Learning to swim (Part 4)
Simon Trask dives into the world of a desktop record label
Desktop publishing, desktop video, desktop music - and the desktop record company? Swim Records explain to Simon Trask why they've taken the plunge...
So you've got your home studio, you've recorded an album's worth of material that you're happy with and you want to release it. Time to start doing the rounds of the records companies - or is it? You built up your studio because you wanted control over the recording process, so why relinquish control over the finished product?
For Colin Newman and wife Malka Spigel, the decision to set up their own label was taken after they'd moved from Brussels to London in 1992. Both had past involvement in the music industry, Colin with Mute recording artists Wire and Malka as part of Israeli/Dutch group Minimal Compact. Colin had been working with sequencers since 1987, when he'd discovered Steinberg's Pro24 software, and the pair had built up their own studio over the years. Using money gained from the move to London, they invested in a new mixing desk and some soundproofing, and developed a home studio which would allow them to produce music of masterable quality.
"When we came to Britain we'd already thought up the name Swim, and the idea was to be a production company," explains Colin. "We evolved into a record company partly because Daniel Miller at Mute reckoned it would be a good idea. I'd asked him if he'd be interested in us working as a production company, and he said we'd make much less money that way, that we'd do much better if we took the step of becoming a record company."
As Malka points out, for musicians used to being signed to a label, taking that step necessitates a change of attitude.
"You can get very attached to the feeling that there's someone there who will take care of you," she says. "As a musician, who wants to bother with money and publishing and all those headaches. You don't want to understand what it all means. To begin with it was more Colin who wanted to be in control and have his own record company; I wasn't sure, I just wanted to deal with the music. It took me a while to get over that and to want to do something for myself. But I'm wary of the business side taking over."
By the time they arrived in Britain they already had most of the material for an album from Malka. This together with interest from Israel prompted them to make the Rosh Batlata album their first release. With the help of an advance from co-publishers Mutesong and Israeli licensee NMC, they had 1000 CDs pressed up; 95% of these went to export.
Colin and Malka are the first to acknowledge that their backgrounds have helped them get started, not least because of their popularity abroad.
"France is our number one territory right now, because Minimal Compact have a very good reputation there," comments Colin. At the same time, he points out that past success can be a double-edged sword. "It's given us some useful contacts on the business side, but on the credibility side it's made things harder. There's a lot of pressure in the music industry for artists to continue to do what they did before because it's popular."
In their press information, Swim state: "We believe ourselves to be one of the first of a new breed of record company, almost a 'desktop' record company, taking up the ideas of the dance movement in terms of its production values and approach but not just limiting ourselves to dance music."
Colin elaborates on this view: "How I visualise it is that here at home is the core of the company, the production centre and where all the information is held, and then other places provide certain specialities. We can do finished mixes here, but the actual CD mastering is far too specialised to have here; at the moment we don't do digital editing here, but it's something we might do in the future.
"Somebody gave us a very good piece of advice at the beginning, which was don't try and run before you can walk. We're inherently conservative about spending money, simply because we need to keep careful control over what we're doing in the early years so that we don't wind up having no money."
As well as being the centrepiece of Colin and Malka's studio, where it runs Cubase, their Atari 1040ST also gets used for administrative chores, as the couple do their own promotion...
"You need to keep your communications efficient," says Colin. "People need to know what your releases are, you need to get information out to them. We do our own press releases, and we keep names and addresses on a database in the ST; we also use the computer to keep a general track of the accounting."
What advice would Colin and Malka give to anyone else thinking of starting up their own record company?
"If you feel strongly about what you've got, and you feel it could be interesting for people - go for it," says Colin. "Just don't give up the day job, make sure that you've got some money coming in to cover you.
"You've got to have quite a bit of neck if you want to make it work, basically. You've got to be prepared to get on the phone to people or send them letters; it kind of helps to be fairly cheeky in general. Try to put across what you're doing as confidently as you can, without sounding arrogant; the way you present yourself can really make a difference.
"Also, financial scrupulousness with anyone you're dealing with is very important, especially in the early days - otherwise things will catch up with you later on. If you're a production team becoming a record company and you're working with mates, make sure that it's all discussed at the beginning, how you're going to budget it out."
Swim can be contacted at (Contact Details).
Feature by Simon Trask
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