Prior to this article, we had thought of music in the digital age in terms of Dickens: it’s the best of times and it’s the worst of times. It’s the best of times for consumers, as digital connectivity allows for music to be instantaneously downloaded across the globe. No longer do we have to travel to Seattle to live the grunge scene, or the Bay Area for thrash. No longer do we need to send $5 in a self-addressed envelope to buy a cassette tape from Touch and Go Records. We have online streaming hubs like Spotify, Deezer, Google Play, Beats Music, Rhapsody and Rdio. We have bandcamp. Moreover, the democratization of music production and distribution allows for bedroom musicians to sell their own music independently.
Vlad Matveikov of Small Pond Recordings
How could this possibly be the worst of times? I remember when Hydra Head Records, one of my favourite record labels, closed down their business three years ago. The label that had introduced me to Cave In, Craw, Keelhaul and all these other great mathcore bands, was suddenly calling it quits after not being able to function following their sticky financial situation. I couldn’t help but think that the digital age was taking over, and Hydra Head couldn’t keep up. While the advent of democratized music making has undoubtedly blurred the lines between artist, producers, labels and distributors, how bad (or good) is it for labels?
“This is the best time to be actively creating and consuming music!” says Vlad Matveikov of new record label, Small Pond Recordings. A few weeks ago, Vlad and his colleagues opened their new studio and rehearsal space in Brighton, renovating the entire space from the ground up, and installing a giant 32 channel Neve 8108. The studio is now fully open to the public. A new bean in the ever-growing and ever-enigmatic music industry, Vlad was in the best position to answer all our questions about operating a record label.
Firstly, what does a label actually do? Sometimes people only have a vague idea
I suppose a good way to think of a label is it being the institution that materializes artistic ideas or creations of an artist/band into sellable content. The label creates physical (and sometimes digital) versions of content an absorbs the cost and risk of doing that in hopes to later break even and cut a profit
And so how does the label operate? What are the individual responsibilities?
Small Pond Recordings has grown very quickly and we have been having to find our feet as it goes. In broader terms when it comes to recording and videos Sam Coveney and George McKenzie take the lead. Digital domain is bossed by Liam McMillan, and Dave Jackson and myself do the day to day admin grind, setting sights for releases and finding ways to grow and move forward. We have a few people helping us out like Andy Crowder of Musical Mathematics, who started working as our in house PR and without whom it would be impossible to keep up with all tasks at hand. If you come see us at our HQ in Brighton another character you will come across will be Joe Caple, who is was the latest team addition and a dude who is literally seemingly good at everything. I have seen him mix a great record, fix vans, break walls and drive from Brighton to Oslo in one go… I don’t know how he is still alive. I think it boils down to this – If you are not a cocky shit but a hard working, well-intentioned person, you will naturally fall into the appropriate social role in most collective situations, and intuitively start working on things you have a predisposition to be good at. We are just lucky that we remain friends despite being drastically different people and are able not to kill each other while working together. And as the label continues to grow the team naturally fills in the gaps to take care of the new tasks at hand. It’s not rocket science ;)
How and where do you monetize as a label?
Like all labels we try and monetize our situation by selling records! For our first 3 releases we only aimed to break even at the end of first print sales and do a good job for the band and their music. As oppose to you know, try and make a ‘quick buck’ (as if that is plausible for young independent labels anyways). As with any business starting a label, growing the name and brand recognition takes time. We are lucky to be in a position where we are not under a huge deal of financial pressure and not on strict time lines to reach our break-even points as some other labels in their infancy might be. As a result we were able to work on our releases more closely, and invest more time and money into them. We could grow our label into its current position in a shorter amount of time it would normally take. With most of our income coming from other facets of Small Pond Recordings’ activities– audio recordings, live videos, working with local music schools, and soon studio and rehearsal space hire – we had the luxury of building the label without too much additional & immediate pressure.
Do you ever end up doing work for free? How do you feel about it?
Working for free can be fine if you know that you are building a foundation or a platform for future growth. You can’t just step into the best video and recording sessions as a novice, or start releasing top selling artists’ records on a new label you set up three days after graduating college. Most reasonable people are aware that they have to start somewhere basic and work their way up, and on that journey, both as an individual and a company, you will at times face a choice of either working on something that will elevate your skills, career, or stature for little or no money, or to decide to forgo working on something exciting because it does not carry the desired financial reward. Everyone has to find this balance for themselves and at some point most people realize that the most precious commodity is time and not money. It is a strange variable to plot into any equation – you cant really store it away for later, like you can with money – and everyone has to find their balance of how to spend this precious currency. In its infancy while the label has been financially solvent it has not turned enough profit for all of us to have a luxurious, or even sustainable, lifestyles. As opposed to walking away from unpaid work our reaction was to put more of our ‘free’ time into it and dig in harder; we wanted to grow the label and one day reach new places we hadn’t been at before. For us, music is our lives, and the line between work and play has been fading for years now. Now though investing the currency of time we are in a better position to see it rerun in the currency of cash.
How did Small Pond Recordings start?
It’s a childhood dream of mine to have a recording studio and a label and I tried setting it up in one way or another in three different countries now. The difference this time is that I am very fortunate to be surrounded by a group of clever and driven individuals that I am lucky to call my friends. There is a now a self-sustainable team that is working in unison and is headed in one same direction. Fundamentally it started when a group of driven people wanted something, and seeing that we could not achieve it individually and nobody was going to hand it to any one of us we decided to team up and work together to achieve these things we wanted. We are still working on them now.
