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So You Want To Be A...

Label Owner.

Article from International Musician & Recording World, April 1985

Jim Betteridge on how to sign yourself up

It sometimes appears that everyone and their mother is obsessed with getting a Record Deal. And was anything more terribly important? In this 'Record Deal' state it seems virtually impossible to have a Record Deal conversation without mentioning the imminent Record Deal; dreams are filled with Record Deal matters concerning the Record Deal... the Record Deal... the Record Deal.

But what if the endless forms of record company prevarication leave you finally without a dotted line in sight? Or what if you become just another of the less frequently aired (never) catalogue numbers on the shelves of some international megapublisher? Well, if the club won't have you as a member, the only thing to do is start your own club. Become an AAR man for your own record company and sign yourself up. Whether you fancy yourself as an entrepreneuror you're a band who have simply had enough of life with the majors, DIY might well be one way into the business.

You, Yourself, You

Almost certainly the main advantage of starting your own label is that you have total artistic control. There's nobody trying to pigeonhole you, nobody telling you when to put out what record or how you should change your image. The main disadvantage is that it's your money at stake and the chances of making a living are slim.

Edward Abstract — looking to grow

Edward Christie started Abstract Records back in the mid Seventies. Since that time the company has continued to scrape a somewhat precarious existence. Although Edward has hopes for a brighter future, just as with most other small independents, the tone is still one of grim determination. I asked him how much he started with and about the costs of his operation:

"I started with £3,000, and it soon went. I work from home even now, I just couldn't survive if I had office overheads. Basically, you need money to pay for the recording (unless the band brings a finished master), for cutting and manufacturing the record, doing the sleeves, posting the records, buying the envelopes for posting the records... and generally running around. If you're lucky you can get away with recording costs for a single of about £400.00, then there's £350.00 for pressing the first thousand, another £170.00 for the sleeves; the cutting is about £100.00, so you're looking at getting on for £1200.00, and that's without all the ancillaries."

It has to be said that these costs could be decreased if, for instance, you spent only one day in the studio, had plain white labels and sleeves (you can always use a rubber stamp to ident them) and only hired the multitrack tape rather than buying it. But, based on his approximate figures, I asked Edward how many sales were needed to break even?

"It depends entirely on how much you spend on the record. 12" singles are generally non-profitable, they cost as much as an album to manufacture — it's the same amount of vinyl, same sleeve; I would say you'd need about 5,000 12" singles if you'd spent about £800.00 in the studio; with 7" singles you need four or five times as many."

And the chances of profitable survival?

"Almost negligible, unless you actually have a hit record. I would say that the average independent release sells under 1,000 copies. As a label we are trying to keep our indie credibility and keep our bands working and making good records, but we're also looking to spread the target area of those records, because we can't survive as a label on selling nothing more than 5,000 singles."

Deals With Majors

Edward is obviously looking to grow, but recently his major act, New Model Army, signed over to EMI. For a band, then, success with a small label can be a stepping-stone to a major deal, and for the label owner too, such a deal can be very profitable. Edward explained:

"Many bands will want to stay with the label they're on and thus maintain their high level of control. On the other hand, I always think you should be prepared for success and so I insist on a contract. I don't do it like other people do on word of mouth. It's a very simple, fair contract, but it does keep tabs on things. New Model Army have gone to EMI, but it was all by mutual consent. The band wanted to go, and they were going to be too expensive for me. However, I've got what's called an overrider and against that I got paid quite a large advance. And in fact it's to the band's advantage to have someone like me to help them make a deal with a major record company."

Dave Robinson — already grown

One of the great independent label success stories is Stiff Records who, after their recent merger with Island Records, must now be considered as being in the major league. Stiff was set up in 1976 by the partnership of Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera and is a good example of how hard work alone isn't enough to bring success; you need some luck and some hits. I asked General Manager Alan Cowderoy what it was originally based on.

"It all started with... a great name for a record label, and the feeling that there was a large number of talented acts around who just weren't getting enough recognition or record company interest. Jake was also a good friend of Nick Lowe who came in as producer. The first single cost about £400.00 and we just put a mail order ad in Zig-Zag. There was no distribution deal or anything, but to our surprise we were soon sending them out in their thousands."

The first 10 singles did little more than cover their costs, and then, as the Punk thing was just breaking, they brought out The Damned's first album, Damned, Damned, Damned, which did incredibly well, and suddenly they were making serious money. Not long after came Elvis Costello's first album My Aim Is True, then Ian Dury's New Boots and Panties and then further success with Costello's Watching The Detectives. It's the same old story of finding the right acts at the right time.


One way of selling your record is to get on your bike and actually hawk it around the country's record shops. This is a fairly unsophisticated approach and one unlikely to reap rich financial rewards. Possibly a better idea is to go to one of the several distributors who deal exclusively with independents. Not only will they get your vinyl into the right shops ail over the UK, but they may also offer you advice on the record production process such as cutting, pressing, labels etc. For this they will probably take a commission of about 25%, or more if you need extra help with manufacturing. One of the largest of these is The Cartel which is a network of wholesalers organised in six regional centres: Scotland, NE, NW, Midlands, East Anglia, SW and London. They deal exclusively with independent labels and can be contacted through the offices of wholesalers Rough Trade. Other well established distributors are also listed at the bottom of the article.

Of course, in the same way that an EMI or CBS can decide you're not worth the effort, so too can any or all of these distributors. If they really don't think it will sell, they are obviously at liberty to refuse to carry your record. Then, once again it's 'On your bike', pal.

The details of the record manufacturing process are too lengthy to cover fully here, but there are some useful numbers at the bottom of the page to get you started. Some good basic advice is to plan well ahead and make sure that you maintain some control at each stage of the process: ensure that the 1/4" tape master isn't over bright/sibilant or over bassy as this can cause problems when cutting — let the engineer know that you intend to cut a record from it. After cutting, have a test pressing done before okaying the rest of the run. If it isn't right have the metal work checked by the cutting engineer and then try another test pressing. It could be that the holes or labels are off-centre, the vinyl is inferior quality (especially with 12" records) or that the records were packed too tightly without being given time to cool properly. Test the market with a short run before committing to thousands. Oh, and of course above all, be in the right place at the right time. Otherwise, forget it.


Recording Studios
See ads at back of this IM&RW

Pressing and Processing
Damont Records, (Contact Details)
Immediate Sound Services, (Contact Details)
Carlton Productions, (Contact Details)

Cutting Rooms
Midland Sound Recordings, (Contact Details)

Label Printers
Peter Grey Printers, (Contact Details)
Harrisons & Sons, (Contact Details)

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Publisher: International Musician & Recording World - Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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International Musician - Apr 1985

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Feature by Jim Betteridge

Previous article in this issue:

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