10 Questions – 2015
1. Why did you initially want to set up Iron Man Records?
I used to tape trade when I was a teenager. It started when I was about 14. I wrote to people all round the world, swapping live tapes, demos and copies of albums. I used to enjoy getting letters and reading about the bands that people were into. I would sit for hours reading through letters and listening to the tapes that had been sent with stories of the bands, who they were, and why they were worth listening to. I decided that when I finished at school, I would continue tape trading and dedicate more time to finding new music. When that time came, the CD was replacing tapes and vinyl, and I was playing in a couple of bands and organising shows at a local pub. I was distracted with other activities for a few years and toyed with the idea of writing or perhaps getting a job. I didnt do either. I spent many nights going to gigs in London. I used to go to The Fulham Greyhound, Sir George Robey, Brixton Canterbury Arms, and loads of other good places. I spent a lot of time at the White Horse in Hampstead. They used to have good bands on there all the time. I would travel to London, meet people at the gigs and then stay at their place afterwards. All I did was listen to music, go to gigs, and talk about bands and records with people I met. All the best live tapes seemed to be coming from Birmingham. A venue called The Mermaid had lots of good bands playing and I was tape trading with Bri and Stick from Doom as well as Les From Concrete Sox, John who had just joined Heresy as their new singer, Frank who drummed for Intense Degree and many others. It seemed all roads led to The Mermaid and Birmingham. I found myself at Brixton Canterbury Arms in 1988 for the first Godflesh gig. It was intense. They were from Birmingham too. I was lucky enough to go to University in 1990 and had the opportunity to move to Birmingham. In 1992 I started organising gigs for local bands at The Hare and Hounds in Kings Heath. My friend Tom Wiggins did the sound. In 1996 I finally got hold of a copy of “The Manual” by Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty. I decided that starting a record label was what I wanted to do next, and I would do it by any means necessary.
2. How did you go about those primary steps in setting up the records label? Such as obtaining the knowledge and business requirements, cliental and promotional services.
“The Manual” outlined the basic framework and identified a number of issues to look out for in the process. My friend Sarah Davis, who later wrote The Guerilla Guide To The Music Business with Dave Laing, also taught me a lot. I met Sarah at a Bolt Thrower gig at the Fulham Greyhound in 1988, with support from Cerebral Fix, who were also from Birmingham. At the time Sarah was in Emperor Sly and they were releasing their own music and learning how it all worked first hand. I made the rest up as I went along. I was lucky in that I met a music lawyer called Kevan Tidy a few weeks into the process. Kevan talked me through the technical requirements, roles and responsibilities and helped guide me through the early stages to be sure I set things up to last.
3. Do any other members or parties, other than yourself, manage or endorse the record label?
Kevan Tidy has been my business partner, mentor and guide for most of the way. He is also a capable musician who has played in bands himself for many years. These days he still operates as a music lawyer, he does a lot of writing and works with some interesting creatives. Some of the projects he has been working on recently include film scripts, television, music, licensing and inventions. Kevan is an interesting person to spend time with, he knows everything about everything as far as creative industries are concerned, but he is also a dangerous lunatic.
4. How is Iron Man Records funded: by Artist, personally, or sponsors?
I fund the label from my own pocket. Almost everything I’ve ever earned has gone into the record label. I’ve borrowed money from friends, family, girlfriends, housemates, and even people I have met in the local pub. Back in the early years I had some financial support from a local councillor who paid my phone bill, and let me use some free office space. They lent me some start up funds to get things going. When they became an MP they had less time to listen to me rant and rave about what needed to be done so they left me to get on with it. Few people have the tolerance, patience or bloody mindedness to handle the madness that running a label commits you to. It’s like the worst case of abusive relationship you could imagine. Everyone you meet assumes you are someone with loads of money, they demand your help and then slag you off if you don’t do as they say or give them what they want. I had to move house and get a PO BOX address to stop people showing up at the door at 8am demanding I sign their band to the label. Most people only hear about the success stories, few people know that back in 1996 I counted 21 different record labels in Birmingham. How many of them are still operating now? Few people understand how much money needs to go into releasing a record properly and even fewer understand how much work is required to just break even on expenses. I’ve even struggled with that myself. I’ve tried applying for funding from all sorts of local arts, government and city council schemes. Ive managed to get a couple of thousand pounds off local schemes over the last 18 years but by far the greatest financial support for the label has been from my own self-employed earnings. To date, no band on the label has ever recovered their budget. Every project on the label has failed to break even. Every project has made a loss. Some greater than others.
