For years, music industry insiders have been ringing the death knell for record labels, thanks to the advent of lightning speed internet and the independence afforded by it; artists, they say, are able to assume power and control when it comes to bringing their music to the people. Artists can now manage their own business, collect the majority of revenue for themselves, and, with streaming services helping the proletariat control the means of distribution, it’s even easier to slap up your wares on Bandcamp or Spotify instead of diving headfirst into old release models.
Record labels undoubtedly still play important roles in distribution, promotion and managing inventory, but, the notion of attracting the attention of a label and getting signed as the be-all-and-end-all of a career in music is arcane. Two minutes of research will reveal the changing landscape for record labels over the years, which makes Martin Koller seem all the more adventurous for expanding his German-based Prophecy Productions into the US market, opening a stateside HQ, hiring new staff, and even uprooting and moving to America himself to oversee the expansion.
“I realized that North America is the biggest market for us, alongside Germany,” says Koller about the move across the pond. “The goals are to gain more exposure for our European artists while offering global opportunities for our bands from the US. We want to be present and a part of the scene in both continents.”
It’s a big change for Koller and Prophecy Productions, one that’s fraught with risk and a jump into the unknown of a business that itself doesn’t seem to know how it’s changing from one day to the next. When Koller first formed Prophecy in the tiny German town of Zeltinen-Rachtig as a music-obsessed teenager, no one, not even Koller himself, could have ever thought the success of the present would have been part of his future.
To understand the ascent of Prophecy Productions, you need to go back to the days of tape trading. In the early 90s, Koller did what most underground metal fans did in the pre-Internet age: he compiled a list of all the albums, demos, live shows and rehearsals he’d amassed, and sent that list to other obsessed fans and “penbangers,” all of whom were seeking out the latest sounds from the metal underground.
His tape-trading career exposed him to new treasures, fulfilled requests from trusted traders of material by bands he was already a fan of, bands he had read and heard about and a few wild cards he checked out because the risk was far more inexpensive than buying an album. His trader pals would request items from Martin’s list, he’d fire up the tape-to-tape cassette recorder and keep the cycle going. Think of it as the precursor to file sharing.
“Back then it was common to pay for the cassette J-cards—around a dollar a cover—and then copy and dub the tapes yourself," he explains. "Before tape-trading, it was the older kids in my area who made me a mix tape of AC/DC's Back in Black and Iron Maiden's Number of the Beast. From there my tastes started to become darker: Kreator, Sodom, then Death's Leprosy and classic Napalm Death. Eventually I discovered black metal, investing myself there.”
In 1993, at the age of 16, Koller took a step forward. He graduated from trading tapes to starting a mail order distro. He christened it Prophecy Productions Mail Order and immediately began selling early releases from the likes of Darkthrone and In the Woods..., “all the good stuff,” he says, “for cheap. Today those albums go for hundreds of dollars.”
Around the same time he started the mail order, Koller and a friend took to organizing and promoting local shows. The first show they planned was a black metal super-bill with Dissection headlining and support coming from Cradle of Filth and Enslaved; for reasons he doesn’t remember (or care to explain), the show ended up being cancelled and the money the pair put up vanished into thin air. Undaunted by this initial setback, they jumped back into the game as soon as they could, booking a gig featuring Desaster, Ancient Ceremony and Materium. This second stab turned out to be a success, and despite his mother having to drive the young promoters to the venue, it planted a seed in Koller. He saw his place in the music industry and it was any place but the stage.
One day in 1995, a demo arrived in Koller’s overstuffed mailbox. It was ...Der Wie Ein Blitz Vom Himmel Fiel, the four-song cassette debut by Bavarian symphonic folk/doom metal duo Empyrium. After popping it in, he instantly became a fan and saw potential in the band. This motivated Koller to approach Empyrium with the idea of releasing an album. A few weeks later, Empyrium signed a deal to work with him. They were all still underage.
Prophecy Productions was officially born on July 15, 1996 with the release of Empyrium’s full length debut, A Wintersunset.... There were many stumbling blocks Koller discovered he had to hurdle to get that record in the racks. He recalls a comedy of errors in the album’s production. The graphic designer he hired had never done a CD digipack before, and the litho printing films for the artwork had to be redone four times—at 700 € a pop. Getting A Wintersunset... released almost sunk Prophecy before the label got out of the gate
Two additional issues, one self-imposed, made Koller’s label move more difficult. At that time, information about how to run an independent label wasn’t something you could find with a search engine and a couple of clicks. The main source of intel was asking other labels for advice, and hoping they’d take the time to impart with something useful. In seeking direction, Koller hit up peers at extreme music labels he looked up to like Misanthropy, Avantgarde Music, and Cold Meat Industry.
