‘The Label’ is a fully functioning record label operating out of Edge Hill University, headed up by Film and documentary lecturers Carl Hunter and Clare Heney. Carl is no stranger to the music business, as bass player with Scouse indie giants ‘The Farm’, and an ever-present and active face on the Liverpool Music Scene.
Pinning down Carl Hunter is no mean feat, Phil Greenhalgh managed to grab a brew with him in Parr Street studio where he was arranging a showcase gig for recent Label artist Ali Horn, who VPME previewed for Sound City recently (read HERE) sandwiched in between a planning meeting for a short film he’s making in 2 weeks time (‘we’ve got dates for shooting, we’ve got a story, just the small matter of having no crew or cast yet…’), and him featuring on a Live webcast with the Farm to discuss his graphic design of the band record sleeves for the past few decades … suffice to say he’s a fella with a lot of stuff going on.
So Carl, talk us through the set up of The Label
I’m a lecturer in Film and Documentary at Edge Hill University, and obviously, have retained an active interest in the Liverpool Music scene over the years. So as a sideline the university gave Clare and I a record label to run, which is ‘industry facing’ and fully bankrolled by the uni, ran for the benefit of the students across a number of disciplines. I’ve seen many university labels and they are rarely that successful and partly because they become vanity projects and that never ever works. So what we wanted to do was to set up a record label that RUNS like a record label, with experience of how things used to work, and a very realistic focus on today’s ever-changing industry. It’s a very idealistic approach, but we wanted to create a label that reflects what the likes of Heavenly, Domino, Bella Union or 1965 do. So while we can’t match how they operate on a wider basis, we want to be realistic and emulate and complement how they operate.
So what we try to do is find ‘interesting’ bands, sometimes they are at the Uni itself, but it doesn’t matter if they are or not because it’s all about the artist and the songs and not where you are from. So once we’ve found an interesting band we’ll pop into the studio, (usually Parr Street) to record a single, shoot a video, design interesting graphics, and also appoint a real working press agent and a plugger. So we put a proper package together- which these days is very rare for a single, but we have an advantage over other labels in that we’re not interested in making money.
So that’s the big question here, does help the integrity of the artist, because you’re not trying to be, don’t have to be, commercial? Is this the true original spirit of independent music?
Yeah, BUT if you actually listen to the music that we put out, it is incredibly commercial. The advantage we have in that not having to recoup any money, it frees up one of the big sticking points of championing new music, in that you can take a risk. We’ve put out I think its 11 records now, and every single one of those records, I would stand by each one forever as fantastic pieces of music, and beautiful pieces of graphic design and fantastic videos. When it comes to ‘likes’ or ‘twitter followers’ or statistics, to be honest…. I couldn’t give a shit, I’m not interested. Because to me the job of artists like Ali, or Hooton Tennis Club, is to make great music … the job of a record label I think is to help market and build the following beyond that.
The likes of the labels I mentioned would struggle to produce a one-off single for a band because financially, they’ll just say no because its no longer commercially viable. Which means there is loads of great music that will never even get a chance to build that platform because there are no initial commercially viable returns.
What we do is in a way replace what used to be called a development deal, which is now dead. The process is fairly simple, for instance, Ali (Horn) sent me some a link to some music which I thought was fucking great, and after that it was dead easy, I phone Ali, and say ‘do you want to make a record ? We’ll put it out..’ he says ‘yes’… and we just do! It’s not rocket science. But the small labels are less able to put that into a completely new artist, they just can’t like they used to.
Currently, though that’s it, the whole package is one single, Would you actually take it beyond this and take it into the commercial world properly or are you going to limit it to the current model
What we do really well, which is proven is that we’re good at recognising and developing a band that doesn’t have a track record to give it a platform, then push this to a label, to a publisher. What people like Heavenly, Domino etc…are much, much better at is turning it into a career, which we could never do long term without compromising the benefit to the students and the University.
So someone like Ali Horn, he’s got a very good song, it’s already picking up decent airplay and already has interest from very good labels. So if the labels can pick up and make something out of it, like Hooton Tennis Club, then we’ve been successful. Trying to hold on to a band is something that we wouldn’t be good at, were good at opening the gates and letting the horse out. It’s a springboard for the band, and the end record label gets a work in progress with less risk on their part.
So would it actually be possible to do what you are doing as a commercial venture though?
It would be difficult because the amount of money invested in a single, the studio, the plugger, the packaging, the video… you add all that up, you’d never make that back off a single these days, you just wouldn’t. unless you are taking a cut of PRS, publishing, merch, performance or suchlike, what’s referred to as a 360 deal. But with us, the rights remain with the artist and any money made is kept by the artist. So don’t forget, this is a university, not a business in that respect, the university is interested in the welfare and career path of its students. So if you think about what they get out of it, the university and the students do quite well. Breaking into the music industry and getting experience is an utter nightmare, a real closed shop, but what we’ve done is create a cottage industry that gives valuable experience. So students are involved in the production process, work on the record sleeves the videos. So on graduation day, they’ve got a folio of real published work and that counts a lot.
The last video we did got video of the day on a fairly prestigious site, so that’s a huge thing on the CV of a student to have been involved, its like a bespoke work placement.
