The little label that could
INTERVIEW:Fires, controversial musicians, tours falling through and trying – and failing – to keep up with bands on tour. As they mark 10 years in business, the men behind Rubyworks tell PATRICK FREYNEabout keeping an Irish music label afloat
LAST YEAR, DURING the London riots, the managers of a small Dublin record label turned on Sky News and saw a Sony warehouse that held 10,000 of their records burning to the ground.
“I realised ‘that’s Enfield . . . and that’s our stock going up in smoke’,” says senior label manager Roger Quail. “There was a real sense of disbelief.” The label’s founder, Niall Muckian, a man with an almost preternaturally calm demeanour, says that he actually panicked.
“I generally don’t panic, but that day I did,” he says. “It turns out we were really lucky. The warehouse had just shipped most of a new Rodrigo y Gabriela record, but I’d no clue at the time what we had and hadn’t lost. In that few hours of not knowing, I freaked out. I went for a long walk.”
“If there had been stock there that needed to go for the release, we would have been crippled,” says junior label manager – and relative “new boy” – Eoin Aherne.
The conclusion, however, is that everything worked out. “It put pressure on us financially but we were fortunate that we came out relatively unscathed,” says Muckian.
Muckian, Quail and Aherne run the now 10-year-old Rubyworks label, home to acts such as Rodrigo y Gabriela, Wallis Bird, Ryan Sheridan, the Minutes and Fight Like Apes as well as, on occasion, stalwarts such as Sinéad O’Connor, Mary Coughlan, Hot House Flowers and Gavin Friday. In a worrisome era for the music business Rubyworks is a quiet, unassuming success story.
There was no great master plan. Muckian was, at the time of establishing the label, running Dublin’s long-running charity gig, the Ruby Sessions, in Doyle’s pub, and he was doing management odd-jobs for Damien Rice.
“Damien Rice was putting out [his record] O and I was working with him, getting gigs and CDs manufactured,” he says. “And he introduced me to Rod and Gab [Rodrigo y Gabriela]. He was doing his album launch at Vicar Street and they were supporting him and I got involved with them from that stage. I shopped them to all the labels and no one was interested, so we said we’d put a record out ourselves and see what happened.”
The then Irish-resident Mexican guitarists are still at the heart of the label and are now international bestsellers. Muckian says that, once he’d released records for them, it seemed natural to start doing so for other acts, partially facilitated by an investment from MCD’s Denis Desmond. When Muckian started to cast his mind on other markets, however, he knew he needed to get more experienced hands involved. He first met Quail when Rubyworks was seeking a UK distribution deal and he was working for distributor 3MV.
“The best thing I ever did was to refuse Niall a distribution deal in 2003,” says 51-year-old Quail, who once played drums with Clock DVA and, for a while, Cabaret Voltaire. “I was with 3MV, which had surfed the wave of Brit pop and then done very well out of the Ministry of Sound and Fantasia club compilations, but subsequently made some questionable investments. It was all going a bit wrong by 2004. [3MV subsequently went under.] Had Niall got the deal he wanted in 2003, there’s a real possibility Rubyworks would have gone down with 3MV.”
Quail has decades of experience in the industry, not least alongside Alan McGee at Creation Records, home to Oasis, Primal Scream, Teenage Fanclub and, less successfully, The House of Love and Felt. “Alan’s thing is ‘do you get it?’ and if you ‘get it’ you’re okay with him,” says Quail. He was there when McGee released Kevin Rowland of Dexys Midnight Runners’ comeback record My Beauty in 1999, a record he unconventionally promoted in make-up, stockings and a dress.
“He was trying to explore his feminine side,” says Quail. “I was at the meeting where he explained that this was how he wanted to promote the record and I think everyone realised that the game was up. It sold 48 copies in the first week. We haven’t had a situation like that at Rubyworks.”
“Gavin Friday did want to dress as the dead Michael Collins on his record,” says Aherne.
“And he did,” says Quail.
“But I don’t think it’s so shocking to people that Gavin Friday would do something like that,” says Muckian.
By 2004, Quail, who is married to an Irishwoman, had a yen to move to Dublin. He’d been impressed by Rodrigo y Gabriela and by Muckian and so he joined the new label. Its simple ethos reminds him of the eclecticism of Island Records in the 1970s. “Historically, Rubyworks has just three rules about artists,” he says. “First, they’ve got to be great live. It would be very hard to imagine a scenario where we signed a bedroom-based artist. Then they’ve got to have great songs . . . And they have to have a personality. They have to be interesting and charming in interviews.”
Muckian elaborates. “We stay away from that idea of going down one genre and specialising,” he says. “You run into trouble very quickly if you do that. If there’s a scene happening and all of a sudden a label is all about that scene and that scene moves on, you’re in trouble. If you look at Rod and Gab, they span so many different genres, from rock to classical to Spanish guitar. We treat the label a bit like that too. We’re not afraid to go work with different music.”
At the moment under the Rubyworks banner, there’s the parent label, an electric/electronic label called Model Citizen (with acts such as Fight like Apes and the Minutes), a hip hop imprint called Gotta Run (featuring the Original Rudeboys) and a newly acquired UK-based label, Ark.
As well as being eclectic, musically, the musicians of Rubyworks are also an eclectic bunch of personalities. That said, it’s hard to get their caretakers to be anything but professionally tight-lipped. “Fight like Apes do hold up the party end,” says Aherne.
“I went on tour with them for a while,” says Muckian. “But I had to come home.” In contrast, Rodrigo y Gabriela are all vegan food and health consciousness. “They have to be,” says Muckian. “They couldn’t do what they do otherwise.”
Aherne got involved very shortly before the warehouse fire. “For a few moments I thought it was all over,” he says. “I thought: ‘ah well, it was nice while it lasted’.” Like Quail, he has a musical background. He was the guitarist with Dublin band, Director.
“Which is interesting,” says Quail, “because guitarists are usually the mad, disorganised ones.”
“That’s the funniest thing a drummer has ever said,” says Aherne dryly.
This prompts an argument about who, in a band line-up, is most likely to end up working in other parts of the industry. Muckian (who says he “can barely hum a tune”) and Quail both feel that it’s drummers.
“After years sitting at the back looking out at the other idiots, working behind the scenes seems natural,” says Quail, to much laughter.
To some degree, Rubyworks represents how the industry has changed. Focused on artist management as much as record-releases, and with 25 to 30 per cent of sales from digital sources, they stress the importance of old-fashioned artist development, steady progress and remaining calm.
During the perennial crises faced by a slowly growing independent label, from tours falling through to warehouses burning down, their artists look to them for reassurance.
“Our job is to worry so the musicians don’t have to,” says Muckian. “I guess my job is to be ‘chief worrier’.”
“People assume that everything we do happens in this world of X Factor, where everything is limos and champagne and everyone is having the most incredible party,” says Quail. “It’s not like that.”
“Although we do have cake on Fridays,” says Muckian, and they all nod enthusiastically.
Rubyworks is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a gig in the Olympia on Sunday, August 26th, featuring Rodrigo y Gabriela, Ryan Sheridan, Wallis Bird and Josephine, and a gig in Whelans on Monday, August 27th, featuring Fight Like Apes, The Minutes, Funeral Suits and Deap Vally. See rubyworks.com