5. What are the main aims of the record label when producing music?
I work with bands I like and try and release their music to help them access a wider audience. I like bands with interesting lyrics or something about them that attracts my attention. I aim to make it easier for them to tour and sustain their creativity and music by getting their music out. I do my best to champion what they are trying to do. I have never considered financial reward as an aim of the label but sometimes releasing a record helps the bands get more shows or enables them to charge a fairer price on the door. I like the idea that “you have to make the world you want to live in.” I try to make records with bands that I like to listen to or watch playing live. Just like in the days of tape trading. Everytime I write a press release, I approach it as if I’m writing a letter to a friend. I write like I’m telling them about the band I’ve found and why they should give them a listen. When looking at the budget I spare little expense on packaging or artwork. I’ve always liked interesting or good artwork to go with the music. P.A.I.N – O.U.C.H or John Sinclair – Mohawk demonstrate the reckless encouragement of budget busting artwork that I think makes the record more valuable than just the price you pay for it or the music and stories it contains. What I’m trying to say is that agreeing and working to a budget might appear to be the initial aim but by the time the real work starts, I’d rather see the project done properly and to the bands satisfaction than restricted by budget issues. The only real restriction has been my ability to get my hands on the money required to pay the bills on time. Every penny I earn that doesn’t go into the fuel tank of the car or towards my phone bill or debt repayments, or accountants bills or whatever, goes into the record label. Last year I lost over £17,000 of my own money running the label, developing a serious drug problem or gambling habit would probably work out cheaper and be more fun, but the work continues. I just have to be clever about getting good paid work in myself, so I can continue to grow and develop the label and it’s artists.
6. What kind of artists do Iron Man Records typically endorse? Are they subject to a particular genre?
I never set out to work with one type or another, but I tend to work with bands that I feel I can be most helpful to. I know guitar based music better than dance, electronic, classical and so on. I tend to work with punk, metal, alternative rock, folk and acoustic artists. I’ve also worked with poets and all sorts of other types of music and musicians. Anything that includes a combination of guitar, bass, drums and vocals. I like instrumental music but find it boring to work with. I like all sorts of music myself but intense, brutal, aggressive, political or alternative guitar based music is my thing. Anything that gives me an energy hit when I listen to it, anything that makes me think or consider things more deeply, anything that stirs some personal response gets my attention. Anything I don’t fully understand also gets my attention too. I like music that challenges the way of the world or makes me rethink how I see things.
