourself, get it self published, and you’re an author. But if someone ELSE takes a chance on your book, or your record, that’s when you’re validated. They think you’re worth the risk, and that’s the biggest compliment you can get.”

As a brand spanking new label what’s been the biggest high point so far? 

“This tour our first signing Harrison Whitford is currently on, 100%. He’s supporting Noah Gundersen around the UK and Europe, and it’s just going really well. He played two shows in London, just now. 

One was at The Union Chapel, which was really special, and he also played a sold-out show at The Lexington. That night I saw a girl in the corner with her eyes closed, singing one of his songs back to him, word for word. It actually made me quite emotional! I literally had no part in that record apart from getting it printed, so I can only imagine how a musician feels in that instance. It made me really proud, and it should make Harrison proud too. He’s a really special guy, and hopefully, Screwdriver can help that become a bit wider known.”

AnalogueTrash – Mark Buckley

AnalogueTrash is an independent record label and promotions company run by Adrian Brian Thompson and Mark Buckley based in Manchester. They are a community of artists, creatives and activists who are highly political, pro-queer, pro-feminism, internationalist, pro-multiculturalism, anti-fascist and deeply passionate about the power of music to effect positive social change and bring people together. They first launched AnalogueTrash as an eclectic, alternative electronic music club night in spring 2009, having conceived the idea during the latter part of a particularly excellent Covenant gig at Manchester Academy. Huge fans of alternative and grassroots music in all its forms, full of big ideas, and armed with a healthy dose of idealism, Google and a shoestring budget they put on their first gig and club night in June 2009 in the tiny back room of what was then Moho Live in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. After three and a half years of awesome parties, great experiences and learning about the music and events business as we went along, the AnalogueTrash record label was conceived and launched in late 2013.

What is the main ethos behind your label?

“To release good music by good people, basically. We don’t confine ourselves to a particular genre or sound, but we have to like the music and the people behind it. Behind the scenes, there’s a very collegiate quality to what we do, with artists pitching in to help things tick over.”

What do you look for in bands for your roster / what do bands need to be doing?

“The main thing is that artists have their own vision, and that they’re prepared to work within the ethos of the label and work closely with us. Some people come to us with carefully thought out plans, others with little idea of what making and releasing music involves. If you look at our roster, one thing they all have in common is a powerful and unique musical and visual identity. And while we don’t expect artists to be overtly political, but we do seem to be drawn to artists with a progressive edge to them, either lyrically, musically or who they are as people.”

How has the industry changed in the last 10 years?

“It feels like it has gone full circle. From filesharing to Myspace, to Soundcloud, there was a sense of music being democratised with independent artists and small labels being able to break through, play the big names at their own game. 

But now the majors have gotten wise, adapted to the internet, and are back in control. They play the game better. If you look at someone like Billie Eilish, they got their break on Soundcloud, but the success came as a result of signing to a major. But that’s obscured behind smart marketing, very striking imagery, good pop music, and a dynamic team behind her. Her music is very commercial, yet she’s presented as an alternative artist by her label and the media. 

The proliferation of streaming and online radio helps get artists out there and heard, which is a positive change, but there’s just so much music out there that it’s easy to get lost in the white noise. That said, it’s now easier than ever to find your niche, and musicians can appeal to small audiences, but on an international level, much easier than they could before.  

With so many ways that bands can DIY release music, are indie labels still relevant?

“Labels bring a wealth of knowledge and experience with them, as well as resources, networks and contacts. I think a lot of it is down to what a band wants to do with their music. Idles have embraced the industry to get their message out there, but not everyone will make that choice. Most indie labels have an existing audience and existing marketing channels for a band to tap into, which is helpful for artists. There’s also a lot to be said to being part of a community, assuming a small label is run in that way.

The admin side of releasing music can be a full-time job in itself; as you say, there are so many platforms and outlets now. Being a creative and accomplished artist requires a very different skillset to actually releasing, marketing and managing a catalogue of music. Sometimes an artist needs someone to share that load.

Running a label, like being a musician, can be like a second full-time job, so there’s the time issue as well. That said, I often joke that the main reason for signing to a one is all the unsold merch stays in someone else’s house.

Getting signed to a label certainly isn’t the stepping stone to success or big end goal that it used to be, but there’s still an important role for small labels and that’s not going to change any time soon.”

What is the benefit of signing with an indie label rather than a major?

“If you sign with the right label, control and accountability are advantages indies have over majors. Look at imprints like Dumont Dumont, Polyvinyl, Hybris, Armalyte – small rosters, a sense of emotional investment in the music they release, but also the feeling that the artist hasn’t had to compromise to get their music out there. People mock the ’boutique label’ tag, but artists and fans can make a connection with them more easily than they can with a major. 

The main thing though, is that an indie will probably sign an artist because they love their music and want to support them to develop it; with a major label they’re going to be more concerned about an artist’s marketability and how commercially viable they are.

How do you want to develop the label over the next 5 / 10 years?

For us, getting it to a point where it can survive financially on its own feet, but continue to thrive artistically. Commercial considerations have never been a significant factor in anything we do really, but for us and the roster to grow, the label still needs to be run as a business and there needs to be enough of a dedicated team on board that it has the people power to do that. The idea of doing it as a day job appeals, and it may happen. Becoming a medium-sized label is possible, and that’s our aim, with a good programme of releases, live events, maybe a club night again… who can say?”

What’s been the biggest high point?

“Seeing bands grow from support slots to festival stages, then performing abroad is always a buzz. For me, it shows artist can be true to themselves but still make a connection with others across borders, oceans and even cultures. 

That’s what an indie label should be about, in my view; good music for good music’s sake, and making connections via the medium of great art.”

