A Few Tips on Starting an Independent Record Label

We welcome to the blog two Nottingham-based record labels who agreed to offer a bit of hard-earned knowledge on the art of running a small label.

Ste Allen has been running the Dealmaker label since 2003. It is presently not producing new sounds as he concentrates on a plethora of other projects, from involvement in WEYA 2012 (World Event Young Artists), Nottingham Independent Creative Community events, music programming for Nottingham Contemporary & development of long-awaited sandwich label Gangsta Wraps. Dealmaker specialise in hip-hop, jazz & electronica. “We came out of the early wave of UK Hip Hop, but from the jazzier sounds. The record label started with a Nottingham centric compilation called ‘UK Duty Paid’.”

Also joining us in cyberspace is Andrew ‘Anders’ Knight, co-founder of geek chic label Hello Thor. Describing their musical output he says – “Our bands range from folk and artrock to indie pop and a band described as Super Mario Bros meets Brian Eno. But ultimately if you’re a broad-minded indie fan you should like it.”

They originated from a joint New Year’s resolution to make a record in 2008. “Then we were at a Fists gig and decided they were the band we wanted to make a record with. Since then we’ve put out five 7″s, four EPs, a postcard book, a DVD, our first ever LP and several zines. Oh, and we had an art exhibition. And a silent disco in a library…”

Funding, Bootstrapping & Cost Sharing

Small record labels are labours of love. Many are run as side projects rather than primary income generators. When releasing new records the small labels often simply aim to make back enough money to fund future projects. It’s something done primarily for the reward of doing it, as Ste says “Make a living, but don’t expect to get rich.”

A lot of micro-labels are funded with personal money. It may be worth looking at grants & funding programs if your business concept is community-minded, but if it’s a simple matter of ‘I really like this niche of music & want to get it out there’, you probably need to look in your own pockets. If you get a business plan together you could apply for a loan, but only do so if you can be sure you’ll be able to pay it back. It may be better to be patient & raise your initial funds first through other means.

Hello Thor, like many, originated from the co-founders pooling their own money. “Initially myself, Tom and Nick put our savings into the label to get things going. From there we’ve made some money from gigs, records and merchandise to fund future releases (with occasional dips into our savings again),” Andrew explains.

Dealmaker had an unconventional funding strategy, hinted at by the name of the label. They started out selling homegrown produce in order to support local talent. If you’re not green-fingered, Ste recommends crowdfunding as an option – “Go niche and get your fans to pay for any manufacturing e.g. http://www.pledgemusic.com.”

In terms of promotional activity, much can be done on a budget particularly in the era of digital & social media addiction. Most cities also boast at least one local independent magazine that review & support local artists. In terms of putting out the actual music small labels often cost-share expenses with the artists. The artists pay for the initial production costs in getting the record made (& sometimes the artwork), then the label get it pressed & pay for distribution & promotional costs. This is the favoured way of working for many, as Matt Newnham of Gringo Records says – “The band is in control of the music that they record. If we fall out they can still take their recordings elsewhere.”

In this scenario once costs are met, the record & the artist tend to share any profits 50/50.

Gareth Hardwick of Low Point says – “Some labels are more generous than others and may also be willing to pay for recording/mastering & artwork costs (or alternatively, try & do as of much of those things in-house as possible) though it should be expected that if the label is paying for additional elements of the release, the production costs will be higher and ultimately the chance of turning a profit lower.”

As with any small business, the art of bootstrapping is key – knowing when to be frugal & being creative with what resources you have. Do you know someone with graphic design skills who may do cover artwork in return for free records? Etc. etc. It may cost a lot less per unit to press more records, but as a general business guideline you should only produce the amount you can sell in a year, and don’t forget the practical issues of storage costs & potential damage to stock. With vinyl particularly the ‘limited edition’ tag can give added value & the music can remain available indefinitely in digital form. The cheap nature of digital also gives scope to test the market first with downloads to know whether it’s worth investing in pressing records (and in what quantity).

The Move towards Digital & Other Stories

While the industry’s move towards digital has thrown up many problems with illegal file-sharing, it is here to stay & something you must try to take advantage of, rather than excessively grump over. While the Dealmaker label is greyed enough to recall an era before digital was big, Hello Thor evolved in the midst.

Ste says of the move to digital – “That was fine, other than it was unknown dark & murky territory of trial and error. No one could have guessed the magnitude or how it shaped EVERYTHING – marketing and PR let alone manufacturing and consumption.”

