The Art of Labelling – Pt II

This is the second of two posts based on interviews that I did with each of:

In Part I, I asked Nic, Robert and Kunal about their respective backgrounds, what led them to found their labels and what they hoped to achieve when they started out. We also talked about what they look for in bands they sign and what sort of working relationship they look to build with those bands. Narcissistically, I also wanted to hear about how amazing they think AMG is and what sort of impact we, and other review sites have on labels and bands (if any!).

In this second part, we talked about everything from the (apparent) obsession with vinyl and merch in a digital age to what each of the label bosses have seen change in recent years and what challenges they anticipate down the line. I also asked whether they saw a risk of labels becoming obsolete and the challenges they all face now, with the Coronavirus pandemic.

As I did in Part I, I would urge everyone who is able, to continue to support the labels and bands that are the lifeblood of our scene and to check out the offers they are making available at this time.

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Let them eat cake …

“When I first started releasing music, I typically stuck to releasing albums on CD and leaving it at that,” says Nic of the early days of Hypnotic Dirge. Now, of course, the world has wholeheartedly embraced digital technology – everyone has the option to access numerous streaming platforms or carry a digital library of music around on their phone, which, in physical form, would take a small van to shift. Yet, if one believes everything one reads – and you certainly shouldn’t do that here at AMG, children – physical formats like vinyl, CD and even bloody cassettes are making a return. Why? “I started up right when digital came in and pushed CD sales down, and digital was new, and practical,” says Robert but “it’s different to own something physical, collect it and browse through it. And people (also younger ones) probably recognize more and more that something is missing when you only have digital music.” Hence the vinyl hype? Well, to a degree, although Kunal is a bit more cautious. “People think whatever you press will get sold out overnight but that’s not true, at least not in my experience.” He suggests it may be more of a “perceived notion than anything,” which makes it “very easy for a band to demand vinyl but it’s ridiculously expensive and I don’t think most bands have the kind of loyal following to even justify that move.”

The trend – perceived or not – for physical items to supplement the digital goes beyond vinyl, to include merch. As Nic points out, Hypnotic Dirge has found itself releasing more and more merch and bundle options – patches, stickers, signed cards, shirts – because “as everyone has music accessible to them at all times from the internet, I think people have generally become more interested in merch as a way to support bands and labels.” He adds that he’s really pushed the digital format, alongside the merch, making all the records in Hypnotic Dirge’s catalog available “for no minimum price and completely donation-based. On the one hand, this gets the music out to people much quicker and, since they are digital-only files … I have no issue offering them for free and accepting donations from people who choose to donate. I think people understand that small labels operate on very tight margins so there are many people who are willing to help support us by donating a few bucks. This enables me to fund future releases and produce physical merch for those who prefer something more tangible.”

Transcending Obscurity has perhaps taken some of the merch ideas to extremes, with things that seem more than a little out there, like Noctu’s Gelidae Mortis Imago, one CD version of which came replete with the scent of funeral flowers. “People here sometimes think I’ve gone crazy,” says Kunal “but we don’t want to conform … I like to keep progressing no matter what.” Operating out of India, however, there are challenges, as Kunal explains: “we don’t have standards in place here for metal products. When we work with local vendors here, we give them templates which we’ve created for our own products.” That even runs down to things like shirts, where Kunal wishes “it was as easy as contacting a company, giving them your order, and having things delivered to you. Our current modus operandi involves me actually acquiring special extra thick cotton cloth, having it stitched by an experienced tailor as per our international size chart that we’ve created patterns for, and then assembling it all after the various printing processes …”

The consensus is though that the demand for some sort of physical items – whether that’s CDs and vinyl or merch bundles – is likely here to stay, as Robert puts it, “as long as there are people who see music as more than a pleasant background noise (like pop music), as well as because of nostalgia of course.”

The more things change …

If that interest in physical releases and merch is here to stay, what changes can we anticipate in the coming years? Hypnotic Dirge switched to a ‘name-your-price’ model for digital releases back in 2014. Nic admits that the move was “a bit worrying” at the time because if it didn’t work out, he would have had to go back to putting minimum download prices on releases. “Luckily the community had been very supportive and generous, and listeners recognize that we are dependent on community support for future releases.” This model means that if anyone is struggling financially they can still access Hypnotic Dirge’s releases and “eliminating unnecessary restrictions on art accessibility,” is very important to Nic.  But now that streaming and digital have “reached a point where there are no longer any real barriers to access, I actually suspect things will remain relatively stable for the foreseeable future.”