What are some ways you try to stand out as a label?
I don’t think we try and stand out. If life was a party and we were invited I don’t think the Small Pond Outfit would not be a ‘loud’ and ‘colorful’ blazer so we can get some attention… We do the things that we like – put on shows, make videos, release records and are now finishing building a studio and a set of rehearsal spaces for our HQ. The music we work with ranges from math and post rock to electronic and jazz – we just pick things that sound genuine and do what we know with them. We work hard on those things until we feel internally at peace knowing that we did the best we could with what we had at hand. If we stand out and get some attention that is a great self-affirming bonus, but it is by no means the main driving factor. If nobody noticed us we would still be doing these same things we are doing now. Minus this interview.
How do you decide on bands to sign, what kind of processes are involved?
It sounds wanky and vague to say ‘its an organic process’ and that there is ‘no blue print in how its done’ but that is actually the truth. You just never know who you come across or how. We were not even supposed to start operating as a label until later this year, and than two bands reached out to us to see what we thought about putting their releases out, and no one in their right mind would not roll with Valerian Swing and Mutiny on the Bounty’s last records, did you hear them? Next step was to reach out to Town Portal and Alarmist, which now didn’t seem like weird or farfetched idea, something that might have been true 4 weeks earlier. A dozen emails later we booked them a tour, shot videos and decided to put work on releases together. Suddenly we were knee deep in it… When I met up with Josh and he showed me the new Luo record first thing I told him was ‘fuck Off’. It was too good – there were a lot of ‘what the fucks’, ‘how the fucks’ and just general swearing at a person who just blew you lid off with his writing and production. Then we got drunk in a beer garden. His debut full length will be nothing short of mad and I cant wait to get it out there, whenever it may be… I still don’t think that to this day we made any weird attempts to decide, approach or convince anyone to sign with us, we just did our bits and rolled along with it and this is where we are at now.
Do you find any complications running a record label in this digital age, where individual artists can more easily self-produce, self-promote and self-distribute? Musicians like Plini and Sithu Aye have shown that it is quite achievable to exist independently of labels. How do you feel about this? Or is the digital age actually an advantage?
This is a loaded question and one that is not easy to answer without going on a huge tangent. First of all let me start by saying that this is the best time to be actively creating and consuming music. Chris Anderson’s “The Long Tail” is an essential read for anyone who really wants to understand the underlying causes and not symptoms of the transformation of entertainment industry, particularly focusing on the democratization of tools of production and distribution (read at least the first 40 or so pages of that book, if you cant commit to the whole thing). With most musical activity taking place in the digital domain the function of record labels has been changing contextually to keep up. I think that it is great that people can make and distribute music without a label and I am also convinced that labels are still relevant and have a place as platforms and anchors for scenes and consumers/listeners aside from being able to finance artists and help them materialize certain facets of their dream they wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise achieve. It’s all one big exciting mess!
Most of your roster sits loosely within the jazz and math rock niches. I’m totally extrapolating here, but do you think working within a particularly niche style of music is an advantage? Or a disadvantage? Is it even intended?
I think it is an advantage to establish brand recognition within a niche (and its easier to begin with). For us this started with math rock, through live videos that we did, specially for ArcTanGent, and the local gigs we put on for our friends’ bands. Between us at Small Pond we love forward thinking rock music, but we are also hell bent on electronic music, hip hop and jazz. I think that most people don’t listen to one genre and everyone’s iPods have a bit of everything that sounds ‘genuine’ or ‘relate-able’.
Carl Jung wrote about the collective subconscious, I like to loosely take this principal and apply it to music. I think its easy to see that in a lot of young people’s minds lines between genres, niches and sounds are blurring and disappearing and we are collectively becoming new age music consumers/listeners. People seem to give less of a shit what things are called or what they are categorized as, whether there is a sampler or a guitar making the noise, and are really starting to pay attention to what they like. To me that is hugely exciting. I think our collective perception of music, as a new young generation is going to take music creation and audiences to new places. And for a lack of better words, its fucking awesome.
Town Portal is loosely speaking instrumental metal, Calico is modern jazz, and Luo is electronic madness. The fact that those can co-exist on one label and share an audience on the same live bill is a testament to that. What a cool time to be alive and be active in music!
What do you foresee for the future of your label and the music that drives it?
There is a basic road map for us paved for this next year – on it are future syncing and distribution partnerships and a few other exciting things that will share in due course. As for the music, who the fuck knows man. It all just gets more and more surprising every day, that’s the exciting part of the journey! And also I would rather go eat a roast beef sandwich than speculate about the future of music or Small Pond Recordings.
Despite independent labels comprising only 11.42% of the global music market share, the staggering growth of independent musicians over the past decade suggests it is indeed a great time to be a label then. Moreover, it appears that digital sales have actually increased over the last two years, wedging itself alongside physical music sales rather than superseding it. “As ambitious as it sounds, our intention is to become tastemakers rather than a portal for any one niche of music,” says Vlad. In other words, Small Pond are pursuing exactly what I saw in my beloved Hydra Head records, a voice. A friendly hub that helped me find my favourite artists and connect me with their products. Rather than the state of the music industry being intimidating, Vlad sees it as a big exciting mess. And he and the Small Pond team are clearly ready to get his feet dirty.