7. How has the record label adapted to the continuing evolvement of the music industry?
The label has very much remained focussed on doing the things it wants to do in its own way and on its own terms. The record label continues as it always has but it chooses what it does more carefully to maintain some ability to remain sustainable. I used to manufacture 3,000 cds for each release. Now I only do 1000 CDs for each release. I did at one time release an album on CD and Vinyl. Now I release on CD first (easier for press and promo mailouts too) and then on Vinyl in limited quantities (like 500 copies) if the CD does well. I use digital distribution to get the music out for downloading or streaming. But I don’t worry about piracy or sharing. The aim is to get the music out. Piracy and sharing is only pilot market development as far as I can see. If bands are earning most of their money these days from ticket sales, then getting the music out has to be the focus. What has happened is I have adapted available technology and opportunities to work for the label and I have tried to identify what it is I want to do and tried to do it more effectively. I don’t think I have changed what I do. I have just “changed what I use” to do what I do. I have a website, I use social media, I have a mailing list, but I still do much the same as before. I have tried to take the easy route and avoid the problems where possible. I used to have an office, a desk, a phone. A geographical base. There was a door bell and a post box. I paid rent. I had fixed costs. Now I have a laptop, a mobile phone, a website, social media and a PO BOX which means I am fully mobile and can work from wherever I am at anytime. I was inspired by a comment from “Russell” a comic book character created by Pete Loveday. Pete did all the hand drawn artwork for P.A.I.N – O.U.C.H. The comment was something like “no matter how far you go, no matter what you do, you are still in the space where you are.” I turned that into wherever I go, whatever I do, I can still run the label from the place where I am. If I can find wifi I can work. If I can plug the laptop in to charge I can keep working. In the same way that Partisans in Eastern Europe waged guerilla warfare against invading forces, so the record label has had to choose the battles it can win, keep moving and stay away from the rest. I try to do everything myself. What I can’t do myself I employ other people to fill the gaps. So for example: I have Gerv at Mission Print who does the Tshirts, flyers, stickers. Kevan Tidy looks after all the legal affairs. I have an accountant to keep an eye on what I’m doing and maintain good records. I work with Simon Reeves who runs Framework Studios where many of the bands have recorded and mastered their records. Anna at DYC Touring supplies vehicles for touring. I have a couple of graphic designers who help with artwork, layouts, flyers and so on. I bring people in as and when needed. I try to pay everyone fairly but there’s a limit to how much of my own money I can use as I don’t earn much myself. Between us all, we keep the costs down and keep the record label moving.
8. Is the record label or artists that you endorse, affected by the current popular culture of the music industry?
No. The label and artists have no interest in popular culture. If anything the labels and artists have taken a stand to provide an alternative to popular culture, not compete with it or be part of it. By the time you are in a position to compete with popular culture at any one time, it changes and becomes something else. You have to be good at what you do. Not what everyone else is trying to do. Its all about doing what you do for yourself. And finding an audience that like what you do. Not the other way round. There is no sense trying to be liked by people in one place, for example in this country…because as soon as you tour and go to another country, people like different things and you’re nothing of interest. You have to do your own thing and try to generate an opportunity for people to find you if what you do is any good. But you have to work to make people aware of what you’re doing. Write, rehearse, record, perform. You have to put the hours in, and you cant put all your efforts into just one thing. In the words of John Sinclair “Pop culture in general is the main thing they use to keep young people from developing any ideas.” The label is a vehicle for the music, Music provides a vehicle for ideas. Popular culture has nothing to do with either.
9. Has the record label been affected by purchase format i.e. the decline in CD sales and record shops and the rise in subscriptions and music downloads?
Vinyl has become expensive, not enough people buy it to make it worthwhile for a first pressing of a new record on the label. CDS are cheaper to manufacture and cheaper to post. Things are changing all the time. Downloads are declining now too and streaming is the fastest growing format. I use all the formats where possible or just the most useful for the individual release. Digital distribution has made it possible to get worldwide distribution for every release on the label but accounts for very small levels of income. The John Sinclair album Mohawk is the only release on the label with current physical distribution in the UK, Europe and USA. Most of the other releases have had some form of physical distribution but if you cant sell more than 1000 units a year the distributor usually terminates the agreement. Physical distributors work on a percentage so 25% of nothing is nothing. If you aren’t selling units they’re not interested. By comparison with non-physical distribution, I use a digital aggregator that takes an upfront annual fee and then pays 100% or all revenue to the label. Some releases actually cost more to put online for a year, and distribute, than the revenue they generate from being online. But I’d rather have some distribution than no distribution, even if it does cost $50 a year. I’m still selling copies of vinyl I pressed 15 years ago and trying to sell vinyl on Amazon, eBay or from your own online shop is a time consuming and frustrating operation. When they put VAT on all online product sales (apparently next year) it will nail the coffin lid shut for small companies. Vinyl does sell but it takes forever. CDs still account for more sales than any other format (for Iron Man Records) but even that revenue is falling. It’s a bit like trying to survive in a pond that is slowly drying up. It would be a nightmare if I relied on the label to make money. But I earn my living working as a tour manager so I’m still working with musicians but I just don’t have to worry about being stuck in a pond that is slowly drying up.
10. How do you feel about the future for those wanting to work in the music industry, as musicians, music journalists or production?
But, there is some hope. “…..you’ve got to ask yourself a question. Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?!”