Since setting up Naturmacht, Robert observes that fans’, as well as bands’, expectations have changed. “It’s become rare that you only release one format and even debutants hope for both a CD and vinyl release.” Although some people just like to collect nice things, Robert – “quite the puritan in many things” – worries that the focus is now sometimes on “superficial stuff and not the art itself.” He doesn’t want to be a “seller of luxury goods that only 5% of metal heads could afford to buy.” Going forward, it’s key for him and Naturmacht that people don’t forget what matters: “that it’s well made, honest and emotional music.”

Like his colleagues, Kunal has built his label from nothing to “working with over a hundred bands and now there’s a bit of recognition that goes with the name Transcending Obscurity.” Having graduated from doing basic jewel case CDs, “operating out of my bedroom, packing everything on my bed,” Kunal and a small team are now able to offer to 8- and 12-panel digipaks, and work with formats that “weren’t possible to make from India such as vinyl and cassettes.” His efforts are beginning to pay off and “it feels good to work with some better-known bands nowadays.” Looking to the future, Kunal’s main aim is to “strive to offer better deals to bands and cover more costs for them where possible – it’s one of our goals to do it all for our bands in the coming years,” including looking to start getting them shows. He’s not looking to compete with the bigger labels but “that doesn’t mean I can’t try and build a bit of an empire and look after the bands on Transcending Obscurity.”

It’s not only some of the labels that are continuing to grow but the sheer number of releases continues to rise and this might, gradually, become a problem, suggests Robert “because the number of listeners isn’t growing at the same rate.” Even the Naturmacht boss struggles to keep up with the amount of black metal releases we see nowadays and, as a genre, it has become “much more professional in the last ten years,” a combination which makes it “very hard for newcomers.” This could mean that we “begin to see labels and bands drop out or at least that each release gets fewer and fewer listens.” That said, metal’s horizons have already begun to expand, with Asia and Africa slowly beginning to embrace metal, “bringing many more new listeners but also potentially many more bands and releases,” muses Robert.

A bygone age …

With so many bands out there doing their thing, coupled with the growth of digital, do we even need labels to push out music anymore? “I’ve asked myself that question,” says Robert “but this whole overload of music just makes a label more important. We act as the first filter and some fans stick to labels because you can’t stick with a million bands.” Kunal agrees that, with the “advent of better technology, the recording and mixing/mastering process have become much easier and bands don’t need those big advances from labels but, on the flipside, a ton more bands are producing albums and doing it rapidly.” This makes it “extremely difficult for a band to do everything itself and break through on its own,” he adds.

Also, if a band is going to try and do things professionally, “there is more to making a release than uploading it with a cover to Bandcamp or Spotify – it’s not just a case of go to a studio, design cool artwork, sell it,” says Robert. Bands need to think about everything from “how and where to promote their record, to what to do about taxes and accounting once they sell more than ten CDs a year, shipping the CDs and merch … what about packaging and customs regulations?” Choosing to work with a label gets you access to all that knowledge as well as to “a sizeable customer base amassed by a label that has put out numerous releases, whereas a band only has customers it makes itself and that’s hard without extensive touring,” adds Kunal. If you’re thinking about promotion, continues Kunal, “an easy reference would be, for instance, the subscribers they have on their YouTube channel and, nine times out of ten, the label will have a much higher subscriber base.”

Strictly speaking, concedes Nic, “I don’t think any band really requires a label anymore … anything a label does is something that can now be done by the bands themselves, but it does certainly help to have that support.” It means that the label can take the pressure off by handling PR, graphics, packing and shipping, allowing the bands “to concentrate more on writing, recording and touring,” he says. Bands like Wilderun, who make a mark unsigned1, “are an anomaly and that kind of success is possible only with solid critic backing, in this case of your site itself,” says Kunal. For every unsigned success story, “there are thousands who try it and fail,” concludes Robert “so I don’t think we will become obsolete anytime soon … every label stills gets signing requests every day.”

