“In a nation run by swine, all pigs are upward-mobile and the rest of us are fucked until we can put our acts together: Not necessarily to Win, but mainly to keep from Losing Completely.” Hunter S Thompson — Gonzo Papers, Vol. 1: The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time (1979)
Hunter S. Thompson had many wise words that can be useful to anyone wanting to work in the music business. But I’ve always puzzled over a simple question “How did he know?”
Independent can mean many different things. For Iron Man Records, an independent record label, it often means working hard and trying to turn available time and resources into value for the artists and the consumer. It can mean working to engage your artists and the networks and audience they attract, building a community around the artists and the work being done. Independent also means being respectful of other people’s work, time, budget, skills and intelligence. Keeping peoples attention is not easy. Once people lose interest, you may never get them to come back. This applies to the artists you work with, the audience you try to engage and everyone else in the network.
Independent can mean having all of the control, and none of the money. It can mean having no idea, and taking all of the blame. Perhaps when I started all this back in 1996 it also meant doing it yourself, hoping to do it properly. In truth, it meant having all of the enthusiasm and none of the knowledge or understanding. Like the early stages of anything, you have naive and myopic ideas, and all sorts of blind enthusiasm. You know not what you do. Many of the people you meet along the way know not what they do either. Sometimes Heath Robinson can make it all look easy.
Independent means you just do it anyway, by any means, and it can be a painful, complicated and expensive learning process. You make a start, no one can stop you, or offer any advice. You make a lot of stupid mistakes. You realise that burning money in phone boxes actually works out cheaper, and generates more interest in what you do, than the records you try to release. And you have to resist the desire to give up, blame everyone but yourself, or throw a tantrum. You put yourself through an almost accidental initiation in your search for meaning, and then you can’t give it up, ever. No one can help you, no one can reason with you. You’re fucked.
“There are three classes of people: those who see. Those who see when they are shown. Those who do not see.” Leonardo da Vinci
At some point you may have a brief moment of clarity. Independent means you can be any one of those three people at any time, or even all three at once. You have to know which of those you are at the start of each day. You have to know when to follow your instincts, you also have to listen and learn from others who try to help you, even if you think you already know everything. And learning to spot a good deal among many bad deals is tricky. Few people even understand what a good deal consists of. You may have to employ a way of picking one and reasoning why. You think you can see a way through it. And so your work begins. Independence can be brutal, synchronicity, seriality or the law of fives can make it fun, but sometimes you may wish you weren’t independent at all.
Independent means you have to develop your own networks, suppliers, ways of working and a method that works for you. You have to spend your own money, not someone else’s. You have to learn to budget and manage your own finances. You can’t afford to make mistakes, and you have to accept and understand you will make a lot of mistakes.
The moment any written agreement is presented, many independents will pull the shutters down and switch off. You have to learn the rules to break them properly, and you have to be able to recognise the good deals when they fall into your lap. Few people know what they are doing, or how success happens. Most success stories I come across, are the result of some chance happening that proved accidentally beneficial. You have to know how to maximise the opportunity when something happens by chance. And when things start to work, go with it and work as hard as you can to keep things moving upwards and onwards. Some of the greatest failures can happen by thinking success can happen by itself, or opportunities will happen again and again, or by being slow to respond when an opportunity presents itself. You are the master. You have to participate. You can develop or destroy your work at any time. And you have to be prepared to work with others, who you might not always see eye to eye with. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.
How long it takes to be a successful independent, working it all out for yourself, is down to you. You have to be prepared to admit you haven’t got a clue, perhaps you are doing it wrong. You have to be open to trying again using a different strategy. Having no money forces you to listen, learn, accept the contradictions and then adapt and overcome. Patience and persistence only work if you pair them up with an ongoing process of learning and evaluation. Thinking you may be wrong is a good way to check what you are doing, you have to keep an open mind and keep yourself away from distractions. But you also have to take risks and be prepared to try new ideas.
“. . . there are periods of history when the visions of madmen and dope fiends are a better guide to reality than the common-sense interpretation of data available to the so-called normal mind. This is one such period, if you haven’t noticed already.” R.A.Wilson
One thing I’ve learned along the way is that pretty much everything you think you know is in some sense, nonsense. But it’s ok, because everything else you learn or people try to tell you is probably nonsense in some sense too. So being independent means you can pick the advice you like, follow whatever path you like, it just doesn’t matter, but do it now and be prepared to take the consequences. Make a start. Not everything goes to plan, but some things might. You have to keep trying.
Having ideas can be the easy part of being an independent, surviving in the long term and making the process work for everyone is another thing all together. You need to establish an income stream, and you need to find some champions or individuals who will support your insanity. Few people will understand what motivates you, fewer still will like what you do. Many will assume you have plenty of money because they will be easily fooled by your positive and enthusiastic attitude. Independent means you also have to find and establish a market to work with. And your market may not be in the place where you currently operate. While you attempt to understand your market, your market may struggle to understand you. Do your research, and be prepared to find contradictions, they’re everywhere.
Iron Man Records is run by two people. Kevan Tidy who is an intellectual property lawyer, script writer and musician. Mark Sampson is a Tour Manager, Musician and Money Burner.
Kevan brought 20 years commercial experience to the table in 1996 when Mark first proposed starting a record label. Kevan’s initial advice was to “give up now, save the money and do something else.” His view was that the industry was finished and nothing but a long slow drop into a deep abyss remained. He was right of course, but that didn’t stop anything.
Mark made the case that if this was his best advice, Kevan would make an ideal partner to work with. And by agreeing to disagree, on everything, the record label began. Kevan would provide the words of wisdom, and all the written agreements as long as he never had to attend a meeting. Mark would do everything else, and pay for it.
It’s nearly 21 years later and Iron Man Records remains independent. Mark and Kevan still run the label. Mark pays for everything, Kevan hasn’t had to attend a single meeting.
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