There’s been much rhetoric over recent years concerning the role of the indie record label. Even more so than their major big brothers, the independent operations have had to evolve in-line with the shifting nuances of the music industry, staying one step ahead not only with the artistes they champion, but in the way they release them.
Anika Mottershaw, A&R for Bella Union, with acts such as Beach House, Midlake, The Walkmen, says that while change has occurred, the ultimate point remains the same – who on earth has the time to do everything themselves?
“A label will have its own set of contacts and its own well established networks and ways of doing things, and so can bring plenty to the table in terms of pre-existing links and connections,” she says.
“There’s no real alchemy to setting this stuff up, it just takes time. Quite plausibly and realistically, an artiste could do everything we do for them, but you have to consider whether you really want to be doing all that, or whether you want to be focusing on the music.”
Mottershaw, who has worked within the music industry since 2009 and joined Bella Union a year later, says that while there are no specific rules of thumb for signing, an album-centric approach has proved fruitful in the past.
“There’s not a point we wait to for an act to have matured – if we like the music and think there is potential for us working together, we tend to approach the artiste at any stage,” she says.
“We usually encourage album releases rather than EPs or singles as media and radio tend not to know where to place an EP/single for smaller or new artistes – you need the narrative of an album and the wider structure that comes with it.”
Jack Clothier formed Alcopop! Records (Peaness, Tellison, Tigercub) with Kevin Douch in 2006.
He firmly believes that “a plot, creativity and helping to place acts at the heart of a community,” are the most important things for a label to concern themselves with.
“It’s primarily that feeling of having someone in your corner, someone who knows the best people to talk to, who you can trust, helping build a good team, suggesting ideas and avenues to explore,” says Clothier.
He points out that hard and fast rules concerning signings and contracts are impossible due to the case-by-case nature of the way labels work, but notes that flexibility is key.
“I just think it’s important to structure your deals so you mitigate risk and don’t get too carried away with spending if there’s no sales history there at all,” he says.
“As an ideal look-out, dependent on advance/terms, we’d go for a deal that’s flexible enough but allows us to run a whole album cycle – with assorted singles, EPs, however it’s working.”
Jack Doolan of Constant Evolution Records (Cypher16), notes that the trend in DIY development has come about largely due to the way music has become produced and consumed.
“Musicians are realising that the huge deals of the past are now few and far between, and frankly it is often much cheaper to handle the production and marketing of their music themselves,” he says.
“Then again, the recording, production and manufacturing processes, PRS/PPL, publishing, distribution and marketing can be daunting subjects to a musician who has never dealt with anything like that before, so a label is there to take a lot of that pressure away from them.”
In terms of finding the acts, Doolan says that live shows are the main focus, but adds that more than a little insight can be found at the merch table.
“Merchandise is everything now in terms of bands making a good profit on selling a physical product, because streaming revenue has still not been worked out and still doesn’t benefit the artiste,” he says.
“When acts approach us we first listen to the music – if it really grabs you then you research the band, find out how productive they are, what kind of brand they have built.
“When you go and see them, you check out the merch stand and see what their ideas about how to market their brand are. Then if they’re great live you go and have a chat.”
Paul Croan of Alex Tronic Records (Alex Tronic, Pixlface, Becki Bardot) who put the label together in Leith, Edinburgh, back in 2005, agrees that acts could certainly be capable of taking their own route, but ‘who you know’ is a significantly powerful factor in proceedings.
“A label has the trust of the distribution partners, and they can help market your product to the big players such as Spotify and iTunes,” he says.
“Bands may struggle to do this on their own, although it’s not impossible.”
When it comes to picking out acts to take onto the label, Croan initially expects little more than enthusiasm.
“A huge effort has to go into things these days, and an act will have to show us that they are serious and proactive about what they do,” he explains. “They would have to be writing music we love and have other organisational skillsets.
“We are happy to get involved at any stage in a band’s career, but it has to feel right.”