‘The National leaving Brassland and going to 4AD led to awkwardness’
But it also made it possible for Brassland to keep going for another five years. Alec Hanley Bemis, co-founder of Brassland, weighs up the influential New York indie record label’s credo and business model
Top brass: Alec Hanley Bemis. Photograph: Fergal Phillips
It’s a Saturday afternoon at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. Surrounded by the chatter of musicians, the clatter of instruments being taken out of their sturdy cases, and the sound of bands rehearsing in the next room, Alec Hanley Bemis looks completely unperturbed.
Bemis was in Ireland for the Brassland@NCH weekend in December and also for a sneak peek at Other Voices in Dingle. The co-founder of the influential New York-based indie record label might seem like the kind of industry insider who has seen it all, but this is not necessarily so. Established, august venues such as Ireland’s NCH, he counters, rarely get involved with indie labels such as Brassland. (Other Voices, he adds as an aside, is unique.)
It helps, he allows, that Brassland’s other co-founders are Bryce and Aaron Dessner of The National, the American alternative rock band who have crossed over into the mainstream following a long spell as cult darlings and critics’ favourites. The National aside (the band are no longer on the label, but the sales of their early albums keep Brassland on a relatively even financial keel), the label has enough weight to warrant further investigation. And then there is its ethos.
“We give bands and musicians a level of infrastructure,” says Bemis as he tucks into an early dinner of Irish cod and humungous chips while Brassland signings Buke and Gase tune up, “but without putting on the pressure that if they don’t sell 20,000 records they’re going to be out of luck. That said, it’s probably more of a corporate experience than they had before we found them. But Brassland is not trying to become a major label. It’s as much about interaction between the different musicians as it is about whatever audience will be for them. We reckon that side of things will take care of itself.”
Community over commerce
Brassland, which was founded in 2001, operates more on community than on commerce. Is there any frustration within the label that the creative people they work with aren’t as business-savvy as they should be?
“Our more successful bands have people in them who understand the need for that side of things; in some ways, it’s looking at the band and deciding who in the band is already the manager.”
The fact that some bands don’t network in the right way seems to have a bigger effect on their success, says Bemis.
“Social networking has put the networking aspects into a weird place. What used to happen in the real world now takes place online, and something has definitely been lost in that. Quite simply, it isn’t the same thing and the connections aren’t as meaningful. The people who are able to figure out how to ride that have an advantage. In the real world, some bands might be capable of it, but in the virtual world they’re not, and that can become a liability. That I find frustrating.”
On the label’s website, its mission statement mentions, among other things, that the label only wants to hear from, and work with, music acts that possess “the elusive tonic of personality”. It’s a lovely slice of intuitive copywriting that Bemis is careful to downplay, lest an air of pretentiousness should start to waft through the conversation.
“It’s difficult to talk of something like ‘magic’,” he offers, almost wincing at the thought. “I recall a major-label guy saying that he wanted to see the artists he signed levitate.” Cue a giggle that threatens to turn into a guffaw.
“A whole band won’t necessarily be able to do that, but individual members might,” says Bemis. “Obviously, that kind of intangibility is difficult to find. In addition to musical chops, we definitely like the idea of an artist having pure instrumental skills. But they’re not check marks, just some things that pull us in.”
Has Brassland ever signed a music act and then later realised that a mistake had been made? “Not really. We sign people very sparingly; we put out about four records a year and we have about four active bands at any given time. That said, I’ve realised after six months that something might not go as well as I had thought.”
The problem is that things happen that simply can’t be predicted. “Yeah, you know, bands break up, and bands aren’t able to execute the plans they make, and so on.”
Most of the music Brassland releases is generated from its community of friends and associates. As a business entity, however, isn’t there a financial bottom line that might be affected by combining friendship with business decisions?
“Our bottom line is slow and steady, with the emphasis on the steady. That’s actually been the case year on year, especially in the past five years or so. And you know, I’d say whatever financial pressures or awkwardness there is comes about, usually, because of success and not failure.
“The National leaving Brassland and going on to 4AD led to some awkwardness, but it was also what made it possible for Brassland to keep going for another five years. And it made it possible for Aaron to produce a new record by This Is the Kit essentially for free, just because he wanted to do it.”
Louder noise is coming from the next room, and Bemis still hasn’t finished his dinner. Brassland, he concludes, is more akin to an ecosystem for label acts such as This Is the Kit, Jherek Bischoff, and Baby Dayliner (each of which have releases scheduled for this year) than a cash cow.
“There are several artists on the roster right now who have grown with us, and we’re actively trying to get them to go other places. We have found that artists generally aren’t looking to cash it in with record labels any more.
“The badge of identity that Brassland is can mean as much to the artist as how many thousands of dollars they might get. That’s healthier, don’t you think?”
THE BRASSLAND MODEL: MISSION STATEMENT
- We’ve never actually looked for bands, but rather different people will contact us. We want the band to have a story and a vibe, and to be larger than the music they’re making. We want to sense from bands that there’s a whole world formed in their heads.
- While we like well-played music, we think technique is less important than art that resonates emotionally, physically and/or intellectually – hopefully all three at the same time.
- We don’t work with people who just want to be pop stars. We like to find artists who are fundamentally uninterested in the corporate frame of mind. We are not governed by fashion and cool – although we don’t mind if our artists are considered cool or come into fashion.
- Our best advice to developing artists? Make music, put it on the internet, and perform frequently in front of people. If your creativity generates a response, opportunities will come to you.