First off, hello! Happy 2011 n’ that.
As a welcome back after going AWOL for a few months (sorry!) I caught up with Tom Beck of Walnut Tree Records, who kindly agreed to give us an insight to running an independent label.
We think that understanding how and why independent labels are run will inspire others who might potentially go down this route. With so many different approaches to putting music out, it’s worth considering the options, with particular focus on a few key areas.
On choosing artists to work with and making first contact:
I signed Paige and Bayonets through finding their Myspace profiles and liking them enough straight away to want to go and see them play. From there we kept in contact and eventually decided on a release. With Portman, Waiting For Sirens, and Burn The Fleet I ended up working with these bands through association – they either knew me or other bands I’d worked with and contacted me to see if I was interested. The most recent two, Tiger Please and Cuba Cuba, came about by contact with their manager. I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t know of either band before he got in contact, so that shows you that it is worth contacting labels if you like what they’re doing. I can’t speak for all of them, but the ones I’m friendly with are always on the look out for new bands to work with and you might be right up their street.
There are always bands that you’d like to work with that end up not working out too. In the past I’ve either been priced out of releases or found that bands have contacted me with their current EP that they’ve just released themselves and then ask me to get involved. They’ve done the hard work themselves there so I often find that they only need my help to get a bit more exposure. It takes a lot of the fun out of putting music out for me, so I’m often not involved.
On putting a record together:
From there it’s all about working out when the tracks are recorded/how long the release will be/when we’d like to put it out/what packaging we should use. I normally let my bands worry about the recording process and the number of tracks, but I have my say on the release date and the packaging. Physical releases aren’t commanding as much attention in 2010 as they were in 2000, so you have to be realistic with the numbers you press and the expense of it. I’m a big fan of physical releases but it’s foolish to expect to shift 1000 of a brand new band without some serious money going into their promotion or great press expected from the band.
Anyone who has been following my label will notice that I’ve opted for hand made releases for the past year. I’ve done this for two reasons really. The first being that I like being creative and getting involved in the physical products – it’s much more rewarding for me than packing everything off to a manufacturer and just waiting for the releases. Secondly, I just couldn’t afford to fully press every release I wanted to work on – especially when there is a fairly steep price for a minimum order of 500 and marginally more for 1000 copies. These releases would not shift 1000 copies for a few years though, so it makes sense to limit the amount I spend on them. Tiger Please ‘Seasons’ and Burn The Fleet ‘Burn The Fleet’ were the exceptions here though, both were expected to do well and are proving me right currently. A release like ‘Seasons’ is a full product – the music lends itself to great artwork and special packaging and it’s worth the expense.
Distribution of the releases is an interesting issue. So far only one of my releases, Portman’s debut album, has been taken on by a distributor. I talked to several about Paige, Bayonets and Tiger Please releases but I just didn’t like the conditions attached to the deals. I found that they expected the releases to be priced too high, and that I’d need to them match that price online or to not sell the copies myself. I didn’t want to give up that control. Part of the success of Walnut Tree Records is my pricing and my personal touch to everything. I take care of the online sales, and my bands then take care of their own sales at shows. This mix seems to work well so far, there’s a lot of respect between the bands and myself.
On the dichotomy between independent and major labels:
This is an interesting question for me – as I’m currently sat responding from my desk at the largest record label in the world, so I have experiences from both sides. I’ve never purposely set out Walnut Tree Records to be an independent till the end, if the situation called for me to move the label onto the next level with the right conditions then I’m sure I’d go for it.
Working at a major label has shown me that it can be a completely different game, worlds apart from my hand made runs of 100 copies and personal notes with orders. Both have their advantages and at the same time will always have their drawbacks. Even though I’d ‘sell out’ in the eyes of some, I don’t realistically expect the offer to ever arrive anyway. Having worked at the major for almost the exact same time I have run my indie label, I’m not the fashionable in demand type that gets picked up. I’m also not going to worry too much about that.
I run this label because I believe in myself and the bands and their music and that’s the important thing. As long as I have that belief in my ideas then being independent or otherwise is fine with me. If that means I can continue to sit and hand make copies, or design flyers and set up competitions then that’s great. In the time I’ve been writing this reply my employers have both spent more money than I will ever spend in the lifetime of Walnut Tree Records, but will also make more money than I will ever see. It’s just a completely different world at times, despite the fact that we’re both essentially looking for ways to promote music.
On never having enough time:
Even those fortunate enough to run their label full time will always need more time in the day. I’m not a greater sleeper as there’s always something I think I would be better off doing instead of sleeping. I have quite a few different ideas each day that I’d like to work into the label, some good and some bad – but I can only realistically give a few a go each month and even then it’s a struggle. I’m not going for the bleeding heart approach here though, I like being busy and having a life outside of work and my label but that does mean making choices sometimes.
One of the things I’ve learnt from running this label is that no two releases are ever the same, no matter how much you’d like them to be. Sometimes you find that the whole process is really smooth and efficient, and the next release from that band will be drawn out and full of issues. There can be a number of reasons for that, though it’s rarely the fault of the bands. At least that’s the nice thing for a label to say!
Massive thanks to Tom for his time and willingness to do this for us!