So, you've decided to start your own record label. Why not, right? You've been keeping a keen eye on the local scene for a while, that online diploma you received in project management is still fresh in your mind, and your mum has always said you can use the basement as an office, so the stars are basically aligned. This is going to be sick. All you really need is a Facebook page and probably some stamps. Except that two days in you begin to realize that your newfound credentials are less than adequate, stamps are extortionately expensive, and the basement—now littered with forgotten exercise equipment—has become a gym for some very buff-looking rodents.
The fact of the matter is that running a label these days comes with a variety of pitfalls. First off, there's the illusion of profit: most labels are struggling to break even on a good day. Then there's the promotional side of things, where even online publicity can become a full-time gig. Distribution too is an oft-overlooked aspect: which stores and what areas of the world your records end up boils down to your distributor. Not to mention the fact that some digital outlets will only deal with the distributor and never you directly. Next up are the all-important graphics, which can often be the linchpin for any organization—shaping its style, feel, and overall image. Do you have an aesthetic in mind? A specific graphic designer? Will you keep everything local? Should you focus on a wide range of styles or something specific? Are you going to be vinyl-only?
The questions are endless, but so are the rewards for those who are able to find the right balance. From Vancouver's Genero to Toronto's Slow Release, we reached out to five of the most exciting Canadian electronic labels right now to find out just how they do it.
1. Get in for the right reasons.
Still, I face the same challenges that everyone in the industry has faced since the marketing of music: having to treat someone's creative labour as a commodity, convincing those who don't materially benefit from an artist's success that they should care, and finally, competing against thousands of others for fractions of fractions of a penny. But that's capitalism, baby. That's why I love working with artists who I believe make truly singular music, it makes that process a tiny bit easier.
Soledad Muñoz [Genero, Vancouver]: I really hope people are starting labels in order to change the world—we can. I am tired of labels releasing to be part of the machine. The macho-capitalist thing is old, and has done enough bad to most of the population of this world, including Vancouver. Start a project that creates something new, because it takes so much energy, but when that energy translates into resistance and love, not money, then it really means something. I love my Genero family—we started a family, not a label.
Dino Secondino [Visage Musique, Montreal]: It's a cliché, but you have to be really passionate. It's really a labour of love. Starting a label is not the most logical and/or lucrative thing to do. There are ups and downs. At some point you might feel like giving up, but there's always been something to revive the fire, to get you really excited again. So let's say you just released a record and it didn't have the impact you wish it had, but then you discover this new band, you hear this song, and you just want to start it all again and release the music to the world.
2. Keep it flexible.
Muñoz: Genero started as a feminist audio project: a meeting place for female, women-identifying, and non-binary people within the sound realm. I wanted the project to be open-ended and mutable, so that it could be used as an instrument for whoever needed it. I never thought it would evolve into a label—because in my own work I prioritize the embodied experience of sound, cultural creation and free dissemination of thought—but I realized that distribution was important, and that minorities were not being included by other labels in town so we started releasing albums, therefore becoming a label.
Adam Marshall [New Kanada, Toronto/Berlin]: When I started, I didn't really have any grandiose ideas. I looked at the label as more of an art project or artistic publishing house, and less like a traditional label. I was also very interested in being in control of how my [own] work was released and distributed, and was always very hesitant to let other people dress up my music—through design, promotion, communication, etc. I didn't always have clear visions of exactly how I wanted everything to look, or what the aesthetic would be, but I did know what I didn't want it to be, and starting my own label allowed me to keep in control of the entire narrative.
3. Choose your partners wisely.
Marshall: Initially, pushing out vinyl records from a home base in Toronto, manufactured in Detroit, via a NYC-based distributor, to a market that was almost entirely EU and Japan-based, definitely has its challenges—until you find the right rhythm and support partners. Each time it crosses a border, or goes through a secondary handler, it gets more and more expensive (for the label) in a market that already has razor-thin profitability in most cases.
It's the same thing for the digital side of things. When that started up and we were dealing with digital behemoths like Beatport, it was like the wild west, and it was hard to keep control over how your label is presented... it sucked. But after we found a digital partner that was as exacting as we wanted to be, in regards to creative control and curating the stores that it distributed to, things got a lot more smooth sailing.
4. Don't be afraid to do it yourself.
Muñoz: When the USD went up, it was a big hit for a lot of smaller labels and music stores in town, but because of it we have been producing everything in-home, and I really appreciate the evidence of the handmade. Every album on the Genero roster is a developed concept with a cohesive, affective experience, which is agreed upon by the audio, graphic, and visual artists. The music, album art, visual treatments, write-up and release performance/exhibition are carefully curated, which is something I see missing in other labels in town.
Secondino: Our whole method is very DIY. Graphic design, assembly, and shipping: we do it all. We assemble the vinyls ourselves through a couple of sessions. Some of the sleeves we even print and cut up ourselves. We also take orders from stores and buyers, and take care of the shipping, customer service, etc. For the graphic design, we usually work with the artists. They'll have a general idea of what they want, or a very specific one, depending. We accompany them through the process, but at the end, we're the ones that will do the artwork.
5. Stay digital, but get physical.
Jason Skilz [Low Noise Productions/Spins & Needles, Ottawa]: Bandcamp was really handy in the beginning and I had just started to produce tracks with some friends as well. I had a couple of small releases on compilations with other labels so that gave me an idea about what I might expect or ask of artists. I found digital distro for the releases, as some online stores—especially those geared towards DJ music, such as Traxsource, Beatport—need you to have a distro rather than deal directly with the label.
I also wanted to make some physical copies of releases and latched on to the whole revival of underground tapes, which were way cheaper to produce than vinyl and could have a very limited run. Another reason for doing tapes (which was partially influenced by punk/metal bands) was to have some physical product at live shows, which we started doing more of in recent years.
Marshall: Selling vinyl still needs to be a labour of love, as it's a tough game from all angles. I keep reading these "Vinyl sales hit new record!" articles, but from an independent perspective, I still think it's generally considered a success if you end up making your money back—and not losing your shirt. There's the digital angle as well for labels, and I think that definitely helps shore up vinyl or other formats that might sustain a loss, but I don't think anyone's getting rich off downloads currently either.
The challenge of people only being able to get your music through external stores or media—where you aren't really in control of the presentation of the storefront, or the aesthetics of your brand—has been solved by Bandcamp quite nicely.
6. Being focused doesn't mean being myopic.
Skilz: Have a vision for your label; don't just sign anything or a broad range of styles. I like labels that are coherent in their look and sound. That's why we have two labels which focus on different ends of the electronic spectrum.
Marshall: I think many labels drift more into the "establish a real record label business" direction, which is understandable. We definitely set ourselves apart from that crowd by treating each release, and each detail of the label, more as a platform for creating and refining a certain aesthetic.
7. Consider a minimalist method.
Secondino: We choose to limit the number of releases to really focus on having a very cohesive catalogue and create a unique "Visage Musique sound." A lot of our music is also bilingual, which is probably a key characteristic. It is not uncommon to have both languages in a single song. There's also a minimalist approach to our aesthetic. This minimal graphic aesthetic comes from the desire to put music in the foreground. We try to give as much space as possible to the music of our artists.
Reed: There's a type of minimalism that I'm very interested in. I suppose what sets my label apart is my own taste, which may be impeccable depending on who you ask (please don't ask anyone).
Daryl Keating is on Twitter.