CMJ Panel Discussions Present “Bootstrapping”

By Zachary Schepis

CMJ’s panel on “Bootstrapping: Indie Label Challenges”.

With so many amazing bands to see and so little time (it would take an impossible superman to even come close) it’s easy to forget that live music isn’t the only thing that CMJ has to offer. Wednesday marked the second day in a series of panel discussions, hosted in NYU’s Helen and Martin Kimmel Center on Washington Square Park. The talks range in a considerable diversity, with seminars on the psychotherapy of dealing with over-emotional artists, how to build a recording studio in the bedroom, and even one called “Rock and Roll Your Soul Yoga”.

It wasn’t easy to choose, but BTR finally settled on attending “Bootstrapped: Indie Label Challenges” — a seminar that sought to explore the ever-shifting landscape of independent music, and how the very labels that helped to pioneer it are still fighting against limited resources and intense competition to succeed. At the front of the conference room stretched a long white table seated with four of the most established label executives in the indie realm.

The Players

Noah Rubin – As of this year, Rubin is serving as VP of Music at Decon Records. Decon is a New York-based creative studio that has featured artists such as Wax Tailor, Jurassic 5, and Pusha T to name just a few. In 2011 Decon was nominated by Billboard as one of the 50 Best Indie Labels in America.

Simon Raymonde – A bassist for the early ‘80s London post-punk band Drowning Craze, Raymonde has come a long way since. He now runs the Bella Union record label, which has premiered music from Fleet Foxes, The Flaming Lips, Beach House, Explosions in the Sky, and Andrew Bird, among many others.

Syd Butler – Also a former bass player-turned-record-label-exec, Butler formed Frenchkiss records in 1999 to help his band Les Savy Fav release their second full-length album. Frenchkiss has discovered and signed a considerable number of bands that have since become indie sensations, such as Passion Pit, Bloc Party, and The Hold Steady.

Jeff Owens – Manager for Ghostly International, a label based out of Ann Arbor, Mich. It has been around since 1999 and focuses on breakthrough electronic music. Ghostly has featured Phantogram, School Of Seven Bells, and Gold Panda.

Play Ball: The Key Takeaways

Rubin: “Part of the strategy in signing a band is finding out what exactly the ‘asset’ is of each particular band. You then invest accordingly, honing in on the strengths no matter how eccentric, to boost the group.”

“The doors are open to us in a similar way as the major labels, except that they’re expecting a paycheck, and we just want to hear what our bands make. It’s a grassroots movement that spurs support. Fewer expectations can lead to playing a role in the larger music ecosystem in a way not before possible.”

Raymonde: “I’m in this because I absolutely love what I do. People wonder if there is a secret to this whole process. There is a business model out there: you just have to find good artists. There’s too much doom and gloom often in panels like this, talking about how impossible everything is. There is hope.”

“We don’t think it’s wrong to be friends (with the bands), to be really close and do good business at the same time. Have great relationships, go out to tea, hangout; it’s a family thing. We’re there in the trenches with them getting our hands dirty.”

Butler: “What kept my record label in the game… when we started we kept our expectations very, very low. It’s the same now as it was in the ‘90’s – sell 3,000 records. It’s not asking for a lot. You can’t go in setting the bar too high.”

“It doesn’t mean it’s easy. Drinking beers in a practice space is one thing, but touring is another. It’s hard: you have to leave your girlfriend, hit the road for extended periods, like Bruce Springsteen travelling almost the whole year. But it’s your job.”

Owens: “I’ll tell you right now what one of the biggest factors is. It’s the curation of the label; it’s all about the presentation.”

“Another thing is that cool people make cool brands. It’s inevitable.”

Food For Thought

When BTR’s turn came up to ask the panel a question, we focused on the road ahead by asking, “What do you foresee or hope the landscape of independent labels will look like over the next couple decades?”
Here are a few noteworthy responses.

Rubin: “Things will get easier; not harder. By then talent will be the absolute number one drive, and the independent labels will stay strong.”

Raymonde: “The future… that’s something I’d have to answer with a 500-word essay. But I know now is a great time for them, I’ve honestly never been more excited. People will always complain that there is no good music, but there are so many wonderful creative minds out there that will continue to keep everything alive and thriving.”