How To Run A DIY Label
Running a DIY label sounds like fun, but in the time we’ve been doing this with Biblioteka Records, we’ve learned that it’s really like having a big hole in our pockets and watching money drain out of it constantly.
But yes, despite the investment (especially once you start branching off into physical releases) it is a lot of fun.
We spoke to some other indie label owners to find out what they have to say and if they have any words of advice to those of you who might be thinking of starting a label too. Maybe you’ll feel inspired after reading this, and realize you can do it after all.
Spartan Jet-Plex of Grimalkin Records
I feel like I don't have much advice to give or right to give it because Grimalkin is so new and I really have no idea what I'm doing. The few things I can say, is reach out to others you trust for advice and help when starting up. Do some research.
Talk to other labels and look into options for what ever medium you're going to do whether that's tapes or whatever.
A lot will be trial by error since everyone probably does things differently based on their goals. Don't do it all alone if you don't have to.
Work on your own time line and don't put pressure on yourself unless you're the kind of person who needs pressure. The worst part for me is social media and promotion. It can be really consuming so if you can, get help with that. You'll build contacts slowly so find an organizational strategy that works for you to keep track of everything- releases, contacts, sales, what's owed to who, etc.
The other worst part is getting submissions that aren't great. I really hate having to let people down and don't want to hurt people's feelings so try to find a good and positive way to do that. Be respectful and try to give constructive feedback. You might think it sucks, but they may really be sincere and coming from the heart so never forget that. Be as transparent as you can with people as far as the money goes. Remember people are trusting you with their art. That last thing is a sore subject for me. I felt like I was treated poorly and taken advantage of in the past. Be mindful of that stuff. Build friendships and sincere relationships rather than trying to "make it big" as a musician or label. A safe community of support beats clout or whatever any day of the week. Lastly, try not to take things personally. If you're the one doing all the promotion and trying to get releases covered, you're gonna get a lot of rejection or no response at all. Focus on smaller blogs and people you know with mutual interests and support each other. It's okay to try to dream big and okay to send to larger publications but its the smaller blogs that are doing a the best work. Same goes for the small labels. That was my long ass 2 cents. I guess I did have a lot to say.
Check out Grimalkin Records’ latest release here.
Our biggest advice would be don't try to do it all yourself. If you are a one person operation, pick a manageable scale and vision. There are three of us that cover a lot of ground . . . digital and physical distro, printing, publicity, art, mastering, social media, sometimes booking, sometimes video. Really, we wish we had a fourth leg, as it can be a lot of work if you have a day job, and your own individual creative output to attend to, as well. I could not imagine trying to do all of this as one person. Put a small team together of like minded friends w/skill sets and visions that ying and yang well, expect a labor of love, really like the artists you work with both personally and creatively, don't take things personally (there's a lot of great new music out there, it can be hard to be heard) . . . and have some fun!
Another thought we have is that if we are doing physical, this is not a rule, but we find it helps to do so with artists that will gig. Sustainability requires breaking even, and the merch table at a live show is in our opinion, pretty key. Esp. for vinyl. Not always though, sometimes we will drop stuff that is not from like artists, or not commonly live, too . . . and sure, there are artists that can sell great releases that aren't necessarily live acts, but there are batch of say 100 CD or cassette makes the most sense (to us).
Check out Verses Records’ latest release here.
Josephine Cruz (Jayemkayem) of Bare Selection
The first thing I’d say is to not expect to make any money from your label. I think most people know that nowadays. However, something that has helped Bare Selection is figuring out ways to inject money in to the business without relying on sales or revenues. We have thrown a number of successful events which act as a way for people to get to know us and get familiar with the type music we are pushing with our label, allows us to have some real face time with our supporters (super important in today's age where everything is digital-first, from the consumption to the marketing tactics), and allows us to put a little money in the bank after each one to put toward things like getting release artwork, promotional videos or merch made.
Related to the above point is to always have an IRL strategy. Majority of the music business lives and exists online nowadays but the value of real-world experiences is still massive. If events/parties are not your thing then what other tangible experience can you provide or create around your brand? Could be a T-shirt or a vinyl or what about a workshop or a meetup.
Another big one is to DIY as much as possible: Think about all the skills you or your partners (if you have them) can bring to the table and really maximize on those. Bare Selection is extremely lucky because we do our own mixing and mastering as Freeza is a tenured sound engineer with almost a decade experience. It saves us a ton of money not having to outsource that, so we are able to put our money into other things.
The last one I would say is to just do your research when it comes to which distributor you will use. Don't just go with what a friend recommends or the biggest one. Figure out who is appropriate for you and the style of music you're releasing, and also figure out what they offer in terms of support or services outside of just getting your music onto online stores or DSPs.
Check out Bare Selection’s latest release here.
Jakob Rehlinger of Arachnidiscs
Though I’ve been running Arachnidiscs Recordings for twenty years, I still feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. Which could be why when we hit our 200th release later this year, I’m packing it in. 20 years, 200 releases—a good place to stop. So take what follows with a grain of salt.
I’d say the number one most important thing a label needs to do to be successful is to pick a genre and aesthetic and stick to it rigorously. If you think about beloved labels, Sub>Pop, 4AD, Discord, Wax Trax!, Warp, Motown, etc., it wasn’t their diversity of artists and sounds that attracted and retained their audiences, it was reliably offering customers a specific signature product. Nowadays Sub>Pop is, in cultural terms, “just another indie label” but that’s because when grunge went out of vogue they diversified their roster to keep the lights on. Ideally someone should be able to buy a release on your label completely blind and be confident they’ll love it because they’ve loved everything else you put out. There is a balancing act between consistency and repetition, of course, but therein lies the challenge of curating a label. For the record, Arachnidiscs’ releases have been all over the map stylistically and it’s been my biggest regret and caused me the most headaches.
The other piece of advice I’d offer is to give serious thought as to why you even want to do this. Do you want to be part of a scene? If so, is it out of a genuine wish to contribute or help out artists that no one else is? Or is it ego fulfillment? Do you want to make a mark on culture? Do you want to run a label as a business? Do you just need a hobby? Does your band need a label so you may as well be that label? I don’t think any of these are good or bad reasons to start a label, but giving honest consideration to why you’re doing it will help with knowing what kind of approach you should take in running your label. Running a hobby label like a business will make it a drag, running a business label like hobby will be a disaster.
Oh, and one last piece of advice: quit just before it stops being fun.
Check out Arachnidiscs’ latest release here.