It’s interesting to see that a number of the music industry’s medium sized fish are devising interesting new ways to run record labels. What’s more interesting is that the model developed at Stobie Sounds in 2009 is becoming a popular solution to the conundrum of running a label in the 21st century.
With the rise of Inertia Access and Dew Process’ Create/Control, we thought it was timely for a bit of a reflection of our first years of life as ‘Australia’s Favourite Community Based Roots Record Label’.
A few years back, when Stobie Sounds sprang to life off the back of a 4 track EP, music industry boffins were using adjectives such as ‘crisis’, ‘terminal decline’ and ‘Holy Shitballs’ to describe the state of the recording industry. The ‘big four’ record labels (now the big three) were owned by Russian oil tycoons, investment bankers and straight up crooks who spent the best part of the 80s and 90s becoming bloated profit making behemoths that had somehow forgotten that music is an artform. Labels had become brutally efficient at defrauding artists and appealing to the lowest common denominator. In this context, our decision to form a record label was often met by smirks. I recall one day early on I was dropping off a batch of Kirk Special’s debut at a record store when the owner provided his views on our new venture: ‘If you don’t sell more than 5000 copies it’s a vanity project’. I didn’t have the balls to tell him we only made 100 copies and had no plans to make any more.
By the time we sat down to hold our first AGM the doubters had left an impression on us. So we spent a lot of time trying to articulate what we wanted to achieve and how to model our business around our lofty ideals. We hit the libraries and interweb researching how everything fit together. We learned about the history of the recording industry, copyright, publishing, licensing, contracts, intellectual property and then forgot it all and tried to devise something new. And we aren’t alone.
Our central aims were to set up a community-based record label operating on a not-for-profit basis that supports great independent musicians whilst generating enough income to pay artists a decent chunk and be self-sustaining. Sounds like a walk in the park.
What we came up with is a simple model that works well on a small scale.
The centrepiece of our model is great music written by great songwriters played by great musicians. We cannot overstate how important this is. Our belief is that if the music supported by our label is strong then over time we will be successful in our goals.
Rather than trying to own every step of the process, we come on board for a short burst. Artists come to us with their album fully recorded and ready to go. They retain full artistic control and ownership of copyright in their recordings. Our role is to take that recording, manufacture the albums, promote the hell out of ‘em and organise gigs, facilitate tours – and sell records. Our agreements with bands are short term.
This is pretty much what the peeps over at create/control will be doing (think Splendour in the Grass, Powderfinger etc). With the exception that they’ll do it with more cash, great networks, heaps of experience and years of knowledge… We’ll be watching closely how they go about it. We hope they make it work on a much larger scale than we do it.
Our releases are glued together with an annual compilation album based on a theme. This year’s outing is based on the poetry of Irish convict Francis McNamara and will feature some of our favorite established artists like Mia Dyson, Jimmy Dowling, Heath Cullen and the Yearlings alongside some of our favorite emerging bands such as Max Savage, Tom West, Bearded Gypsy Band and The Timbers.
We are also different in that our manufacturing is all done in-house. All our sleeves are hand printed using traditional methods. We spend a lot of time honing our printing skills, writing liner notes and trying to create a sleeve that is given as much love and attention as the music inside it. This method is labor intensive and immensley satisfying which keeps our output to a maximum of 500 copies per release (with most being 100-200). But given people don’t tend to buy physical albums anymore this tends to work in our favour and means we don’t have cupboards full of unsold albums lying around.
We’ve tweaked our system along the way. It’s still got it’s foibles but we’re keeping the good bits and forgetting about the mistakes.
We differ from the traditional business model is that we don’t spend our precious time and money recording albums in fancy studios, nor do we try to sign up bands to long term ‘record deals’. We don’t have an A&R man, a lawyer or an accountant.
So, after a three years, ten album releases and two compilations, we think we’re getting better at what we do. Each release is a new opportunity to get funk-ay. Time will tell if it’s a solid new way to sell records.