Andrew adds – “It just means you have to be more creative. Lots more people have the opportunity to hear our bands now. But it can be a challenge to grab people’s attention with the proliferation of blogs, music sites and online media. With hard work and interesting ideas to make you stand out from the crowd you can find music fans though – whether they want to buy records, download or stream songs.”

In terms of small labels putting out niche products, the internet has made it a lot easier to reach & sell to fans directly, cutting out middlemen who may in the past have taken a slice of profit. This has upsides & downsides as independent record stores struggle to survive. But the past couple of years have indicated survival is still possible for these pillars of the local music community, helped along by publicity provided through Record Store Day & documentaries such as Sound it Out & Last Shop Standing.

The proliferation of social media forums has also become a major tool, Ste states in reaching people, “80% of the method is down to Social Networks now.” These include the standard Facebook & Twitter, music blogs, streaming sites such as Bandcamp & Soundcloud, along with spreading music videos through channels like Vimeo & You Tube. Collaborating with other creative channels can also bear fruit. Ste has been working with the independent clothing store Mimm to put on Nottingham Independent Creative Community events in the past few years which showcase local musicians, as well as hosting stalls from local artists (kind of like a hip-hop craft fair). While Babes in the Wood are combining the skills of co-founders Hannah Cracket & Thomas Holding to create a fashion & music brand.

How to be local & global.

It’s advantageous to work with local acts, you can become an involved part of the local music community where a lot of word-of-mouth gold dust floats among the dry ice. There’s something satisfying about being able to meet the artist you’re working with in person, which a pure cyber-friendship can never quite match. Plus you’re helping boost regional esteem, as Ste enigmatically states – “It feeds the soul.”

This can also be mixed with a more international approach, as Andrew explains of Hello Thor – “We never set out to work exclusively with local acts – in fact our bands have members based in London, New York and Berlin these days – but we do work with a lot of Nottingham artists. It’s good to work with people you know and like from hanging out at gigs. It’s rewarding to be part of a scene where talented, enthusiastic people are supporting each other. And it’s also great to be able to pop to your local for a pint with the people on your label too.”

Dos & Don’t for Artists Approaching a Record Label.

Andrew says – “Don’t expect us to know you and your music if you haven’t ever been in touch with us. Invite us to a gig / approach us at a gig, send us links to your music. Then remind us ‘cos we’re busy and forgetful! Make sure you’re appropriate to the label too. It’s pretty obvious but if you’re making hardcore punk then don’t get in touch with a tweecore label. It’s surprising how many bands don’t seem to put much time into researching the labels they contact.”

Ste says – “Don’t tell me how good you are, just give me the music (digital only) and make sure its data tagged / grace noted or it won’t enter my itunes.”

Tips & Links for Aspiring Record Labels

Andrew says – “Ask a lot of questions. Find people you like and ask how they do things. People were really friendly, open and helpful when we started out. We didn’t really have a clue how you make a record when we set the label up. But we asked around, did some research, learnt as we went and have had a ball. Also, do it for the love of it. Not the money. You’re very unlikely to make money quickly. And if you’re spending your spare time and savings starting up a label you’d better love the music and people you’re working with. Ask yourself where you’d go to find the music you want to hear. And make sure that’s where your bands can be found…”

Recommended Links…

Fresh on the Net

BBC Introducing

Amazing Tunes

Bearos (resources for DIY labels)

Association of Independent Music – AIM

Sound on Sound – Tips on Starting (a long piece but if you look at the sidebar you can skip to the bits you need)

Many thanks to Ste Allan of Dealmaker, you can find here more about his various projects – Nottingham Independent Creative Community, Bad Means Good, WEYA

Thanks to Andrew Knight of Hello Thor. The debut album by Fists is due for release in 2013 and their first ever 12″ (by Cantaloupe) too. Check out the Hello Thor website for news of events / releases as and when they come out of hibernation.

Thanks also to Gareth Hardwick of ambient/drone label Low Point & Matt Newnham of “louder than war” Gringo Records for their collected imput. Both also local Nottingham labels worth a butchers.

Update – Ste Allan & the other co-founder of Hello Thor, Nick Lawford kindly took part in our Independent Music Panel Discussion for Memories of the Future festival, see below –

2 thoughts on “A Few Tips on Starting an Independent Record Label

  1. As this is still a popular post – for all those interested we’re running THE FUTURE OF DIY – RECORD LABEL PANEL DISCUSSION featuring Ste Allan & Matt Newnham, also Joey Bell from The Music Exchange on 11th October at The Corner, 8 Stoney Street, Nottingham at 6pm, as part of Memories of the Future – more details here https://beesmakehoneycc.com/motf/
    We’ll likely be posting it as some sort of podcast or webinar at some point, for those of you unable to make it.

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