End times …

In the past few months, the world has been turned upside in a way people, at least in the developed world, have not seen since the Second World War. The impact of the Coronavirus pandemic has been felt, to varying degrees, by everyone and in every walk of life. Here at AMG, we have tried to do our tiny little bit, trying to draw attention to bands that had shows cancelled as a result of the virus and, as a group of writers, I’m proud to say that we have all engaged in some serious Bandcamp splurges, especially on those days (the first Friday of each month), when the platform waives its fees. Entire label back catalogs have been purchased, along with merch, vinyl and more. But how exactly is the pandemic affecting life at small labels?

“Man, it’s just surreal,” says Kunal. “I feel like pinching myself because this is something that’s completely unprecedented and we’re all so ill-prepared to tackle this. Sales have been hit hard. But at such times, it’s probably better to focus on the positive than negative, and we’ve offered our entire catalog of over a hundred releases for free download (sub-label included).” The situation is similar for Naturmacht: “Logistics are slower and prices are rising, and there is a huge uncertainty. I ship from Spain, so my shipping guy has to deal with the alerts and Spanish post is not working completely normally.” Like Kunal though, Robert tries to look on the bright side noting that “it could be worse and metal heads/music lovers really stick together in this it seems and sales have not been affected that much. For which I am very grateful! But, of course, if the situation goes on for months2, things will get more problematic…”

Of course, Hypnotic Dirge is no different and, as Nic says, “we’re all going to be negatively affected” but it’s a situation that is “out of our control and we just have to roll with it. The important thing is being socially-responsible and staying at home … Releases and shows are going to be delayed but there’s no sense in worrying about something that is out of our control.” Nic goes on to suggest that the pause to general life brought on by the pandemic could have a “silver lining,” if we choose to see it and “use the time to become closer socially, embrace a slower pace of life, watch movies and documentaries, read books, create art, and live a healthier lifestyle.” He suggests that, “as a society, we placed far too high of an emphasis on consumption and the cult of validation-seeking. I think this can provide us all with a ‘reset,’ some time to critically think about our personal habits, as well as a market-based system that completely falls apart the moment that people’s labor is taken out of the equation.”

Some will choose to see it that way and others will not but, as Kunal says, “at least there won’t be a dearth of getting good new music” and he’s “incredibly thankful to all the customers for their support in such times and also their patience and understanding.”

A life of luxury…

“Most days,” says Nic, speaking of life running Hypnotic Dirge in normal times, before a pandemic swept the world, “I love what I do. It would be a hell of a lot easier to just quit and find a stable, full-time job with a guaranteed income. There are certainly a lot of sacrifices but I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t enjoy it and find value in what I’m involved with.” It’s no different at Transcending Obscurity. Asked what he gets out of running the label, Kunal says “satisfaction, sustenance, a headache … not necessarily in that order.” Although no one begins their search for fame and fortune by founding an extreme metal label, as Kunal points out, “part of the label business that few people realize is that we actually lose money too … I want to do the very best but practically it doesn’t always make sense and you learn the hard way,” having offered more formats and merch than was needed, or being too generous with the budget for artwork or videos. “But would I willingly want to work this hard for just money in some other line? Probably not. Because it’s not about the money – there’s something more. This is our passion and we thrive off it.”

It’s about “building something, and I love how it serves all my interests and hobbies, and I can use all my skills and live out my creativity,” says Robert.  There are downsides too, though, he adds. Naturmacht has been his sole source of income for a few years now, and this has meant that what was once a “hobby becomes work and loses its magic quite a bit, but it is still the best work for me right now.” Nic, who says the number of jobs he’s taken and then quit because he needed more time to focus on Hypnotic Dirge is “quite staggering and I’ve also put off educating myself for higher-paying, easier work – I’m essentially limited to ‘non-skilled’ labor work” but “I get far more fulfillment and joy being involved in the music industry than every single day job I’ve ever had, so I see no reason to quit anytime soon.”

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Again, I want to offer my huge thanks to each of Kunal, Robert and Nic for all the time they gave so willingly to answer my questions and for their incredible frankness. I have sought in these two posts to draw together the threads that ran through our conversations but for those who would like to read their words, unadulterated by my editorial licence, you can read the full interviews with each of them here:

Once more, I would encourage everyone who is able to at the moment, to get out there (not physically, obviously) and support their favorite labels and artists at this challenging time.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. And it’s worth noting that Wilderun recently signed to Century Media Records.
  2. this interview took place at the end of March.
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