Koller also held a specific aesthetic dear to his heart, and was determined to make Prophecy releases something special. He invested heavily in packaging and design, and refused to compromise on quality; after that first Empyrium, word got out amongst bands who wanted someone on their side who cared as much as they did.
Throughout the second half of the 90s, Prophecy grew. There were releases that achieved a cult status on the avant-garde, black, gothic, and doom metal scenes by Paragon of Beauty, Nox Mortis, Arcane Art, Autumnblaze, and more from Empyrium. Koller also cut recording costs by aligning Prophecy with a studio owned by Markus Stock (Empyrium’s founding member and multi-instrumentalist).
Additionally, sub-label imprints Lupus Lounge and Auerbach Tontrager were formed in order to help distributors and customers better categorize the many sonic territories in which Koller was finding interest. Lupus Lounge became the home for more extreme sounds, while Auerbach Tontrager was catered for acts on the folkier side of the spectrum.
Koller also found himself releasing books. When the publishers of the original black metal true crime tome, Lords of Chaos, were having trouble finding German translation and distribution, Koller jumped in and it became a rousing success. Prophecy inadvertently ended up being the second-best selling new publisher in Germany in the late 90s. Releasing the book on German soil also, in a roundabout way, kept the faith alive when it came to maintaining the high quality of the packaging of Prophecy releases.
That success continued into the 2000s, as Alcest, Helrunar, Secrets of the Moon, Silencer, Antimatter, and Arcturus joined the roster and became some of the label’s more successful signings. However, that success came as file-sharing and downloading became a factor in an industry-wide downturn. And while Koller reports that Prophecy experienced less of sales bloodbath than other labels, he was fully aware of “the devaluation of music as an art form” going on around him. As the power of the internet grew and became ubiquitous, the industry rumbled about bands and artists bypassing labels and using the Internet to do direct sales and distribution.
“Although sales dropped a bit, the catalog grew larger,” he says. “We were busy with becoming more professional within our infrastructure. When we looked at the issue of downloading closely, it didn't seem to make any huge impact on us. But, for sure, without it a lot of us could have been millionaires!”
Despite entry into the millionaires club evading Koller, things were going well for Prophecy when compared to those labels, from the largest of the large to the smallest of the small, experiencing tough times. In addition to a steady release schedule, Koller also began organizing Prophecy band-focused tours, special one-off shows to celebrate label anniversaries and landmarks that featured members of the label roster that rarely played live. He also masterminded the label's Prophecy Festival which debuted in 1999 and made irregular appearances until 2015 when it began taking place in a natural Stone Age cave located in Balver Höhle, Germany.
As Prophecy grew, Koller couldn’t ignore the consistency of his label’s work and sales, but he didn’t feel he was taking advantage of the opportunity provided by ongoing popularity. Sales – physical sales are an astounding 90% of Prophecy’s gross - were brisk at home and abroad and he had designs on signing and working with a greater number of non-European artists. Thusly, Koller felt that if he was closer to his most popular market while expanding into that territory, he would ultimately only be helping grow his label and bands in the long run.
“I realized that North America is the biggest market for us, alongside Germany. I looked into options for development in 2013. I incorporated Prophecy in the US in 2016. By 2017, I slowly began building a team. I liked Southern California and was really into being close to the beaches, mountains, deserts, good weather and wineries all at the same time.”
Even though he has adopted Los Angeles as his second home and uses an address in the City of Angels as the epicenter for Prophecy’s foray into America, the US employees will actually be spread out across the country. Metal industry veteran Rayshele Teige will be based in L.A. and work alongside Koller in California, while two other hired employees will be located in Seattle and Brooklyn, respectively. While Koller sings the praises of all three members of his new Yankee team, it’s Teige’s name that is probably the most familiar to anyone interested in how European and Scandinavian black metal was initially brought to America.
In addition to expansion into US territory and the hiring of a staff to help that along, Koller has taken steps to cement his label’s presence by moving an edition of Prophecy Fest to the US. The inaugural American edition of Prophecy Fest is set to be held at the Knitting Factory the first weekend of November 2018, and features Alcest, Year of the Cobra, Xasthur, Kayo Dot, November’s Doom and more. Not only is it a gathering of bands important to the success of Prophecy, it’s also designed to act as a coming out party; a sort of official announcement that the label is open for business over here.
Calling the event "ambitious" is putting it lightly, but, as always, Koller welcomes the challenge.
“We've been working on it seriously since March,” he says. “We are hoping to have our US fests run like a series so next year we can do a Prophecy Fest in Chicago, the year after in L.A., then maybe in Seattle. North America is our biggest market and focus for us. [and] Prophecy's goal is to sign thirty bands in the next three years, while becoming a major player in the US scene. We want to not only be a guiding force for bands, but also help to expand possibilities for artists throughout the underground, contributing the best we have to this amazing community.”
Kevin Stewart-Panko is a Canadian writer who is decidedly not on Twitter.