These Bloody Thieves – Rob Hirst https://www.thesebloodythievesrecords.com/

Sheffield based Rob Hirst launched Fans for Bands the Social Media Marketing, PR & Spotify Playlist Pitching company in 2016. He combined his passion for independent & unsigned music with his knowledge of social media. Next came indie label These Bloody Thieves in 2018 as a way he could further support artists. 

What is the main ethos behind your label? 

“Discover artists potential early and support their development and reputation within the industry. It’s about the raw musical talent early on that I look for. If a song excites me then I want to work with them. No other criteria is important to me and never will.” 

What made you start the label?

“I was a musician for many years. But in the end that didn’t materialise. I started working with artists doing various marketing campaigns, started scouting for management and other labels. I guess I was always either going to go into running a label or management.”

What would you change about the industry?

“I wish the digital industry would support the people that finally get the music to them to use. Pay more to the artists, labels who go on to pay for the marketing and recording etc. It’s hard for artists to make a living off digital alone, yet hard for them to sell many physical copies of EP’s and vinyl. Music is so accessible and so cheap these days and also because bands can now put whatever they want out without a filter the market is full of noise and over-crowded.”

With so many ways that bands can DIY release music are indie labels still relevant?

“In my opinion. It depends on what the label can offer artists. For my label. I think we are incredibly relevant because of our resources and partners. We can make things happen for artists that they can’t themselves and can offer financial support for marketing, recording, duplications and has partners in digital/physical distribution as well as publishing and sync.” 

How do you want to develop the label over the next 5 / 10 years

“We are still a new label. But the first 5 years was always about establishing the label as been one of the reputable companies for discovering and putting new bands in with major artists on national radio and press. In our first year, we got lots of Radio 1, 6 Music support as well as major press for our artists. We want to maintain that. Going forward it has to be a sustainable business financially to be able to support artists more financially. But really, this label is all about music and not being the next Domino. Saying that. Breaking a band is the dream!”

What has been the biggest challenge facing the label so far

“Biggest challenge has been balancing the books as well as managing artists expectations and egos. Around all our artists is a team of people that all work together to support the artists. The label is central to that operation and keeping all happy as well as trying to keep financially stable is pretty tough to say the least.”

What’s been the biggest high point? 

“Debut release with False Heads getting straight on Radio 1 without a doubt. To have a track on Radio 1 within 6 months of starting was sensational and even though we have done it again with other artists, the first time is always pretty amazing and unforgettable. That buzz! WOW!”

Jack Howorth Blank Expression https://www.blankexpression.co.uk/

Blank Expression is so new they are yet to release a single! Their first will be “You Can’t Stop (I Can Feel It)” by Richard Carlson Band, a art-rock / sludge-pop band based in Manchester due to be released in April 2020 with an album to follow later in the year.

Howorth is by no means new to the industry he’s been busy running a studio called The Warren in Sheffield for a few years and has worked with Fat White Family and didn’t have the resources to promote themselves or press records, so the label was the next logical step.

What is the main ethos behind your label? 

“Blank Expression is looking for outsiders. The bands and artists we are currently working with haven’t had any backing from anyone else yet, despite being true one-offs. Ultimately, I will put everything I can behind a band I love. The main aim is to give bands studio time and support to help them to develop into a great band. We are big believers in the album, giving artists a chance to create a mood over 45 minutes and not just focussing on hit singles.

Bands can be completely fresh and have done nothing at all yet. I am interested in finding bands which sound like no one else. So if you have demos which you think are worthy please send them over.”

What would you change about the industry?

“Personally I’d rather that bands who fit into certain genre labels were less prevalent. As a producer and record label head, I am disappointed by how many young bands are trying to sound like indie records from the mid 2000s. These bands do well in local scenes and under mid level promoters but it’s all self-serving. None of these bands are going to make much change to the music industry or broader  culture by copying others but it seems to be rife.”

How has the industry changed in the last 10 years?

“Streaming is obviously a massive change to the industry but physical formats are on the rise again, an l.p. has inherent value where a stream or a download just doesn’t. People bemoan the loss of record sales but realistically it has levelled the playing field. Major labels mourn the loss of millions of dollars of revenue due to downloads and streaming but that was never within reach for people like me and the bands I am into anyway. Selling your own t-shirts and records to your small pool of fans removes the fact that bands are earning a percent of a percent. Of course I am working directly with the bands on Blank Expression as a sort of middleman, but I am concerned with making fair deals. It needs to be mutually beneficial to both artist and label and by necessity, this has become more common. Long gone are the days of outsiders and unique underground bands being given million pound record deals and being beholden to a giant corporation and having to ‘sell-out’”

With so many ways that bands can DIY release music are indie labels still relevant?

“Indie labels are less and more relevant in different ways. Every artist needs their patron to a degree. I am not able to offer tens of thousands of pounds to bands I’m signing but the bands I work with don’t have the funds to press records, get distribution or deal with PR and that’s something I am able to provide. Also as a studio owner and a producer who works closely with other producers I am able to offer a great attention to detail in artist development, song-writing and production. DIY is absolutely a valid way to release your own record but even that is out of reach for some people and those are the people that can get value out of my record label.”

What is the benefit of signing with an indie label rather than a major?

“No £100,000 debt if you don’t sell any records or your band collapses. Everything costs money and the bigger labels are just able to front more money to a band but every band has to remember that this is a LOAN. Everything should be fully transparent. Major labels by their very nature have to be profit driven. An indie label can often carefully choose bands that they think are deserving of the label ‘artist’ rather than seeking out the most popular trends. On an indie label you are also able to closely deal with the heads of the label more so. Fewer middle-men between artist and fans.”

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