If you've ever dreamed of doing it in the music business, chances are that Francis Macdonald has been there, done it and bought the t-shirt. Among the feathers in his musical cap are founding and single - handedly running the oh-so-critically acclaimed Glasgow label Shoeshine Records (keeping it afloat since 1996 - no mean feat for an indie label), writing and recording two solo albums under the moniker Nice Man, drumming for Teenage Fanclub, and playing with countless other bands (bet you have a CD in your collection with his name in the liner notes). Add to that busy schedule managing Camera Obscura and managing and co-producing Attic Lights and you get some idea of from just how many different sides Francis has seen the music industry. Here, he shares some pearls of wisdom, gleaned from his extensive experience.
Question: You are a solo artist, and you have been a member of several bands. What have your experiences as a musician taught you that you have applied to the way you run your label?
I am much more sympathetic to labels than I used to be! I played in BMX Bandits for years. Creation Records released three of our albums and a bunch of singles, gave us tour support - basically spent a whack of money giving us a shot. When I started Shoeshine one of the first things I did was thank Alan McGee for giving us a shot. He appreciated it and said "it's easy to be the bad guy when you're putting out records".
I suppose being a musician and a music fan I wanted Shoeshine to champion music that I was passionated about and hopefully I was and am sympathetic to my artists. Performing in-stores can be a bit hit and miss, for example. I wouldn't urge artists to do that when I know I wouldn't be too keen to do it myself...
Q: How did you get your label off the ground? Looking back, what was the single best decision you made when setting up your business?
I was involved with a couple of bands and I had music ready to release, but in order to get some outside investment and funding I had to put together a business plan. I wrote and re-drafted for weeks and months and it really helped me order my thoughts and set some goals. The single best decision might have been to just do it rather than talk about it and let the dream fade away.
On a more specific, anecdotal level: the 4th single I released was a collaboration with Norman Blake from Teenage Fanclub under thte title Frank Blake. I got an emailone day from someone who had heard it on the radio in the US. Rather than just say "cool", I askded who played it where (it was Jeff Cobb at WFMU), got the name of the DJ, sent a package, another DJ (Michael Shelley) got it in touch. He sent me his album ("Half Empty - it's WONDERFUL) we worked together, that led on to me working with the wonderful Laura Cantrell which led me on to working with Paul Burch, Jason Ringenbeg....I released Karine Polwart's last album and I am sure the Laura Cantrell association helped there. And Karine led to the wonderful Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis with whom I am currently working. Lots of stuff has led on from that initial WFMU connection. I think it was a good decision to have followed up that initial 'fan email'.
Q: Similarly, what is the single worst choice you made when getting the label going? What one thing would you tell other to never do?
Don't throw good money after bad. Be realistic about your limitations. Avoid debt. Use other people's money. When I started earning money with Teenage Fanclub (having recorded some tracks on their debut album I 'rejoined' them about 6 years ago) I put it all into the label. If the label could not stand alone, I should have re-thought how it was operating. Don't let your heart rule your head. Running a record label all on your own is an easy way to lose money.
Q: At a small label, keeping an eye on the budget is always important. When you are promoting a new release, how do you prioritize your promotional budget? If you could only spend money on one thing – say, a radio promotion company, a print media promotion company or advertising, what would you choose? Why?
It depends on the project. As a rule radio sells records more effectively than press. But a band whom by their nature are not going to get a lot of radio exposure - because they're too subtle, too 'out there' or whatever - probably don't justity the expense of a radio plugger. I would suggest the label services the specialist radio on its own if it can and meanwhile spend money on press. Retail promo needs to work in conjunction with other areas - even if a release is racked out in-store and heavily discounted, that stock is going to come back to you in a month or so if buyers don;t have a good reason to buy it (ie haven't seen the band play, haven't red abotu it or heard it or whatever...). If you have an artist with a significant sales history, you can project likely sales and work back, formulating a budget of what is sensible to spend and then breaking that down into specific areas: national and regional press and radio...student/club...on-line...retail...posters/adverts...tour support (yuk!)...etc.
Q: How important do you think it is for bands to promote themselves on the internet? Do you think things like MySpace can take the place of more traditional promotion routes?
The internet has changed so many things. Digital distribution and file-swapping...podcast...MySpace, etc. The importance of the internet is pretty overwhelming. When I started working with Camera Obscura (as a manager) they had neglected their website and they didn't have a MySpace. I think taking care of both of those web presences has really allowed them to have an important connection with their fans. The MySpace page has had a huge number of plays. MySpace is a great shop window for bands - but traditional press/radio support, gigging, etc. the MySpace should support and complement that activity. I don't think it is enough to upload your new demos and sit back and wait for the world to come and discover you and make you a star.