Keep it real but keep it solvent: a handy survival guide for indie labels

Do it for the music and don’t overstretch yourself. Irish labels offer their tips


Roger Quail
Label manager, Rubyworks
Acts include Rodrigo y Gabriela, Ryan Sheridan, The Minutes, Wallis Bird, Funeral Suits, John Murry, The Original Rudeboys, Alberta Cross and Josephine

What is the one thing you would advise other indie label start-ups to do before they agree to release a record?
Ask yourself why you are doing it: are you doing it to help out some mates in a band? Or do you want to be the next Geoff Travis or Korda Marshall? Increasingly, bands are self-releasing; the demystification of distribution is the most punk-rock thing that has ever happened to the record business.

What’s the biggest mistake the label has made?
Niall Muckian started the label in 2002. I joined in 2005. I think the hardest thing to do is to manage outlay in a band’s career development against what you might get back; the investment is sizeable, particularly in trying to establish an act in the UK. We’ve made some mistakes, which are inevitable when you are dealing with music and musicians – it’s not an exact science. You learn from your errors, however, and the fact that we are still here and thriving shows we get it right more often than wrong.

What’s the best decision the label has made?
You can’t tell the story of Rubyworks without mentioning Rodrigo y Gabriela. Niall saw their potential back in 2001 when no one imagined two Mexican buskers playing Metallica instrumentals on acoustic guitars would sell a bean. They sold out the Hollywood Bowl last month.

Ashley Keating
Owner and label manager, Fifa Records
Acts include The Would Be’s, The Vincent(s), Saint Yorda, The Hard Ground, Slow Motion Heroes, Hope Is Noise and The Frank & Walters

Is there a correct balance between friendship and business?
This is the part I find hardest to deal with. I have so much respect for bands because I’ve been in one – Frank & Walters – for the last 20-odd years, and know what it’s like to succeed, to fail, and everything in between. Even if I don’t like a band’s music, the fact I know all the emotion and effort that has gone into producing it makes it very hard for me to be detached and businesslike when it comes to the harder conversations. We’ve definitely been lucky, though; there haven’t really been too many fall-outs, and bands that have left the label – bands such as Fight Like Apes – went on to bigger things. It’s great to think you helped a little.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a label owner?
We overstretched a few years ago and got into a bit of debt. We had to stop releasing for 18 months as we were broke. I guess it was inexperience. We started doing stuff in the UK and Europe on our own instead of going with label partnerships, which we had done previously and do again now. When all the bills came in together it was a shock. We got everyone paid off, but it left us very disheartened. I’m glad we got back on the bike, though. The last few years have been great, and I’m blown away by the current crop of artists, like The Vincent(s) and Saint Yorda.

Ciarán Ryan
Owner, with Richard Bourke, of Out on a Limb Records
Acts include Owensie, Windings, Ten Past Seven, Rest, Crayonsmith, Waiting Room and Hooray for Humans

What is your primary tip for survival as an indie record label?
You have to look at what kind of overheads and costs you are going to incur, and is a half-crazy idea such as running an indie label in the 21st century going to be feasible for what you are planning to do? We’ve never been the most organised or strategic people, in a sense, but we’ve always been quite sensible in what we’ve spent money on, how we’ve put out records, how we’ve planned the releases and, most importantly, how we deal with the bands. Sure, we’ve made loads of mistakes, but you learn from each and every one of them.

How can a balance be achieved between selling records and illegal downloading?
I’m a little bit bored by the debate regarding illegal downloading and all of that. I think if you want to support independent music and independent artists, then, as a fan, you need to invest in that in some way or another. We’ve a loyal base of people who tend to support everything the label does, regardless of genre. They feel that they are partaking in an independent community, which is really positive to see, and which is often lost in the hyperbole about the world of downloading. Like any other label, we offer our albums as legal digital releases, but I often find links online from dodgy sites to download them for free – they are often just ripped from a stream and are of poor quality. It can be a little disheartening sometimes, but there’s also a part of you that thinks that, ah well, at least people are interested in the album. 

Elvera Butler
Label owner and manager, Reekus Records
Acts include Sweet Jane, Keith Moss, Deetrich and Death in the Sickroom

What’s the best decision you’ve made as a label owner?
Focusing equally on publishing has been useful. Bands have a very high attrition rate and way too often break up shortly after their album is released, for various reasons. As a publisher I get to work the songs and recordings. These days it’s important to be able to control both sides of the recording when pitching for song placements in TV, as it makes clearing copyright much easier for the music supervisor – the buzzword here is “one-stop clearance”. We don’t release records now unless we hold the publishing of the song as well, as it gives so much more flexibility with working it.

What is your primary tip for survival as an indie record label?
These days you have to think of it more as a music company than a label. Although musicians continue to make albums, and labels continue to release them, except for a very few really successful releases, sales have diminished greatly. To survive, it’s essential to be involved in other aspects of the band’s career. Investing in only recording and releasing records just isn’t viable.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a label owner?
The biggest mistake has been allowing myself to get carried away with the music and taking people on trust, spending time and money on them before getting things put into writing. I’ve met quite a few musicians who think the world owes them a living: they have very little respect for the time and resources put into them. The relationship can often change when the album is released and doesn’t set the world on fire, and the band’s fortunes don’t change overnight. Then everyone other than the band gets the blame, and the label is first in the line of fire.

Annie Tierney
Collective member, Popical Island
Acts include Yeh Deadlies, Skelocrats, Land Lovers, Tieranniesaur, Big Monster Love and Walpurgis Family

What is your primary tip for survival as an indie record label?
Popical Island is technically a collective, which we like to think is subtly different from a label. But to answer the question: only work on records you love.

Are reviews important?
Reviews are important for the industry. People don’t like sticking their necks out for a band, so good reviews encourage promoters to book bands and radio to play their songs. Reviews are also part of the greater conversation that’s going on in art, so you’d like to think that the people engaging in it have something to say which contributes to it. No artist wants to unveil something to absolute silence, but the worst thing is a review that’s plain terrible, as opposed to one that’s terribly critical.

How can a balance be achieved between selling records and illegal downloading?
Most musicians will keep doing what they do even if they know it’s impossible to make a living from it, because they have this disease called creativity. You can only hope that people might cop on to the fact that illegal downloading is bad for musicians, and to pay for stuff if they’d like to support it. I think everything is moving towards streaming now anyhow, and that’s an area that energy should be thrown into while it’s still young in order to get a fair representation for musicians.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a label owner? 
We might not have pushed some things hard enough. You’re always trying to find that balance between presenting something well, letting people know it exists, hoping they like it and on the other side avoiding pushing something at people in an annoying way. I think sometimes we could have gone harder.

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