As any indie label lover can tell you, the sad, sad truth of it all is that these labels come and go with distressing ease, and great labels bite the dust every day. When you see an indie label that has fought through 10+ years and lived to tell about it, you know you are on to something special. That certainly applies to SL Records. This Edinburgh, Scotland, based one man operation has managed to survive - and thrive - through 55 (and counting) releases, building critical acclaim and never wavering from the simple objective of releasing the music the man behind the scenes can get excited about. Here, Ed Pybus shares a bit about his SL Records and some advice about keeping a small label afloat without compromising the very things that made you start your label in the first place.
Question: Tell us a little bit about the early days of SL Records - how did you get things started? How much planning was involved (and of course, what kind of planning)?
We were really lucky when we started out because our first release, a compilation of local bands, and our first single both got great reactions - the NME and the Melody Maker (the UK's two weekly music papers at the time) reviewed the album and Radio One (the UK’s national music station) began playing our single, so it made it a lot easier for us to get national distribution and publicity for the label early on. In fact, in our ten years we've never had as much exposure as we had for our first single! While it was a bit of luck, it was also because we knew which papers and radio stations to send our records too. So I guess the main planning was doing research into who we should target with our releases.
Q: As a small label, what has been your biggest challenge? What do you do to overcome the challenge?
The major challenges we've faced are getting out releases noticed amongst the thousands of releases out there, and sometimes keeping our heads, financially, above water. Personally one of my biggest challenges has been dealing with some of the musicians on the label!
In order to give our releases the best chance possible, we've spent time and effort building up relationships with journalists and DJs who'll help publicize our releases by reviewing or playing them. By building up a personal relationship with individual journalists and DJs, you get to know what their particular taste are, so know what to send them, and then you stand a chance of competing with the huge marketing budgets of labels larger than us.
We've also had a struggle for money so we've learnt to do things as cheaply as possible. For example instead of printing up full color glossy postcards for a new release, we handmade photocopied booklets with the band lyrics in them. Not only was this cheaper, it was also more efficient, as people are used to getting glossy postcards, but a handmade booklet of lyrics is a bit more unusual, so people noticed them. We've also be come pretty good at applying for grants and other forms of funding!
Since the label is mainly a label of love over the years I've decided it's not worth working with people I don't get on with so, I don't!
Q: How do you decide which bands you want to work with?
As I said above one of the most important thing is that I have to get on with the band as people, at this level it's a very personal business, and you end up working very closely with the people you work with. I obviously have to like the music and I need to think it has something a bit 'different' about it. The joy of running your own label is that you are free to sign whoever you want.
Q: Of which releases are you most proud?
I know it's a bit clichéd, but I do like all the releases we've put out. As I've said the joy of running your own label is that you can release whatever you want, so that also means you don't have to release anything you don’t like. I think our first release, a compilation of Scottish bands, was perhaps not our strongest release, but when we first got the CDs back from the pressing plant, it was a great feeling to have made our own record. I was very proud then.
Q: Do you think digital distribution has doomed record labels to be a thing of the past? What plans (if any) are you making to adapt to a changing music industry?
While it has certainly given the major labels some challenges, I don't think it's doomed independent labels. Due to the restructuring of the major labels over the last ten years, they have become no more than divisions of global entertainment companies, or hedge funds in EMI's case; their only real purpose is making money from their shareholders. This, combined with a rapidly changing market that they have been very slow to react to, has probably spelt the end of some the majors. The changing industry has meant that big artists can take charge of all aspects of their career themselves, run by their management, which gives them creative and financial freedom. Many small independent labels act like management companies for smaller bands, who may not have separate management/publicists/booking agents, so I think they'll continue to have a role.
Q: What would you tell someone interested in starting their own label?
Think about why you want to start a label (If it's to make your fortune, I'd probably choose a different industry!)
Q: What’s next for SL?
We're releasing the debut album by Paul Vickers & The Leg this month and the new album by doom rockers Lords of Bastard in the summer, and we're also working on a compilation album of covers of tracks by the avant garde composer Louis 'Moondog' Hardin due out early next year.