For the last couple of years, the Label’s showcase has been a major highlight of the entire Sound City festival. One of the thing’s that seems almost unique, is that last year with Youth Hostel, and this year with Ali Horn, you’d already booked bands for a festival BEFORE they’d even played their first gig, would you consider this a fairly bold move?
I don’t think it’s unique, and of course, I’ve seen these artists rehearse and heard their material and have no issues with throwing them in there, but this is just an extension of that platform building.
It’s a confidence thing yes, but all the bands we’ve worked with can play live, and when you’ve heard enough of each to know they can deliver a killer set it’s no problem. But when people go to a festival and say there are a hundred bands playing, not everyone has heard every band, maybe 30 of them. So of those other bands that you presume you haven’t heard of are unknown, so in a way, putting bands on that ARE unknown, but look great and sound great, often the public thinks ‘they must have had hit records or must be well known.
Youth Hostel last year, for instance, first gig and they absolutely stormed it. We tend to put bands on that we’re intending to record with or believe in. But sometimes it’s just local artists that we love that we haven’t actually recorded with, like (VPME favourites) Pink Kink who were also on the Label stage in 2016.
I’m sure most festivals have a tent where unknown bands can get a break, but its usually small and hidden away, but what I love about Sound City is that we have prominence, so where a band plays on a stage that has a potential of 3-5000 audience. If that’s your debut gig then it’s a wake-up call. In some ways playing to 3000 people is easier than playing to 25, playing to a handful of people is terrifying!
Sound City tend to leave us alone and trust what we are doing, obviously, they do ask what were doing to a degree, they want to put on the best festival, but they’ve never interfered or tried to control. They do come and see the bands before the festival if its possible, but that’s what it’s all about, they are about championing new music and investing into new local bands as much as we are, and that’s a great relationship to have.
Part of the beauty of festivals is walking past a tent/stage and hearing something interesting/new to you. I saw CABBAGE last year, walking past this tent and hearing this noise and thinking ‘oh I like that’, popped in and watched them and was ‘I REALLY like that’ and next thing their climbing like mad, it’s all about the discovery.
But if you have a working relationship where people know what you do, they tend to just leave you alone in general. And because the track record is good, the brand and reputation attached to that goes before us. It’s a bit of a punk rock DIY philosophy that works.
Beyond the artists on stage, a lot of our students are actually involved in Sound City behind the scenes, we have the whole Label showcase stage managed by student teams, and that’s a massive responsibility and, again, great on their CV.
We also asked Sound City CEO Dave Pichilingi for his thoughts on the Label
The vision of Edge Hill and the key players in this institution is exemplary for the most effective learning model for this type of project. Students get to work on all of the component parts for record release and then engage with professional third party teams to get the product to market. It really is a fantastic process and highly visionary.
And Sound City itself, putting on literal debutants on a prominent stage, does this say a lot about yourselves and the relationship with the Label.
Yes, it shows a wonderful grass roots A&R policy to show belief in emerging talent that is at the very start of their musical journey. It’s always been the remit of Sound City to showcase brand new talent alongside established artists, and the relationship with the Label is a positive part of that.
Sound City 2017 label showcase
Mirroring the previous year’s successes, The Label is scheduled to take over the Cavern stage for a few hours on Saturday and will feature the pick of the current crop of bands they are working with:
Intelligent three piece belting out infectious Americo nerd-punk for misfits. Recently been added to Spotify ‘hot new sounds’ and BT Sports playlists.
Strange Collective guitarist has put his own name to his parallel project, but live performances remain very much a band affair. A talent with a pedigree and promise like Ali wasn’t a massive risk to book for the festival before he’d played his first gig under his own name- actually a sound city veteran having played for the last 4 years with various bands, mark down his unpredictable effects-laden psych rock as as a definite ‘not to miss’ at Sound City (and beyond).
Rich, dark and broody, shades of Joy Division and the Bunnymen, but with a palbable Tea Street Band upbeat twist at times, sure to deliver a solid set. The Label has broken with the norm of limiting to only one single and for the first time will be shortly releasing a second single for them in the coming months.
Dirty guitar-driven acid rock. Have yet to catch them live here at VPME HQ, but very much looking forward to them keeping up the tradition of providing a positive Label discovery.
A final question for Carl; Any future artists on the Label we’re to make a note to look out for?
We have one young lad called Joel Thomas. Doesn’t have a facebook page or Instagram or twitter, but just writes these amazing songs. Normally we don’t release after April, but we’ll be putting out a single in late May for him. Look out for a track called ‘Sunshine funshine’- I guess not putting him on at Sound City this year answers the question about the selection process, he’s full of potential but the full live set isn’t ready yet, so its not all about throwing artists in at the deep end. It works because we know they’re ready.
We’re going to recommend, once again, that Sound City festival-goer’s looking for new music should be marking The Label showcase on the Cavern stage on Saturday as a not-to-miss. The Label has a simple agenda, to give new talent the spotlight… and 100% of the takings, – there’s no ego at play, no surreptitious deals, no wish to take the plaudits. It’s all about the artist and helping give them a springboard, and the benefit of the students involved in the process. In an ever-changing industry landscape, there is a crack that is starting to gape in investing in grass roots talent, a gap that is being filled with a stronger DIY ethic in local scenes, and initiatives like The Label.
Words Phil Greenhalgh
Pics : Phil Greenhalgh And Andy Von Pip